The Tinker Bell Half Marathon - Five Years Flyingby Lorree Tachell, contributing writer
In 2009, Disney Running (the precursor to runDisney) debuted the Princess Half Marathon Weekend at Walt Disney World. The female-focused Royal Family 5K and Princess Half Marathon proved to be extremely popular but for many it was difficult if not impossible to get to the East Coast to participate. For those keeping score, there was also a bit of inequity between the two coasts, with the number of race weekends hosted with WDW holding the lead three to one.
Finally, after two years of requests, pleads, demands, and (for some) crying, the long wait was over. On April 19, 2011, runDisney announced the inaugural Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend would be landing at the Disneyland Resort in early 2012.
Five years later, over 60,000 runners, walkers, and wheelchair racers have crossed the half marathon finish line—including more than 1,000 Legacy Tinks who have completed all five Tinker Bell Half Marathons, comprising the largest contingent of all runDisney legacy groups.
In the beginning
Back in 2012, more than 12,000 runners and walkers from 48 states and 10 countries participated in the inaugural Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend held January 27–29. Scheduled just three weeks after the WDW Marathon Weekend (which featured the 15th anniversary WDW Half Marathon and the one-time-only Chip n Dale Marathon Relay), the Tinker Bell Half Marathon took just four months to sell out, with the 3.1-mile family fun 5K finally closing registration in just over nine months. The lure of the inaugural half marathon medal, as well as the option to earn a blue Coast-to-Coast medal in less than a month, was strong with both West Coast runners and those who wanted the opportunity to earn their "wings"
You paid how much to run?
The cost for the inaugural half marathon was $120 for early registrants, with the price going up to $130 if you waited to register. The two-person team, a format available only in 2012, offered early registration for $240 per team, with the price going up to $260 before selling out four months later.
There was no early registration price for the Never Land 5K, which at $99 included an evening park ticket. This event took over nine months to reach capacity. What the 5K offered to race participants was the unique opportunity to run through the parks at night as the race, originally scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, was actually held at 10:30 p.m. Friday night. This was the only year the 5K was held at night; the following year, it was moved to Saturday morning. In 2014, this was brought back to Friday, but at 5:00 a.m., to accommodate the introduction of the 6.2-mile Tinker Bell 10K race to the weekend lineup.
Dude, nice tutu!
Although the Tinker Bell Half Marathon is marketed as a female-focused event, there has always been a small male contingent that happily participates in the fun. While not allowed to start in the all-female "A" corral, husbands, partners, fathers, brothers, and just guys who love Disney have taken to the roads in tutus and fairy wings to earn the wings medal. In 2012, there were 9,336 female and 822 male finishers; in 2016 those numbers have grown to 11,405 females and 1,740 males. In five years, the percentage of female finishers has slowly grown 22 percent while the men have increased their numbers by over 111 percent.
Follow the bouncing race date
Over the years, the Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend has made a few logistical changes and has added more options to the race weekend. In 2013, the race weekend was moved up to mid-January to occur over Martin Luther King holiday weekend. While that closed the gap between WDW Marathon Weekend events and Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend events to a week, the impact of the move (as well as a $30 cost increase) on registration was non-existent, with the half marathon selling out in a month, three months faster than the inaugural race weekend.
In 2014, runDisney added the Tinker Bell 10K, which quickly became the most popular race distance, as it offers a nice bridge between the 5K and half marathon distances. While the 10K was a welcome addition, runDisney did not initially add an official challenge option, although those who completed both the Princess Half Marathon and Tinker Bell Half Marathon in 2014 would now have the opportunity to earn a new pink version of the Coast-to-Coast medal.
The combination of 10K and half marathon was rolled into the Pixie Dust Challenge in 2015 offering race participants a chance to earn another piece of "bling." The medal, featuring a symbol representing each of the fairies who live in Pixie Hollow, has proven to be rather divisive as a "love it" or "hate it" addition to the runDisney medal collection, but the challenge itself continues to be popular as race participants look to push themselves by completing 19.3 miles in just over 24 hours. For those who are looking for an even greater challenge (or just can't pass up a rubber medal), adding in the Never Land 5K on Friday gives athletes a whopping 22.4 runDisney miles.
