A Tale of Two Expos

by Lorree Tachell, contributing writer

runDisney expos. They can be the best of times, they can be the worst of times.

With the 2014 Tinker Bell Half Marathon weekend in the rearview mirror, now is a good time to evaluate the changes that runDisney and the Disneyland Hotel made to this year's expo and packet pickup process. After the disaster of the 2013 Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend expo, they frankly had nowhere to go but up.

In the beginning, there was chaos…

Since 2006, runDisney has hosted Disneyland and Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend expos and packet pickup at the Disneyland Hotel. The venue, though beautiful and full of Disney history, has always been on the small side for such large events, especially as runDisney has continued to increase race event attendance every year.

The official runDisney merchandise area, probably the most popular area at the expo, has always had issues, such as a crowded floor, crazed merchandise-grabbing guests, and too-few cashiers. Nowhere was this clearer than last August when runDisney hosted the 2013 Disneyland Half Marathon Expo. It was an out-of-control disaster (to see how bad it was, read staff writer Lani Teshima's article here).

The problems last year started well before the expo opened, with guests left to bake out in the hot sun with no shade for hours as they waited to get into the expo. Cast members who were on crowd control were obviously caught by surprise at the number of guests who showed up early for the expo, and made the mistake of running the queues into the Disneyland Hotel arrival and drop-off location which, while it helped a bit with the sun, also negatively impacted hotel guests.

Frazzled cast members allowed some race participants to cut in line ahead of the waiting crowd and waltz right into the merchandise area, causing tempers to flare. I’ve never seen more cast members lose their cool and yell at guests (and guests yell at other guests) as I did that afternoon; although such behavior is uncommon in the world of Disney, the cast members were at times at the end of their rope, outnumbered and unprepared.

The packet pickup line is a nightmare at the 2013 Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend expo. Photo by Lorree Tachell

The problems only got worse inside the official runDisney merchandise area, as everyone started grabbing anything they could get their hands on. People were huddled in corners with armloads of merchandise they were trying on and then just tossing aside when the garments didn’t fit. Cast members finally gave up trying to stock the displays and just held out merchandise in their arms, since they were all quickly snapped up as soon as the CMs came out with new inventory.

There was no control over how many people were in the merchandise area, and that number quickly ballooned to a line for checkout that stretched back past the speaker area and into the main expo. It was estimated at the peak that it took customers three hours to get to the head of the check-out line to pay for their merchandise. To make matters worse, the noise from those waiting in the check-out line was extremely loud, negatively impacting those guests who were trying to listen to the guest speakers on the ballroom stage. This even caused a few verbal altercations. The crowds finally got to the point that the Anaheim Fire Marshal came to pay a visit to the expo; the overcrowding became a safety issue, and the fire marshal ordered an official shutdown of the merchandise area Thursday afternoon until the crowds could be thinned out.

Just one of the long merchandise checkout lines at the 2013 Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend expo. Photo by Lorree Tachell

Why, if Disney has been doing these expos for years, was last year's version such a disaster? A few reasons caused the formation of a perfect storm:

  • Participants of the 10K race were required to attend the expo on Friday to make sure they had their race bibs prior to the Saturday race.
  • Participants of the Dumbo Double Dare challenge were also required to pick up their bibs on Friday, because one of their two races was Saturday's 10K.
  • Participants of the Family Fun Run 5K, as well as the runDisney Kids Races, also had to pick up their bibs on Friday for their Saturday races.
  • With two brand new inaugural events, participants were lured to show up as early as possible in minimize the risk of finding sold-out merchandise.
  • This expo was the last chance in 2013 for those on the West Coast to be able to purchase the high-demand New Balance runDisney shoes.

By some estimates, over 8,000 people showed up in just the expo’s first couple of hours. As a result, just about all of the inaugural Dumbo Challenge merchandise was sold out within hours, leaving little for those who came later in the day or on Saturday to purchase. Even those who had no desire to purchase any merchandise were impacted; runners who simply needed to pick up their participant shirts after picking up their race bibs were made to join in the hours-long lines just to get into the expo. Nothing seemed to go right that day.

Just a few of the 'must have' merchandise items that caused the long, long lines. Photo by Lorree Tachell

The New and Improved Expo

As a survivor of the disastrous 2013 Disneyland Half Marathon expo, I was curious to see what changes and/or improvements would be made at the 2014 Tinker Bell Half Marathon expo which was the first runDisney event held at the Disneyland Hotel since last August. Although there was no official race challenge, runDisney did add the Tinker Bell 10k event to the weekend (10,000 participants) and bumped the Tinker Bell Half Marathon an additional 1000 bringing that total up to 15,000 which meant thousands more participants would be in town for the event.

