“Welcome, Foolish Mortals”: Walt Disney World Memories & My First Half Marathon

“Welcome, Foolish Mortals”: Walt Disney World Memories & My First Half Marathon

“Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”

– Walt Disney

For me, Walt Disney World is the epitome of youthful entertainment. While I do not consider myself a Disney enthusiast, I have great memories of traveling to Florida as a child and experiencing the magic with an imaginative spirit. As an adult, I visited with a far less carefree tenor, possibly a wistful smirk, but no less respectful of the powerful hold Disney has on those whose minds are full of wishes. Ninety-eight years after founding the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in Hollywood, the company represents a greater visual authenticity than ever before. Yet, 2021 observes the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World in Florida. Today, I celebrate the anniversary of Walt Disney World in the one way I know how; exploring nostalgic Disney memories. I had a wonderful experience visiting Walt Disney World in my youth. As an adult, I went to Disney on several occasions, all very different but no less memorable. Of course, visiting as a child is magical, and I will discuss Walt Disney World of today and my childhood, but I will include my trip to run the 2014 Wine & Dine Half Marathon.

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

Life is wild, maybe not as wild as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, but wild, nonetheless. Take the last two years, for example, horribly hectic. Weirdly enough, the trauma of the pandemic offered my wife, Corinne, and me the opportunity to reset our lives. We found network television programming dull with so much time inside, especially during cold New England months. Sure, we watched several shows, but primarily those on Netflix, HULU, Amazon, and Disney+. Oddly enough, YouTube became our favorite choice to watch short, entertaining, and randomly Disney-centric content. We have enjoyed the guilty pleasure of reality television, like Below Deck on Bravo or 90 Day Fiancé on TLC. Still, since the onset of the pandemic, we couldn’t enjoy these highly charged negative shows any longer. Instead, on YouTube, we watched flight attendant content and discovered positivity in weekly planner vlogs.

Strangely, our most trusted content concentrated around Disney and those welcoming faces who, to be honest, helped us get through some of the most challenging days of the pandemic. To this day, I feel it is necessary to thank those who helped provide us with a tinge of brevity. It helped that they did not put out solely Disney-centric content. Several visited comic conventions, haunted attractions, and other amusement parks like Bush Gardens or Universal Orlando. They reviewed hip restaurants, visited lively carnivals, did so in respectful ways, and showed that life could go on. I probably know more about Disney and its appeal than ever before. Often while watching, I will instinctively answer a question correctly, thus leading me to ask myself, “why do I know that?”

When considering Disney-centric content, AllEars.Net has been Corinne, and I’s go-to constantly. Molly, the host, can be described as the G.O.A.T. of Disney knowledge. Along with Morgan, Breedlove, RJay, and Quincy, Molly is a delight. Molly’s infectious laugh, ability to eat everything, and provide incredible, and often emotional, insight, with an ability to make the simple seem exciting is fascinating and impressive to watch. I love everything about that channel, the hilarious editor, and the uniquely designed content, like “Ultimate Races,” “Remember That Time,” or Molly simply being Molly. Molly helped me rekindle my enjoyment of Disney by offering entertaining content. I have missed very few episodes and am always eager to watch the newest upload.

Jackie, from Super Enthused, and Nate, from Paging Mr. Morrow, are two favorites of Corinne and me. They are fun to watch, with excellent Disney content, and carve their unique path in a large content creator world. Each of them has shown some unique ways to think about Disney, Universal, but they have taken viewers to fantastic haunted attractions, journeys far from home but near their hearts, and in so doing, inspired me. This blog owes gratitude to Jackie, who ignited my creativity to share what enthusiastically motivates me. I love following their channels. Whether Jackie excitedly explores an Epcot Pavilion or Nate is at a Disney Springs eatery where he orders a beer and a delicious meal – the creators are passionate.

I can’t ignore Dani, from Dani.702, an outstanding content creator, sharing her love of all things fun and exciting in the Florida area. In the end, Super Enthused, Paging Mr. Morrow, Dani.702, and AllEars.net – all have made life a little easier, more entertaining, and, sounding purposely cliche, magical. They have offered my wife and me an opportunity to find some mental solace. It just so happens that their Disney adventures are the bulk of their videos. That plethora has made Corinne and I rethink our feelings towards Disney World. It inspired me to recall my former Disney-related enjoyments and unlock childhood, and adult, memories of Disney vacations. A recollected trip down memory lane, with a genuinely heartfelt Disney memory, is what the AllEars.net cast did recently on an episode of “Remember That Time.” Today, I will do the same.

“We Invite You, If You Dare”: Ghosts of Disney Vacations Past

I thought it enlightening to explore the Disney trips of my past. I won’t go into every detail; I can’t remember them all anyhow. While growing up in Massachusetts, I had the luxury, and it was a luxury, to go to Walt Disney World three times in my younger years. I don’t remember my first trip in 1984, but we stayed at Disney’s Polynesian Resort and, as usual, were joined by my Aunt Madeline and Uncle Frank. This trip coincided with Donald Duck’s 50th Birthday, and my mom, still to this day, calls me on my birthday singing “Happy, Happy Birthday to You,” which was from the 1983 album, Micky Mouse Splashdance and was featured prominently during our stay in 1984.

On my second trip in 1987, I have a slightly vague memory of it, helped by home movies captured by my Uncle Frank, whose massive VHS camcorder brings the past to life by simply pressing play. Yet this trip feels incredibly complete, infused with Disney magic, and a perfect combination of nostalgia and imagination. I can quickly inspect my dad’s photos, easily examine the VHS evidence, and hold the keepsakes I still have, even those Disney Christmas ornaments my mother meticulously collected. These “artifacts” offer a tale of happiness. I can honestly say, as I flipped through the family photo albums and looked over these photos, I felt overcome with happiness.