Much less popular was the decision to move the Tinker Bell Half Marathon weekend for 2015 from January to May, during Mother's Day weekend to make room for the inaugural Star Wars races in Disneyland. Many out-of-area race participants who had previously used the January race as a "girl's weekend" away from family were dismayed with the change, as it would mean traveling over what for many is traditionally a family weekend.
Local runners and walkers were also split. Should they race with their girlfriends, change the race weekend to a family-inclusive activity (where they would do away with the "girls weekend" tradition), or skip the race weekend altogether in order to enjoy Mother's Day with family? The numbers speak for themselves—while the number of participants has held steady, the change in the amount of time it takes for the events to sell out has been staggering. In 2014, when the race weekend was in January, the half marathon sold out in two days. Compare that to the 2016 race, which took eight months. Although its long-term impact is yet to be determined, the move away from January seems to have slowed the enthusiasm considerably for the race weekend.
A more civilized shopping experience
After surviving the official merchandise shopping chaos in WDW last February at the 2016 Princess Half Marathon (and to a lesser extent at the inaugural Star Wars Half Marathon in April), I wondered if runDisney would continue to shine in its crowd management at Disneyland. With the addition two years ago of wristbands indicating arrival time and well-managed small groups allowed in at one time, official merchandise shopping at Disneyland events is night and day a different experience than at WDW.
Since I happen to be currently working in the Anaheim area, and Mary, one of the Texans in Tiaras, was already in town, we decided it would be the perfect opportunity head out early and get to get to the expo around 7:30 a.m. Disney had apparently rented out the upstairs ballroom where shoppers usually queue so it was back down to the basement parking garage for everyone. After a momentary "oops" being in the volunteer instead of merchandise line, we trooped downstairs and were met with close to 150 or so people who also had a similar idea. We were wristbanded to the second shopping wave and walked to the end of the line, which put us in row four.
So, with a couple of hours to kill until the announced 10:00 a.m. opening (which is often bumped up at least 30 minutes), Mary and I settled in on the AstroTurf floor. We chatted with those around us, including Kathleen, an East Coaster whom I had previously met at the Star Wars Dark Side expo. When it's a runDisney event, it's definitely a small world.
Just after 9:00 a.m., the lines started moving out one at a time. As we were heading upstairs, I spotted Joanne, a Team MousePlanet buddy who was several waves back due to a delayed morning flight. Rae, the other Texans in Tiaras, had also landed and was on her way to the hotel. The weekend team was just about all here.
While there was the usual lack of popular merchandise available (wine glasses were gone by 12:30 p.m.) and limits on merchandise barely enforced (I noted at least one person walking out with a case of those popular wine glasses), we were fortunate to get everything we wanted in a very unstressful atmosphere. In less than 30 minutes, we had shopped, paid, and were on our way. Painless and bruise-free. Now we could relax, pick up our bibs, and enjoy the rest of the expo.
When being Legacy isn't quite perfect
As with previous runDisney races, year five is always a bit more exciting for anyone who registered for their fifth half marathon in a row. It is the time when legacy (also referred to as "perfect" for WDW-based races) status is conveyed by runDisney. Typically, an email is sent by runDisney to each person who should be a legacy participant a week or two prior to the event confirming status as well as explaining the perks, which at year five usually include a special race bib, a special strap for the finisher's medal, and occasionally a commemorative gift, such as a sash and plastic crown (or even a spatula).
As a legacy participant for Tink, I patiently waited for an email from runDisney—which never arrived. Could it be that their data system was missing finish information? From following various social media sites, including Team MousePlanet, it appeared that not one legacy runner heard a peep from runDisney in the weeks leading up to the event. In anticipation of having to prove status, I armed myself with copies of all my previous Tinker Bell Half Marathon finish times before heading to Thursday's expo/packet pickup.
I was apparently one of the lucky ones. My Legacy bib was ready and waiting for me, my name was on the Legacy wall at packet pickup as well as on the list for the special commemorative gift which was a compact mirror. Others had quite the struggle to prove their status, and several legacy runners have reported dealing with a particularly grumpy Runner Relations person who, despite the stack of extra legacy bibs available, was less than willing to help anyone confirm there was an issue with the data. One interesting observation was that the stack of blank Legacy bibs was at least an inch thick, indicating runDisney knew there would be issues. At this point, it's unknown how many legacy Tinks there may truly be. And given the issues at Runner Relations as well as at the finish line (more on that later), I would expect there will be a significant number who sadly won't continue on.
