The Inaugural Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon Weekendby Lorree Tachell, contributing writer
Once Disneyland was blessed two years ago with a Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend, it was only a matter of time before Walt Disney World received its own version. The inaugural Star Wars Dark Side Weekend was held April 14–17 in Walt Disney World and it was just as crazy and filled with all things Star Wars as the West Coast version. Toss in the opportunity to earn the Kessel Run Challenge medal for completing both 2016 Star Wars half marathons and you have the makings of an incredibly fun weekend.
Let's get ready to rumble
For those of us still nursing bruises from the scrum at the opening of the 2016 Princess Half Marathon official merchandise booth in February, we had to wonder what changes, if any, runDisney would implement for Star Wars. Given the rabid Star Wars following, without implementing a more structured entrance, the chances of a smooth and sane shopping experience were slim at best. Never one to miss a chance to observe human nature AND shop at the same time, I figured the earlier I could get in line for the 10:00 a.m. opening, the better. And boy, was I right.
I arrived at the expo just before 8:00 a.m. and found taped queue lines already in place to hold the expected large crowds, which at that early hour, was already over 100 deep. Turns out many shoppers arrived around 6:00 a.m. to stake out their place and assure first grab at the official Star Wars race merchandise. By 8:30 a.m., the line was to the end of the Josten's Center and threatened to spill out around the building. Just after 9:00 a.m., a runDisney cast member came through the crowd to explain a new entrance process: We would be escorted through the building (no more running allowed), and only smallish groups would be allowed in at a time. My designated section would be the second one allowed in.
Well, that was the theory. Around 9:15 a.m. we were slowly herded across the expo floor to the official merchandise area—but no one was there to contain the crowd. It quickly became a mad dash for pins, with people shoved in four and five deep around the small pin rounder, with the main target being the elusive Kessel Run Challenge pin (one of which later sold for over $300 on eBay). Anything with the words "Kessel Run" was extremely popular, as were Dark Side magnets and hats—all of which were gone as fast as cast members could restock them. While it appeared that—unlike Princess—no cast members were bodily harmed in the melee, it was still a crazy, wild, merchandise free-for-all.
As the morning went on, cast members seemed to quickly get a better handle on crowd control, and by some reports, later arrivals were forced to first go to to bib pickup and weren't allowed to join the herd at Josten's right away. Also taking a bit of the crowd load away from Josten's was a very popular photo opportunity with BB-8, which was strategically located between the main buildings. runDisney very smartly required anyone entering the very popular photo line (which averaged a wait of 30 to 45 minutes) to have their race bib, which also helped drive expo attendees through the HP pavilion to pick up their bibs first.
runDisney has made a good start at getting a better handle on the official merchandise chaos that seems to plague the WDW runDisney race weekends. Hopefully, they will continue to fine tune the process with perhaps more pre-order merchandise availability or limiting merchandise, so there is some available each day of the expo so only those who can attend day one of the expo aren't the only ones who have the chance to take home a branded glass or jacket.
It's not a 5K if the Cantina Band isn't in the house
Friday morning, we were on buses before sunrise for the short drive to Epcot for the 3.1-mile Star Wars 5K. The 5-kilometer family fun run/walk is usually the most relaxed race of a runDisney weekend, with a mix of nervous first-timers and those using the race as a fun warm-up for the longer weekend races. It also has a fun party atmosphere, with an abundance of race participants in costumes that ranged from fuzzy-eared ewoks to an entire gaggle of princess/slave Leia mash-ups.
The Cantina Band, who were in attendance at the Star Wars Light Side race last January in Disneyland, made the trek to the Dark Side, and even Gredio was seen lurking in the corrals with Darth Poppins and her Storm Trooper Chimney Sweep. For such an early morning hour, it was quite the party atmosphere.
Before the race, long lines snaked through six different photo opportunities set up by the main stage, including BB-8, Darth, Storm Troopers, and even a nasty-looking toothy monster. Instead of nonstop music and dancing, the DJ interspersed music with rounds of Star Wars video and trivia contests. Two First Order Storm Troopers stopped by the stage to make sure everyone knew the 5K was a first-level test put in place to determine if we could eventually join their ranks. The message was clear that Captain Phasma would be watching. From the excited crowd reaction, there were several in the audience who were more than ready to sign up for the First Order at that very moment.
