Changes Cause an Uproar at 2017 Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekendby Lorree Tachell, contributing writer
It can take years to build and cultivate a successful brand, and Disney is certainly considered one of the masters of driving customer desire for their particular offerings. On the flip side, in the world of social media immediacy, severely crippling—if not destroying—your brand can take but a single unfortunate event once word hits the web (United Airlines is one recent example).
With the 2017 Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend held May 12 – 14 in Disneyland, runDisney slipped on a major banana peel, when not one, but three major issues negatively impacted the guest experience. Several smaller blips, which normally wouldn't have had as much air time, became bigger deals given the overall event challenges. Let's take a look at the good, the bad, and the really ugly of the 2017 Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend.
The Expo/Bib Pick-up
Yet again, Disneyland is worlds-away the champ at executing runDisney-branded merchandise sales. Unlike Walt Disney World in Florida, where chaos is the norm, the wrist-band process used in Disneyland provides a sane (and safe—no shoving or punching) shopping experience. The 2017 Tinker Bell merchandise queue Thursday morning was quieter than normal; arriving at 7:00 a.m., I was placed at the tail end of the first row in the queue. Usually there are at least two to three full rows by this time. By the early opening around 9:40 a.m., the ballroom where we waited was only about half full.
Merchandise was plentiful and high-demand items, such as the race-specific running shoe Christmas ornament (usually sold out by noon on the first day of the expo), remained available well into Friday, which is rare. Unlike in WDW, pre-order merchandise such as missized jackets, was easily returned for refunds.
Bib pick-up was also smooth from a crowd perspective, although there were multiple reports of incorrect bibs being distributed (including from MousePlanet reader Berry Princess, who didn't get the right bib, and which cascaded to the wrong size shirt that couldn't be exchanged) and at least one documented and verified instance of someone deliberately signing for and receiving someone else's bib (and later running using said bib). ID check, which has in the past been strictly adhered to by volunteers, was spotty at best. I presented my driver's license when picking up my bibs for the challenge and the 5K and both times it was given a cursory glance but not checked against the bib name. One volunteer even acted surprised that I offered it up and quipped, "Yup, that's you!"
While bib distribution seemed overly sloppy, it honestly should be a two-part process, with race participants reverifying that they have received the right bib, as well as confirming that the timing chip (not found on any 5K bibs except for participants of the WDW Marathon Dopey Challenge) on the back matches and/or is even there. However, the laxness of ID checks is a big concern, and could be a risk of increased bib theft going forward if not addressed.
Since the first Disneyland Half Marathon debuted in 2006, volunteers have played a major part in the success of runDisney events at the Disneyland parks. Thousands of volunteers have served at packet pick-up, race shirt distribution, manning water stations, and the all-important medal distribution. We could not do what we love to do without them.
However, starting at the 2017 Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend, runDisney Disneyland changed from a volunteer army to temps recruited through a service and paying them $13 per hour. The free park ticket previously given as a thank-you was dropped. While this change provided increased security in the form of background checks, many long-time volunteers decided that the extra paperwork, lack of a complimentary park ticket, and too many other hoops to jump wasn't worth the effort, and sadly did not come back. It also was less than successful in attracting paid workers, with many stations left short-staffed, or—in the case of the Cliff Shot distribution area—becoming a self-service grab-and-go.
I heard the following from one of the former volunteers, who signed up as a temp worker for the weekend:
As "paid workers," we were hired by a hiring agency "Company A" or "Company V." We were just a mass number of pooled people to them, and we were treated very poorly.
They decided to eliminate all the prior "Team Leader" volunteers, who had all the experience to help run each section efficiently. However with the lack of "Team Leaders," it was now up the the runDisney staff to try to work with inexperienced Company A and Company V. Both Company A and Company V had no idea how to manage the huge pool of people they hired, let alone even know what was involved in running the event. The two hiring companies did not communicate with each other, and both hiring companies had very small staff trying to manage the situation at the event.
