NEW YORK, January 8, 2012—What does it take to put on a race in the happiest place on earth? A little bit of magic and a whole lot of teamwork. More than 50,000 runners planned to participate in the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend from Jan. 6 to Jan. 8, culminating in the Walt Disney World Marathon today. But shuttling 50,000 runners, plus their families who have come to watch them, through six race events over the course of three days is no simple task. Working year-round, runDisney aims to make these racing events fun for the whole family, while maintaining the regular Disney magic for the thousands of other park and resort guests enjoying a dream vacation.
“The biggest challenge is trying to put a half-marathon or marathon in Walt Disney World when you have on any given day 50,000 to 100,000 day guests,” says John Phelan, entertainment show director for Disney Sports. “The logistics are one of the key challenges of doing all of this.”
Jon Hughes, race director for the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend and other runDisney events couldn’t agree more.
“Like any event, there’s all the nitty gritty behind the scenes—operations and logistics,” Hughes says. “That is something that Disney does better than anyone else—the attention to detail.”
Running is a growing business for Disney, who in December announced the addition of a new signature race in the runDisney series with the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror 10-Miler Weekend scheduled to debut in Walt Disney World in September. The runDisney team puts on six major racing events throughout the year at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., and Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., attracting more than 100,000 runners every year.
The Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend is one of the 10 largest race festivals in the country with 41,357 finishers in 2010, according to RunningUSA. The 2011 weekend had more 56,000 runners registered for the Disney Family Fiesta 5K, Mickey Mile, Disney Kids’ Races, Walt Disney World Half Marathon, Walt Disney World Marathon Relay, and Walt Disney World Marathon. The Disney Princess Half Marathon is the second largest women’s race in the country with 11,359 finishers in 2010, an increase of 5,000 runners from the inaugural event in 2009, and the Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend is making its debut in Disneyland in February.
Every runDisney event has an 18-month planning window that includes six months of just sales and marketing strategy. And since they’ve grown their business, runDisney plans all of their major events consecutively.
“We’re always in the planning cycle,” laughs Michelle Maready, senior sports manager for runDisney events. “Always.”
Indeed, while one race is happening, the Disney Sports team is already planning the next one. Even though the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon took place on Oct. 1, come September the entertainment team was already working on the marathon slated for January. As race director, Hughes and his team work at least a year out on every event.
Planning and executing a Disney race is unique in the world of sports. Where the organizers of the ING New York City Marathon have one city government to contend with and one race to plan, Disney often has many. Many of the roadways used for Disney races don’t belong to Disney, but multiple local, county and state municipalities.
“You have to work with different state and city agencies to get the job done,” Maready says. “We work very closely with our security partners, parking partners, our transportation partners. We are like a little city in itself. Even though it’s all on Disney property that can be very challenging.”
Add to that the different components of Walt Disney World itself. The theme parks, resort hotels, and sports companies operate as separate entities.
“The challenge with Disney is this is a huge complex. So we have to partner with all the resorts, all of the theme parks, the water parks, because we do our best not to interrupt their transportation and all the day guests’ experience.” Hughes says. “That’s the biggest challenge: getting all of our tens of thousands of people on the road, off in time, through the parks, on a great course, come back, get the finish done and have as little disruption to the overall theme park operation as possible.”
Foremost in this task are the thousands of Disney patrons who aren’t at Disney World for the races, which often happen in conjunction with other major events that attract guests on their own. Disney’s Wine & Dine Half Marathon occurred at the same time at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival and Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at Magic Kingdom.
“With all of the planning we do, we have to keep into account all of the guests that are not here to see the race and make sure that we’re taking care of them as well,” Maready says. “Because this is Disney, we want everybody to have a great experience. But then we’re disrupting transportation, we’re closing down roads, we’re rerouting people across properties so that can be very challenging from a guest perspective.”
That consideration even extends to the animals that call Disney’s Animal Kingdom their home, particularly during nighttime races like Wine & Dine that require lighting equipment.
“When you go through the Animal Kingdom, we don’t want to go in there with big generators making lots of noise. We have to be very sensitive about the animals because they’re asleep at night,” Phelan says. “We work with the animal programs people to determine how loud we can make music and we bring in theatrical lighting that illuminates the pathway but isn’t harsh work lights.”
