Running a 5K & Half Marathon Through the House of the Mouse, Cali-style


I ran my very first half marathon at Disney World in January 2015, and indeed, the experience was magical. Now, before you roll your eyes at the the use of Disney's favorite adjective, do not underestimate my sincerity.  Prior to the run, I really wasn't all that interested in running.  At all.  However, my experience with Disney was so good that, at the suggestion of my wife, decided to run the Disneyland half and earn the Coast to Coast medal.  I'm sure her suggestion had little to do with her interest in heading back to Cali, where she grew up.  My challenge back to her was that she was going to run the 5K with me.  With our challenges agreed upon and defined, we dutifully trained until it was time to hop on Jet Blue and head west.

For the unfamiliar, Disneyland is a much smaller, far more compact version of Disneyworld.  It is situated in the third largest urban area in North America and doesn't have the space to stretch out.  The parks are smaller, the ride lines are outside rather than the Florida-style air conditioned indoor queues. While this may seem problematic, it is not.  While my experience in Florida has been very positive, moving from place to place (i.e. hotel to park) in Disneyworld takes time.  A lot of time.  Like, an hour or more.  Disneyland, on the other hand, the time from my hotel room at the Disney Paradise Pier Hotel to the entrance to Disney California Adventure:  10 minutes.  On foot.  Walking.  On the morning of the half in Florida, I woke at 3am to catch a bus at 3:30 to beat the traffic so I could sit a the starting area for over an hour, to walk another half-mile or so to the start corrals (all 23 of them!), etc.  In California, I woke at 4, left my room at 4:45 and was in the starting area at 5am.  Walking.  The compact size of Disneyland was a nice change for those of us accustomed to the metropolitan-sized Disney World.

Another major difference is the weather.  Florida tends to be hot and humid. While the heat can be variable, the humidity is not.  On the other hand, Southern California, while often warm during the day, cools down significantly at night.  On the morning of the run it was 62 with low humidity. Perfect.

Weather, size and location aside, however, the Disneyland RunDisney experience was the same, high-quality, well-run event that makes these runs so popular.

On arrival to Southern California, my wife and I checked in at Disney's Paradise Pier hotel.  This is the "moderate" priced hotel on the Disneyland property, and is very convenient to the parks and running activities.  After a quick stop on our room, we headed out the door to pick up our race packets.  

Stepping out the backdoor of the hotel, there were plenty of signs to guide us to our destination, the conference center at the Disneyland Hotel, a leisurely 15 minute walk.  As we neared the hotel, uniformed volunteers guided us into an underground convention space where the packet pickup lanes were located.  Again, in typical Disney efficiency, the volunteers guided us to our lanes and our total time in this area was less than 15 minutes.  This was on Thursday afternoon; I imagine that Friday afternoon was much more crowded.  We then went upstairs and stepped into the Expo.


 Disneyland Half Marathon Expo 2015

Disneyland Half Marathon Expo 2015


The Expo was packed with the usual RunDisney vendors and things to see.  New Balance, Clif, Fit2Run, RunDisney and a myriad of other vendors with lots of items to try, and of course, buy.  The cool thing about the DL Expo is how convenient it is to the hotels. While the Disneyworld Expo is larger, it is far removed from the parks and hotels at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and requires a car or bus ride.  We ended up returning to the Expo on Friday to get some more stuff and see Sean Astin speak.

After the expo, it was off to dinner, then to sleep as we were running the 5K the next morning.  

 

The Disneyland 5K

The next morning, my wife and I got up, poured down a bit of coffee and headed over to the start area.  The walk from the Paradise Pier hotel over to the start area was a leisurely 10 minute stroll and as we approached, the crowd started to build.  

The RunDisney starts are events unto themselves.  As we approached the start corrals, a small army of volunteers steered us to the proper places.  We entered the chutes and were ultimately deposited in our spot for the start.  All along the starting area were lights and speakers broadcasting music. A large video screen showed our hosts, Mickey, Minnie and some human hosts helping set a festive mood.  

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Each corral group gets it's own start, and the starts occur about two minutes apart.  Before we knew it, we were counting down and away we went!

We ran the first 1/2 mile or so down the road and into the backstage area of Disney California Adventure and emerged in Cars Land.  Radiator Springs was lighted using a Sunrise motif.  Lots of people stopping to take photos.  The course then looped near the Paradise Pier area before heading to Hollywood Land and out the exit of DCA and into Disneyland. 

There really isn't anything that matches the experience of running up Main Street U.S.A. My wife and I paused for a quick photo op at Sleeping Beauty's castle and pressed on through Fantasy Land and out Frontier Land through the backstage.  The last half mile or so was through Downtown Disney and we were done! This was my wife's first 5K and I couldn't have been prouder.  We happily collected our medals (made of vinyl), grabbed some water and a snack.  Again, since we stayed on property, a shower and nap were only a 10 minute walk away.

 

The Disneyland Half Marathon

Since this was a vacation, I skipped the 10K the next morning and creaked out of bed early on Sunday to run the 10th Disneyland Half Marathon. Again, I was grateful for staying on property as it was just a short walk to the start corrals.  The crowds today, however, were much larger.

As I made my way over to the start corrals, I realized that I was not assigned to the proper corral.  While I am nearly certain I submitted the necessary race times to qualify for a higher corral, I was assigned corral G, as in, "G"o way to the back.  I'm not sure exactly what happened, but make sure you submit the required times so you don't get sent to the back.  One advantage, though, is that my starting group was backed up on the ramps to the parking garage, so I could see all the action down at the start line.  Again, it was a staged start so we watched groups A-F move out before it was our turn. Since 15,000 people ran this event, it took us nearly 45 minutes to cross the start line.  

The start was terrific and we were off. As we headed backstage in Disney California Adventure, I realized that the run through the parks was going to be a bit tedious.  Crowding was a real problem at numerous points where the course narrowed and the pace would slow to a crawl.  I've already made double-sure that my times are properly submitted for my next RunDisney event!

Running through the parks at dawn was simply beautiful. The 3rd shift cleaning crews were out in force cheering us on.  The route through both parks was about twice as long as the 5K and we emerged from Disneyland into Anaheim around mile 6.

The Anaheim portion of the half-marathon winds through the light-industrial section of the city, along the Santa Ana River, through Angel's stadium and back through Anaheim and into the parks.  The finish line is just north of the Disneyland Hotel.  While the Anaheim part of the run is a bit dull, as there really isn't much to look at, RunDisney made sure to line the streets with high school and college bands, dancing groups (thanks Tahitian dancers!) and cheer squads.  One of the more interesting displays occurred during the few miles leading to the Santa Ana River.  Hundreds of car collectors lined the streets with their classic autos.  They were largely themed with Disney films as well:  Herbie the Love Bug, and all manner of vehicles represented in Pixar's Cars (classics, Porsches, souped up asian imports, etc). The run in Angel's stadium was very cool.  We entered at first base and ran counterclockwise around the field and exited at the left outfield foul line.  

As is typical with RunDisney events, the course was superbly supported with ample water stops and plenty of port-a-lets along the route.  

At the finish, an army of volunteers handed out water, medals (really nice ones!) and a fancy cooling towel.  After a short walk, I grabbed my snack, found my wife and headed back to the hotel. 

 

Summary:

Our RunDisney experience was fantastic.  The courses are interesting, the support spectacular and the vibe fun.  However, what really made Disneyland special was it's compact size and ease of movement. I'm definitely heading back for a future event.  I strongly recommend staying on property and make sure you properly submit your run times to RunDisney by the deadline so you don't end up in the back (unless you want to be there).  Happy running!