To accommodate the new race and to hopefully thin out the crowds, runDisney moved the expo opening to Thursday afternoon, the Family Fun Run 5k to Friday (a negative decision for many given work and school schedules) and scheduled the Tinker Bell 10k on Saturday leaving the Tinker Bell Half Marathon on Sunday. By scheduling the two larger events two days away from the expo opening, the expo would hopefully be less crazy than last time as there would be more time to stop in to the expo. I have to say I was incredibly impressed with the new and improved expo crowd control plan.

Given the expo was to open at 2:00 p.m. Thursday afternoon, I arrived at the Disneyland Hotel just after noon to stake my place in what I expected to be a long line in the hot sun. Upon first glance I was worried I was in the right location. There were no lines by the Disneyland Hotel ballroom where the expo was located. Nada. Not a one inside or outside. Sensing my confusion, I was told by a very pleasant cast member if I was looking for New Balance shoes, packet pickup, or merchandise I would need to head down into the old underground parking structure where lines were forming. Ok, this is new.

The underground queing area was cool, out of the sun, and organized. Photo by Lorree Tachell

I wandered down the parking ramp (featuring the Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend logo carpet) and was met at the entrance by yet another cheery cast member who was directing guests to the proper queuing areas. The shoe line was directly to my right, packet pickup to my left, and the merchandise line was straight ahead. Each queue had a cast member managing the flow of the lines as they formed the standard Disney ‘swim lanes’ of down and back that were marked out on the floor in tape. Merchandise and packet pickup queues were waiting for the opening but the New Balance shoe line queue was moving in small groups up to the receiving area where the shoes were located. It was cool, out of the sun, under control, and was light years from the Disneyland Half debacle.

Shortly after 1:30 p.m., the merchandise queue was on the move up to the expo. We formed another queue outside of the merchandise area doors and waited for the early opening all clear. The first two rows of guests were ushered in to shop and the rest of us eventually got our turn as happy shoppers left with their bags full of runDisney merchandise. And bless the cast members who did a spectacular job of turning away guests who tried to cut in line (or bypass it completely) which was a major improvement from last year’s storming of the doors.

A few of the items available at the Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend expo. Photo by Stephanie Wien.

The expo area itself was also new and improved. Although it was still the same small footprint as before, the clunky merchandise rounders were gone and instead merchandise was lined / hung up on walls which allowed for better merchandise access and crowd flow. Cast members were easily able to keep items stocked and the cashiers were able to quickly complete the transactions and send guests on their way. I noticed a lot of runDisney and Disney management wandering the area talking to guests to get their feedback on the changes which is the first time I’ve seen so many managers on the floor taking notes.

The new and improved merchandise floor worked extremely well. Photo by Stephanie Wien.

Packet pickup was back downstairs in the old parking structure and did not feel over-crowded in the least. After completing packet pickup, guests were moved back upstairs to the other side of the expo where they received their gear bags and participant shirts. After that, guests could walk right into the expo to check out the vendors. It was smooth. Very controlled and smooth.

I went back to the expo on Friday afternoon just to see how things were going. Gone was the need to queue everyone downstairs. A small line that was outside of the official merchandise area was still monitored by a cast member but for the most part the expo had calmed down. The vendor area was nicely packed with shoppers but it was not uncomfortably over-crowded. The only negative that I overheard was the lack of merchandise such as the new Tinker Bell Dooney & Bourke purses which, with a limit of (ahem) five per person, were gone before the expo ended on Thursday. Perhaps that limit is just a wee bit high…

The new Dooney & Bourke Tinker Bell bags were gone before the end of the first day. Photo by Lorree Tachell

From my own personal view, I believe the changes runDisney and the Disneyland Hotel put into place for the expo made a very positive difference in the guest experience and hope they will continue them at future runDisney events. Looking at the schedule for the 2014 Disneyland Half Marathon weekend, it appears that they are following the same formula as for Tinker Bell and have moved out the expo to start on Thursday afternoon, the Family Fun Run 5k to Friday morning, and have left the Disneyland 10k and Disneyland Half Marathon on their respective weekend days. While there will be always be new participants in any runDisney race, there will be no inaugural merchandise for sale at the expo which may also slow down the crowds. Let’s hope that the next runDisney expo will be just as calm and controlled as the Tinker Bell expo was.