8,268 finishers. 13.1 miles. Three theme parks. And one magical race. This self-proclaimed Disney girl—my dog’s name is Cinderella after all—finally did it. I ran my first runDisney race. The Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon on Oct. 1 did not disappoint. It was everything the little girl in me hoped it would be.
Leading up to the race, I’d taken my training rather seriously; running a personal best was definitely on my mind. But other runners who had done Disney races warned me otherwise. Disney races are too much fun, they said. You’ll want to stop and have your photo taken with characters, they said. You’ll be too taken-in by the music and spirit on the course, they said.
Well, they were right.
The Start Area
For starters, the 10 p.m. start of the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon was tough; 10 p.m. on a Saturday night is “going out” time in New York City, where I live, not racing time. Despite my best effort to take it easy and eat well during the day, I showed up at the start more in a mood to party than to PR. After all the anticipation of the weekend—and there was so much anticipation—I felt like an over stimulated kid chasing down shiny objects.
I was going into the race with a plan. Race the first half, and if I was feeling good, gun the second half. If I was feel tired, just bag it and have fun. But by the time I reached the start area, I was already waffling on trying to nab a personal best.
I took one look at the runners around me and knew I should just throw in the towel and join the party. It was hands down the most festive pre-race atmosphere I have ever experienced. Sure, some people were stretching, but they were also dancing, wearing costumes, laughing and goofing around with the people around them. Unlike my experiences at so many other races—marathons and half-marathons included—few people seemed nervous or anxious. Everyone I talked to was there just to have fun.
So I decided to just have some fun too.
Runners were sent off in waves from the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex every five minutes. Bursts of fireworks heralded the start of each wave. Running the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon at night was as magical as I’d hoped it would be. The course was well lit and I loved the mile-markers that looked like postcards from various counties around the world. Though some stretches of the course were quiet—particularly the highways that run between the parks—Disney entertainers spiced things up about every half-mile. There were bands, stilt walkers, characters, cheerleaders, music blasting from speakers, lights, volunteers and, much to my delight, a few floats from the Main Street Electrical Parade, one of my fondest Disney childhood memories.
Animal Kingdom: Miles 3-6
Best of all, though, were the parks. The race was the first time I’d ever set foot in Animal Kingdom. Ablaze in an explosion of light, the Tree of Life was breathtaking. I rode a huge surge of excitement in Animal Kingdom between miles 3 and 6, enough that at the halfway mark I was on pace for a tiny PR.
The Highway: Miles 6-9
But once the high of the theme park wore off, I was pretty tired. It was much more humid than I’m accustomed to, and the course was not a total cakewalk. There were no big hills, but the roads gently undulated constantly with a few low, but long inclines up highway overpasses. Disney kindly stationed a character dressed like a Toy Story green army man halfway up one small hill on the way to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The drill sergeant shtick was great. If I had been taking the race seriously, it would have been nice to have an elevation map to physically and mentally prepare, but for a fun run it didn’t really matter.
When at I came upon Sleeping Beauty’s Flora, Fauna and Merryweather in their Electrical Parade costumes near mile 7, I decided to stop for a photo opp. I’ve always loved those loopy fairies. So I officially threw in the towel on my PR. Sometimes fun has to come first.
I hadn’t brought my camera, but I’d heard from other runners that there would be official photographers on the course. Well, there were official photographers snapping shots as we ran by, but not to take pictures of runners with the characters. For that they had Disney staff who would gladly take a photo with your camera. Oops. My bad for not asking someone in a more official capacity about that. There was only one runner in front of me so I got a nice hug from Fauna.
I stopped to see if there were official photogs with a few other characters, including Woody from Toy Story and Darth Vader from Star Wars. No luck. But I got a high-five from Woody and a scowl, or what I like to imagine was a scowl, from Darth. I was really wishing I’d brought my camera. That’s a mistake you only make once.
Hollywood Studios: Miles 9-12
Hollywood Studios from miles 9 to 12 was beyond amazing at night. The Streets of America were completely dressed in lights and I actually let out a verbal, “Wow! Beautiful.” Plus, the music was right up my alley: the James Bond theme song, “Singing in the Rain,” “Shaking the Blues Away” and other old movie tunes among more upbeat fare. I was grinning from ear to ear, as my official race photos attest.
The Resorts: Miles 12-13
The music helped make up for the fact that there weren’t a ton of spectators; just a few stragglers on the highways and Disney staff through the parks were on hand to cheer us on. But honestly, I felt like the spectator as I ran through the parks. The last mile was lined we people as we ran through Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club Resorts on our way to the finish at Epcot. They helped carry me through, along with “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from Rocky, which was blasting from speakers.
I crossed the finish line with a huge smile on my face despite the fact that I finished 10 minutes behind my personal best time. I didn’t care that I’d run it even slower than the 13 miles I’d run in training just two weeks before. I was having too much fun.
But the best was yet to come.
The Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon finish experience was a breeze. After grumbles from many runners last year that the baggage area and after-party were too crowded, Disney moved the finish to a larger spot, expanded the baggage area and increased the number of food kiosks at the finish-line party. I had a medal around my neck, got my bag and had a drink in my hand within a few minutes of finishing the race.
The Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon After Party
It was 12:30 a.m. and I was ready to eat! The appeal of the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon largely sat in the “Wine & Dine” part of the name. With a finish-line party at Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival, Disney really outdid themselves and everyone else for that matter. It was by far the best post-race party I’ve ever been to. Our bibs entitled us to a complimentary beer or soda right after the finish, and a $10 gift card from my race bag bought me my first food and wine taste at the various international food kiosks set around Epcot’s World Pavilion.
I celebrated until the party closed down, shuffling out of the park at 3:30 a.m. No, I didn’t PR as I’d hoped in my weeks leading up to the race, but I had about the best experience a runner could ask for: I had a ton of fun. The Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon may have been my first Disney race, but it certainly won’t be my last.
As part of the running media, runDisney provided me with complimentary race entry, hotel, park tickets, and some meals for the 2011 Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon. But as always, all opinions are my own. For more information read my Disclosure Policy.