My guess is that Company V had a 60 percent (generous) retention rate of experienced volunteers. Heard many former volunteers felt that they did not want to go through all the paperwork and employment process. After all this, I would not be surprised that the retention rate of valuable, loyal volunteers drop to below 25 percent for future events.
Day 1: I was told that I have no choice, and to report to station X. Station X was way overstaffed and all of us literally did nothing all morning. It was ridiculous that I could not go to help out, to where I knew I was needed most. The "shift" ended in only a couple of hours… and we were actually told to "go walk around for a couple of hours, so that you will get your full pay for the time-slot."
Day 2: It appeared that Company A hired too many people for a particular time slot I was in. I can't imagine how any of those workers felt, when they showed up only to be turned away! When my shift ended, it was again short two hours of what was the posted time-slot. However, nobody from Company A was around to sign-off their employees when the shift ended, so they all just sat around on the ground. Company V was present to sign off their group… so the pool of people for this time-slot will all get different hours!
Day3: I saw employees just leaving on their own, I saw employees pilfering and eating the runner's food, I saw employees hiding under the table, and I saw employees ransacking the supply tent. The supply tent was a disgrace, as it was attacked and littered with trash from all the opened boxes, wrappers , and banana peels. To corroborate, an assistant to Company V was shown… and she was appalled.
Company A decided that break/lunch would be at the exact time when all the runners were coming though. All the employees from Company A dropped everything and disappeared, and so we were left with almost nobody for the runners at a critical time.
Some of us were trying our best to help, but with the poor attitude from Disney top management, poor attitude from inexperienced workers, lack of support and poor communication, poor employer management from the two companies… it made this extremely difficult for those of us trying to help. Disney's top management decided to hire Company A and Company V to just gather a pool of people, but could not and did not manage them—they treated us badly, and the result is probably lost retention of many valuable experienced workers… and the poor runners who were also treated poorly… took it out on us, too.
While not all the temps had the same extremly negative experience, most found it OK but were undecided about coming back again next year. Another temp wrote:
The main thing I heard that was different was that the 'volunteering' this time lacked the Disney 'Magic'. In the past, the volunteers were given water bottles, lunches, and other Disney 'swag', as well as theme park ticket after working a certain amount of shifts.
This year, there was none of that. I knew not to expect park tickets since we were getting paid, but there was no Disney swag of any kind. No food, no snacks. Even getting water in paper cups was difficult or unavailable for most shifts. While we were given lunch breaks (mandatory for shifts over six hours), we had to either bring our own food or grab a bite at Downtown Disney. Bringing our own food was discouraged, however, as we were told we couldn't bring any bags or anything to work, so it was a bit of a catch-22. I used my 'lunch break' as just an extra long break most of the time, in part because my 'lunch break' often came at around 4 or 5 in the morning, just before the race start.
The decision to drop the complimentary/discounted park tickets also had a negative ripple effect on course entertainment, bands, and cheer squads, which have always provided a much-needed boost in the half marathon between mile 5 when race participants exit the parks, and the finish.
Most notably, the Red Hat Ladies, who have always been an amazing, high-energy course highlight since the inaugural Tinker Bell in 2012, sadly did not return in 2017—and were greatly missed.
One of the biggest issues facing runDisney during the 2017 Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend was in moving everyone safely thrrough park security lines. After the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, race organizers can no longer afford to think that their race is safe; Disneyland and WDW are both considered targets, and security to the parks has been increased in recent years to include heavier scrutiny including metal detectors.
Race events at Walt Disney World win this one hands-down. There is a separate security line for those with no bags, as well as at least six to eight bag check stations. It's efficient and gets thousands of race participants through and on their way. Unfortunately, while previous Disneyland races—including the 2017 Star Wars Light Side—managed this process with ease, security at the 2017 Tinker Bell Half Marathon seemed to be woefully understaffed and overwhelmed.
