Disney’s Dark Side Challenge Race Report

Disclaimer: if you are an avid Disney supporter and don’t have an open mind regarding other’s attitudes towards anything Disney, please continue with caution…

I grew up 1.5 hours from the magical world of Disney and all things the Mouse. I have family members who have worked there, I visited it multiple times a year as a kid growing up and have always admired the runDisney races for their ability to sell out races in lighting speed and generally get great remarks. However, these remarks are starting to take a turn down a different road within runner circles and I will contribute to this conversation.

My first half marathon ever was the Disney Princess in 2010. I did not dress up and viewed it as a serious race since I had been training for it. I was not prepared for the long walk to the starting corrals, endless amounts of time standing around and enormous crowds on the road. Despite all that, it still holds a special place in my heart since it was my first half marathon, I did it with friends and we enjoyed hobbling around Epcot afterwards with champagne in hand from France. Since this race though, I have had little to no desire to do another Disney race (apart from the Dopey Challenge to see if I could do it). The prices of Disney races are astronomical and add in on property or off property hotels, Disney food prices, etc and it adds up to a lot.

DarkSide

So when runDisney announced a new race: the Star Wars Dark Side Challenge in mid-April, my family and I decided to do it. We could knock out two races in one weekend in Orlando plus it would serve as motivation for all of us to get back to training (note: no training truly occurred for any of us!).

Fast forward from October’s registration period (I believe) to this past weekend. I arrived in Orlando Friday afternoon and headed straight to ESPN Wide World of Sports. I’ve been here quite a few times over the years and knew what to expect. The skies were cloudy and stormy so I wanted to get in and out and I was able to do just that. I was greeted by Disney employees, pointed in the right direction in the Field House to pick up my packet and was done with packet pickup in a matter of minutes. Plus, I didn’t have to be tempted by over-priced expo goodies because it was in a separate building. I would have been pissed though as an expo vendor to not force participants through the expo!

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My family and I enjoyed an easy dinner and early bed time. The 10k started at 5:30 am Saturday morning and I was up at 3:30 am to get some coffee and food in me. We were staying just off of Disney property in the old Downtown Disney location. Traffic was fine but we were not provided enough of a heads up on the road to not turn down a certain road. We made it in time, parked at Epcot and headed to the waiting area to use a porta potty.

Pro tip: skip the porta potties in the waiting area and go in the gigantic area you enter on your way to the corrals! This would have moved a lot of people along a lot faster had there been signs or people pointing it out. In fact, it was a fellow runner who came to the herd to let us know that hundreds of unused porta potties were available!

At the entrance to the trail to the starting corrals, I had to say good bye to my dad since he was spectating. Unfortunately, since all of Disney races start in the middle of the woods behind Disney, no spectators can get back there and this was a point to point race so he had to get on a bus which then routed him off Disney property and back on to get to Wide World of Sports and took over 40 minutes to get him there! Strike 1.

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I was seeded in Corral A for the 10k and did not bring my phone for the race as I was just trying to go with the flow and see how things were feeling. People were seeded properly which was nice but there were several sections along the course which were extremely narrow. For the most part, people doing run/walk method (myself included) were good about racing their hands and exiting to either the right or left side of the running path. Lines were for character photos varied in length but I did stop at Chewie and Darth’s chair. We ran through part of Epcot, Boardwalk hotel and Hollywood Studios. I don’t believe I’ve been to Hollywood Studios so it was neat to run through there. A couple of spectators were out in the Boardwalk area but man would I pissed if I was staying along the Boardwalk and had no idea thousands of runners would be coming through the area at 6 am!

As we exited Hollywood Studios, my left foot was really starting to hurt with a blister I had formed the week before. As a result, I sped up along the boring stretch of highway leading from the park to Wide World of Sports. It felt good to speed up and get that part over with. We turned off of the highway into a wooded trail section which I enjoyed minus the congestion it created due to its narrowness. This trail spit us out on the backside of the playing fields and wound us around fields and buildings of Wide World of Sports. I spotted my dad about a mile from the finish line in one of the only few areas spectators could be along the course.

Pro tip: leave your poor family and friends at home if they are spectating! This is a major gripe of mine for any of the Disney races as there are no areas for spectating and it seems to be such an afterthought that it’s just not worth it. Plus, as you near the finish line, bicycle fencing is up in a double barricade (for security reasons) so it’s hard to get even close to the runners and spot people. It’s probably best to do this race with other runners and look to Disney for race photos. Mind you, Disney does its best to have you pay for “VIP” spectating with a seat at its finish line bleachers but don’t fooled, there are other bleachers next to this section where we went to watch my sister and her husband finish for free! Strike 2

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Here’s where Disney fell completely flat on its Mouse face. Once my sister and her husband (who were in Corral F-the last corral) finished their race, we had to figure out how to get back to Epcot where our car was as no one was allowed to park at Wide World of Sports and everyone had to take a bus back to Epcot. There was zero signage leading us to the Epcot bus line. There were signs for all of the hotels on property. We figured out our line by the mass of people snaking its way back and forth to a point behind all of the hotel buses and asking people. There were two Disney employees, one at either end of the snake, forming turns so more people could get in line. They had not thought to put up fencing or lines to help direct people and I believe had completely underestimated the number of people returning to Epcot.

