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To visit Disney as an adult, especially an adult without children, is a surreal experience. But to be at Epcot at 3:30am, hours before the parks open, with thousands of runners—many dressed in pink tutus and tiaras—evokes an entirely different feeling. The energy is palpable and contagious.It's the morning of the Princess Half Marathon, and at the starting line, a woman dressed as Cinderella's Fairy Godmother kicks off the races. "Pace yourself," she tells the crowd. "Miracles take time."
Disney is known for many things, but being one of the country's largest race organizers isn't necessarily one of them. Having launched its first in 1994, RunDisney now annually hosts seven themed runs that span from coast to coast, Disneyland to Disney World, drawing more than 200,000 runners. On top of the landlocked events, there's the Castaway Cay 5k on Disney's private island that's accessible via the Disney-brand cruise line. In 2016, RunDisney is taking over Paris.
Last month, approximately 49,500 people signed up for three days' worth of runs—a 5k, a 10k, and a half marathon—at Disney World, all of which were princess-themed. (For context, 50,896 people registered for the New York City Marathon last year.)
The Princess Run is one of two female-focused runs Disney does each year; the other is the Tinker Bell Half Marathon in California. At the Orlando races, women of all ages are invited to show up as their favorite Disney character: there are shimmery Elsas, sexy Jasmines, some Ariels (some in wigs, most without), a few Minnies, and more tulle skirts than Party City could sell through in a year.
A relentless commitment to total immersion is what makes Disney Disney, and the runs are no different.
Most of the elite runners leave their costumes at home, but the further back in the corrals you go, the more elaborate the looks get. A relentless commitment to total immersion is what makes Disney Disney, and the runs are no different. That's what makes them so special—and quite frankly, genius.
Then there's the fact that the Disney Princess Run is a little over 91% female. Men are allowed to participate, but the focus isn't on them. Often they're there for support—running alongside a girlfriend, spouse, or family member—and occasionally dressed as Prince Charming. Women-centric runs are nothing new (more extreme races like Mudderella and Diva Dash are just the most recent ones riding the wave), but the accessibility of Disney marathons set them apart.
"We know that for over 50 percent of the women here today, this is their first half marathon, so we want to make it a great experience," Faron Kelly, the director of marketing and communications for Disney Sports, tells me at the finish line. "A race is intimidating: It's Porta Johns and bibs and gels and water stops and 'What do I do?' How can we make that a non-intimidating experience for people?"
"You can take the kids to New York and show them the Statue of Liberty, or you can take them to Disney."
This statistic hasn't gone unnoticed by the Disney powers that be. In fact, catering to first-time runners and, specifically, women who decide to start racing later in life is one of Disney's points of difference. "Our marathon weekend in January is one of the only full-distance marathons that has more women running than men. We're really proud of that." The next women's run is coming up on Mother's Day weekend.
Disney races are also just plain fun. Darrell Fry, Disney's sports media director, summed it all up right before the weekend's big race. Of the difference between the New York City Marathon and any one of RunDisney's events, he explains, "You can take the kids to New York and show them the Statue of Liberty, or you can take them to Disney."
Like everything Disney does, race weekends are strategically designed to tug at your heart and purse strings. Like almost every other run in the country, there's a strong philanthropic component to the Princess Run, whether participants officially team up with a charity or not. Deborah Fisher, a runner I meet in New York, tells me that she'll be running for Noah's Light Foundation, which helps fund research for pediatric brain cancer. She'll be skipping a costume this time around—she's completed many Princess Runs in her time—to keep the focus on her Noah's Light shirt.
A woman I encounter on the Magical Express—the Disney bus equipped with TVs and a frigid AC system that transports you to and from the airport and your Disney resort—says her diagnosis of Crohn's disease is what sparked her commitment to running. Allison, a woman in the first corral of the Princess Run who is dressed as a "bookish Belle" is running for her daughter, who has Rett syndrome. Tina, another runner, is there for the same cause.
The Princess Run is a powerful weekend—and Disney's profiting from it all.
For three days, women pour out of complimentary shuttle buses in charity shirts or matching inspirational tees. It's a very different kind of girl gang, one that you could imagine your mom or aunt coordinating with her friends over lunch and group emails.
That is to say, the Princess Run is a powerful weekend—and Disney's profiting from it all: where you eat, where you stay, and especially what you buy. The RunDisney races are designed to turn marathon weekends into vacations. Mothers are encouraged to run with daughters; families are brought for moral support. Friends are invited to buy a pass to the ChEARsquad to get the best view of the finish line, as well as access to other prime photo opp spots.
Says Kelly, "With each of our Disney race weekends, we have something for everyone. All the way from the Diaper Dash"—a race for crawlers who are less than a year old—"to our main distance race, and everything in between."
