From costumes to characters to incredible schwag, find out why these events are insanely popular—and controversial!
The Happiest Races on Earth
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There are some crazy races out there with zombies, superheroes, and nudists, but only at Disney can you find princesses and fairies, villains and monsters, animals and aliens, and everyday men, women, and kids running side by side. And with more than 163,000 participating in 26 runDisney races every year, the series has developed a bit of a cult following. Here are the top reasons runners are so mad about a mouse.
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Mickey’s up there with Kanye when it comes to giving out flashy accessories. Sparkling crowns, fairy wings, and a parade of Disney characters grace finisher medals, which are typically 2.5 to 3 inches diameter. However, runDisney went all-out to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Walt Disney World Marathon in 2013. Finishers received 8.7-ounce, 5-by-4-inch medals (pictured above) featuring two spinning parts portraying Mickey Mouse of yore and the one we know today. [Tweet this fact!]
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Since a record 56 percent of all running race finishers were females in 2012, it’s no wonder there are two women-focused runDisney races. And the Tinker Bell Half Marathon and Princess Half Marathon come in behind only the Nike Women’s Marathon and Half Marathon as the largest U.S. running events for ladies. While men are allowed in these races, the first two corrals are exclusively for women, and only females are eligible for awards, including top mother-daughter teams, sister teams, and military women (though men who run as part of a coed team can win a coed team award).
These aren’t the only events dominated by girl power, though. For marathons, women make up 42 percent of finishers nationally; however, the 2013 Walt Disney World Marathon became the first major gender-neutral American marathon in which gals outnumbered guys, accounting for 51 percent of finishers.
Tests of Endurance
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Many runners can’t pass up a dare, and Disney obliges with four challenges: Goofy’s Race and a Half Challenge (a half and marathon on back-to-back days), Dumbo Double Dare (10K and half on consecutive days), Glass Slipper Challenge (another 10K and half), and Dopey Challenge (5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon on four consecutive days for a combined total of 48.6 miles—whew!). If you’re one of the 25,000-some tough enough to finish these feats of strength each year, you’ll earn a special medal in addition to the finisher’s medal you get at each race. The biggest medal haul is Dopey, which awards six medals (for the 5K, 10K, half-marathon, marathon, Goofy Challenge, and Dopey Challenge).
And for those who really love destination races, there’s a special Coast to Coast Race Challenge medal for tackling a marathon or half at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland in the same calendar year. Do it by taking on the two women-focused events—only five weeks apart—and you get a pink edition of the medal.
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Since the inaugural Walt Disney World Marathon in 1994, Disney running has grown from one race with 8,200 runners to the runDisney series of seven major running weekends with more than 163,000 runners combined. Through 2014, the Walt Disney World Marathon alone has had 241,053 finishers with 19,232 people earning their Mickey Mouse medal this year, making it the sixth-largest U.S. marathon and the second-largest 26.2-miler without a registration lottery or qualification requirements. Ninety-five people have even run the marathon all 21 years so far.
And these races sell out in a flash, often in a day or two. The 2014 Disneyland Half Marathon weekend, which includes the half plus a 10K, 5K, and kids’ race for a total of 35,500 running spots, sold out in 12 hours and 13 minutes altogether. By comparison, the 2013 ASICS L.A. Marathon with 24,000 running spots took five months to sell out.
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Only in Disney World during the Walt Disney World Marathon, Walt Disney World Half Marathon, and Disney Princess Half Marathon can you run through the iconic Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom while dressed up as the princess, then take a photo with her outside the castle. No need to try to carry a phone in your sports bra or gloved hand—leave it to Disney to have photographers accompanying the most popular characters so you can purchase pro pics online when you get home. If you prefer Sleeping Beauty, then do likewise in the Disneyland Half Marathon or Tinker Bell Half Marathon at Disneyland.
The Disneyland Half also gives sports fans a chance to jaunt through Angel Stadium, while the Walt Disney World Marathon includes a run of the bases in Champion Stadium, the spring training home of the Atlanta Braves.
Other racecourses go through the various theme parks, including Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios, as well as “backstage” to areas you’ll never see as a park guest. For a full “World” tour, take on the Walt Disney World Marathon, where participants hoof it through the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot, ESPN Wide World of Sports, and the Walt Disney World Speedway.
After Hours Events
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Three of Disney’s races start at 10 p.m. and finish with private parties in the parks: The Wine & Dine Half Marathon keeps Epcot and its International Food & Wine Festival open exclusively for the runners’ Finish Line Party until 4 a.m.; the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror 10-Miler lets finishers celebrate at Hollywood Studios until dawn; and the Expedition Everest Challenge after-party keeps the Animal Kingdom hopping into the early morning. Entrance to these post-race parties is included in runners’ race registration fee, and friends and family can buy tickets to join the fun.
RELATED: 10 Hilarious Running Shirts
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runDisney races are one of the few times the Walt Disney Company bends its strict no-adult-costumes-in-the-parks rule. Thousands of grown men and women take to Disney’s streets decked out as fairy god mothers, mice, toys, pirates, witches, mermaids, and more, often dressing on theme for their particular race.
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Disney is known for entertainment, and their races don’t disappoint. Characters, stunt people, Disney cast members, cheerleading squads, marching bands, singers, D.J.s, and more greet runners about every half-mile to mile along a course. Depending on the event’s theme and course, there may be stilt walkers, trampoline acrobatists, Peter Pan’s Lost Boys encouraging runners as they ride the carousel, and other fun encounters.
Running with a Cause
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As with many other races, Disney’s benefit various charities—and donate major dough. The Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend raises $7 million each year for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. That’s 18 times more than the average LLS event raised in 2012.
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Mickey’s not the only celeb you may run down at a Disney race. Some weekends include a free “MeetUp” fun run through a park with stars such as Drew Carey, Joey Fatone, and Sean Astin, or Olympians Jenny Simpson and Desiree Davila. These events are announced on blogs and social media, and limited to a certain number. Past MeetUps have featured fireworks, wine tastings, and pep talks from runDisney training consultant Jeff Galloway. In addition to free park admission, attendees usually walk away from the event with a runDisney shirt and other goodies.
Photo: Getty Images
Extra Magic Hours
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Disney races start in the dark early morning or late night hours before the parks open or after they close. Whether it’s a 5:30 a.m. or a 10 p.m. start time, things kick off with fireworks, which light up the sky every time a corral of runners is set off.
With these times, only the Walt Disney World Marathon gives competitors a chance to run through the park when it’s open—and loaded with cheering visitors. Some have even been known to take a break to ride Expedition Everest in the Animal Kingdom. [Tweet this fun fact!] Just be sure the roller coaster’s line isn’t too long—runners must maintain a 16-minute-mile pace at all runDisney events, which works out to about a 3:30 finish for a half-marathon and 7 hours for a marathon. If you fall behind pace, you may be picked up by a sweep bus and driven to the finish.
Not Everyone Loves the Mouse
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But, just as with all things Disney, not everyone looks favorably on their running events. Entry fees range from $60 for a 5K to $195 for longer races, which are more expensive than many local events but on par with other major U.S. half-marathon and marathon series such as the Nike Women’s Half Marathon in Washington, D.C. ($175 in 2014) and the Bank of America Chicago Marathon ($185 for U.S. residents in 2014).
Others express concerns that the races can feel crowded, especially to participants used to smaller fields. As Disney races have grown in size, race organizers have added extra corrals to spread runners out more evenly. They also cut the number of runners for this year’s Walt Disney World Marathon and Half Marathon by more than 4,000 from 2013’s field.