We recently enjoyed the Inaugural Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon weekend. Together, Chad and I have run over 45 runDisney races. We love participating in these races, but we are not afraid to call out Disney on where they need to improve and this race had a lot of room for improvement! Here are the 8 things you need to know about the Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon Weekend.
1 – 2016-The Inaugural Race – “You Underestimate the Power of the Dark Side”
After the huge success of the Star Wars Half Marathon that debuted in Disneyland in January 2015, runDisney fans were eager to see a Star Wars themed race come to Disney World. After all, with Hollywood Studios and the popularity of Star Wars it just makes sense, right? Thankfully, fans didn’t have to wait long. In August 2015, Disney announced that the race in Disneyland would be known as the “Light Side,” while Disney World would take the role of the “Dark Side.” The weekend includes a 5k, 10k, kids races, and half-marathon. Also available is the Dark Side Challenge: a 19.3-mile challenge for those running both the 10k and half-marathons. Finally, the Kessel Run Challenge medal would be awarded to those (lucky enough) running both Star Wars half-marathons at Disneyland and Disney World in the same calendar year.
Popular it was. In 2016, there were 43,000 registrations in all: 19,500 registered for the half, 12,000 registered for the 10k, 9,800 for the 5k, 7,500 runners registered for the Dark Side Challenge and 2000 kids registered for the kids races. 56% of the runners are female, while 44 percent are male runners.
2 – The Health & Fitness Expo – “I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This”
Inexperienced runDisney runners might wonder why the Health and Fitness Expo at the ESNP Wide World of Sports complex could be viewed with trepidation. These expos bring thousands of runners together with much on the line: exclusive runDisney merchandise. With every race weekend it is becoming more and more necessary to arrive at the expo the first day it opens, right when it opens (or even earlier) if you want a decent selection of race merchandise. We were there every day the Expo was open and observed the good and the bad.
Pros: It was the Most Organized Expo Experience I’ve had at ESPN
After reading about fist fights and crazy long lines at the Princess Half-Marathon Expo in February 2016, I was expecting (hoping) that Disney would learn some lessons and do a better job of managing the thousands of runners who attend the Health and Fitness Expo. Simply put, this was better organized than I’ve ever experienced before. We got there early and could choose between the merchandise line and the packet pick up line. We opted (and so should you) for the merchandise line. We were able to walk into the Jostens Center immediately, but then were put in a queue to enter the actual merchandise store area. Disney was controlling the entry points and controlling how many people could be in the store at once. We nervously waited about 30 minutes to get into the store, but once we did get in, we could actually move around (unlike years before where it more closely resembled a rugby scrum than shopping). There were lots of merchandise options and we got what we wanted. Controlling the amount of people in the store area was a huge plus. We’ve experienced crazy busy merchandise areas in the past, where you could barely move, let alone get what you wanted. This was so much better. Yes, I waited in long lines (four actually), but that is to be expected on the first day. Cast members were polite and things worked.
Cons: Still Not Enough Race Merchandise, with Most Items Selling out on Thursday
However, there was still not enough race merchandise to be found. I’ve said it before; I simply do not understand why Disney does not produce more race merchandise. All of the Kessel Run merchandise, most of the Dark Side Challenge merchandise, and most of the half-marathon and 10k items were gone early on Thursday. Runners have also been very upset at the ability of anyone to walk in and purchase race merchandise.
We observed many with baskets full of thousands of dollars of merchandise that would likely be put on on eBay the next day. No, I’m not exaggerating. On multiple occasions I’ve watched people next to me ring up literally over $5,000 worth of merchandise with baskets full of the same items. There is nothing in the runDisney community that gets people more fired up than this as runners who arrive on Friday are stuck combing through the leftovers. Disney could improve the process here to be sure. For now, the best way to deal with this (if you are able) is to get to any runDisney expo on the first day and right when it opens.
3 – Star Wars Kids Races – “Patience You Must Have, My Young Padawan”
With the growing popularity of running, Disney added another day of kid races for children under the age of twelve. 100m dash, 200m dash, 400 dash, a Diaper Dash and a 1 mile run were offered. These events took place on Friday and Saturday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
Pros: Amazing to See Kids Running with the Support of Friends, Family and Disney Staff.
From what we observed, these races were organized, well run and very supportive to the children. It was great to see so many kids being active. My three nephews thoroughly enjoyed the 1-mile race and the medal they received! I also had the pleasure of cheering the kids on to the finish line. I watched as Disney support staff ran with the last boy running the mile. He was clearly struggling, but the announcers and staff on the track encouraged him, while the crowd cheered. It was great to see him finish.