Friday morning, security for the Never Land 5K seemed to successfully manage the flow of early race participants as they trickled in without issue; minor congestion happened as larger crowds started arriving closer to race start.
Security challenges really started to appear on Saturday during the Tinker Bell 10K when race participants, depending on where they initially entered park property, ended up going through up to five different security gates to get to bag check and back again to the corrals. Families coming in from Harbor Boulevard or Katella Avenue also were run through at least two security gates to reach the family reunion area.
Those entering from Katella were also run through a slow-moving, very small ad-hoc security area where each person was wanded before moving to the corrals. Even the kids races were impacted, as noted by MousePlanet reader jeaniemann, who experienced going in and out of security multiple times to drop off and then 'collect' her child at the finish.
The biggest security issues occurred the morning of the Tinker Bell Half Marathon. The Official Tinker Bell Half Marathon Final Instruction Guide states that race participants should arrive at the parks by 4:30 a.m. to clear security and get to the corrals on time. At 4:00 a.m., security was a breeze. At 4:30 a.m., the line trying to get through East security was backed up from the security gates to Harbor Boulevard and back around. There was no option for those without bags; four bag-checkers were trying to clear hundreds of people and once clearing bag check, everyone was then slowly funneled single-file through a single metal detector, with many of them wanded as well.
Pictures were finding their way to Facebook and other social media showing the chaos. The line crawled, and panic was starting to move through those in line that the race would start without them. Meanwhile, those coming in from the EPSN side after parking at Mickey & Friends breezed right through (getting out of there was another story…).
About the time a riot could have easily started, the flood-gates were opened and everyone was rushed through once their bags were checked. Race participants ran through Downtown Disney, where the next big bottleneck occurred as everyone tried to get through the first of many bib checks at the small gate leading to the corrals. The crowd eventually went back as far as WonderGround as race participants joined the push from both the East and ESPN sides.
Once through that mess, race participants were then again asked to show their bib no less than five times before reaching their corrals. I reached the corral at 5:20 a.m. (10 minutes before the published start time), which is the latest I've ever arrived; the race start was delayed until 5:39 to try and get as many stranded race participants into corrals as possible, but there were those who were late to begin with and were then blocked from entering the corrals.
Amazingly enough, for all the bib showing we had to do, corral cutting was rampant; I was in corral B and was standing next to someone wearing an E bib at the start. Go figure. MousePlanet reader marti424 noted that she was most disappointed in the number of corral jumpers and lack of corral control getting into the corrals. and carolinejay was in corral D with people wearing bibs from E and F. She even noticed an official race pacer with a D bib heading over to the C corral to start.
The Never Land 5K – Where is everyone?
In addition to security problems, one of the biggest errors runDisney made and caused them to rethink things was the decision to remove character meet-and-greets altogether from Friday's Never Land 5K. Normally, there are at least three or four character picture stops along the course, as well as at the finish line. Even the runDisney website promised "Disney characters and entertainment on-course" as highlights of the Never Land 5K.
And yet there was… nada. While I'm not one to stop for character pictures, it was extremely disappointing to lose that ambiance on the course. The World of Color was running, which is always a bonus in the early morning hour. The only character in sight was Captain Hook, and he was behind a wall of cones and would only pose for selfies. So much for that pricey PhotoPass that everyone purchased in the hopes of getting character race shots they couldn't get in the parks. Even official Disney PhotoPass photographers were few and far between.
So what was the thought process of runDisney behind this decision? One theory passed around was that too many people had complained about being swept because they fell too far behind stopping for pictures—so runDisney's solution was to simply remove those experiences that slowed participants down. Another was that Disneyland needed to get the park open and too many people were 'hanging around'. Let's see, there was very little time in Disneyland (from the Castle through Toon Town and out to the backlot), the race started at 5:00 a.m., and the park needed to open for early entry at 8:00 a.m. I'm thinking there should have been no issue getting everyone out of Disneyland in three hours time. And if there was, why do an early open on a race morning?
