Avoiding the Crowdsby Lani Teshima, staff writer
Avoiding the marathon crowds: Tips for maintaining space and sanity during marathon weekends
Walt Disney World holds very popular running races for the general public. WDW is nearing 20 years with its marathon, and it now has even more endurance events in addition to its very popular marathon and half-marathon held every January). These events offer good excuse for people to visit the parks, and even enjoy a trip with the whole family.
Walt Disney World holds its marathon and half-marathon on either the first or second weekend of January. That period after Christmas and New Year's has traditionally been considered off-season. The marathon weekend provided Disney with extra guests during a slow period, and participants got to enjoy a marathon in a relatively mild climate. This has changed in the last few years; when Disney split the half-marathon out to Saturday (with the full marathon still maintaining its Sunday schedule), this allowed Disney to substantially increase the capacity on both events. Add to this the growing popularity of the event, and "marathon weekend" often means the resort hotels get booked full.
For many, however, the lull after the holidays is still a great time to take a trip. Florida's balmy climate beckons, and airfare is still relatively cheap. But what if you have no interest in the marathon? What if you are running in one of these events, but your family members want to do things completely unrelated to the marathon? In today's article, let's look at some of the ways to avoid the crowds if you find yourself vacationing at a Disney resort during marathon weekend.
When to plan to visit in January
January is traditionally a slow travel period, as long as you avoid the days shouldering New Year's Day. In addition, many states observe Martin Luther King Day, which is on a Monday in the middle of the month. The weekend that Disney has held its marathon has varied, but it always occurs between New Year's and Martin Luther King Day:
- 2000: Marathon held January 9 (first weekend of the month). MLK Day was on the 17th (second weekend)
- 2001: Marathon held January 7 (first weekend). MLK Day was on the 15th (second weekend)
- 2002: Marathon held January 6 (first weekend). MLK Day was on the 17th (third weekend)
- 2003: Marathon held January 12 (second weekend). MLK Day was on the 20th (third weekend)
- 2004: Marathon held January 11 (second weekend). MLK Day was on the 19th (third weekend)
- 2005: Marathon held January 9 (second weekend) MLK Day was on the 17th (third weekend)
- 2006: Marathon held January 7-8 (first weekend). MLK Day was on the 16th (second weekend)
- 2007: Marathon held January 6-7 (first weekend). MLK Day was on the 15th (second weekend)
This means that if you can avoid it at all but you still wish to travel in January, consider arriving after Martin Luther King Day. On the other hand, you can take advantage of an extra day off from work and incorporate Martin Luther King Day in your trip, as long as you arrive to the resort no earlier than the Tuesday after the marathon. If you show up on Tuesday, you will still see some marathoners walking stiffly, but you will miss the bulk of the participants, many of whom depart on Monday or Tuesday.
When to fly
When Disney split off the half-marathon to its own day on Saturday, it caused many participants to have to change their routine; for those who made a quick jaunt to WDW just for the marathon weekend to run the half-marathon, all of a sudden flying out of town after work on Friday and settling down on Saturday was no longer an option. For this reason, if you are looking to book air travel, keep in mind that marathoners will start arriving throughout the week leading up to the marathon, with the bulk of them arriving on Thursdays or Fridays.
New for 2007, the Family Fun Run 5K now has its own day, on Friday morning. Families planning to participate in the Fun Run can push crowds forward even more, with some traveling as early as Wednesday.
If you cannot avoid travel plans that overlap the marathon weekend, try to avoid flying in on Thursday or Friday, and avoid leaving on the following Monday. These days tend to be crowded at the check-in counters at the on-property resorts. On the other hand, checking in on Sunday (the day of the marathon) may actually be a very pleasant experience, since there won't be quite as many marathoners checking out that day.
Reserving your rooms early
In January of this year, Disney actually filled up all of its rooms for marathon weekend (or that is what was conveyed to those who waited to make reservations in December). If you are an annual passholder waiting until the last minute to book your room, beware! Many of the participants may splurge for the more convenient Deluxe-category hotels (such as the ones directly on the monorail line), while the large groups of charitable organizations (such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training) reserve rooms in more affordable ones (such as Pop Century and the All-Stars).