The rest of bib pickup was a breeze. I was wristbanded with a pink Coast-to-Coast band (and yes, if you hadn't already earned the blue C2C, you would receive both!), had my mug shot taken for the Pixie Dust Challenge, and collected the latest additions to the collection of runDisney race shirts. Now it was just kickback and get ready for Friday's Never Land 5K.
Tinker Flies Again
While Rae enjoyed a sleep-in morning, Mary and I headed out from the hotel around 4:15 a.m. on Friday to meet up with Joanne on our way to the Never Land 5K. Due to a serious brain-blip on my part that had the race starting at 5:30 a.m., we arrived rather late for the actual 5:00 a.m., start but we were still lucky enough to get into corral A, near the start line.
Social media was up in arms prior to race weekend with the news that one of the two regular runDisney race announcers would not be returning for Tinker Bell Weekend. I won't weigh in on the announcer-change controversy, but overall, the new announcer did a good job throughout the weekend. The real highlight of the start was not the announcers but the National Anthem. As sung by a "pirate" with accompaniment of a mandolin, it was one of the best renditions I have ever heard; just incredibly peaceful, strong, and beautiful.
After Tinker Bell did her now traditional fly-by of the castle to start the race, it was time to hit the roads. The Never Land 5K course has changed significantly since 2012 due in part to the current massive construction backstage. In 2016, we barely ran a half mile in Disneyland then moved to Disney California Adventure park before ending up in front of the Disneyland Hotel. In 2012, we spent a good part of two miles in the park before moving to DCA where the race ended on the Pier.
No matter the year, there has always been an abundance of race participants in fairy wings and tutus as well as a newer occurrence in the shape of the occasional Star Wars/Tinker Bell mash-ups such as Tinker Fett and Ray Bell.
There were a few photo stops with fairies and pirates were scattered along the course as well but it still felt light from previous years. There was no official start line (typically an arch of balloons), and World of Color was silent. Instead of ending on the pier in Disney California Adventure, we finished the race with a short run through Downtown Disney to the road outside the Disneyland Hotel. But it was a perfect running morning: the weather was cool and we crossed the finish line with a strong kick. With the fifth anniversary Captain Hook/Peter Pan rubber medal in hand, we headed back to the hotel and off to a great day in the parks. By night, with almost 30,000 in steps for the day, we were more than ready for the 10K Saturday morning.
Beware of Pirates and Puddles
The morning of the Tinker Bell 10K started with a surprise rain shower that lasted until just before race start at 5:30 a.m. The rain created havoc with many of the costumes as well as left many areas of the course wet and potentially slick. Mary and I were fortunate to be in corral B, which allowed us to stay out of the rain under an overpass during the majority of the wait for the race start. Although the air was now humid, it was still more hospitable to running than we had in Florida for the Dark Side weekend, which was a blessing.
After showing clips from the latest Tinker Bell movie (just a wee bitty young for the majority of gathered race participants…), two wheelchair racers were first out of the start followed shortly by corral A. With roughly five minutes between corrals, those in corral B were soon out on the road. The Tinker Bell 10K course started on Disneyland Drive for the first mile before moving into Disneyland via Mickey's Toontown. We then headed to Fantasyland where we passed the Lost Boys enjoying King Arthur's Carrousel and on to Sleeping Beauty's Castle. After running through the arch, we headed off to Frontierland, by the Haunted Mansion, and finally ran down Main Street before going through the tunnel to DCA.
Throughout the course, we dodged puddles where we could (not always successfully, as our soaked shoes soon confirmed) as we ran by familiar fairy photo stops from the 5K and jolly pirates still searching for treasure. World of Color was a bit more active than on Friday, but no matter. The gentle pounding of footsteps on the ground as thousands of runners and walkers made their way around the parks was the true sound of the morning.
All too soon we turned through Downtown Disney with the finish line insight. While I had a couple of irritating asthma issues, the run still felt good. Although we took it easy given the half marathon was looming the following morning, we still managed another strong finish and crossed the line with smiles. With medal, water, and snack box in hand, we navigated through the esplanade security line mess (thank heavens race participants were allowed to skip to the front of the line) and headed back to a yummy waffle breakfast waiting for us at the hotel. Another race was done, the day was just beginning and the parks awaited us.