According to a cast member who was kind enough to contact me, there are actually two answers behind the decision to pull characters and it all goes back to surveys:
- RunDisney's survey results from the last couple of races had Entertainment ranked lower on the list. Other small complaints like the choice of race day or start time (as in 5:00 a.m. or 5:30 a.m.) and even weather took precedence, so RunDisney decided to severely cut the entertainment budget. RunDisney gambled with thinking they were just selling a race, and not the Disney Entertainment Experience
- RunDisney found a buzzword in "Perceived Value" and thought that Tink flying in her fireworks rig was enough for the 5K entertainment. They thought if people wanted to see her fly, as well as meet characters they'd have to do both the 5K and 10K.
Needless to say, this was a major miscalculation on the part of runDisney. While those who were new to the 5K may not have noticed the difference, for those who knew better the reaction to the lack of characters was swift, loud, and brutal. Social media lit up with complaints and promises to never return to a runDisney race. For the $80 price tag, we do expect more than just a fun run. And like many who drank the runDisney Kool-Aid years ago and feel the need to bring others along for what to this point has been such a wonderful ride, well, I felt horrible that I had encouraged two friends to sign up for the 5K with stories about the characters they would see—and now, nothing. As MousePlanet Reader windypines46 wrote, "The fun of a Disney race is getting to run through the parks and there was some of that so it wasn't terrible. But I wouldn't do this particular race again."
To make matters worse, rumor had it that the 10K would be more of the same.
The Tinker Bell 10K – the new 'golden child'
Overall, of the three weekend race events, the Tinker Bell 10K held on Saturday came out relatively unscathed. The revised course was flat and fun, and was overwhelmingly well-received for offering lots of park time. runDisney listened to and took very seriously the firestorm following the lack of characters in Friday's Never Land 5K and made a last-minute decision to return characters such as Pixies Rosetta, Iridessa, and Silvermist, Pirate Chip n Dale and the Lost Boys back out on the course for pictures. Even Mickey Mouse, in pirate garb, made an appearance at the finish line. Photo stops were busy and business at the character selfie stations (especially with Wendy and Peter Pan by the train station) was brisk. Needless to say, had runDisney held to its original decision to pull characters from the 10K course, the firestorm over that decision would have been swift and even more vocal than from the previous day's 5K.
The only major complaint from the race came from the choice of music, which consisted of "Following the Leader" from Peter Pan playing on a continual loop. For many race participants, the song has now joined "it's a small world" in the pantheon of most-hated Disney songs.
The Tinker Bell Half Marathon – PR or not to PR
From all indications, the Tinker Bell Half Marathon was generally well-received, but much of that was dependent on where you started. For those of us fortunate to be in the earlier corrals, we had clear sailing, and many hit personal records, as the course was fast and flat with perfect cool and crisp weather. MousePlanet reader Disneygirl14 commented that the course didn't feel overwhelming as it can when returning from Angel's Stadium as on the Disneyland Half Marathon route.
Unfortunately, as more race participants hit the road, portions of the course became extremely congested, including, as noted by MousePlanet reader Jayhawk3831, a crush of runners trying to get through the castle and almost trampling a Disney PhotoPass photographer in the process. Disneyland has not yet implemented the mini-corral release system used in WDW, which to its credit seems to really help keep congestion to a minimum along most of the course route. Much of this congestion could also be from the speed in which corrals were released. Perhaps the corrals were pushed early due to the late start, but I was in corral B and was on the road just three minutes from race start; that's a very short amount of time for that many people to be on the roads at once.
