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Running in the Zone

Issues haunt Inaugural Tower Of Terror 13th Anniversary Race

[Fade in: An executive conference room at Team Disney Orlando.]

Studios person: "The Tower of Terror's 13th anniversary will be this year. We should do something!"


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Merchandise person: "How about a special limited edition pin?"

Marketing events person: "Yeah, and how about a special after-hours event where they have to register for random selection and line up for hours ahead of time. We'll get Marie Osmond to do a doll."

Marketing displays person: "We can slap a spooky new overlay on Monorail Black."

Advertising person: "We'll need a name for this thing. How about... Year of a Million Screams? Is Kelsey Grammer available?"

[Meeting dissolves into two- and three-person discussions and is then called to order again.]

Disney Sports person: "How about a night-time race? Make it a 13K, you know, 13 years, 13 floors, 13K? We can have a shorter race for families or people who don't want to do the whole thing. Have the finish line be right near the Tower. That time of year, the Studios already closes early so it'd be easy to schedule."

[Room goes silent as assembled execs look at Disney Sports person in varying degrees of awe and terror, depending on how this would affect them personally]

WDW person in charge of doing stuff: "I like it! Do it! Meeting adjourned."

[Meeting breaks up, people start to leave, slow fade]

Unidentified voice: "Hey, have any of you guys seen the Transportation person? I guess they didn't show up."

[Fade to black.]


Whether or not that's how it really happened—and we may never know for sure—the Tower of Terror 13th Anniversary 13K/6.5K race took place on Saturday night, October 27, 2007, at Disney-MGM Studios. When the race was announced back in March, several MousePlanet staff members made plans to make the trek from the West Coast and the Northeast down to Florida for this inaugural event. Some would be there to run while others were just there for the party.

Stephanie: I've only been running seriously for about a year and a half. I started in August 2007 training for my first marathon with Team in Training and am now training for my second Walt Disney World marathon with TNT. In between I've done several races, including 5Ks and the Utica Boilermaker 15K. My primary purpose for the trip was the race, with the added bonus of the Food and Wine Festival and Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween party.


 

Andrew: Jennifer and I had never participated in any kind of organized athletic event, but when we found out that so many of our friends would be there for the race and also for Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party the night before, we decided to go.


 


Spectral racers run the course while the Tower of Terror looms in the background. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

With promises of glow-in-the-dark race shirts, inaugural medals and commemorative pins, the official race Web site (link) provided just barely enough information for prospective runners to register for the event. The 13K event reached 50 percent of capacity in July, while the 6.5K hit 75 percent in August. They would both eventually sell out.

As the race date approached, concern grew among those who had registered about the lack of any official communication from the event organizers. Course maps were quietly made available in early September, and later that month it was announced that race packets would be picked up at the Wide World of Sports complex.

Andrew: With no real past basis for comparison, the maps I saw were still pretty sad. They looked like park maps defaced with Microsoft Paint.


 

Stephanie: The initial map was lacking of several key components, including no specific information about start and finish points, or aid stations. Knowing where drinks will be provided on course is very important and is usually spelled out explicitly, along with what will be provided, sometimes down to the specific brand and flavor.


 

MousePlanet published an article (link) by Mike Scopa on October 19, where he discussed some of the interesting and different aspects of a night-time race. Then, in the third week of October, "final" instructions for the race were posted on the event Web site and sent via e-mail to some (not all) registered participants. Several people reported receiving the e-mail Thursday night, just two days before the event (including those who had already left for their trip). Of great concern to nearly everyone was the provision for transportation: there would not be any. No shuttles, no buses, nothing. Options when leaving the Studios at 1:00 a.m. after the race and party were either drive (if you had a car), take a taxi, or walk.

Stephanie: After finding out about the final instructions being online Thursday morning, I read through them and noticed the statement about no transportation. I was concerned so I decided to try to call the race organizers to find out what was up. This turned out to be no easy task, as the number for Disney Sports is not easily found on the website. I ended up sending an email through the contact form, and eventually found the phone number here on MousePlanet. I spoke with someone from Disney Sports who confirmed the lack of buses after the party, but indicated that I could take a bus to the park and take a cab back to my hotel. The e-mail response I received had a less-than-apologetic tone:

"We are not offering resort transportation for this race. We did post this transportation message on our website months ago.

You can drive to the packet pick up sites or take WDW transportation if staying on property. You can drive to the race or take WDW transportation on Saturday night. After the race, you can either drive back to your resort, you can walk back to your resort if staying in the Boardwalk or Yacht and Beach area. If not, you can call a cab for transportation back. The number for Mears Transportation is: 407-699-9999."