Access to the parks hovers at around $100 a day (less if you buy a four- or five-day pass), and meals come with typical amusement park prices (I paid $5.95 for a hot dog in the Magic Kingdom, and $13 for a frozen margarita in Epcot's Mexico). If you're bringing kids along, there's also the endless parade of souvenirs; practically every mock storefront on the main drag of the Magic Kingdom is a gift shop in disguise.
If you decide to complete all three races, you'll be shelling out upwards of $365 just for the chance to run.
And Disney resorts themselves aren't cheap. Nightly rates for rooms during for the next race weekend—Disney World's Mount Everest Expedition Challenge—start around $250 for a two-person room, though most are at least in the $300 to $400 range. The Disney's All-Star Movies Resort near Animal Kingdom is a steal at $128, while a stay at the luxe Grand Floridian Resort and Spa will set you back over $800 a night.
This is all on top of the race entry fees. The lowest-priced ticket for the Princess half marathon starts at $175, and if you decide to complete all three races, you'll be shelling out upwards of $365 just for the chance to run.
During the week leading up to the Princess Run, a cold front has swept over the East Coast and Orlando is seeing decidedly un-Florida-like temperatures the morning of the kids' race, which is both appropriately and coincidentally Frozen-themed.
By the time of the half marathon, it's still chilly, but the participants don't seem bothered. Princesses are wrapped in Mylar blankets, swaying from side to side as Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" blares from the speakers.
It feels like an episode of My Super Sweet Sixteen mixed with the Olive Garden's never-ending pasta promotion.
Before the Fairy Godmother sets the race in motion, our nation's one true princess—Miss America 2015—gives an emotional speech thanking the Children's Miracle Network, the weekend's official sponsor. The first corral shoots through the starting line at exactly 5:30am, with an explosion of fireworks that are brighter than the glowing ball at Epcot.
This run is the last in a three-day stretch, though of course the races aren't the only items on the agenda. Other events are peppered throughout the weekend, like a special pre-race breakfast, not one but two Pasta in the Park parties, and a Happily Ever After Party at Downtown Disney.
The add-ons drive home the sense of community and camaraderie Disney races are known for. At Friday's Pasta in the Park party, moms and kids break it down on the dance floor to the "Cha Cha Slide" and "Teach Me How to Dougie." It feels like an episode of My Super Sweet Sixteen mixed with the Olive Garden's never-ending pasta promotion. It is glorious.
Consumption, as a whole, is what defines Disney, after all. Pillars of a typical Walt Disney World vacation involve spending and eating your way through theme parks and hotels, and the organizers of RunDisney haven't overlooked this element for the races. Disney may be known as "the happiest place on Earth," but certainly not the healthiest. On race weekends, however, the indulgence is balanced by the runs themselves and a focus on athleticism not normally seen at the parks.
And since each weekend contains a handful of individual events, the races themselves are like Pokémon cards—you gotta catch 'em all. Deborah has taken part in four Princess Runs, and nine Disney races in total. She was introduced to me by a colleague who sent along a photo of all her medals.
The Princess Run is but one cog in the RunDisney machine.
Everyone gets a medal just for participating, but special medals are awarded to runners who complete multiple races in one weekend. For the Princess Run, that's called the Glass Slipper Challenge. And at the upcoming Tinker Bell Half, it's the Pixie Dust Challenge. On top of that, awards are given to participants who sign up for multiple race weekends. If you complete the Star Wars Marathon in Anaheim in January and the Princess Run in Orlando in February, you get the Coast to Coast Race Challenge medal.
Because, of course, the Princess Run is but one cog in the RunDisney machine. An Orlando local I meet on a boat ride in Epcot tells me that if I really want to report on something, I should come back for the Disney Marathon, which takes place in January. In distance alone, it's the most challenging of Disney's runs, but that doesn't mean the rest of them are a literal walk in the park. The Expedition Everest Challenge in May—described as a "thrill-packed running adventure"—combines a 5k on an "obstacle strewn course" with a scavenger hunt.
And like all Disney races, if you didn't buy tickets months in advance, you're out of luck. Registration for the November's 2015 Wine & Dine Half Marathon opens on March 17th, and registration for the Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon weekend is coming up in April. Both will no doubt sell out immediately.
Now that RunDisney has conquered America, next up is that run in France. In September of 2016, Disney races will finally land in Paris.
"We really listen to the runners," Kelly explains. "One of the core tenants of RunDisney is races run through Disney parks. We've got our Marathon, our Princess, our Wine and Dine race here in Florida. In California there's Avengers, there's Star Wars, there's the Disneyland Half. Just some great themes when you think of everything Disney. People have said for years, 'When are you going to run through Paris?' I'll say, I can't wait. I'm as excited as anybody."
Editor: Julia Rubin