Disney Parks' Fascinating Running Subculture

Seven weekends a year, they come by the thousand. They arrive from all areas of the country and throughout the world, ready to get up early, put on their shoes, and run. Walt Disney World and Disneyland offer 31 races and challenges – and ten accompanying parties, of course – throughout the year, and the races have developed quite a following. These seven events, five in Florida and two in California, attract hundreds of thousands of runners every year. And they often bring their families along for the trip.

It’s been nearly two decades since the inaugural Walt Disney World Marathon, and Disney figured out quickly that the running culture meant big business. The company has even put together its own brand for runners – runDisney. In a 2012 Orlando Sentinel article, Jason Garcia wrote:

Disney began staging marathons and other distance races as a way to fill its hotels and theme parks during historically slow times on the calendar, and that is still the primary goal. But runDisney has also bloomed into a business in its own right; it organizes more than a half-dozen races a year in Florida and California; hosts industry “expos” in which exhibitors pay as much as $23,000 for a booth; and hawks a long line of merchandise, from training gear to commemorative pins, necklaces and — of course —Mickey Mouse ears.

Disney says runDisney is now one of the three largest race organizers in the United States, both in terms of the number of events and the number of runners, alongside San Diego-based Competitor Group Inc., which stages the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series,” and the New York Road Runners club, whose events include the storied New York City Marathon. RunDisney has more than 150,000 followers on Facebook — more “friends” than Disney’s time-share or weddings businesses.

“In most major markets, there are one or two top races a year. We have three, four, five top races a year, right here in Central Florida,” said Ken Potrock, senior vice president of Disney Sports Enterprises. “That’s incredibly unique. And these races are open to anyone, from 4-year-old toddlers to 90-year-old walkers.”

The races are just the beginning. Each race weekend includes at least once celebration, where runners and their families gather to bask in the glory of finishing the race. Runners receive medals for completing the races, and commemorative items are available as well. Certain races aim for specific markets as well.

Each of the secondary races is designed to fill a niche. Like this weekend’s princess-themed race, the Tinker Bell Half Marathon at Disneyland is aimed primarily at women. The nighttime Wine & Dine Half Marathon, billed as a “runners’ night out,” targets younger travelers without children. The Expedition Everest Challenge, more an obstacle course than a distance race, is popular with locals.

Disney has taken steps to make sure the runDisney subculture stays in the forefront of guests’ minds:

It has hired a former U.S. Olympic distance runner to devise online training guides. It has added a runDisney specialist to the “Disney Moms Panel,” the company-organized social-media group that offers advice to families planning Disney vacations. It highlights runDisney races on TV channels carried in all of Disney World’s 25,000 hotel rooms and time-share suites.

And, of course, runDisney is a big business. The Disney Store website has its own runDisney page, complete with apparel, training gear, medal holders (no kidding), and rings at price points from $399-$1,399. New Balance, one official sponsor, has a runDisney page on their site as well.

RunDisney boasts a heavy fan presence online as well. It doesn’t take an extensive search to find a bevy of Disney running blogs. One blog contains training tips for first timers, while another features an extensive lineup of contributors sharing personal stories and advice. On top of everything else, the blogs offer inspiration and encouragement for runners and would-be runners.

I’ve said for many years that there’s something at the Disney Parks for everybody. Disney has done a great job marketing to a number of interests, so it makes perfect sense that they would reach out to runners as well. Leave it to Disney to funnel a passion for running into the happiest races on earth.

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