The inaugural Disneyland Paris Half Marathon was held September 22th to the 25th, 2016. With a Health & Fitness Expo, 5K, Kids Races, and Half Marathon, it was runDisney’s first foray into the international sphere. Over 8,500 runners participated in the flagship race, and around 2,300 earned the inaugural Castle to Chateau medal, for completing a half marathon or longer at one of the Disney resorts in the US along with the Disneyland Paris Half Marathon in the same calendar year.
Despite limited information at the time, race registration filled up in a matter of minutes, with runners eager to be a part of the first-time event. To the increasing frustration of many runners, no additional information was released for many months, including after Disney’s self-announced release date for the event guide two weeks before the event. Finally, seven days prior to the kickoff, the event guide including course maps was emailed to participants.
Following an overnight flight, I met up with some friends for a quick day of sightseeing in Paris on Friday. We made our way out to the Disney property in mid-afternoon and headed to the Expo after dropping our bags at the hotel. Housed in a semi-permanent tent between Disney Village and the Newport Bay Club Hotel, the expo was pleasantly uncrowded when we arrived late in its second day of operation. We picked up our packets, wristbands, and shirts, and then spent some time exploring the vendors and official race merchandise. Some of the pins had sold out by the time we arrived, but it appeared that everything else was still available during our visit in a variety of sizes; in fact, the merchandise area remained open after the Half Marathon on Sunday and appeared to still be well-stocked at that point, unlike the merchandise at US expos, which is largely picked over within an hour or two of the first day’s opening.
The 5K course began on Avenue Paul Séramy between the Disney Village parking garage and movie theater, before heading through Fantasia Gardens and under the Disneyland Hotel. After running up Main Street, runners looped through Discoveryland, into Fantasyland, through the caves on Adventure Isle, and back into Fantasyland for the obligatory run through the castle. After a quick stint in Frontierland, runners passed backstage and entered Walt Disney Studios Parc in Toon Studios, passing through the Ratatouille and Toy Story areas, on the way to the Backlot. A route along backstage roads brought runners to the finish line near the Disney Village parking garage.
Both races began at 7:00am, which is late by Disney standards (though early for European standards) but was necessary to allow runners, spectators, and volunteers to arrive by RER train, which opens at 5:00am. As veteran runDisney participants, we dutifully arrived at the pre-race area about an hour before the race, only to find it nearly deserted. Most runners at that point were other Americans who were surprised by how quick and easy it was to get to the corrals, compared to the controlled chaos at US runDisney events. Pre-race announcers entertained runners in French and English, but were difficult to hear from our location in the corrals.
As the race began, we were surprised that runners from each corral were released in smaller waves of about 100 people at a time. Given that the course immediately entered the narrow paths inside the parks, this was a wise move that removed nearly all on-course congestion. There were massive lines for character photos, but the course itself was completely manageable. While this approach made for great on-course conditions, it took longer than usual to get everybody started. Particularly for the next day’s Half Marathon, with nearly twice as many participants, the wave starts were tedious for runners in later corrals, but made for significantly less crowding than the oversized corrals that are typical of US races.
When running through the parks both days, we couldn’t help but notice the genuine excitement of the cast members along the course. Since it was their first time hosting a running event, they were engaged and enthusiastic, unlike the many of the American cast members who have become jaded by the familiarity of the frequent events.
We completed the 5K in about 50 minutes. The finish line and reunion area was pretty sparse compared to the large crowds and festive atmosphere at US runDisney events, but it seemed to do the job well. There was plenty of room for runners to rest and stretch, and the post-race food bags filled with fresh fruit, nuts, and snacks were a pleasant change from the ubiquitous runDisney food boxes.
The 21.2km (13.1mi) half marathon course began along Avenue Paul Séramy, before entering the Studios Parc backstage. Runners passed through the Moteurs…Action! stage, along the Studio Tram Tour route, and out to the park entrance. After running through Studio 1, runners looped through the Toon Studios area before exiting the park and heading through Fantasia Gardens into Disneyland Paris, up Main Street, and into Discoveryland. After looping through Fantasyland and the castle, the course passed through Frontierland and Adventureland, before heading through the resort’s massive backstage complex. The course then skirted along the edge of the town of Montévrain, with a lap around the track at College Le Vieux Chene, eventually joining Boulevard du Grand Fossé, the ring road around the Disney property. After several kilometers alongside picturesque farmland, runners entered the town of Magny, passing residential and commercial areas on the way to a lap around a lake, before returning to the ring road. Runners then reentered Disney property, passing through the grounds of the Hotel Santa Fe and Hotel Cheyenne, followed by a lap around Lac Disney by the remaining hotels, through the Disney Village, and a final moment backstage before finishing near Avenue Paul Séramy.
