For a start, a few basic thoughts, which I want to preface by saying that I think the Princess Half Marathon is a fantastic race. I love the underlying messages that a) princesses are fit and strong and b) princesses (and runners) come is ALL shapes and sizes. I think it provides a supportive atmosphere for anyone looking to tackle their first half marathon and a fun atmosphere to give the experienced runner a break from taking their running too seriously, if they want to do so. I also love that it gives me, personally, an excuse to spend time with my best friend and my family who live in the Orlando area. I'll write up my own personal experience after I get this off my chest.
However, I think that RunDisney has done a disservice to this wonderful race this year by expanding capacity far beyond what the course and its own resources are capable of handling. In 2011, there were 14,000 finishers (at least according to my certificate). Last year, there were 17,000. This year, there were 21,000 finishers. The rapid expansion in the number of participants and the major rise in the entry fee, without accompanying changes to the infrastructure of the race to accommodate those crowds, feels greedy and threatens to do significant damage to the reputation of a truly wonderful event.
The biggest issue is crowding. I’ve been lucky not to have had significant problems with crowding during my two Princesses, but I will note that the course was crowded in the first few miles this year in a way that I don’t remember from 2011. Luckily, I was in corral A because I had times to support the fact that I could finish under 2:15. I was in amongst a group that was only running a tiny bit slower than I wanted to be running at that point in the race, so it wasn’t a big deal to me. I also remember thinking that, in the final mile of the race, it was still way more crowded than in 2011. I remember feeling like I was almost alone in Epcot last time; this year, we were definitely surrounded by many other runners. It was fine – nothing worse than running the London Marathon or Cherry Blossom, for sure, but a noticeable and anecdotal difference in my own experiences. (I’d note that we only finished two minutes faster than I did in 2011, so I don’t think finishing time is much of a variable here.) However, I’ve also seen a number of other bloggers and online message board posters commenting on the problems they had with crowding (the Castle in Magic Kingdom is a significant chokepoint for many, as were the single-lane sections of the roads, where people either had to walk, stop completely, or move on to the grass shoulder). This was an issue for those who started further back in 2011, too, but it seems like RunDisney hasn’t addressed this already-known issue, while massively increasing capacity.
For any would-be princesses: do yourself a major favor and run a local 10K. If you submit a time to RunDisney that supports a decently speedy finishing time (<2:45, I think), you’ll get a significantly better corral placement and save yourself a lot of headache.
I also noticed how bad the crowding was in the start/finish areas of the race. (NOT the finisher’s chute – that was awesome! They did a great job keeping people moving, getting fluids in our hands as quickly as possible, congratulating everyone, having tons of medical supplies ready to grab, and making food distribution super efficient. And bag check at Princess is still pretty much the best bag check system I’ve ever seen in my life – awesome!) Lines for the port-o-potties were pretty long and after the race you could barely fight your way through the family reunion area (particularly its narrow entrance/exit). Again – it seemed like it was the same size as in 2011, just with twice as many runners and supporters. And, we were on the front end of finishers, so I suspect it only got worse after we left. There was a lot of traffic that the buses had to contend with, as well - the trip from Port Orleans to dropoff at Epcot took almost an hour.
The thing, however, that was absolutely horrible for me, personally, was the Expo. I’m not an inexperienced runner and I’ve been in some really big races (the London Marathon is ~35K runners), but this was by far the worst one that I’ve ever seen. For some reason, which may have had to do with baseball spring training, the Expo was moved to the Coronado Springs Resort from its usual home at ESPN Wide World of Sports. It was only accessible by taking a Disney bus, either from a host resort or by parking at Downtown Disney (which was a HUGE inconvenience for many people). I honestly think that the size of the ballroom was appropriate for an expo of this size, but that the space was horribly misused. Essentially, the space was divided in half: half was for bib pickup and the other half was for everything else, including all the vendors, the stage for speakers, official merchandise, and shirt/bag pickup. So, essentially, the right hand side was empty with absolutely boatloads of empty space (to their credit, no lines for getting race bibs, tons of volunteers), while the left side of the room was so packed that it was hard to move. The line for shirt pickup, which was located in the back corner of the room, was at least 10 minutes long. The line to get in to the official merchandise area was at least 15 minutes long. You could barely move in there and, let me tell you, it really didn’t make me want to linger and shop and I’m a person who LOVES big race expos (I go to them even when I’m not running a race, just to look at what’s new or shop). At first I thought that we had just accidentally gone at a bad time, but the word on twitter and the discussion boards was that it was bad all day both Friday and Saturday. Terrible and there’s no excuse for it. There’s got to be someone at Disney who knows how to run a trade expo.
I’ve been going on at some length here, so I’m going to do some summarizing.
Things that were really good:
· There were plenty of drinks stations/drinks/volunteers out on the course. I was worried after Tower of Terror, where they ran out.
· I loved the feather flags to tell you where they were handing out each specific flavor of Clif Shot (although an earlier gel station would be awesome, too).
· As I noted above, the finisher chute was spectacular.
· Bag check organization is out of this world.
· CAST MEMBERS!!! Seriously. They’re incredible. They were out in force in Epcot and the Magic Kingdom, as well as in strategic parts of the course where there weren’t other spectators. Every single one was cheering us on, giving encouragement, clapping, screaming, etc. They really helped get us through tough bits and their enthusiasm was really special. Cast members are THE BEST.
· I LOVE the medal.
· I went to the 5K on Saturday to support my cousin and her husband. I wish I’d run it, though, because the course through the Epcot World Showcase sounds amazing. The shirt and medal were pretty darn cute, too!
· I still love that they make a big deal out of starting every single corral. Fireworks FTW!
· Awesome that RunDisney accommodated the many, many participants whose flights were affected by weather delays and offered packet pickup on the mornings of both races.
· The system for getting everyone on buses back to resorts after the races are great.
· Seemed like fewer characters out on the course (I don't stop for photos, but they're a very welcome distraction!).
· The post-5K breakfast (which we’d bought thinking that it was after Princess, not after the 5K), which was advertised as a chance to meet the Princesses. Kind of disappointing – they only had three there and closed the line to meet them half an hour before the breakfast ended. My cousin was in the stroller division, so we didn’t get there until 8:45 and opted to eat first, because we’d all been in the Epcot parking lot since 6am. And then, we couldn’t even meet the princesses. Which would be fine, I understand that cast members have to manage their time carefully, but $37.50 is a lot to pay for some French toast.
· Oh, god, the Expo (see above).
· Crowding (see above)
· Communication before the race (RunDisney was not responsive to FB/twitter/e-mail messages and sent out communications long after promised on the website)
· Shirt sizing always kind of sucks, because they don’t have charts
· Busing to the start – need bus lanes
I do want to go out of my way to note that there are still a number of great things about this race. I seriously hope that RunDisney will do a thorough reflection on what worked and didn’t work this year and come back with some changes for next year. I think I'd want to see some changes before I sign up to run Princess again, particularly in light of the really expensive race fees and the fact that Florida weather just isn't very fun for me to run in.