Michelle Maready doesn't literally "run" marathons, but what she does is arguably harder: She organizes them. As senior sports manager for Disney Sports Attractions, a division of the Walt Disney Co., Maready is the driving force behind the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend, held in Orlando each January, along with other events taking place throughout the year.
As a runner, the challenge is over in a few exhilarating hours. As a planner, however, it takes 500 days from start to finish and draws nearly 45,000 participants from all 50 states and 40 countries, who run in any of four different races. The planning effort requires an incredible knack for logistics, a talented and expansive support team, boundless enthusiasm and precious little sleep.
This past January, M&C's Loren Edelstein spent time with Maready to discuss the event and preview the half-marathon course (before heading back to Epcot at 3:30 the next morning to take part in the race herself). Here's what Maready had to say on-site in the midst of the pre-marathon buzz.
What are the main events of the Marathon Weekend?
A big component is the Health & Fitness Expo at the new Jostens Center, a 70,000-square-foot facility that opened in July at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex [and is available for private events]. The Expo opens Thursday and runs through Saturday evening. This year we have 76 exhibitors, plus seminars and celebrity appearances. Every runner has to go there to register, and a lot of them bring their families. We'll have approximately 65,000 guests come to the Expo — which is 30 percent larger this year than last — over the course of the weekend.
And then there are the races, beginning with the Circle of Life 5K (with 4,000 runners) and shorter kids' races on Friday and Saturday (about 2,300 participants in total), the half-marathon (17,000 registrants) on Saturday morning and the full marathon Sunday (22,000).
We also have 4,500 runners who do Goofy's Race and a Half Challenge, which means they run the half-marathon and then the next day they do the full marathon. They get an extra medal and three commemorative shirts — there's a whole program set aside for them. Registration for Goofy's Challenge opens the day after the race for the following year, and it's usually filled within three weeks.
Throughout the weekend, we have so many ancillary events going on at our properties and meeting facilities, some held by sponsoring companies like CIGNA or participating charities, the largest of which is The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team in Training program, which attracts some 2,000 runners alone.
What makes this race unique?
It is all on Walt Disney World property, and that's an experience you can't replicate anywhere else. The half-marathon goes through Epcot and the Magic Kingdom, and the full marathon goes through all four parks, including Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. We have entertainment all along the way, including bands, cheering squads and Disney characters throughout the course. Some runners stop to get an autograph from every character they see. Some even run dressed as their favorite character! This year, we will have a gospel choir near the finish line.
How many people work the event?
I am part of a core team of 13, and we work with more than 100 team leaders across Walt Disney World who represent a variety of support functions and operations. We also recruit 6,000 volunteers for the weekend, including 1,000 on the medical team alone. I work closely with our race director, Jon Hughes, and his company, EMMI, which provides year-round support for the event. Of course, every cast member [Disney-speak for "staff"] in the parks and hotels becomes an extension of our team.
What will you do when this weekend is over?
We'll be busy with post-event things for a couple of weeks. Then, I might take a weekend off! But I'll be right back to work on the logistics of a new event this year — the Disney Princess Half Marathon, a women-focused race on March 8. Once that's over, I'm thinking about a two-week vacation in April.
There was a time when early January was the slowest time of year for Walt Disney World. Too few visitors came to the parks, when so many had just splurged for the year-end holidays. Disney's marketing minds tackled that challenge 16 years ago, exploring ways to turn around the post-holiday lull.
"We looked at the success of the marathon model and thought about how we could get into that marathon buzz," says Kathleen Duran, Disney's area manager for the sports team, who oversees all endurance events. "January is great weather for a marathon," she adds.
In January 1994, Disney held its first 5K and marathon, which drew about 8,000 participants. Then, in 1998, the half-marathon was added.
"This weekend we will have close to 45,000 guests registered to participate in the four different races," notes Duran, "but a total of 85,000 guests will come on property throughout the weekend." This January the hotels were nearly at full capacity.
"We really tap into what Disney has to offer," adds Duran. "We can create unique programs for groups, and carry their experience into the expo, character experiences, eat- and-greets. Every hotel is ready for these guests. Everybody in the parks will acknowledge them. We have the entire resort area helping us provide a memorable experience." -- L.G.E.