We didn’t see anything bad with these kids races!
4 – The Race Start-Epcot Parking Lot – “The Dark Side of the Force is the Pathway to Many Abilities…”
Like many runDisney races, the staging area for the race starts was at the Epcot Wonder Lot. The corrals for the 10k and half marathon were in a different place than Marathon Weekend, but they still were located on Epcot Center Drive.
Pros: Better Set-Up and Plenty of Necessities
We experienced very long lines during Marathon Weekend while we waited to go through security for bag check. For this race, they had a different set up which allowed for faster checks. It was a pleasant surprise. Also, there were plenty of port-o-potties and water available for runners. Using a port-o-potty is the event before the event for most runners and we were pleasantly surprised to find a larger number and shorter lines.
Cons: Corral Placement and Numbers
While I understand that the corrals really need to be on Epcot Center Drive due to the large number of runners, the slow crawl of a 20-minute walk to the corrals is always a bummer. Also, like other Disney races, there were thousands in each corral, which meant overcrowding on the course. The corrals were released 8 minutes apart for the 10k and were released 4 minutes apart for the half marathon.
5 – The Race Course: Tie Fighter 10k – “Stay on Target”
I participated in the Dark Side Challenge, so I experienced both the 10k and the half-marathon.
Pros: Interesting Course with Two Parks
Compared to the Minnie 10k in January, this course was much more interesting. We ran through short portions of Epcot, Disney’s Boardwalk, Hollywood Studios, while finishing up at ESPN Wide World of Sports. It was really nice running through two parks and most of the course had good surroundings rather than just running on a road, like you do with most of the Minnie 10k. There were also many photo opportunities with many Star Wars characters. It seemed like there were more photo spots than other 10k races I’ve done.
Cons: Very Narrow Pathways Too Early in the Course
The problem with this course (and the half too), is that sections early on were too dark and too crowded. During the 10k we ran along the backside of the Boardwalk (different from the half) and many sections it was a narrow sidewalk. With 2000 runners in each corral there was just not enough time for the runners to thin out, making these sections overcrowded and in some cases dangerous. I read reports of runners hurting themselves in holes during the Boardwalk section. I also observed many racers running in the grass, which can also lead to injury. I always expect a busy runDisney race. I know that it will be overcrowded, but because of the course design this race was worse than normal because the pathways were too narrow too early in the course.
6 – The Race Course: Dark Side Half Marathon – “There’s Too Many of Them!”
Overall, this race was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed the half-marathon and Disney did a lot to make this a great race. However, there were issues that I hope are addressed for next year’s race.
Pros: Allowed for a Unique Point to Point Run with Fantastic Course Entertainment
The great thing about a point to point run was that it allowed for a far more interesting course with great scenery along the way. Another huge plus for this race was the amount of on course entertainment and photo spots. There were many Star Wars characters out for photos including: R2D2, Chewie, Darth Vader, Storm Troopers, and more. There were also amazing backdrops of the trash compactor scene, the frozen cave with the whampa on Hoth, and others. Also, in some sections on the road, we were treated to movie clips that had the famous light saber battles between Anakin and Obi Wan from Episode III, Luke and Darth Vader from Episode VI, and the battle between Rey and Kylo Ren in Episode VII. It made for a much interesting and very fun course. It was also very cool to be able to run through Animal Kingdom. With the canceling of the Expedition Everest Challenge, the Disney marathon was going to be the only race to go through Animal Kingdom. Running through three parks during a half is a major perk for this race.
Cons: Insanely Crowded
Like the 10k, the course was very overcrowded. Chad experienced this like never before since he was placed in the last corral since he forgot to submit his proof of time to Disney by the required deadline. Chad says, he will never forget again because “running” in the last corral was terrible. In the last corrals it was so crowded, there were large sections of the race where running wasn’t an option. You couldn’t even walk fast—from Disney’s Boardwalk to Hollywood Studios, it was a slow shuffle. Basically, anytime the course narrowed, you were forced to a slow shuffle. Further, on Osceola Parkway after leaving Animal Kingdom even three lanes of road couldn’t help and he couldn’t run because it was so packed. We’re not sure what Disney can do to alleviate these crowding issues, but something must be done. Note from Chad: For the love of everything decent and holy, submit a proof of time. If you don’t have a proof of time, get one and submit it! When they say absolutely no changes to corrals they mean it.