While characters were sprinkled throughout the parks for pictures, the lack of entertainment outside of the parks was deeply felt, especially by many Legacy and long-time race participants. Normally, there are several school bands, cheer squads, dancers, and the always-awesome Red Hat Ladies out along the city streets to provide much needed pick-me-ups. In 2017, two bands (mile 7 and mile 11) and a DJ around mile 7.5 were the only entertainment outside of the parks on the Tinker Bell Half course—sparse was an understatement. As MousePlanet reader cstephens noted, "I never thought I'd say this, but I missed the cheerleaders out there. I definitely missed the bands."
While we understand that runDisney drastically cut the entertainment budget, the decision to cut the discounted/free park tickets previously provided to those willing to get up early, stand for hours and cheer themselves hoarse until the last walker goes by, has to be a major contributing factor to the long stretches of nothingness on the course. Thankfully, Team MousePlanet was still out offering pick-me-up "Candy from Strangers" as well as the opportunity to take "framed" Mother's Day pictures around mile 8.
If this was your first time running the Tinker Bell Half Marathon, you may not have noticed the lack of excitement; overall it's still a very nice half marathon course. It's just not the $185 (not including Active.com fees) runDisney course that we've come to expect. Given the premium charged for this race (for example over $100 more than Rock n' Roll Los Angeles), it was almost startling to see such a big drop in what we experienced.
As MousePlanet reader Jenny commented, "I found it kind of a bummer. I'm really re-evaluating whether to bother with the half again next year. The 10K was at least all in the parks and though it was deserted, it was enough fun to run through the quiet parks. The half was a lot of money to spend mostly on the empty and not very scenic streets of Anaheim."
The Treasure Lounge – A not-so-VIP experience
Following the VIP Experience offered at Star Wars Light Side, runDisney decided to try again with another $199 offering: the Treasure Lounge: A VIP Experience. Those that purchased the experience could pick up their bibs and pre-purchased merchandise in a relaxed location, attend a Sephora Glamour Running Make-Up Clinic (where one could buy make-up), have a private meet-and-greet with a WonderGround Gallery artist (where one could buy art), gain early/priority access to the Official Race Merchandise Store (where one could buy runDisney-branded 'stuff') and perhaps best of all, post-race have a private cool-down tent with refreshments and an exclusive photo opportunity.
My two Texas buddies, Rae and Mary, decided to take runDisney up on the offer and dropped the $199 to purchase the lounge experience. They are regulars at the WDW race retreats and have for years enjoyed the heated/air conditioned tents and refreshments, especially post-race. From their perspective, the ability to get in and out of merchandise at will was a nice bonus, the Sephora Clinic was fun, but the advertised private cool-down tent consisted of an open tent where they were handed a smoothie and received hearty congratulations. Oh and a really cheap pair of sunglasses. But was it worth $199? Nope.
Escaping from Alcatraz was easier than leaving the Mickey & Friends Parking Lot
The final "what was runDisney thinking?" moment of the weekend came when several thousand cars decided to leave the Mickey & Friends parking lot Sunday morning after the race at the same time without the benefit of Anaheim Police (APD) to help direct traffic. Gridlock ensued, with some sitting in their idling cars for over two hours.
MousePlanet reader carobell02 described her experience:
I was parked in the Minnie level (the top level) and left my parking spot at approximately 10:15 Sunday morning. I had no problem getting to the ramp to go down to the bottom level of the structure but only made it about three car-lengths down the ramp before I stopped. The traffic was backed up to that point in every lane I could see.
I did not move an inch from that spot for 30 minutes. People were getting out of their cars and trying to figure out what was going on. No one knew at that point. We finally started inching forward, but it was very slow still. I moved maybe one car length every 10 minutes. I tweeted the dilemma to @DisneylandToday and they responded with a Direct Message apologizing for the delays and assuring me that cast members and Anaheim PD knew the dilemma was occurring and they were getting there to help.
So I thought things could clear or at least speed up. They did not. It took me almost two and a half hours to reach Ball Road and turn right. The issue that I could piece together from what I saw and what people were saying on Facebook, was the guests coming into the resort from Ball were turning left into the driveway of the structure but there was not room for them to turn. So instead of waiting until there was room, they went anyways and blocked the intersection for those of us trying to get out.