I was fortunate to be placed in corral "A," which gave me an almost front-row race start. This was a blessing, as the morning weather was already hot and muggy—my kryptonite. With a short blast of fireworks, we were finally on the road. Similar to most WDW 5K races, the course took us backstage before entering Epcot. The darkness of morning, Star Wars movie music, and fire torches lit around the World Showcase Lagoon helped set the dark side mood. The only down side of the morning would be the miss by runDisney of turning Spaceship Earth into a virtual Death Star through projection. That would have completed the already outstanding Star Wars theme.
During the race I noticed an abundance of Disney Photopass photographers along the course (replacing MarathonFoto photographers, who used to take runDisney race photos). Each photographer had a small green pop-up tent to keep them out of the elements, and most were two-by-two, with one on either side of the course. I've honestly never seen so many photographers snapping shots before.
Unlike at previous runDisney races, the Photopass photographers were also stationed at the character stops, which had everyone excited at the potential number of photos that might be available post-race. That was a hope that had very mixed results for many of the race participants.
With roughly six minutes between corrals, the sixth and final 5K corral had just taken off when I crossed the finish line. As often happens when heat and humidity collide, there was sawdust strewn on the ground before and after the finish line area, meaning some runners were not able to contain their breakfast at race end.
I collected my Storm Trooper rubber medal and headed off to the hotel shuttles where, after boarding the bus, I was amazed to hear the bus driver refuse to get back on the bus to leave. After loud words were exchanged between the driver to the Mears representative (who gets credit for handling the situation with grace), the driver sputtered back on the bus and then drove as slowly as possibly could back to the hotel. And I mean slow. The four of us on the bus decided we could have run faster than the bus was moving.
We finally arrived at All-Star Sports and I headed out to meet up with my Texas friends Rae and Mary for a breakfast of Mickey waffles and a day at the Flower & Garden show at Epcot. If the 5K was any indication, I couldn't wait to see what was waiting for us at the 10K and half marathon.
New 10K race, new 10K course
The early morning alarm on Saturday reminded me how challenging the time difference between West and East Coast can be when the morning starts at 3:00 a.m. Eastern. The body didn't want to get up—but the Tie Fighter 10K medal was waiting for me as well as a chance to experience a new (6.2-mile) 10-kilometer course, so I slowly rolled my old bones out of bed to start the day. Thirty minutes later, Rae, Mary, and I joined the rest of the bleary-eyed runners and walkers heading off to the buses to the starting area at Epcot. The weather was a tad better than on Friday, but it was still muggy enough to warrant extra care along the course to not overdo before the half on Sunday.
The short hike from the buses to the main stage area was followed by a slightly longer hike (runDisney estimated about 20 minutes) to the race start. Similar to the previous day's 5K, there were six corrals (A-F) and given the crowded conditions, they could have used a few more to give the race participants a bit more breathing room.
I was in corral B, which meant I was off and running just after 5:06 a.m. The 10K course took us backstage at Epcot, where we had a short run through the park and by the still non-Death Star Spaceship Earth. We then headed off down the Boardwalk to Disney Hollywood Studios, where (after a turn on a dirt trail) we ended at the ESPN Wide World of Sports.
Although there seemed to be a lot of negative chatter on social media directed at bottlenecks that happened later as the back corrals reached the Boardwalk, I thoroughly enjoyed the 10K run. It was fun to have a different course than the ones runDisney usually offers, and there were several opportunities with both Light and Dark Side characters to stop for pictures, as well as with the 501st, who were out in their best Star Wars costumes.
Where the fun stopped was trying to get back to the hotel. One of the buses became stuck at the entrance of the parking area in deep mud, which caused a change in how the buses were deployed. Instead of the normal wide road, the buses were forced to use a small backroad that required single-directional movement. After what seemed to be hours (it was, in fact, about 30 minutes), we were finally cleared to move and were on the road. I caught up with my Texans in Tiaras and we headed out for a fun day at the Magic Kingdom, including several hours of Dapper Days people-watching.
Guess I'm now part of the First Order
Sunday morning. Day three of 0-dark-ugly alarms and morning grumbles. But up we got and out the door, as the inaugural Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon and Dark Side Challenge medals were waiting at the end of 13.1 miles. Toss in the Kessel Run Challenge Medal, and it was going to be a major bling morning.
