Chicago is an amazing city for running and races. I love exploring different neighborhoods by running through them, and the Lakefront Path always motivates me with its spectacular views and all the active people present. But sometimes it is nice to run somewhere new, to see new things and to have a different race experience. Especially in the cold winter months, many runners (myself among them) might consider a warm weather destination. runDisney races are popular with runners and Disney fans alike, combining the excitement of a major race with an amazing vacation experience.
This would probably be a good place for a disclaimer: I will be the first to admit that running and Disney are probably my two biggest passions in life. If I’m not thinking about one, chances are I’m thinking about the other. Put them together and it’s not hard to understand why runDisney receives a generous portion of my paychecks each year. So I may be a little biased toward these races and all that they offer, but as anyone who has been to a runDisney race can attest, these races are primarily about fun.
Lots of participants dress up in costumes and many run with friends and family, stopping to take pictures with favorite Disney characters along the course. However, planning a runDisney trip can seem an overwhelming prospect for those uninitiated to the Disney way. Having been to Disney Parks many, many times and completed many runDisney weekends, I hope to make the prospect of planning this trip a little less daunting. After all, you are there to have a magical race!
The runDisney Calendar
The first step to planning your trip is deciding which race weekend you want to attend. runDisney currently organizes nine different race weekends each year. Typically, their race calendar begins over Labor Day weekend and concludes during Mother’s Day weekend the following May.
Over the summer, they do offer a virtual race series – but actual races in California or Florida would just be too hot; trust me, the humidity in Florida in February is more than enough! There are currently four race weekends at Disneyland in California, four race weekends at Walt Disney World in Florida, and one race weekend at Disneyland Paris in Paris.
The race weekends at Disneyland are:
- Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend (held over Labor Day weekend in September)
- Super Heroes Half Marathon Weekend (themed around Marvel super heroes and held the second weekend in November)
- Star Wars – The Light Side Half Marathon Weekend (usually the second weekend in January)
- Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend (women’s themed races held Mother’s Day weekend in May)
At Walt Disney World, runDisney offers:
- Wine and Dine Half Marathon Weekend (held the first weekend in November during the Epcot Food and Wine Festival)
- Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend (the first weekend in January after the New Year)
- Princess Half Marathon Weekend (women’s themed races held at the end of February)
- Star Wars – The Dark Side Half Marathon Weekend (held the end of April).
I personally have run six of the nine weekends at least once (goodbye paychecks), and all were great experiences for what they offered (hello cool race shirts, awesome medals and lots of souvenirs). I haven’t done the Star Wars races or the race weekend in Paris (yet!).
Each weekend’s theme creates a fun and festive environment for running and determines which characters you will see on the course.
Why sign up for just one race when you can run several in one weekend? runDisney offers a Challenge during each race weekend which consists of running the 10K and the half marathon on back to back days. Runners who register for the challenge and complete both these distances receive an additional challenge medal and shirt in addition to the medals and shirts they receive for the individual races.
The exception to this is Marathon Weekend, which offers Goofy’s Race and a Half Challenge (running the half marathon on Saturday followed by the full marathon on Sunday) and the Dopey Challenge (running all four of the races). This coming January will be the fifth anniversary of the Dopey Challenge, and it sold out just a few days after registration opened.
There are also other Challenges for running multiple race weekends in the same calendar year. If you run a half marathon in Disneyland and a half or full marathon in Disney World, you will receive a special Coast to Coast Challenge medal upon completing the second race. If you run both of the Star Wars Half Marathons on each coast, you will receive a special Kessel Run Challenge medal. Running both the Princess Half Marathon and the Tinker Bell Half Marathon (the two women’s themed races) in the same calendar year will earn you a special pink Coast to Coast Challenge medal. Finally, if you run a half or full marathon at either Disneyland or Disney World and then run the Disneyland Paris Half Marathon, you will receive a special Castle to Chateau Challenge medal for your efforts.
Each race weekend begins with a Health and Fitness Expo, which opens the day before the first race and runs through Saturday of the weekend. At the expo, you will receive your bib(s) and shirt(s) and have the opportunity to peruse a variety of vendors. There is always a section of the expo for official runDisney merchandise, which offers many different options to help you commemorate your experience. After getting my bibs and shirts, this is usually the first area of the expo I head for.
At Disneyland, the expo is held in the convention center at the Disneyland Hotel. At Disney World, the expo is held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. If you choose to register for a race, plan to arrive at least the day before the race with enough time to make it to the expo to pick up your stuff, you can’t pick up your bib the morning of the race.
Running in Disneyland vs Disney World
Having run races on both coasts, I can honestly say there are pros and cons to each.
Disneyland is the original Disney theme park and smaller than Disney World; this is both a positive and a negative. It is very easy to get around Disneyland and to walk from your hotel to the expo and to the starting line of the race. Once you finish the race, it is usually just a short walk back to your hotel and then you can be in the parks by the time they open. Many of the shorter distance races try to maximize running time in the park. However, the half marathons will take you out on the streets of Anaheim for a good portion of the race. runDisney tries to keep the course routes interesting. During two different half marathons, I have run through Angels Stadium.
runDisney races start very early in the morning to ensure runners are out of the parks before they open for the day. At Disneyland races start at 5 a.m. and At Disney World they start at 5:30 a.m. Traveling from Chicago, I can assure you that it is much easier to get up for a race in California (where you gain two hours) than to wake up for an early morning race in Florida (where you lose an hour).
At Disney World, runDisney has the luxury of space to put on the races. The races do take part on the roads around the parks, but you will also spend time running through different parks (depending on the course for each particular race). One of the draws of the marathon in January is that you run through all four of the theme parks over your 26.2 miles.
However, it takes much longer to get to the starting line (and the race expo) at Disney World. For those staying at a resort on property (which I highly recommend), you will have to board a motorcoach to get to and from the race. You need to be on the bus by 4 a.m. to make it to the starting line on time. It’s an early morning for sure! The night before these races is not the time to be out late watching the fireworks – you should save that for nights after the race.
Costs vs Benefits of a runDisney Race
runDisney races certainly aren’t inexpensive; 5K races average $80 and prices increase from there. Running the Dopey Challenge will set you back over $500.
There are several things that runDisney does well. In my experience, the race weekends have always been very well organized from start to finish. The courses are also a major draw because these races are your only opportunity to actually run through a Disney theme park. Photographers are on course throughout to take lots of professional pictures of runners. Running through the castle is a favorite photo for many people.
The shirts for the races are some of my favorites. They are well-designed and high quality technical material, and the medals are always spectacular! They are some serious bling. After a race, you will see people wearing their medals around the parks for the rest of the day – much different than a race at home where the medal may end up in a drawer an hour after you finish your run. When cast members see you wearing your medal, they will congratulate you on your accomplishment.
There is also usually no shortage of characters on the course. Depending on which race weekend you are participating in, you will find lots of your favorite Disney, Marvel or Star Wars characters posing for pictures. Lines for character photos can become long if you start in a later corral, but many people are there for the fun experience and are less concerned about running a PR. Yes, you may look like a sweaty mess next to Minnie Mouse – but it’s Disney! Have fun and get the picture!
With a little planning, taking part in a runDisney race weekend can be a fun and exciting way to run someplace new, especially as the weather in Chicago turns colder over the winter.
If you are considering signing up for a race, I urge you to plan ahead as much as possible. Some races are very popular and fill up within hours or days of registration opening. Whichever race you ultimately decide to do, enjoy the experience of running Disney – it will be a race you won’t soon forget. I’ll see you at the start line!