Even if your trip coincides with marathon weekend, you can still get around relatively easily. As long as you make your arrangements in advance, you can use Disney's Magical Express free airport shuttle service, and you will not be too inconvenienced by marathoners when you use the Disney transportation system on-property. However, there are some major hassles associated with driving around Disney property on Saturday and Sunday, and these have to do specifically with road and parking lot closures for the marathons.
The biggest impact that marathon weekend has on transportation, however, is with drivers. Disney closes numerous roads leading in and out of the theme parks, or blocks large chunks of parking lots. If you are planning to visit the parks on marathon weekend, you are strongly encouraged to leave your car in the hotel parking lot and get around using Disney shuttle buses or monorails. If, however, you need to use a car to get around the parks, for any reason, here are the potential road closures you should be aware of:
Friday, Saturday, Sunday at Disney's Wide World of Sports: There are no other large events scheduled at the venue for the weekend, so there should be no reason you need to go to the Wide World of Sports. If you do, however, keep in mind that this is where the Fitness Expo is held, and it gets very crowded. The parking lot is often filled to capacity during parts of the weekend, as all participants go to pick up their race packets (and the expo is open all day and into the early evening).
Friday morning at Disney-MGM Studios: For the first time in 2007, the Family Fun Run 5K is being held exclusively within this park. The event starts at 7:00 a.m. The park opens to the public at 9:00 a.m. so the event should be completely done by then, but be aware that a section of the parking lot will be set aside for participants. There should not be any full road closures at this park on Friday.
Saturday morning at Epcot and Magic Kingdom: The half-marathon starts at Epcot, heads to the Magic Kingdom, then back to Epcot. Publicly accessible roads (such as World Drive) are completely closed, and large sections of the Epcot parking lot and TTC are closed. On this day, the Magic Kingdom opens at 9:00 a.m. and Epcot (Future World) at 10:00 a.m. You will encounter the least disruptions if you park at TTC, even if you wish to visit Epcot (just take the monorail).
Sunday morning at all the parks: The marathon touts itself as traveling through all four parks. You encounter similar road closures as you find for Saturday's half-marathon, but you will also encounter lane closures throughout most of the roads that connect the parks to each other. Sunday's event is longer, and although some roads will start opening up as early as 9:00 a.m., expect traffic due to lane closures and rubber neckers.
Getting around in the parks
Aside from seeing a lot of physically fit people over marathon weekend, you are not too adversely impacted by the extra marathoners visiting the parks. However during the marathon event itself, there will be sections of the parks that are coned off:
Epcot: The park itself serves as marathon central and the marathoners will still be running through the park well after the park opens. Future World is scheduled to open at 9:00 a.m. and World Showcase at 11:00 a.m. The course enters Epcot by the Boardwalk entrance, and winds its way around World Showcase, then cuts through Future World and exits into the park's parking lot. Even with pacing requirements the course will still be open until after noon. The course is monitored by volunteers and CMs, but at least half of the walkway in World Showcase is coned off for marathoners. To avoid them altogether, you can visit the UK and Canada areas in World Showcase, as well as Imagination Pavilion, Soarin' and the Living Seas areas.
Animal Kingdom: Opens on Sunday at 9:00 a.m. so you will see some of the slower runners going through the park. As with Epcot, there will be marked locations where you cannot cross easily. The marathoners do not go to Camp Mickey and Minnie or to the Kilimanjaro Safari areas, if you wish to avoid them altogether.
Magic Kingdom: Opens at 9:00 a.m., right after the pacing requirement cut-off for marathoners. You are likely to see remnants of the marathon course (which travels pretty much through the entire park) but the marathon itself should not impact your visit.
Disney-MGM Studios: Opens at 9:00 a.m. and includes portions of the marathon course. Marathoners get to run past Tower of Terror then quickly head out the park entrance so impact is not too great, but because this is the last stretch before marathoners start heading toward Epcot (via Boardwalk), you are likely to see a considerable number of slower joggers and walkers well into around 11:00 a.m. or so. If you wish to avoid them altogether, consider visiting attractions like Star Tours, as the marathon course does not enter the Backlot area at all.
Finally, even after the running portion of the weekend is over, Downtown Disney is the site of the post-event awards ceremony in the early evening. Although most participants don't bother to attend, there are enough of them that the area will feel a little crowded. If you want to enjoy Pleasure Island on Sunday night, consider going later at night, when the tired marathoners are tucked away in their hotel beds.