Once Upon a Time
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.
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.
M&C Web Exclusive: A Planner On the Run
Here's a look at the jam-packed agenda of Michelle Maready, senior sports manager for Disney Sports Attractions, as she went through the paces of the annual Disney half-marathon held at Walt Disney World in Orlando, the culmination of 500 days of planning.
4 a.m. – Arrive on-site to assist 5K team at Disney's Animal Kingdom (the "Circle of Life" Lion King-themed event). Check with sponsorship team to ensure that CIGNA sponsor is happy with setup. Check-ins with race operations, entertainment and volunteer team leaders.
7 a.m. – At finish line for troubleshooting
9 a.m. – Check in at Jostens Center Expo and review status of setup for kids' races that will take place at (11 a.m. at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex)
10 a.m.-12 p.m. – Final meeting with volunteers. Last opportunity to meet with everyone before event weekend. Review updates and last-minute changes. Distribute any new paperwork. Distribute radios and apparel. Separate breakout session for water-stop volunteers (half of volunteers are for water stops).
12-4:30 p.m. – Meet with staging director to confirm setup of race retreat, family reunion and finish line areas. This includes checking on the communications and command center, medical tent, media tent, media bridge, sponsor tent, merchandise tent, refreshment area, bag-check tent, finish line, entertainment stage -- and positioning of 800-plus portable toilets. Also ensure that all race medals have been accounted for.
6-7 p.m. – Break and prep for VIP reception.
7-9 p.m. – Attend VIP reception at Disney's Yacht & Beach Club Convention Center. Attendees include sponsors, past winners, expo guest speakers, media and race directors from other races.
9-10 p.m. – Unplug fax machine from sports team office and transport it to the media tent as a backup for the fax machine that was not delivered.
10 p.m.-1 a.m. – Rest break.
1-2 a.m. – Final prep before driving the course. Review reports from registration/expo to determine final number of runners scheduled to be at starting line. Last opportunity to confirm if additional F&B, medals or other items are needed at guest staging area.
2 a.m. – Command center opens. Confirm that monorails and motor coaches are staged for transporting guests from all 27 resorts across property to the guest staging area. Confirm that volunteers have arrived at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex and are transported to Epcot.
2:23 a.m. – Receive first propertywide communication sent to key race personnel, operations partners and senior WDW executives.
2-3:50 a.m. – Drive through course with course director, endurance team leader, decorating and event support. Course install starts as late as possible so that roadways remain open for regular resort guests. Installation includes mile markers, extensive array of traffic cones, entertainment elements, water stations, and Port-O-Lets.
In addition to roadways, the team drives through the Magic Kingdom Park and Epcot, which are race-ready with the help of the respective park's special-events team.
Confirm that volunteer teams arrive at Epcot and are transported to assigned areas. Guest transportation commences from all resorts.
3:50 a.m. – Complete course drive. Cross the finish line and transfer to a golf cart. Meet with staging director to confirm preparedness for runner arrivals in staging area. Be on-site for all that follows.
4:20 a.m. – Wheelchair athletes assemble at starting line.
4:30-5:30 a.m. – Runner arrivals.
5 a.m. – Roadway closures begin.
5:30-6 a.m. – Pre-race entertainment.
5:48 a.m. – Wheelchair start.
5:50-5:55 a.m. – First wave of runners take off.
6-6:16 a.m. – Second wave commences. Relocate to finish line; oversee final arrangements for awards ceremony (recognizes top three male finishers, top three female finishers and the top male and female wheelchair finishers). Continually receive updates on who's leading on the course.
Eight volunteers, all cross-country runners, are assigned to host top finishers after the race. Many winners continue to run after passing the finish line, and some volunteers stay with them and guide them to where they need to be for the awards. Work with the PR team to identify human-interest stories for the media.
6:40 a.m. – Relocate to finish line. Final review of entertainment logistics that have been pre-set by the entertainment team (entertainment, confetti, preparing spectators to cheer runners). Final preview of race logistics (finish-line tape, volunteer staging, etc.) handled by race logistics team.
6:58 a.m. – David Jankowski is first runner to cross finish line.
8:15 a.m. – Confirm volunteers have shepherded all winners to stage.
8:30 a.m. – Award ceremony takes place on main stage. Winners made available for media interviews.
9:52 a.m. – Final runner crosses finish line.
12-6 p.m. – Break.
6 p.m. – Work commences on the WDW full marathon, which starts in 12 hours.