Aurora resident Jackie Horvath, 57, and her 27-year-old daughter, Rachel, never thought that their love of all things Disney would help get them into shape. But in the past two years, mother and daughter have run six runDisney races together split between Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif.
It was peer pressure from acquaintances on a Facebook Disney fan group who nudged the Horvaths to train for their first runDisney race, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror 10-Miler at Walt Disney World in 2012.
runDisney racesGetting there: There are direct flights from a number of airlines flying out of both Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and Midway International Airport to Orlando in Florida and the Los Angeles area.
Plan in advance if you want to see other California or Florida sites, or if you prefer to stay completely within the Disney theme park bubble. You may have to pay extra parking fees depending upon the hotel, so take that into consideration if you plan to rent a car. Also, some shuttle bus companies offer coupons or advance booking discounts from their websites for transportation between the airport and Disney theme parks (try graylineanaheim.com or supershuttle.com).
Where to Stay: Official Disney resort hotels can be pricey, but you get the benefits of early park admission and being within walking distance of major attractions at the California Disneyland Resort. The three official properties are the Disneyland Hotel, the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa and the Paradise Pier Hotel. There are also a number of surrounding properties known as "Good Neighbor Hotels," which is sort of a Disney stamp of approval for non-Disney-owned places to stay.
At Walt Disney World in Florida, its many resort hotels are part of a thorough monorail or shuttle network.
Staying at a nearby Disney property also means that runDisney participants can save time by forgoing the gear check lines.
Getting registered: The eight available runDisney race weekends are extremely popular, so they often sell out quickly. For example, runDisney reported that the 2014 Disneyland Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend filled up in less than two days, while the 2013 Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend sold out in 26 hours. You can sometimes beat the rush by registering early if you are a Disney theme park annual pass holder.
Registration opens Tuesday, March 25, for the Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon Weekend, the newest runDisney set of races debuting at Disneyland between Friday, Nov. 14, through Sunday, Nov. 16. The weekend features kid races, a 5K and a half marathon.
Plan ahead: Don't book a runDisney race without doing the proper training in advance. It's humiliating to be "swept off" the racecourse if you can't maintain the minimum pacing requirements.
There are a few runDisney training and nutritional programs available on its website. Former Olympic runner Jeff Galloway offers a number of run-walk training regimens for beginning runners, while nutritionist Tara Gidus provides advice on what to eat before or after races.
Make sure to test your running gear in advance. That includes any costume embellishments to portray your favorite Disney cartoon or Marvel comic book characters.
More info: For official tourist information on runDisney races, see rundisney.com.
"Neither of us were ever runners before," said Jackie.
"That first race, I was truly struggling to get across the finish line."
But now, she and Rachel are so confident with their run-walk pacing routine that they take time out during runDisney races to get pictures in front of rides and with the many costumed characters stationed along the course. The Horvaths also prize being able to run races through and behind the scenes of Disney theme parks and to gawk at the outrageous Disney costumes sometimes worn by other runners.
It's no wonder that Disney wanted to boost tourism at its theme parks by tapping into the travel market of die-hard runners who journey all over the globe to races. But the Horvaths are prime examples of another market: Die-hard Disney fans who have become runners thanks to runDisney races.
"There are tons of people who are not regular runners," said Rachel, adding that she never felt out of place at her first runDisney race.
"People feel that Disney is a safe place to be with your family and also one that you can run a race," said Tammy Jacobsen, manager of marketing for runDisney. "Runner's World magazine recently ranked Walt Disney World among the top 10 half marathon races for a beginner, so it's certainly a place that people feel like it's a great start for running and Disney makes it fun with entertainment along the way."
The first Walt Disney World Marathon debuted in 1994, but it wasn't until around 2010 that Disney put on a marketing push to expand the number and types of runDisney race weekends at its two theme parks in Florida and California.
For example, the Princess Half Marathon Weekend at Walt Disney World and the Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend at Disneyland attract mostly women runners, while entire families are drawn to the nighttime Expedition Everest Challenge at Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom Park in Florida. This 5K race includes a scavenger hunt element and exclusive post-race access to select attractions.
And for those who don't entirely buy into the whole Disney theme, the newest runDisney event is the Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon Weekend, debuting this year at Disneyland between Nov. 14-16. This race uses Disney's recent acquisition of Marvel Comics to reach out to superhero fans who would rather run as Iron Man than Mickey Mouse.
Disney schedules the runDisney races at times when attendance is typically slower. For example, runDisney estimates that the Walt Disney World Marathon weekend in January attracted more than 50,000 runners and nearly 50,000 spectators.
Disney fans and collectors are lured by the beautifully designed runDisney participant medals, with some only available to those who run multiple races. There is a special Coast to Coast medal for runners who complete one race at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World in the same calendar year, and a special Glass Slipper Challenge medal for those who ran two races during the Princess Half Marathon weekend this past February.
"Those are expensive races to sign up for," admits Jackie, noting that the registration for the Avengers Half Marathon ranges between $195-$225.
But the Horvaths say the great atmosphere at runDisney races is much more fun than local races they've run. Jackie and Rachel now try to schedule their visits to Disney theme parks to coincide with races.
"I love the fitness aspect of it and I feel better than ever," said Jackie, proud that she's lost about 30 pounds in the past two years thanks to dietary changes and runDisney race training. "I love the fun that we have doing it and the people that we've gotten to know. It's a joy and I don't see any reason not to continue doing it as long as I can continue running those races."