Return to Racing at Walt Disney World Resort
RunDisney races were finally back in person. Fellow runners may have looked a little different this weekend donning masks indoors and on buses, but not socially distanced as this writer had expected, aside from the vendor booths at the Expo. But the same exciting vibe was there this weekend during Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon Weekend.
Pulling into ESPN Wide World of Sports and parking on the first afternoon of the Expo with ease, the same tree covered walk led runners up through the ESPN gates. Along the way runners were reminded to complete their digital Expo check in, a new requirement this year. Entering the HP Field House, runners with digital check ins went left, the usual route, while runners without went right. With easy QR codes displayed everywhere, those who went right quickly funneled onto the registration floor.
Race registration was a breeze around 5pm and with safety pins and bib in hand the same route led runners to the next stop: the VISA Athletic Center. Race-shirt pick up and the Expo awaited right behind a huge Wickedly Delicious entrance. The sign was vastly impressive, and many posed for photos. Shirts were in their usual back-corner, but the overall Expo (understandable considering the pandemic) felt junior to any year in the past. The feeling was empty but not for the lack of trying. Jeff Galloway was still there greeting runners, as was the First Harvest Food Bank, the benefiting charity, along with various booths selling sparkled hats and skirts, recovery bath bombs and the typical runner goodies you would expect.
Last stop was Official Merchandise with the race distance photo opportunities leading toward the Advent Health Arena. That same familiar anticipation arose when walking through the hallways of the first floor, rounding the corner to the arena floor, how much merchandise would be left? The shelves were well stocked, and runners homed in on items; all was orderly unlike the frenzy rumored in groups online. One tumbler did appear to be sold out, but the joke goes, if you want it that badly then check on eBay.
Disney Wine & Dine 5k runners had a soggy Friday morning start to the three-day race weekend. Shoes dried out just in time to be soaked again Saturday morning, as 10k runners took the brunt of inclement weather with a Florida cold front pushing through the region including hours of rains and winds gusting well into the afternoon. Sunday morning the clouds cleared out and undoubtedly running costumes modified with new base layers as the temperatures dropped.
Driving to Epcot, runners with their own cars, were advised to arrive at 3:30am. Ahead of schedule, this eager runner parked at 3am and the parking lot already had a steady trickle of incoming vehicles. Cast members welcomed and directed runners to the bus line, joking that this distance was the half marathon itself. Boarding the bus, paper masks were offered to any runner without, and the bus filled quickly, ready to depart for the Magic Kingdom parking lot.
Exiting the bus, this is when the real race feeling kicked in with spotlights in the sky, corral globes illuminated, and DJ music heard from every inch of the Mulan parking section. Never a lack of portapotties, runners had the typical options: a long row prior and a long row after entering the runners-only area.
A new corral (start group) placement took place this year, whereas in previous years a letter on the runner’s bib marks which corral you would start the race, in 2021 a lowercase letter S followed by a number replaced corrals. The s stands for “start group” and applied to assist in the health and safety of runners but some things don’t change: runners can rightfully only move back in start group but not allowed to move up, as volunteers checked bibs at entry gates AND as the race began each start group moving forward was packed tight like cattle, walking over discarded clothes and mylar blankets that did not reach the fence line. Each start group was broken into waves and moved fast; a wave in s3 started at 5:20am, which in the old days could have been closer to an hour wait. And let’s not forget fireworks at every start along with the encouragement and banter between Carissa Galloway and Riley!
The half marathon racecourse exited the Magic Kingdom parking lot and followed a forest-lined service road toward Animal Kingdom. Mile markers and character stops along the way had typical crowds waiting for photos. Villains being the theme, the evil characters from new and old movies were plenty, including the classic witches and some less commonly spotted characters like Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham from 1973’s Robin Hood. A spooky forest was also a highlight along the path with fog filled bubbles floating through the air. So fun to poke and see the fog dissipate!
Entering Animal Kingdom, the holiday decorations were up and the goats and small donkey or maybe it was a miniature mule or pony, were posing with guests. The long stretch of Osceola Parkway heading out of Animal Kingdom, always feels the same with highway running and oncoming cars honking in encouragement. Entering Hollywood Studios, cast members cheered on runners on the holiday-lined streets of Tinseltown. Exiting Studios, the regular path passed the Skyliner toward the Boardwalk resort began to narrow – caution runners! Then there was the familiar pitter patter of feet along the boardwalk as guests filled the sidelines with fun and often time comical posters. Entering Epcot at the United Kingdom and running around the World Showcase, the lake side torches were lit, and the music was spirited. The last mile took runners passed Spaceship Earth and to the Epcot parking lot and there was the grand finish line. A happy sight for many runners braving the chill, bright sun, and wind not to mention miles! Medals, mylar blankets, bananas, and snack boxes (with cheese!) were distributed by volunteers, as runners headed to meet up with supporters. Same layout as past years, the beer line moved fast and the coffee line was long for hot beverages – it was chilly. Photo spots included an evil throne and Magic Mirror for runners to pose on and with showing off their accomplished medals.
The weekend concluded with the Post-Race Party and at 9:30pm, as regular guests cleared out, runners and party guests wearing special event wristbands lined up for Villain character sightings and a dedicated party specialty alcoholic beverage. Test Track, Soarin’ Around the World, Frozen Ever After and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure were open. Heading toward Remy’s attraction, guest unfortunately were turned away as the ride was down, hopefully back up within the hour. Guests milled around with their glowing after-party drinks, which was rumored to sell out fast, along with a toast made to all those who completed their distances! Runners celebrated eating Wine and Dine Festival foods and the party continued well past midnight. No one turned into a pumpkin, but in time for crucial sleep after any eventful weekend.
Much felt like it had only been a few months since our last RunDisney event together, despite the 20-month hiatus. Photo pass green tents popped up and capturing moments. Cast members were just as magical showing their support. Volunteers were just as amazing as they were when we last saw them. And overall, it was another magical weekend and setting the stage for the next race weekend, January’s Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend.
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