Tired, tired, legs…
Common sense prescribes that if one is to do well at running a half marathon, it's not advisable to spend the previous day(s) wandering Disney parks. Never one to listen to common sense where time in Disney parks are concerned, we had racked up almost 35,000 in steps on Saturday. Add in all the miles on Friday and by Sunday morning's Tinker Bell Half Marathon, and the legs were tired and cranky. But no matter, it was up and out the door. Joanne was waiting for us as was a small herd of new runDisney medals if we completed today's half marathon; as they say in the Haunted Mansion… there was no turning back now.
While Mary and I had run together in the 5K and 10K, I knew she would be running her own (much) faster race for the half. Rae was just behind us in corral C, and Joanne was in D. Fortunately we weren't subjected to the Tinker Bell movie highlights from the 10K, and instead while waiting for the start, we were entertained on the big screens with scenes from previous runDisney races.
Just minutes before 5:30 a.m., the National Anthem was presented, the wheelchair racers hit the road, and the first of six (A-F) corrals lined up for their start. I was off in corral B and all too soon I was testing those tired legs on the small hills which make up the first mile of the half marathon course. Oh yeah, they were tired—but no matter, I had 13.1 miles ahead of me to earn that Legacy lanyard.
Of all the Disneyland half marathon courses, I think I enjoy the Tinker Bell most, as it has a fun mix of park and city road time including a nice tour through downtown Anaheim. The course has changed slightly over the years with more changes than normal this year a reflection of the construction closing much of the Disneyland backstage area. I did notice the race itself definitely seemed to be short of photo opportunities which may be due to budget cuts or perhaps it was a subtitle push to get people through the parks (or both).
Since 2012, one of the highlights of the Tinker Bell Half Marathon is the appearance of the ladies from the Red Hat Society who stand, dance, sit, and just merrily cheer for hours as the runners and walkers pour by. Previously, they could be found by the Disneyland Hotel around mile 5 but with the course changes, they were closer to mile 8. All 700-plus of them. That's right, over 700! They went for at least three blocks and were several deep as well. It was the most amazing sight and the best pick-me-up when it was truly needed.
And just following the Red Hats out on the course was Team MousePlanet's "Candy from Strangers" tent. I overheard several people give thanks that they were there yet again; the Red Vines and words of encouragement gave another much needed boost to a lot of race participants.
Five for Five
Finally, the finish line was in sight. With one last kick on legs that felt like lead, I happily crossed the finish line and headed for the lines of volunteers holding the finisher's medals. I was approached by a volunteer who, based on my Legacy bib, draped the half marathon medal and special Legacy lanyard around my neck. Unfortunately many were not as lucky due to the lack of communication from runDisney, they were unaware of the Legacy lanyard and were overlooked in the flow of finishers. I've run across several who only found out what they missed after the fact when reading social media posts. What a letdown for five years of loyalty.
Once the half marathon medal was in hand, I made my way through the crowds to the Challenge/Coast-to-Coast tent, where I collected the Pixie Dust Challenge medal as well as the pink Coast-to-Coast. I could have walked off with another blue C2C, as the volunteer was insisting that even without a black band I should also take one, but one is enough for the year. Mary, Rae, and Joanne also successfully completed the race, with Rae yet again placing first in her age group.
What's next for the Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend?
It's hard to say what may happen going forward with the Tinker Bell Half Marathon. Rumors are running rampant of a theme change to encourage more men to participate, but since the race has been confirmed for 2017, that may just be wishful thinking. It did seem without a medal design change (which is standard for an anniversary event) and all the legacy confusion, that runDisney kind of phoned this one in. Given all the race weekends runDisney staff have to manage throughout the year (this was already its fifth race weekend of 2016), runDIsney may just be stretched too thin to have given the Tinker Bell Half Marathon anniversary weekend the proper care and feeding it deserves.
Overall, it was still an extremely fun weekend full of running and time with good friends. The weather was close to perfect, and the volunteers were outstanding as always. The Red Hat Ladies can only be described as amazing. It's always a treat to be able to run through the Disneyland and Disney California Adventure parks; no other race can truly compare to a runDisney race. I hope to continue to keep the Legacy streak alive and plan on being back for the sixth Tinker Bell Half Marathon weekend May 11–14, 2017. Registration opens September 20, 2016 at 12:00 p.m. Eastern (9:00 a.m. Pacific).
Until then, happy running!