My friend contacted Disney Transportation to find out how we could get back to our hotel from the Studios at 1:00 a.m., indicating to the cast member who answered that Disney Sports had said they would not be providing buses. The Transportation cast member seemed shocked at that, and took quite a while trying to track down an answer for us. Ultimately the cast member transferred the call to another cast member who said she would have to call us back with an answer. We didn't receive a response before we left for our trip, and on return found that the Transportation cast member had left a message saying they would be providing buses. Too little too late for us, unfortunately.


 

Andrew: My wife, Jennifer, was able to find a great deal on a 24-hour car rental from the Hertz desk at Shades of Green, so we did that and figured out who would get rides with whom after the race. Personally I thought that someone must have missed a memo somewhere, and that eventually someone would come to their senses and arrange mass transportation—but I couldn't count on that and I didn't want to be stuck.


 

As it turned out, there were buses waiting for race participants and party-goers following the event after all—but that's getting ahead of the story.

Packet pick-up was moved from Wide World of Sports to Motions at Downtown Disney just 10 days before the race, and was exceptionally disorganized in operation. With our experience in similar scenarios (distributing game materials at MouseAdventure), we could see that there had been little planning done in how to efficiently get the race packets to the runners. Still, eventually everyone did get their packets.

The printed instructions said to arrive at the Studios on Saturday no later than 8:30 p.m. (an hour before the official start). Unfortunately, this plan was thwarted by extremely heavy traffic on Buena Vista Drive, which meant that our roughly three-quarter mile journey from the Caribbean Beach Resort to the Studios' north entrance took almost an hour. We later learned of a serious accident and police action further back on Buena Vista Drive, but that would not have affected the section where we were stuck.

When we finally got within visual range of the Studios entrance, the real reason for the snarled traffic became clear: One left-turn lane, very quick signal timing and no traffic control. In fact, there was no traffic control until police arrived at 8:45—15 minutes after the purported deadline for arriving.

On arrival at the start area, we were relieved to see that there were plenty of portable toilets—although someone failed to provide trash bins for the paper towels from the portable sinks. Another sign of disorder was the lack of any sort of instruction to runners and walkers about how they should line up at the start. There were no signs with pacing estimates to put faster runners in front. Even a basic instruction of walkers to the back would have been useful.

Stephanie: After the start, I did a lot of dodging of walkers over the first couple of miles, which was difficult on the narrow course. Although not easily discerned from the map, the 13K course condition changed early on as we were diverted to a dirt and gravel service road. Due to recent rains, the trail was muddy and caused more dodging and weaving as runners attempted to avoid the deeper puddles. In addition, trees surrounded this area of the route, exacerbating the already hot and humid conditions.


 

Andrew: Since Jennifer and I had no experience with this kind of event, we had to take our cues from other 6.5K participants. After the 13K runners took off, we moved up to the start line. Unlike the 13K start, we didn't get fireworks to start.

We weren't running, but we were walking rather faster than most of the others and so there was a bit of rush-hour traffic for a while until things sorted out. As (fast) walkers, we didn't know whether to stay to the left or right to avoid getting in the way of runners. I ended up more on the left as I was mostly passed on the right, but some discussion later showed that walkers on the right, runners on the left is more usual.


 

Stephanie: There was some "streetmosphere" along the back road from people playing what appeared to be escaped mental patients. They weren't really scary, just strange. The course was very quiet and deserted in most places, which is a big contrast to the marathon course that has many spectators and performing groups along the way with little empty space. I was expecting that this might happen for the 13K given that half the route was outside the spectator area inside Disney Studios, but I had hoped that there might be characters dressed in Halloween gear, or something else of a spooky or entertaining nature. Even just more music would have been nice. There also didn't seem to be much emphasis on the Tower of Terror anniversary outside of a little Twilight Zone music at the start and the images on the race shirts and medals.


 

Andrew: The 6.5K runners didn't even get the "atmosphere" people. Total entertainment along the course consisted of a DJ van near the first switchback and a cover band playing at the Sorcerer Hat. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but like Stephanie said it seemed like there should have been more.


 

Post-race food is typically designed to provide a good balance of carbs and protein that runners desire, along with being something that won't be too heavy for touchy stomachs. What we found when finishing were bananas, which are typical, and brownies both frosted and unfrosted, which are not.

Stephanie: After running 8.1 miles through heat and humidity, I was definitely not prepared to eat a brownie. The thought of it made me queasy. I probably should have taken one to eat later, but I settled for a single banana.


 

Andrew: Without the benefit of experience, I took the brownie someone shoved into my hand along with the rather more welcome water and Powerade. I quickly learned that a frosted brownie wasn't the best post-run food.


 

Stephanie: If I had to summarize my feelings about this race in one word, it would be disappointment. I expected more from a Disney race. The organization and entertainment fell well short of my expectations, given my previous experience with the WDW marathon. I would consider doing the race again, but only if Disney did a better job of organizing and assured that the inaugural race issues would be fixed. I might do the Race for the Taste 10K instead if I want to travel during the fall season.


