With just over two weeks to go until Walt Disney World marathon weekend, it's time to start talking race-day strategy. Every runner should go into the day with a plan, and likewise any family or friends cheering them on along the course need a strategy too. The many options for spectating locations can seem confusing at first, but we'll break it down with personal experience as well as runDisney recommendations.
The best way to travel around the resort during race days is on Disney transportation; preferably on monorails. The race closes or severely restricts the major roads, including Epcot Center Drive, World Drive, Floridian Way, and Osceola Parkway. If you want to drive to the start area at Epcot, Disney suggests you arrive before 4:00 a.m. As someone who has witnessed the inbound traffic snarl firsthand, it's best to arrive as early as possible, especially if you are transporting a runner. The entrance to the parking area is closed from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. due to the start of the race.
If you are staying onsite, the best option is to take a Disney bus. Depending on where you plan to spectate from, you may want to start at Epcot then take a monorail up to the Transportation and Ticket Center for access to several viewing areas during the half and full marathons. Buses for runners and spectators to the Epcot parking lot run from 3:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m., then start again for spectators from 7:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. During the races, resort buses will operate to all theme parks as usual, although you can expect it will take longer than usual due to road closures and alternate routes—so plan accordingly when figuring what time to leave your hotel in order to see your runner.
If you're worried about trying to figure out when your runner will pass by certain landmarks, there's no need to create your own spreadsheet anymore! Disney has developed a spectator tool to do all the hard work for you. In order to use the tool, you'll need to know what your runner's expected finish time or pace (minutes per mile) is. Don't forget to add some cushion to accommodate any race-day variations (faster or slower.) The spectator tool will give you the runner's travel time to designated viewing areas, as well as your expected travel time between consecutive recommended viewing locations. You will need to know your runner's start corral, the area that they will start in, and what time that corral will be starting in order to calculate the expected clock time when you will see your runner. Alternatively, if you have a stop watch, you can start it when your runner crosses the start (or is expected to start) and use that time as a guide. The start times for the different corrals are printed in the final race instructions, and your runner will know what corral he/she is assigned to when picking up his/her race bib.
Another tool that you can use to track your runner is the text or email alert system that becomes available close to the date of the event. When it is available, it will be located under the Spectator Resouces section of the Walt Disney World marathon weekend website. You will need to register an email or phone number ahead of time, and will receive text alerts or emails when your runner passes over different timing points along the course. A recent addition to this tool is the ability to receive twitter or Facebook updates as well. A word of caution, however—the system is not perfect, and has been known to omit alerts, or send them out with a significant delay. It's best to have your expected times as a backup just in case.
If you're interested in purchasing one of the chEAR Squad packages from Disney, you can read more about the perks on the marathon website. I don't find them to be a good value unless you have limited mobility or plan to stay in one place for the whole race. However, if your runner purchased one of the Race Retreat packages, you can get access to that area by purchasing the platinum level package. The Race Retreat offers food before and after the race, as well as a climate controlled space and private restrooms.
Depending on what race you will be spectating, there are a few different locations where you can view your runner along the course. The Disney designated spots for the half marathon are:
- Mile 0 - Start line (Epcot Center Drive)
- Mile 4.2 - Transportation and Ticket Center
- Mile 8.1 - Floridian Way, near the Polynesian Resort
- Mile 13.1 - Finish line (Epcot Wonder Lot)
The designated spots for the full marathon are:
- Mile 0 - Start line (Epcot Center Drive)
- Mile 4 - Same as Mile 0 along Epcot Center Drive
- Mile 9 - Transportation and Ticket Center
- Mile 12.5 - Floridian Way, near the Polynesian Resort
- Miles 16.5-17.3 - Animal Kingdom
- Mile 23 - Disney's Hollywood Studios
- Mile 25 - Boardwalk Resort
- Mile 26.2 - Finish line (Epcot Wonder Lot)
It's not possible to see your runner at all of these locations; however, there are some recommended plans that you can follow to try to get the most contact with your runner along the route. If your runner is fast, it may be a challenge to see him or her at more than one or two points due to travel time between locations. Another thing to consider is that you must have valid admission media to enter any park other than the Magic Kingdom if you want to see your runner in a park. The viewing location in the Magic Kingdom, along one side of Main Street, is reserved for spectators before the park opens, but spectators must leave before the Magic Kingdom opens for regular guests.
There are a few locations that will severely limit your ability to move to others, mainly because they are popular and require getting there early to get a spot where you'll be visible to your runner. The following locations present challenges:
- The start line, or anywhere along Epcot Center Drive (half and full marathons) - The race starts very early, before the sun is up. In fact, the first runners will likely finish before the sun has peeked over the horizon! The viewing location is located on the far side of the divided road, and it's not likely that you will be able to see your runner at all between the darkness, distance and tightly packed crowd at that point in the race. This location is not recommended. You're better off saying goodbye to your runner at the staging area, then heading to your first spot while they head to the start line.
- Magic Kingdom (half and full marathons) - Watching your runner come down Main St. can be a magical experience; however, you will have to get there early to secure a spot along the barrier. The path here is narrow, and it's not polite for runners to stop to chat with their family, so you won't likely have a lot of time to take photos or do more than give a high five to your runner. In addition, the spots closest to the castle are reserved for those who have purchased the chEAR Squad packages offered by Disney, so it's not likely you will see your runner come out of the castle and down toward Frontierland unless you have paid the premium. Unless this is the only location besides the finish where you will see your runner, it's not a recommended viewing location. Extricating yourself from your spot will likely take a while, and by then your runner will have likely passed the other points where you might see her.