Anaheim PD did show up finally, but their solution was to close the entrance to the parking structure and reroute those people to Toy Story lot. But that made things back up even more and did not clear up the issue at all. So by the time I got to the lowest level, the pathway into the structure was completely clear and empty but I was still inching forward.
It was so frustrating. If they had allowed the path into the structure to clear and then opened it again, the blocked intersection would have been quickly cleared. For the lanes coming out of the structure, the second problem was that a lot of those cars insisted on turning left at the light onto Ball, which were the lanes blocked. But those cars locked us into place and made it impossible to get over to the right lanes. Those lanes were going straight towards the I-5 or turning right to Ball. Those lanes were freely flowing, but since I was approaching from the far left, I could not get to those lanes for over two hours.
Reports are that cast members managed to get a few cars out the 'up' ramps but for everyone else, it was a very slow slog. For many, it was sadly the last straw in a weekend that seemed to be just one mess-up after another.
So, was the 2017 Tinker Bell Half Marathon weekend a complete cluster? Well… no. As noted, there were several highlights, including the Tinker Bell 10K, which seemed to be the shining star of the events. The weather was near perfect, especially for the Sunday half marathon. And the finisher's medals were stunning this year—especially the revamped Pixie Dust Challenge medal thanks to the partnership with Pandora, who helped in the design.
- The 2017 races didn't sell out: runDisney was still selling Pixie Dust Challenge and both 10K and half marathon bibs on Friday at the expo. Half marathon registration was open until 2:30 p.m. on Saturday. There were over 2300 fewer finishers in the half marathon in 2017 than in 2016—that is a big drop in race participants, and those sales were before all of the weekend's drama.
- There was also a significant drop in Legacy Tinks from 2016, when there were over a 1000, to 690 in 2017. There is always an expected drop from the fifth year to subsequent years, but this was a pretty notabble dip. And once you lose your Legacy status, there is no getting it back if you change your mind.
- The new temp worker program resulted in an overall loss of skilled help, and in many cases, was apparently very poorly managed.
- Race entertainment and characters were in short supply and in the case of the 5K, non-existent; runDisney charges some of the highest prices in the entire running race industry, and we expect the same level of on-course experiences each year. Many of us really missed the third-shift custodial who are always a bright cheer spot; what few cast members were on the course were appreciated but many seemed to be less than thrilled to be there, which was so different than previous years.
And if this is an issue for Tinker Bell, what does this mean for other future runDisney races? As MousePlanet Editor Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix noted, "Without the free tickets for the volunteer program, I fear for what this means for the Star Wars races—if the cosplayers are not included somehow, that's a big letdown for the runners."
- Security needs to be seriously reviewed and re-thought. While we are all for being safe and the well-being of race participants and spectators is of utmost importance, there needs to be more security CMs available in the early morning as everyone makes their way to the races, as well as a better thought out plan for moving around once through a security check. And any thoughts on security should also include the issues with ID checks during bib pick-up, which needs to be strengthened.
- Departures from Mickey & Friends parking has to be managed and not allowed to 'organically' manage itself. Spending two hours sitting in a parking structure is just not exceptable even in LA.
We understand these are expensive races to put on, but for the price, runners could sign up for two to four other local races. What we pay for is the Disney magic which, while there were glimmers of it, was seriously lacking in 2017.
If you haven't already contacted runDisney and really care about the future of runDisney races, now is the time. As one CM told me, "Some of my fellow cast members who are AV techs have told me there are also rumors of a location change and eliminating more entertainment, so I'd suggest those who miss these elements to be vocal."
Make your voice heard.
And finally, a big thank you to everyone who took the time to provide their feedback for this article. Your comments and first-hand experience truly helped tell the story.