 

Andrew: We had an enjoyable experience for our first ever race, but as everyone else has said there were indeed some pretty serious problems. Between the organizational issues and just getting from Northern California to WDW, I don't know if we will do this again.


 

Stephanie's 13K finish chip time was 1:23:46. Andrew's 6.5K finish time was 1:04 (6.5K runners did not have timing chips).


The runner's bib, wristband and finisher's medal from the Tower of Terror 13th Anniversary Race. From the collection of Stephanie Wien.

MousePlanet Marathon Guide editor Lani Teshima posted a survey for participants and party-goers. We've excerpted some of the comments we received here, and you can read the entire thread on MousePad (link).

September said:

They should've roped off the spectator areas in MGM, and they should've given more instruction to the 6.5Kers (a lot of whom were walking and/or it was their first event). It made it harder on the runners who were forced to weave between walkers, and it really put the walkers at an unfair disadvantage because they weren't adequately prepared. If the organizers had done something as basic as telling them that walkers should stay to a particular side it would've been easier for everyone that last mile and a half. This was an inaugural race and I'm hoping that means they can work out the kinks and it'll be better than ever next year. I had a blast doing it and will hopefully get a chance to run it again in the future.

Pacdomer said:

I think they could have made a different medal for the 13K participants. After all we paid a higher fee and they knew how many people were participating. They could have simply given the medal to those people who were wearing or returning a timing chip that way the 13Kers could be identified (or change the bib to help identify the 13K people). As someone who was stuck in traffic (took 1.5 hours from Saratoga Springs) I was happy they delayed the start. I was feeling a lot of anxiety getting there because it felt like there would be a real chance that I would miss the race which was disappointing and put a damper on the start. Also to be honest, even though I had fun and I hope they work out the kinks, I would personally reconsider if I would run this race again next year. If I feel that I want to run a night race, I may do the Central Park midnight run on New Years in NYC. If I decide that I want to do another short Disney race (other than during marathon weekend) I may give [Race for the Taste] a first try before doing TOT again.

Justjen0929 said:

Running with the looming TofT was quite exciting. I liked that this was an exclusive event. NO COMMUNICATION! Wide World of Sports was in charge of this and most cast members knew NOTHING about this event. When we checked in at Saratoga Springs Resort they had no idea that there was even a race going on that weekend. Even the cast members at MGM had very little knowledge of what was going on. So much so that they didn't have a parking crew for the event (thus part of the problem with traffic). Also, getting final instructions was very poorly executed. I didn't get mine until 8:00 pm on Thursday night before the race... good thing I was home then.

Lani Teshima also had some thoughts of her own:

  • Can anyone please tell me what part of the grey cotton participant T-shirt glows in the dark? Because I can't tell.
  • Although the organizers clearly stated that the shorter 6.5k course was untimed, they did advertise the 13K course as being timed. In marathon lingo, a "timed event" implies more than a clock at the finish line; it means highly visible digital timers placed at the start of the race, as well as at key locations throughout the course (at the very least, mid-way; if not, at certain mile marker intervals). Instead, they had people calling out the times off of watches.
  • I understand why they made a decision to stall the start time of the event, but we heard from friends who paid for party tickets that they were not allowed into MGM Studios on time "because the run hadn't started yet." This makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. And of course, Disney shaved half an hour off of the start of the three-hour party without extending any time at the end.
  • How difficult is it to include these words: "Walkers, please walk no more than two-abreast, and stay on the right so that the runners may pass to your left" in the published materials, and to have the announcers mention this over the loudspeakers at the start of the event? When you advertise a noncompetitive event, you get participants who have no idea what the standard etiquette is: "Walkers wait towards the back, don't walk in large groups and block the width of the path, and stay to the right to let people pass." This is a big craw for me and I'm very disappointed that nobody at Disney even bothered to convey this information.
  • How much more would it have cost to have ordered a different colored ribbon for the medals to differentiate the two distances? The 13K participants paid $25 more but apparently the extra cost went into the electricity bill for lighting the gravel road that the 6.5k participants didn't have to use.
  • Speaking of gravel road, this is really unacceptable for a Disney World event. The conditions were dark at spots, full of puddles from the rain, and narrow. This information was not provided for in advance, and certainly unexpected since none of the other Disney World fun runs (that I am aware) take shortcuts through gravel trails.
  • Bless those poor "escaped mental patient" volunteers who tried mightily to entertain us, but it was really hokey. Their costumes were white T-shirts and white pants—hospital gowns would've at least been more entertaining. But it was disappointing beyond words that there was not a single Disney character along the course or even at the finish line! Where was Mickey? Donald? Stitch?