So entertainment meets with animal programs, logistics works with engineering, and so forth, including representatives from every Disney theme park and every Disney resort hotel including the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin hotels, which are on Disney property but are not owned and operated by Disney.
“We touch every bit of property,” Maready says. “We meet with every single one of them.”
That’s in addition to Disney Sports’ own team members who work on every event—a group of about 30 core planners plus another 100 people who work on the races throughout the year. Come race weekend, add another 1,000 volunteers who staff the race expos, medical stations, start and finish lines, food and water stops, and act as course monitors.
“When that’s all said and done there’s probably 300 people property wide that will be working on the race along with the volunteers,” says Phelan, who has worked for Disney for 28 years. He’s been with Disney Sports for the last four of them, but also serves as director of the “Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular!” and “Lights, Motor, Action! Extreme Stunt Show.”
One of the largest moving parts is entertainment itself. “We have a massive team that works on it all year long doing all the endurance races, starting with the producer all the way down to the technicians,” Phelan says. “On a race like a half marathon, we have about 50 technicians that are working the actual race, and 75 performers out on the course. On the full-marathon, I have well over 100 performers out there.”
Keeping runners entertained is one of the signature hallmarks of Disney races and what lures those 100,000 runners to the parks.
“Working with Disney events, the most fun thing is working with entertainment,” says Hughes, who is also president of Track Shack Events, which produces over 40 events a year. “You get to work with the best entertainment company in the world and run through the top theme parks. It’s a lot of fun putting that together, and quite honestly that’s how the race comes alive. That is the big Disney difference.”
When it comes to entertainment, Phelan uses everyone and everything at his disposal from Disney characters, live bands, parade floats, stunt people, actors, video crews, hot air balloons, cheerleading squads, producers, production managers, show directors, production assistants, artistic designers, and audio and lighting designers.
“My goal in all this is I think about the runner,” Phelan says. “We try to put an entertainment piece every half-mile or so on the course. Something that will either distract the runners, or motivate them, or make them laugh.”
For Phelan that means putting Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and, of course, some princesses on the course during the Princess Half Marathon, or Serge from “Toy Story” half way up a hill in the Wine & Dine Half Marathon.
“You’ll have Serge from ‘Toy Story’ going, ‘Come on, you can do it! Let’s get going! Run, run, run!’” Phelan says, doing an imitation of the soldier.
Phelan tries to match the characters to the race and where they appear on the course. So when marathoners run through backstage wooded areas, he’ll put the Country Bears or Davy Crockett coming out of the woods and he uses glowing floats from the Main Street Electrical Parade for nighttime races.
“Hopefully when they cross the finish line, they go, ‘Oh my gosh I just ran 13 miles. I hardly even realized it because I was so much fun,’” Phelan says. “Our job is to make them do it and get through it and have fun.”
But getting all those performers and the support equipment in place is a logistical challenge on its own. All Disney races take place outside of regular park hours, which means the Disney teams often have little time to set-up and breakdown.
“The parks are operating at full bore, and we come in either early, early in the morning before it opens and do a race and then have to get everything out. Or we’ll come in right as the park is closing with all this entertainment, all these mile markers, all this audio equipment and everything,” Phelan says.
Whereas most marathons shut down city streets to other traffic during prime hours, Disney has no such luxury. It’s got to be business as usual for all the parks and resorts. So many races have either 5:30 a.m. starts, like the Walt Disney World Marathon, or 10 p.m. starts, like the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon.
Disney employees work from midnight to 7 a.m. in the four days leading up the Wine & Dine Half Marathon to physically set-up the entire event. They move into the finish line space in a parking lot outside of Epcot on the Wednesday before the race. But in most cases, they’re not able to actually set-up until the roads close at 8:30 p.m., less than two hours before the 10 p.m. start. That means everything—including the start, the finish, the relay exchange for relay runners, nine water stops, one food stop, and four first aid stations—have less than one and a half hours to materialize. Come race night on Saturday, they are still setting up the finish and guests are still exiting the Epcot theme park until just before the winner crosses the line around 11 p.m.