7 – The Race Finish: ESPN Wide World of Sports – “Escape Now, Hug Later”
If only we had taken Han Solo’s wise advice. While the finish line area at ESPN had many plusses, the transportation issues back to Epcot (and Resorts) were a huge negative.
Pros: Lots of Star Wars Characters for Runners and Families
First, the finish area was typical of runDisney races. Great support with medals, medical staff to those who need it, and plentiful post-run nutrition. The medals were just awesome, especially the Kessel Run Challenge (one Chad and I have our eye on for next year). There were also a lot of photo spots near the finish line. Jabba the Hut, Bobba Fett with Han Solo in the carbon freeze, Darth Vader, Captain Phasma, Darth Maul, a Rathtar and some Storm Troopers. We had a great time at the finish, that is until it was time to board the bus back to Epcot.
Cons: Bus Transportation Back to Epcot was a Nightmare
For the 10k and half-marathon races, Disney did not allow for parking at ESPN. All runners and spectators were required to park at Epcot. Spectators boarded busses at Epcot to get to the finish line area at ESPN. After the races, there were busses available to go straight to resorts or back to Epcot. On Saturday morning after the 10k, my sisters and I waited in a 1-hour long line to get back to Epcot. I read reports of some people waiting for over 90 minutes. On Sunday, we took our time after the race with many pictures so we left very near the end, but our wait was still about 30 minutes. No matter how long, after running a long race standing on pavement in a long line is no fun.
We also read reports of bus drivers getting lost or dropping runners off that the wrong places. (Disney hires Mears Busses for these events and so the bus drivers are often not familiar with the roads like regular Disney bus drivers are). The complaints on the runDisney Facebook page were not kind. Many were angry about the wait, angry about the delays and angry with the set-up. As it was, we had to cancel our breakfast reservations for Sunday. My sisters and I had to push back our breakfast reservation 2 hours on Saturday, but we only made it because they had availability. It was a very unfortunate end to an overall great race. I do love the point to point race because of the extra park, but Disney will have to figure out how to do this one better next year!
Even prior to the race there were issues with busses. A large group of runners at Wilderness Lodge were never picked up and were out of luck with no way to get to the starting line. Honestly, this is the biggest head scratcher of the weekend. It’s not like this was the first race Disney has offered (or even the first point to point race for that matter) and bussing was a chaotic mess. The worst we’ve seen in almost 7 years of doing Disney races.
8 – Disney’s PhotoPass – “Do or Do Not. There is No Try”
We were thrilled to hear that Disney would be replacing Marathon Foto for pictures during all runDisney races. This race weekend was the first chance for Disney to shine. Unfortunately, there were a lot of hiccups.
Pros: Finally, I Don’t Need to Pay Crazy Fees for Race Pictures!
As a premium plus annual passholder, I was excited that all of my race pictures would now be available to me for “free”. I’ve never purchased pictures from Marathon Foto because they were insanely expensive. For those who are not passholders, they can take advantage of Disney’s Memory Maker with an advance purchase price of $149. While that is still expensive and more expensive that a Marathon Foto package, if you will also be spending time in the parks and getting other Disney pictures during your weekend, then it’s a great deal. I was pleased with the quality of pictures and I have some fantastic race mementos that I wouldn’t normally have.
Cons: Where are My Pictures?
However, many runners, including us, are missing pictures we know we had taken. I ran with my sister and none of her finish line pictures showed up. We crossed the line holding hands up in the air, and we have one shot of me with her cut out. After the race you can pose with your medal for a picture and hers did not show up. Also running was my brother-in-law. He had the most pictures show up, but some of the finish line pics with the entire family are missing. The PhotoPass site crashed and was down for more than 36 hours. People had trouble entering the codes, receiving many invalid code messages. Facebook was swirling with complaints and rumors about lost pictures with the crash. I understand there will be troubles, but this is Disney and PhotoPass photos for thousands of people should be pretty much standard operating procedure. It is really disappointing to not have those finish line or medal pics. Character lines at the finish were 30 minutes to 1 hour. After waiting that long to have a picture with a character, it is frustrating to not have that picture show up in your account. I really hope that Disney figures this one out before the next race on property which is the Wine & Dine Half-Marathon weekend. We’ll be there for that one as well, so I’m eager to see how the process is improved!
Despite the challenges, overall we really enjoyed this race weekend. We are huge Star Wars fans and runDisney fans, so it was a no brainer to sign up for this race! How about you? Were you there? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!