- Animal Kingdom (full marathon) - Due to the location of this park, along with the road closures, it takes longer to get in and out of Animal Kingdom than usual. You can see your runner inside the park or out front near the bus stops. If you are going to position yourself here, it's best to just plan to spend the rest of your day at Animal Kingdom, as it's not likely that you would make it to the finish before your runner is done unless they are on the slower end of the spectrum.
- Hollywood Studios (full marathon) - Like Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios is isolated by the course, making it more of a challenge to get in and out in a timely fashion. It's also not possible to access via the walkway from Epcot, as that is used for the race course and is closed to pedestrians while the runners are using it. You can see your runner inside the park from back near Tower of Terror up past the hat and out the front entrance as they take the walkway to Epcot, but it is even less likely that you would be able to get from here to the finish before your runner is done.
- Finish Line - Most of the bleacher spots are now reserved for people who have paid for the chEAR packages, so unless you get there fairly early to secure a spot in the open sections, it's likely that there won't be any seats left.
Recommended Spectator Scenarios
If you're viewing the half marathon, you have less time and options for viewing your runner. If you want to optimize your options, your best bet is to first position yourself at the Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC) (Mile 4.2), on the inside of the course, meaning on the left hand side as the runners are coming up toward the Magic Kingdom. Being on the inside allows you to easily move to your next location without having to cross the path of runners. There are spaces all along the road here, so you should be able to find a spot that will get you good visibility. After your runner passes by, head on foot past the Polynesian Resort to Floridian Way (Mile 8.1) where you will be able to see your runner again as they head back toward Epcot. Once he passes by, head back to the TTC and take the monorail to Epcot. Position yourself where the course enters Epcot, to the right of the main guest entrance. You may be able to see your runner as he heads into Future World, then hurry over the the finish area to reunite.
If you're viewing the full marathon, you can start with the first two spots for the half marathon, then take the monorail to Epcot. If you have a park hopper pass or an annual pass (and can walk quickly), you should be able to see your runner at the Boardwalk area if you hustle through Future World and the World Showcase (on the Canada side) through the International Gateway entrance at the back. This area, from Mile 24 near the Boardwalk Resort, and around the lake to the Beach and Yacht Club Resort is a great place to see your runner. It's not very crowded, and he or she will likely be very happy to get a nice boost from seeing someone familiar. Depending on your runner's pace, you may also be able to beat them back to the finish area by retracing your steps through Epcot and out to the parking lot. If you don't think you can walk fast enough, or you don't want to enter Epcot, it's best to just head from the TTC to the finish area and try to secure a spot on the bleachers or along the path to the finish line.
Another alternative for the full marathon is to find a spot along the course in Epcot. The runners enter at the United Kingdom pavilion then run counterclockwise around the lagoon, over the bridge to France and out to Future World past Mexico. The runners are fairly well spread out at this point in the course, making it easier for you to spot one another. If you do this, though, you will likely not see your runner finish and will have to reunite in the finish area or back at the hotel room.
Don't forget to establish a meeting spot for the finish area so you can congratulate your runner, and provide them support after all of her hard work. Disney provides a series of family reunion tents marked with a range of letters to facilitate these reunions, as the area is quite chaotic with runners, family members, friends and vendors. Just pick a letter, based on a first or last name or some other familiar word and then meet at the tent that encompasses that letter. The ranges can change from year to year, so it is best to just pick a single letter and adjust on the day as needed. Bringing a wet cloth for your runner is also a great thing to do, especially if it's been a hot day, to wipe off any dried salt and sweat. Make sure the runner gets enough water and food, and help get them back to the room for a shower and some well-deserved rest.
General Spectating Tips
In order to stand out in the crowd, wear a brightly colored shirt or coat, or a distinctive hat. Since it's Disney World, mouse ears aren't the best choice here; go with something bright and tall. Pom poms or foam fingers are also a great way to get yourself noticed. Let your runner know what you will be wearing and where you will be so that he or she can look for you at those points in the course. Be as specific as possible about your potential location, so your runner won't have to hunt to find you.
Know what your runner will be wearing, and try to arrange for them to also wear something bright and distinctive. White, black and blue are common shirt colors, and don't stand out in the crowd. Yellow, green, red, or orange are good alternatives and will also make it easier to locate from farther away.
Make a sign at the Expo to wave and show your support! Sharpie is a race sponsor and provides all the supplies you will need, so you don't have to bring anything in your luggage with you. Use lots of color, and write in large letters. Include an inspirational message, or words or encouragement for your runner.
Bring a noisemaker, like Thunderstix or a cowbell. Being a spectator means a lot of cheering and yelling for other runners as well as the runner you came to see, and your voice and hands will get tired! Be sure to cheer on other runners you see; most will have their name on their bib, and you'd be surprised how much of a lift a simple, "Great job, Joe" can give a runner.
Be sure to bring supplies for yourself to keep you fueled throughout the race. Water and snacks are a must, as well as appropriate clothing for the weather. If the weather is cold, bring gloves and a hat; it can be chilly waiting around before the sun comes up. Wear comfortable shoes.
Set two alarms on the morning of the race. Don't even think about sleeping in and missing the payoff for your loved one's weeks and weeks of hard training and effort. You will all create great memories out of the experience, and have stories to tell for years to come!