The inaugural Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon Weekend was held at Walt Disney World April 14-17, with over 43,000 participants. It included the now-ubiquitous format of a health & fitness expo, kid’s races, family fun 5K, 10K, and half marathon. Approximately 6,785 runners complete the 10K and Half Marathon as part of the Dark Side Challenge, and runners who completed the Half Marathon in addition to the Star Wars Half Marathon at Disneyland in January received the Kessel Run medal along with the traditional Coast to Coast medal.
I made a quick trip the weekend of the races, arriving on Friday to complete the Dark Side Challenge. Due to some travel problems, I didn’t make to Walt Disney World before the Expo closed for the night, but I was able to pick up my bib in the pre-race area before the 10K.
The 10K course began just outside the Epcot parking lot. After heading through the park’s east side backstage areas, the course cut across World Showcase and exited the park at International Gateway. Runners proceeded around the Boardwalk and onto Disney Hollywood Studios, for a quick run along Hollywood and Sunset Blvds. After a short segment on Buena Vista Dr, runners headed south on World Drive, over the Studios entrance road, and onto Osceola Pkwy. The course followed a dirt road into the back entrance of the Wide World of Sports, where the 6.2-mile race finished. 12,169 runners completed the 10K; Chris Trebilcock from Tampa, FL won the men’s division in 35:21, and Bridget Dawes of Antelope, CA won the women’s division in 40:10.
I arrived at the pre-race staging area early for a group photo with the Stormtrooper Crew, an online group of more than 200 runners dressed as Stormtroopers. Since the photo was so early, I was able to start at the very front of the first corral, which was an exciting new experience for me. I ended up running most of the race with members of the Crew, as we went from one photo stop to the next. Although my 1:00:51 finish time ended up being my personal worst for a 10K, I had a lot more fun in the process than I usually do, while also saving my legs some for the half marathon the following day.
I thought that the race itself was a lot of fun, with an interesting course. Unfortunately, due to the relatively long distance between the start and finish of the point-to-point course, there was minimal time spent in the theme parks themselves. Additionally, it seemed like most of the more scenic areas and nearly all of the photo locations were in the first half, which lead to an unbalanced event. There were also reports of excessive crowding along the waterside path to the Studios, which had been a concern among runners since the course was first announced.
The Half Marathon started on Epcot Center Blvd. and quickly entered the park, looping the long way around World Showcase. After exiting through International Gateway, runners headed past the Yacht & Beach Clubs en route to the Studios. The course proceeded up Hollywood Blvd, around Echo Lake, and down Sunset Blvd before exiting onto Buena Vista Dr. Runners then went down World Dr, up the overpass to Osceola Pkwy, and on to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. After looping around the parking lot, runners entered the park through Dinoland, passed through Asia and Discovery Island, and exited through the Oasis. Runners then returned to Osceola Pkwy to the Wide World of Sports, for a similar finish as the 10K. Jason Ryf from Oshkosh, WI won the men’s division in 1:13:39, while Katie McGrath from Oakdale, NY won the women’s division in 1:24:05; 18,171 runners finished the Half Marathon in total.
The course is essentially a reverse of the Wine & Dine course, which is one of my favorites, so it was fun to run through those areas of Walt Disney World again. There are several long overpasses, making it slightly hillier than most Disney races, but overall it was still a fairly flat course by non-Floridian standards. Although the miles on Osceola Pkwy can be rather monotonous, I enjoyed getting to see runners on the other side of the median, including the eventual race winners flying past. Toward the end, I tried to pick up my pace a little to hit an arbitrary time goal, but my legs were too tired from visiting the parks the day before to really have a good final kick; I finished in 2:02:41.
I was disappointed by the lack of on-course entertainment. Although there were a few photo opportunities in the early miles, the long stretches to and from the Animal Kingdom were essentially lifeless, other than a couple video screens playing clips from the Star Wars movies. It seemed like Disney focused too heavily on having strictly Star Wars-related entertainment, rather than filling up the dead portions of the course. Even in the start corrals, the pre-race announcers introduced several movie clips, which did little to pump up the crowd in the way that standard upbeat music typically does. There were nearly a dozen Star Wars character photo ops in the finish line area, so perhaps they could have relocated some of them to the course itself to break up the monotony.
Because the unique courses were laid out in a point-to-point configuration, transportation was a much larger factor than most race weekends. No parking was allowed at Wide World of Sports, so anybody who drove from off-site had to be bused back to Epcot. Despite a constant stream of buses arriving, I heard reports of nearly 60-minute waits just to board a bus after the 10K; hotel transportation had far more reasonable waits, with most guests boarding a bus within about 10 minutes.
On Sunday, there were still large crowds for buses, but they seemed to have worked out a better system, with the Epcot buses separated from the hotel buses for quicker access. Additionally, runners were more evenly distributed with a longer course, so there was less of a surge of people trying to board at the same time. In general, the road closures for these races seemed far more impactful than the Epcot and Magic Kingdom-based courses that are used for other race weekends, which really only create impacts for guests trying to access the isolated northern portion of the resort.
Inaugural race weekends always have some minor issues, especially when using a new start and finish configuration, but overall the weekend seemed to be a great success. It was slightly smaller than other Walt Disney World race weekends, so we saw fewer guests in the parks wearing medals, but the course bottlenecks were about at their limits, so I wouldn’t expect it to grow much in the future. The races also started earlier than other race weekends, which led to a more pronounced lack of sleep, but made for better weather since April can get hot in central Florida. Perhaps more than any other race weekend I’ve attended, it seemed like runners really embraced the theme and were just there to have a fun time.