Now, after all of these years, Disney has a tremendous amount of data collected and available to use to alleviate these kind of issues. They know how many of their racers are staying on property and how many buses to have available. Needless to say, it took us over an hour and a half to get on a bus (this is longer than it took me to run the 10k!). Once on the bus, we then discovered that Disney had directed all of the buses to come in and out on the same road which was only wide enough for one bus thereby creating a tremendous bottleneck and an even longer wait. We were dropped off where we started the race in the morning and walked probably another .5-.75 mile to get to our car and out of the park. Strike 3 (and we still have the half marathon to go!)

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Once Saturday was done, we were not in the best of spirits since we knew the half marathon would have many more people in the race and we were dreading an even longer wait line to get home. Plus, we were facing an even earlier wake up call of 3 am to for a 5 am corral A start. My sister and her husband had a different experience on the race course than I did as they walked it with a mass of people and much more congestion.

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Sunday morning came quickly and we were driving back the same way we did the day before but this time we were greeted by throngs of traffic to get into Disney. Three lanes had to merge to one to make a right hand turn into Disney and this caused major backups. It took us about an hour to get from our hotel 4 miles away to Epcot. Once there, we saw many people were also running behind but knew our corrals were not starting right away (C and L).

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To keep this from a being an extremely long blog post to just plain long, I will skip the majority of the race as it retraces the 10k until you turn on the highway to go to Animal Kingdom. Once at Animal Kingdom, you’re greeted by a ginormous parking lot that you have to go around. Talk about boring! We finally entered the actual park (which I have not been to) and ran through a couple of parts which was pretty cool. There were a good amount of characters here and real bathrooms.

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Pro tip: use the restrooms in the parks and try to avoid pit stops on the highway as you will be in porta potties.

I somehow missed the Tree of Life 😦 but enjoyed the park. We then headed East directly into the rising sun to head back to Wide World of Sports and the same finishing route as the 10k. I was able to see my dad again in the small section of spectators and finish with some space around me at the finish line. I picked up my half marathon medal, grabbed Powerade and the box of food (same as the day before) picked up my Dark Side Challenge medal and headed out to a sea of people. Both of my feet were killing me so I was hobbling somewhat. My blister hurt the entire 13.1 miles and my right foot started a new blister during the race.

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We waited around 1.5 hours for my sister and her husband to finish. They were in a mass of people but fortunately no where near getting swepted. My dad and I headed to the Epcot bus line as soon as they finished and told them how to find us. Thankfully, Disney pulled their head out of their butts this time around and moved the buses to Epcot to a different area, had lines ready to go along with bags of ice for sore legs. We were on a bus in about a half hour and spit out at the same place. All in all, this day went better but the 10k logistics flop will forever stay in my mind.

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As someone who has always enjoyed Disney especially their eye for detail but not an avid Disney fan, I will not be doing another Disney race ever again. They are too expensive, early, congested and the “experience” just doesn’t over shadow it enough to make it worthwhile.

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I’ve spoken with several people over the weekend and afterwards about this weekend. I’ve been told by avid Disney people that their inaugural races always suffer logistically but I say BS to this because Disney controls what happens inside its property boundaries and the logistics of Epcot and Wide World of Sports are used over and over again for other races throughout the year so this is not an excuse for poor logistics. As a side note: the one hotel who was always suffering from long lines was Disney Animation. On Saturday, they waited just as long as we did for their bus back and I heard on Sunday morning the lines wrapped around the hotel to get on a bus, causing delays.

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All in all, my family and I certainly have memories to laugh at for many years to come but we also could have saved a lot of time, money and stress by not doing this race. We will now look for cheaper races with less logistics to them. I hope Disney really studies what happened on Saturday as I find it inexcusable and so un-Disney like.

I will say the volunteers and the amount of them were great! Thank you to anyone who volunteered especially at such early hours!

On to the next non-Mouse race, cheers!

NYC-Marathon

That’s right! I got into the NYC Marathon via the lottery and will be racing on Sunday, November 6, 2016

 

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3 Comments

  1. I enjoyed the weekend, but there are certainly issues (money being the big one in my mind…the house of mouse is very effective at extracting cash out of wallets). I was in coral A for both races (based on finish times from 2014…I would have been much further back for next year’s race) and that certainly improved my experience (less congested). For me, Disney isn’t a race but an experience, and the primary driving force for me (as someone who likes Disney, but is a Diehard Star Wars geek) was photos (love that they had most photo ops pre and post race so it caused less congestion on course and less stress about getting swept), bling, merchandise and park mini-vacation. I am satisfied with the result. Yes, the EPCOT busses was a cluster (my bus back to AS Sports was fine). The other issue was merch being sold out of many items by lunch on Thursday. I did SW in DL this year as well (so I also got Kessel Run, C2C as well as the 5k), and I ran the Goofy a few years ago (and DL half that same year). So, I have had my fill of Disney. I can’t think of a theme that would lure me back at this point. The 2018 marathon is tempting (25th anniversary of the marathon, 25th anniversary of the 5k, 5th anniversary of the Dopey). I am willing to give Disney some slack for this inaugural race…and am please that they learned from the 10k bus mess and improved it by the next day…but I didn’t need to stand in that line….

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