Especially when compared to other runDisney courses, I really enjoyed the Half Marathon course. It spent a decent amount of time in the parks and had points of interest distributed throughout the entire distance. Even the rather uneventful kilometers on the ring road were incredibly picturesque. Additionally, running through the hotel grounds was a fun way to get some additional “on property” distance without disrupting park operations; it also brought out a lot of curious onlookers to see what was going on. Considering the extensive road construction currently occurring in Walt Disney World, they could potentially benefit from adding some of the hotels to their courses as well.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect after leaving the parks, as I’d never spent much time in the area surrounding the resort. We encountered local recreation facilities, ran near historic places (walls built from the remains of Roman aqueducts, the childhood home of Louis Braille, and the fountain of Saint Genevieve), and generally got to enjoy a part of the French countryside that we wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. The fields of wheat and corn nearly ready for the harvest looked an awful lot like where Belle sang of longing for “adventure in the great wide somewhere”, and the little town full of [little] people popping out to say “Bonjour!” and cheer us on was a real highlight.
My friends and I dressed in costumes from The Hunchback of Notre Dame to celebrate the race’s French setting. Although there were fewer runners in costume than is typical at the US runDisney races, there were still far more than at most non-Disney races. The costumes tended to favor French Disney themes, with Belle and Esmeralda being the most represented characters, but there was also a variety of non-Disney costumes, including glittery witches, Eiffel Towers, and a pack of mimes. Winning points for obscurity, I’m pretty sure I saw a runner dressed at the Horned King from The Black Cauldron along an out-and-back section.
The French spectators weren’t quite as outgoing as their US counterparts, but I suspect it’s a reflection of the more reserved culture rather than indifference to the runners. There were plenty of people out, curiously looking at runners and occasionally cheering, but it was more of a quiet enthusiasm than a raucous horde. Costumed runners occasionally got additional shout-outs from the spectators, but many were also met with puzzled looks. The on-course entertainment and official entertainment also took a distinctly European flair, with drum circles, digeridoos, and local bands, rather than the dance troupes, marching bands and scouts typical at US runDisney events.
The half marathon was won by Parisian Nicolas Dalmasso in 1:13:51. The race’s ambassador and marathon world record holder, Paula Radcliffe from London, won the women’s division with a one-second lead in 1:24:05; the wheelchair division was won by Bethany Evans from Ruislip, Florida in 1:50:54. I finished the race in 2:02:18.
In general, the weekend was a success. There were some minor problems along the way (late start, confusing spectator crosswalks, etc.), which are to be expected from any inaugural event, but they were pretty insignificant in the broader view of the weekend. There were even some innovations that the US runDisney events would be smart to learn from, like positioning the finish line characters just past the finish rather than just before, which helped keep runners moving through the chute and free pre-race breakfast for runners at the Disney hotels. When Disney first announced this race weekend, they admitted that they were starting small to make sure it would be a success, before expanding the event for a larger audience; the extensive post-race survey included many questions about what other race distances and challenges we would be interested in seeing for the resort in the future. Having run some other races in Europe, I think they found the perfect balance of being a European event that just happened to be at Disney and being a runDisney event that just happens to be in Europe; the end result seemed to be a happy medium that worked for nearly everybody.
As an aside, Disney vacations are often viewed as a rite of passage for Americans, while trips to Europe are considered only accessible to the wealthy. However, for a family that must fly to reach a Disney resort, the price of a week-long trip to Europe is roughly the same (or even less!) than the same length trip to their ‘local’ Disney parks. I managed to tie the race into a two and a half week trip through four countries, and my total per-day expenses were about 80% of my typical expenses in Walt Disney World (including all transportation) and it’s no comparison which trip was more rewarding and enriching. Considering the ever-increasing amount of planning required for a Disney vacation, the additional research for an international vacation is negligible. Even if the European vacation includes some time at Disneyland Paris along the way, it will still likely cost less than a week at a US Disney destination. So go, find your adventure in the great wide somewhere! You may be surprised by just how accessible it really is.