Maybe it was a combination of a smaller budget and lower priority, or maybe they assigned this event to a project manager who had never done an endurance event at WDW before. Regardless, Disney has a huge, well-oiled machine from holding these fun runs year-round, and there should be no excuse doing such a poor job in trying to reinvent the wheel.

Compared to community fun runs, this was fine. But when you charge more money because it uses the Disney branding, and people spend money flying cross-country to attend these things, people expect a standard of quality that has made Disney events a benchmark against which other event organizers strive for. Unlike I hear of big improvements for next year, I have no plans to sign up for next year's event.

MousePlanet's Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix, who cheered on runners from the sidelines and attended the after-party, said:

There was no communication as we entered the party. No map, no event schedule, nothing. We didn't know what rides were open, what food was open, what parts of the park were off-limits, where the "cheering" section(s) were, where the race course was, even where the finish line was. Perhaps that stuff was available online, but since I'm not the one who bought the tickets I didn't have any idea what to expect.

I don't know what communication was given to the runners re: start line, but given the hordes of runners who came to stand in line with the party-goers, not realizing they were in the wrong place, I suspect that the communication was not all it could have been. We as spectators were doing a lot to get runners to the right place, because there wasn't enough event staff outside the park to direct them.

The DJ could have been doing a lot more to interact with the runners or cheer them on between songs. There was no "banter" aimed at the runners.

It might have been better for them to set up designated cheering sections, rather than just allow spectators to camp out wherever they wanted along the (poorly defined) course. We wound up too near the DJ to really be able to cheer (he was drowning us out), and there weren't enough of us to really be a cheering section. (I'm sorry, but it's difficult and awkward to be one of 6 people on the sidelines who are trying to cheer for 2 hours. If my voice was not already gone by then, it would not have lasted the night).

All in all, I don't feel that the "party" was really worth the admission, or was really all that much of a party. It felt like a way to charge spectators to come cheer on their friends, and if that was the intent, then there should have been more information available to us.

Finally, MousePlanet's Mike Scopa provided these thoughts:

Pre-race organization was very disorganized. First there was no time requirement. Then they came with a very lenient one. That led to other problems which I will get to later. then of course there was the matter of race start. The original race start was 9 P.M. and then they changed to 9:30 P.M. with no explanation. So now everyone had 30 minutes less access to MGM but no change in the cost of race registration nor party tickets.

Race packet pickup was a moving target: First World of Sports and then Motions at Pleasure Island. The logistics for picking up your race packet, shirt, and tickets was not arranged in a smooth manner. Why not arrange the pickup so you go in a circle instead of backtracking and running into people?

How about the transportation issue? First there was to be no transportation to and from the event and then they changed their mind at the last moment. I was talking with a couple who rented a car because they were not sure how they would get back to their hotel after the race. They were very angry.

The race started 20 minutes late. I have a bone to pick with the race directors when they do that. If there are participants late for the race then it's shame on them.

Also, there was no signage at the Studios to let the participants and spectators know how to go about going where they should go.

There should have been roped off areas at the start; one for the 6.5K and the other for the 13K. For each race there should be an honor system that says "runners to the front, walkers to the back." Disney needs to recognize this as a safety issue.

The course is tough enough to negotiate at night without the deal with the gravel road and mud and several areas that had poor lighting. I also don't think the water stops were spread out too well.

The entry back into the Studios was less than desirable; it was obvious that the gravel road was a quickly devised shortcut. The issue here was the snaking through the park at night making corners.

I guess I should also complain about Heartbreak Hill in the Studios. Seems lots of WDW races have hills at the end—remember the ramps at the Half?

I have a big issue with the medals at the end of the race. I paid more for registering and ran twice as far as the 6.5K participants yet I get the same medal? Someone explain that to me. The shirts were cheap.

Finally I was upset when we told to move to the left on the first mile because the 6.5K leaders were coming up. Sorry, I paid for my registration fee and it was higher than theirs and guess what? I have a timing chip. I wasn't moving.

I doubt if I will ever participate in another WDW nighttime race.

While we recognize that the opinions we've expressed and the comments we've received are not necessarily representative of everyone who participated in the Tower of Terror 13th Anniversary Race, it can't be denied that while most people did enjoy themselves at the event, they came away a bit disappointed overall. Organizational, communication and logistical issues seemed to haunt this race, and we hope that those responsible will take these lessons to heart for next time.



Talk about this article and more, on the MousePad community forums.


(Send an email to Andrew Rich)

Andrew Rich (@MPAndrew) has been with MousePlanet since the very beginning, mostly lurking working behind the scenes to keep everything running. He is also the emcee for MouseAdventure. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife Jennifer and three cats, runs Project Insomnia, and visits Disneyland several times a year. Andrew is currently training for the Disneyland Half Marathon and Walt Disney World Wine & Dine Half Marathon - that's right, Coast-to-Coast in the space of twelve weeks.