Running Disney on a Dime

by Lani Teshima, staff writer

In an earlier article, staff writer Adrienne Krock looked at budgeting for road races ("runDisney Events: How Much Will It Cost?"). More recently, I looked at the added cost of of a runDisney event over other road races ("The Disney Premium: It Costs How Much?"). Even with careful budgeting, a trip to a runDisney event can easily get way too expensive.

It may take a bit of planning and adjustments, but it is possible to participate in a runDisney race without breaking the bank.

Getting There

The first question to ask yourself: How will I get there? Whether you fly or drive depends greatly on how far away Walt Disney World or Disneyland is from where you live. Generally, if you can drive there in less than a day, and if the amount of gas it takes to fuel your car for the drive out and back is cheaper than the cost of airfare, then driving becomes a pretty good option.

Pros of driving:

  • You'll have wheels once you get to your destination, making it easy to go grocery shopping and otherwise get around.
  • You can pack whatever you want, including an ice chest full of ice and groceries. This can save you money during the drive as well as once you get there.

Cons of driving:

  • You might have hidden costs, like needing to pay for parking.
  • Trying to park at Disney for your race is a pain, what with road closures, detours, and traffic (this assumes you are not staying on Disney property).

Flying may be a better option for you:

  • If driving is a little too far away for you
  • You can't take the extra time off from work (or school)
  • You have access to budget airlines like Southwest from your airport, and you can buy cheap airfare to Orlando or Anaheim
  • You have a way to get to your airport via public transportation, can get a ride to/from the airport from a friend or family member, or can park at/near the airport very cheaply.

Flying may be an issue if you decide to stay off-property, especially in Orlando, since getting around (and onto Disney property to the race start) becomes problematic. This means that if your runDisney event is in Walt Disney World, whether you decide to fly may depend on where you decide to stay.

Staying There

An unadvertised service Disney provides is same-day bib pick-up—but while we've witnessed this, they will never admit they do, because they don't want to be inundated at the last minute. I understand and can respect that... so let's assume such a service is unavailable, and figure on needing to make arrangements to pick your bib up a day in advance. For races that start early in the morning, it makes sense to arrive the day before.

My general suggestion is to arrive a day before the event. Try to time your arrival so you can make it to the expo in time to pick up your bib. If it's too close to call, you may need to rely on a friend to pick up your bib for you, in which case you need to make arrangements in advance for them to have your permission (including an ID from you). This has the potential of being a headache, so give yourself plenty of time before the close of the expo.

If you are flying in and you are racing in Florida, you can take advantage of the free Disney's Magical Express bus service, which will save you a lot of money in getting to Disney property and back to the airport. It also means your transportation to the race start is taken care of. With these two advantages, you can make a pretty strong case to fly. If it's a pretty close toss-up between flying and driving, Magical Express and shuttle service for the race are very strong arguments for flying.

The big trick here is to stay only one night. For example, if you are running the Walt Disney World Half Marathon on a Saturday, check in Friday afternoon and check out on Saturday. Depending on how fast you expect to take to finish, you might want to ask for a late check-out. You should still have plenty of time to get back to your room, shower, change, pack, and catch the DME shuttle back to the airport. Just make sure to book your flight late enough in the afternoon so your DME pick-up time isn't too early. [And since you might wind up sitting on the plane for a spell, consider wearing compression socks and getting an aisle seat so you can stand up periodically to prevent any problems with your legs.]

As you budget out your trip, compare prices not just between flying and driving to the venue, but also how much it would cost to stay on-property versus off, and think about your own preferences. Do you have a very fuel-efficient car that sips gas, and you don't mind staying off-property and dealing with the hassles of an earlier wake-up call and traffic getting to the race start if you can save a significant amount of money? Or is the price difference negligible enough for you that you'd rather fly on Southwest and stay at an All-Star Value Resort on-property for the ability to get free transportation to and from Orlando International as well as to and from the race back to your hotel?