As with the first two race mornings, we were greeted onstage by First Order Storm Troopers, who made sure we were ready to take on the final weekend challenge. Failure was not an option. We again took the short walk to the corrals (now numbering 12: A thru L) and waited for the national anthem and fireworks to signal the first waves moving out. For the half, I was in corral E, which meant we all had a nice birds-eye view of the accidental firework deployment after the first couple of corrals left. Kind of an oops but no one appeared too worse for the wear.
The Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon course is essentially a reverse of the Wine & Dine Half Marathon course (held in November). Starting from an Epcot parking lot, we again took a short run through Epcot as we made our way via the Boardwalk to Disney Hollywood Studios. Kylo Ren was onstage in the space now vacated by the Sorcerer's Hat; as you can imagine, he was a very popular photo stop, with many forgoing the Photopass photographers in favor of selfies to avoid the long photograph wait line.
We then hit the highway to Disney's Animal Kingdom. However before entering the park, we took a very, very long, winding, and boring lap around the parking lot. Yes, the parking lot. Guess since the course was short through Hollywood Studios due to construction, they needed a bit of padding to hit 13.1 miles—but it was not exactly an impressive part of the course.
After a tour through Animal Kingdom, we were back out on the highway heading to the ESPN Wide World of Sports. Somewhere between miles nine and 10, the body and brain went into cahoots with each other and conspired to slow me way down. Even big screens playing a variety of Star Wars scenes didn't help perk me up; in fact, I caught myself more engrossed in the movie than in the run, which didn't exactly help my pace.
This part of the course is essentially an out-and-back, and just as I approached the turnaround, I noticed three Death Star balloons heading down the road in the opposite direction, followed close behind by a rather large gaggle of walkers, followed even closer by several sweep buses. Even though we were miles ahead (they were just past mile five and we were heading towards mile 12), the pace of everyone around me quickened at the sight of the dreaded Balloon Ladies. Amazing what a couple of little balloons can do to perk runners up.
Minutes later, the finish line was in sight—and with one final push, the inaugural Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon was complete. I crossed the finish line and was greeted by a very nice medical staff member who very casually took my arm (checking my pulse in the process), noted my apparently VERY red face, and directed me over to self-medical, where a bag of ice was waiting for me. Wearing the ice bag on my head like a hat, I slowly made my way to the Challenge tent, where I collected the Dark Side and Kessel Run Challenge medals. As I made my way to the buses, the clanking around me was a cacophony of sound, as many in the crowd also added the blue Coast-to-Coast medal to their morning medal haul. Even red-faced and wearing an ice bag on my head, I had to smile. I had successfully completed my training—the First Order Storm Troopers and Captain Phasma would be pleased.
A fun and memorable weekend
All in all, the inaugural Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend went much smoother than most runDisney inaugural races. There were very few hiccups, and with the exception of the "tour d' parking lot" outside of Animal Kingdom, the course was actually very fun. The addition of the LucasFilms partnership helped, as the courses were populated with large movie screens showing clips from all the Star Wars movies as well as several picture stops with some of the baddest villains in the universe. Non-character photo stops were also popular and included the snow cave and speeders from Star Wars Light Side in January. The weather wasn't exactly race conducive for a West Coaster but as the medical staff member noted, it's hard to train for Florida when living in Washington State.
Besides the tight race course at the Boardwalk, the only other big pain-point for many race participants seemed to be the decision to take the course photography internal, from Marathonfoto to Disney Photopass. Numerous people have noted a very big discrepancy in the number and quality of pictures available, with some race participants thrilled at the number of pictures provided, while others were stuck with lots of dark unusable photos in the mix, if any pictures at all.
The time to sort through the thousands of pictures and post to each runner's Photopass account was also an issue, as it took days for pictures to show up; many are still missing, and according to runDisney, they may never be found. Unfortunately, there seems to be no option to run through a library of unknown pictures where often times people found missing shots. The 5K pictures with 10K banners also did nothing to improve confidence in the photo service. It will be interesting to see how well it works at the upcoming Tinker Bell Half Marathon weekend. Lesson learned—if it's a once-in-a-lifetime picture, make sure someone takes it with your own camera as well.
But even with Boardwalk bottlenecks and photo challenges, all in all it was a wonderfully fun weekend with good friends and immersed in the world of all that is Star Wars. Rae placed second in her age group in the 10K and first in the half and Mary, who just bumped to a new age group, had a top ten place. I had originally thought this might be a one-and-done but come registration for the 2017 event, you may just see me back again for another go. May the force be with you all and see you again on the Dark Side.