“There’s an operation to help manage the guests as the logistics team is finishing the setup,” Maready says. “That finish line will be final right at 10:50 p.m.”
The tight set-up window means the entertainment teams work out of RVs, rec vehicles and pop-up tents, clearing out as quickly as they moved in. “It’s kind of like a 13 mile or a 26 mile road show,” Phelan says. “The crew has to hit it and hit it hard.”
Meanwhile, Hughes gets updates on runners’ progress every two minutes, radios transportation to see that things are running smoothly, and constantly checks with the medical teams to make sure there are no major issues, which is his number one concern.
But sometimes things don’t always run smoothly. Like every other organization that puts on an event for the first time, there is a learning curve. The Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon debuted in 2010 to both acclaim and criticism. Runners complained of a cramped finish area, long waits for bags, and long waits for food, especially as the crush of racers increased in the middle of the pack.
“It’s a little bit of planned chaos,” Hughes says. “When you’ve got tens of thousands of people coming, there are going to be challenges as well planned as it is.”
But the team at Disney used the feedback as constructive criticism, listening to their fans and followers via Facebook, Twitter, MarathonGuide.com, e-mail and phone.
“Our guests are not shy,” Maready says. “They’re letting us know the things that didn’t work last year.”
Hughes takes the stumbling blocks and criticism like a runner—that is, in stride. “When we do an event for the first time we’re very concerned with the flow, with the staging, running through the course and the finish. When we see there are issues, we make changes to make that better,” Hughes says. “Our big challenge last year was the finish. So this year what we realized was we needed a lot more space. We need to make sure we have enough room for medical and baggage. We’ve accomplished that this year.”
“We actually tried to finish in park last year, which was the first time we‘d ever done that here at Disney,” Maready says. “It was intended obviously to be a great guest experience.”
But it didn’t allow for as much space as the course demanded. So this year, runDisney instituted a wave start to spread runners out more, moved the finish line from inside Epcot to a parking lot just outside the main entrance, expanded the baggage claim, and added a changing area. They also expanded the finish line party—one of the big draws of the event—at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, keeping the park open until 3 a.m. just for runners and their families, and adding more character meet and greets and food and beverage stations.
The 2011 iteration of the race sold-out and proved a success in learning from past mistakes. But runDisney hopes to grow each of their events, so that selling out will mean turning away fewer runners. Disney’s internal industrial engineering team had staff stationed all across the property on Wine & Dine race night.
“They’re going to be studying everything from the start to the finish to make sure that we’re looking at what our growth potential is at least one year ahead and then moving forward how much larger we think we can grow it,” Maready says.
Hughes, who co-founded the Walt Disney World Marathon in 1994, has learned a lot as a race director over the years. He visits other marquee events like the Boston and Chicago marathons to see how other race directors tackle common issues.
“Our biggest lesson is never, ever, ever, assume. Don’t assume something’s going to happen or get done,” he says. “And if you do assume anything, assume the worst. Assume that it won’t work and be ready for that and have a Plan B just in case.”
But despite the headaches, despite the bobbles and the logistical nightmares, the people behind runDisney are effusive in their passion for putting on races.
“I get energized by the fact that our teams have worked so hard to put it all together,” Maready says. “We’re in our element when we’re working as a team.”
“It’s all about teamwork,” he says. “You have to keep a sense of humor and you have to go with the flow.”
But Hughes gleans motivation from the runners themselves. His favorite moments always come during the race.
“The first one is always the start. You’ve got them all there and ‘boom!’ It goes. The crowd is excited and you can feel the energy,” Hughes says with a twinkle in his eye. “The other one is somewhere during the finish. It happens every time. You will see someone cross the line and you know you’ve changed their life.” Hughes pauses, getting choked up, tears welling in his eyes. “And it’s huge,” he says, visibly moved by the memory of all those moments over the years.
“I’m half-Italian so I get emotional,” he says with a laugh, wiping his eye.
Or maybe it’s that Disney magic.
Karla Bruning is a veteran journalist and running nerd. She has completed four marathons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at RunKarlaRun.com, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.
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