Another consideration is, which runDisney event are you doing? If you are running the Tower or Terror 10-Miler or Wine & Dine Half Marathon, both of those events happen at night, so it's possible to show up during the day of the race. If you think you can stay awake all night, you can even consider not making any hotel reservations for the night of the event, and fly out early in the morning. Be warned, this doesn't give you a place to shower. There are ways to clean up (sponge bath, etc.) but you'll be roughing it! That said, please don't fly out smelling ripe (for the sake of your seatmates) or head home on a long drive after a long road race and no sleep—that's just asking for trouble!

Traveling Alone... or Not?

You might be used to traveling to destination races with your family, but if you're trying to save money, you might think traveling alone is the way to save money, right? Not so fast.

While it might cost a lot to travel with your entire family, it's actually most economical if you split the cost of the hotel room with another person also doing the same race. The two of you, assuming you're on a similar schedule, can check in on the same day and check out together. This will essentially halve the cost of your hotel room, making a Value Resort room that alone costs $140, down to a much more affordable $70 per person.

Your travelmate technically doesn't need to just stay the one night, but it may make things a little easier that way, since you're otherwise forcing your roommate to pay for any additional nights in the hotel room solo. And if you stay with someone who is like-minded about being on a budget, the two of you are more likely to find something to do together that doesn't involve spending a lot of money... like maybe just hanging out at Downtown Disney or at one of the resort hotels.

Don't Go Shopping

Normally, a big part of a runDisney event is going to the expo and buying official merchandise. If you're trying to save money, I'm afraid you're going to have to pass. Clothing tends to be very expensive, and you will be paying premium dollars for that event-specific hoodie.

You have to go to the expo to pick up your racing bib, but the pick-up area is separate from the shopping area. Either avoid the shopping section altogether, or take an allotted amount of money with you (say a $20 bill) and leave your credit cards back in your car or hotel room so you aren't tempted. That way, you can still meander the expo's aisles and taste samples or check out new gear without falling to temptation and shopping up a storm.

Some vendors will have special sales at their booths during the expo. If you already know that your favorite vendors will be there, decide in advance what you want to buy and how much you're willing to spend. If the only thing you'll save is the cost of shipping if you buy something in person at the expo, do you really want to spend the extra money when you're trying to travel lean?

Other Do's and Don'ts

There are other things that can easily add up that you want to watch out for:

  • Unless you have an annual pass, avoid going to the theme parks. This seems rather obvious, but if you're going to be there just for the race, you can easily avoid going to the parks. That alone will save you almost $100.
  • You're only there for two days (technically, not much more than 24 hours). If you're flying, save on baggage fees by not checking any bags unless you are have a way of avoiding check-in fees (flying on Southwest, using a special-perks credit card, or having elite frequent flyer status with the airline you're flying), since that can easily cost you an extra $40 round-trip.
  • Bring your own foods that you can travel with. If you're driving, you can pack a cooler or hit a grocery store when you get to your destination. If you're flying, opt for small packets of peanut butter (which the TSA might consider a "liquid," in which case you can stash it in your 3-1-1 toiletry kit) and bagel, or whatever else you typically eat pre- and post-race.
  • Bring an e-reader, paperback, puzzle book, or other things to keep your mind occupied so you don't get bored and decide to head for the stores.

Can you still have a good time cutting so many corners? I think you can. Especially if it means being able to participate in a runDisney event you might otherwise not be able to afford. And don't forget—even if you don't buy anything at all at the expo, you still go home with a brand new event shirt and a shiny new medal!



  1. By Drince88

    Another way to save money is to race with a charity team that 'takes care of' your race registration fee, transportation, lodging, some food, etc. You'll have to raise money, and that does take time, but it's something to consider. Make sure you ask what the fundraising minimum is and what race expenses are included before you commit, though. Charities that have smaller fundraising requirements are likely to not cover the same expenses as ones that have larger minimums.

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