Behind the Scenes at the Disney Marathon

This weekend was the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend!  Obviously with my recent recovery, I was not running.  I was invited by a co-worker to volunteer with the Disney Sports Enthusiast Program.  The experience was really different from running and gave me a whole new appreciation for these volunteers. 

I signed up in September, and was placed on a team with my friends that invited me.  The team leader had chosen 2 shifts for us, crowd control and Refreshment set up.  I actually tried to sign up for only one, but somehow I got put on the team for both, so rather than be difficult, I decided just to do both.

The weekend kicks off on Thursday with the Expo, which was crammed full of vendors.  On Friday there is a family 5K mostly for Children and family participation, as well as seminars from some of the big names in running.  On Saturday is the Half Marathon, and the beginning of the Goofy Challenge (Half Marathon on Saturday, and Marathon on Sunday, people call it “getting Goofy” which it is!).  Sunday is the main event, the Marathon and Marathon relay.  Well over 30 thousand people participate in the races, representing much of the international community.  That is a lot of runners in one area.  At one point, I remember looking around and saying, “Yeah, these are “my people””  and they are.  What a good bunch of folks! I should add that the cost of entry into these races is steep, about 140.00 for a half Marathon…350 for the Goofy…so one wonders how the economy can be that horrific, when these races were ALL sold out!

Disney uses volunteers for everything: water stops, medal unwrapping and presentation, traffic direction (with lots of guidance!), crowd control, medical aide (basics, band aids, ice ace wraps), packet pick up.  So there are many many volunteers, several of which the runners never see.

I started my volunteer journey by going to the Expo on Friday.  Disney is very organized with the volunteers and because of the way the park is, everyone has to actually be credentialed prior to volunteering.  So I picked up these cute little tags on friday.

I had to wear them any where I went pretty much after that.  The tags are not smudged, but I smudged out my last name, should anyone want to stalk me, I wouldn’t want to make it THAT easy.

The expo was WILD.  It pretty much cemented my desire not to do Disney Races!  I was unable to spend time with any of the vendors,  most had not put prices on anything to force you to ask, but yet you could not get near them to ask!  After about an hour, I left.  I could not stand the crushing crowd!   I heard from friends who volunteered during the expo that is was about the busiest time, so I clearly picked a bad time to go!

Our shift on Saturday started about 5 am.   We drove down there got checked in, and got our jacket and snack bag.  The jacket is a thin windbreaker and is pretty nice for a freebie.    The snack bag was unfortunate for me, as I am allergic to bananas.  It included a banana and also a fruit and nut mix that

      contained banana chips.  So I lost out a bit of snacks.  They bussed us from the

ESPN Wide World of Sports area to the edge of Epcot Center where most of the volunteer

staging occurred for most activities.

It was still quite dark and chilly when we arrived.  Here’s a shot of the volunteers gathering for direction.  Note the amount of Port-a-Potties (this is the finish area).

Disney has had a big safety initiative this year, probably due to a variety of mishaps over the past few years, so this years jackets have the reflective stripe.  When we arrive at that time, there were already a bunch of volunteers that had arrived at 12:30 am.  (which was to be our time the next day!)  They eagerly climbed onto the heated busses.  While it was not that chilly, standing around in 47 degree weather never feels great.

We were assigned to crowd control, so we got to be the bad guys, telling runners to move on…move on.  There were a lot of areas which seemed natural for a runner to stop, but it was not where Disney wanted them to stop, for fear of creating a bit of a jam up.

Here we got to see all the Half marathon runners.          

As always at Disney, we saw a variety of Characters.

This year it was mostly Tinkerbell and Pirates.

Though we also saw a ton of Minnie Mouses!  Some enterprising running skirt maker had come to the expo with a bunch of red polka dotted skirts, and they seemed

to have sold like hot-cakes.

To the right is the first Tinkerbell I saw, she was a fast one for sure and wore the

costume well.  As the day progressed, we would see a variety of Tinerbelles,

in a variety of sizes shapes ages and personalities.  it was kind of fun to

see the things people chose to run in!

We directed everyone to the food tents and beyond to the busses that take the runners away at the end.  I admit, I did eventually get a bit bored standing.  Some people wanted to talk to us, others really were absorbed in their moment.  Many Many people thanked us for our work, which I appreciated.

The Sunrise which came up aw we were working was one of those Florida Sunrises to live for.

At about 10:40 am the runners finished, and we also finished.  They bussed us back to the ESPN Wide world of Sports and we headed home.  Sadly, I had to get up at 11:00pm the same night to get back for our second shift, refreshment set up.  Sadly I forgot my camera.  So you will just have to take my word for it.

Day two brought new Marathon jackets, identical to the blue ones but in a lovely Lime Green.  Same reflective stripe, and the snack pack, was again FULL of bananas.  But, we were refreshment set up, so we ended up having more food than we knew what to do with!  Our leader this time was a very long winded Army man, or possibly a Navy man.  He spent about 30 minutes giving us his entire history.  That was sort of a pain, given that is was about 1 am at this point!  The job was luckily pretty simple.  We set up some tables and laid out all of the post run foods- bagels, oranges, more bananas!!! (Of course!), cokes and powerade, as well as cliff shots and cliff blocs.  I was amused by the clif shots being at the finish…NO RUNNER WANTS A CLIF SHOT when they are done running.  I bet they got taken for the future though.  I was encouraged by the team leader to help myself to a few, so I got a few chocolate cherry with caffiene.

After we set up, I was pulled with 3 other volunteers for Start Line work.  At Disney, the runners have to walk to the start corrals and its about a half mile walk in the dark, so they are often a little surprised by the distance, and some of course, attempt shortcuts.  I was so so entertained by one of the women, as she seemed to emulate the obnoxious kid from The Polar Express!            Remember him???  She was just the same.  We finished out start line duties and the whole way up she made all sort of comments like, “You know you are not allowed to break a runners stride if you cross the road”  I sort of said, well, you should try not to.  and she said, “NO, you ARE NOT ALLOWED!”  It’s often hard to tell what breaks a runners stride, short of standing right in front of them, so I was entertained by that.  We were sent back up to the busses a bit early, and she then said, “Well, LEGALLY We need to stay here for the full time”.  I have to admit, I bust out laughing at her.  Legally?  Really?  There was no more job for us to do, so we got out of the way, and our team leader approved even if it was not legal…I suppose there is always one in every group.

I was amazed at how few of the volunteers were runners.  Most were retirees or families who were looking for the bonus perk of the free 1 park 1 day entry ticket.  They had very little understanding of how difficult the Goofy Challenge is for runners to do well, or even of the training involved in running a solid Half or Full marathon!  So it was interesting to hear them talk about the runners, and the expectations.  of the first day they were amazed that people ran 13.1 miles in say 1.5 hours.  The next day they were surprised that it would take even the elites 2+ hours to run the full.  So that was amusing.

Guiding all the runners up to the start line was probably the most special part of my experience.  I got to see every racer, every personality represented, every shape and size of runner, and every crazy costume invented!  Some people smiled and thanked me, and I wished every one I could a good run or a good race. I admit, I could not quite manage to say “Have a Magical Race” it would have been too much!  I got a little emotional at that point because I knew I was watching thousands of hopes, dreams and countless hours of training all converging up to the corrals. I actually had to take a few deep breaths!  That was really a moment to be a part of.  (It did also remind me of why I try to do the not corralled races, it was cold!)

I then waited forever for a bus to remove me from Epcot and take me to our car for the long ride home.

As a reward I did get 2 tickets for one park any day I feel like it for the next year.  Not a bad deal!   I’ll admit, I am  not fond of working through the night, but it was really neat to see all that goes into preparation for the runners!!!!

I Hope all the Disney Runners had a Magical time!   I know I’ll be volunteering again, probably for the Special Olympic events in the summer.  I also admit….I’d much rather be running!


9 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes at the Disney Marathon

  1. Wow! Sounds like a really well organized event. I had NO idea it was so huge. What a great experience and your comments about helping folks to the starting corrals made me tear up. It’s always amazing to me that SO many people work that hard to get up that early and run that far. And I am cheering you on…you will be there VERY soon.

  2. Jayne says:

    Great race report, Holly. It’s really different on the other side of the fence. And having run a Disney race in the past, I know how vital the volunteers are. That goes for every race, but the logistics for those big races must be a nightmare. Fun weekend!

  3. Jen R. says:

    Very cool Holly! I work part-time for a race timing company, and it is indeed neat to be on the “other side” of things. Being able to watch the race start, and then later all the finishers is quite a rush- especially seeing the elites!

  4. I have so much love and respect for volunteers. They spend many hours for what can be a thankless job. But at every aid station I try and thank whomever gave me my water, medal, or banana because without them the race would be a disaster. I am planning on running Disney 2013 and if the volunteers are half as enthusiastic as you, then it’s going to be one for the ages.

    • Most of them are More enthusiastic!!! I have to say that Disney caters to out of towners who are staying at the resort, so you will enjoy yourself! All except for the very early time getting up to the corral. I hope you do the Goofy, it’s totally worth it….unless of course you are trying for a Marathon PR…and in that case, I hope you get Corral A! I will most likely be volunteering again next year, so if you come to Florida let us know! We’ll gladly cheer you on!

  5. I think it would be fun to go just to watch the parade of Tinkerbells and Minnie Mice running by. Boo however to the bananas in the snack box—it reminds me of those events where they served ice cream to us volunteers, and I can’t eat dairy. (Worst experience however was at a multicultural conference where the organizers served ham sandwiches for lunch, and we had Muslims, Orthodox Jews, and vegans/vegetarians attending. Somebody didn’t think when they put in the order to the caterers.)

    It also sounds like the organizers should have given the volunteers a little training in what runners go through during a marathon. I can see why someone would volunteer just to get a Disney pass, but not knowing how long it takes on average to complete a marathon seems odd. (I was going to say “Goofy” but thought that was pushing it. 🙂 )

  6. That’s awesome that you volunteered! I ran Disney a couple years ago and it was snowing, it was terrible, haha. I do plan to volunteer for a big race someday. But, like you, I’d rather be running 🙂

  7. Love the photo of the sunrise and the shot of the reflective jackets – the jackets are pretty snazzy. That’s funny about the various Tinkerbells and Minnies – it sounds like a fun time even though the days were long and it’ll be nice to use those free tickets.

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