In August of 1987, I was barely at an age where I could remember small details. Still, I do remember the drive, in a sizeable cramped van, all the way to Florida, with random stops along the way. It was ironically the same adventure we took in 1984, but that van was pretty hip. I played with my siblings and constantly vied for my aunt’s attention. I remember going to a water park, swimming at a hotel pool, and being antsy as we arrived in Florida. Maybe like National Lampoons Vacation, but without the harrowing journey or tragic ending. Yet, even though my memory is foggy, I recall the eagerness I went into the experience. The warmth of Disney joy, staying at Fort Wilderness Resort, meeting Disney characters, many of who are rarely seen in the parks anymore, and visiting Disney’s River Country, as well as going on enjoyable rides in Epcot Center and Magic Kingdom while being pushed in a stroller – all are proof Disney’s allure.

I returned to Disney in the 1990s. I was a little older and can recall the trip with greater ease. I remember the train ride to Florida, which my sister Becky and I suffered through because my mother, at the time, was afraid of flying. I recall changing trains in Washington, D.C., doing schoolwork, and being filled with boredom since there were no cell phones, just a Sony Walkman portable cassette player with foam headphones. I remember trying to rest in a sleeping car and feeling the journey would never end. We stayed at the Caribbean Resort. Becky and I loved the resort-theming and enjoyed getting Disney Character autographs in our Disney World books. I especially loved our day at the Magic Kingdom, going on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, Mad Tea Party, and Peter Pan’s Flight.

In 2003 I went to Disney with my brother Jeff. He was graduating from college, and I was on spring break. Thanks to the Disney college program, Becky was employed as a cast member. It was exciting experiencing Disney World as an adult for the first time. Jeff and I stayed one week on Disney property, residing in a value resort, Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort. Going to all the individual theme parks was excellent, as was trying exciting rides, eating tons of food, shopping at Downtown Disney, and avoiding brother/sister fighting. This trip was stellar and a perfect introduction to adult travel, even to a youthfully inspired destination. Jeff and I did visit Pleasure Island, now since closed, in an attempt to “adult” our trip further. It was not what we expected.

Jeff and I organized another trip to Disney, in December of 2004, with my mother and Becky, who was still interning at Disney. We decided to go for Christmas/New Year, culminating in a previously discussed “No Good, Horrible, Very Bad Travel Adventure”. It was marvelous celebrating the holidays at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort. The holiday excitement was electric, and Disney’s fireworks at Magic Kingdom and Epcot proved epic. We enjoyed cooler weather as we rode the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Crowds were low as we strolled in the Magic Kingdom on Christmas Eve, going on rides and eating at The Crystal Palace. Celebrating, as we enjoyed a buffet with characters from Hundred Acre Wood, brought forward Disney memories. My mother reminded me of when I cried when Minnie Mouse greeted me at a character breakfast in 1987. I don’t remember crying or Goofy’s appearance bringing out a smile, but photographic evidence exists.

I spent New Year’s Eve in Epcot, partying in each pavilion as fireworks lit up the sky. I consider this holiday trip as my adult Disney apex mountain. I revisited Disney World with friends only a couple of months later, and in May of 2005, I flew to Florida to pick up Becky at the end of her internship. We spent one day at the Magic Kingdom and eventually drove back to Massachusetts together, which was memorable itself. We went straight through, which I don’t recommend. When I let Becky drive, I woke to find her falling asleep at the wheel. Unsurprisingly, I commanded the wheel the rest of the way. Finally, I briefly went to Disney World with Corinne in 2010 while visiting my dad at his home in The Villages. We explored Magic Kingdom and Epcot, where we met Jeff for a dinner buffet in the Germany pavilion.

Background for 2014 Walt Disney World Trip

I managed to go to Walt Disney World five times from 2003 to 2010. Each trip was completely different and filled with incredible memories. While going as a kid allowed me to meet characters, I only assumed were real and engaged in the magic of make-believe, I got to enjoy those sights and sounds with a nostalgic outline as an adult. In 2014, upon moving home from Hawaii, I traveled to Walt Disney World once again, this time to run my first Half Marathon. I had never considered doing so until Jeff suggested it one random day. I had never been a runner, but since 2013, I regularly ran 5k races all around Massachusetts. But I had never run more than five miles. Could I run 13.1 miles? If I was going to run my inaugural half marathon, I wanted it to be significant.

When Jeff suggested Walt Disney World, I agreed immediately. But a couple of months into my training, wearing worn-out sneakers, I hurt my knee, throwing my running into doubt. I put too much pressure on my legs, and the injury proved that I needed to slow down and invest in running gear. After visiting a local running store and getting a gait analysis, I purchased a pair of Brooks Glycerin. I grabbed a large foam roller and stretching rope, which aided me in my recovery. As the autumn weather took over, so did my eagerness to recommit myself to my running regiment. Although I never got my miles anywhere near what I thought necessary, I was able to run eight miles at a slow pace. Running during the day and at night, as race day approached, I felt ready.

I would arrive one day before the Disney Health & Fitness Expo held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Jeff planned to come on Friday night, but seeing as this was my first race and Corinne could not join me, I wanted to arrive a day early and enjoy Disney Springs, formally Downtown Disney. I was excited for the race weekend, as this was the fifth running of this particular race, its popularity had grown considerably. That energy was appealing and another reason I agreed to register for the race, given its hefty $185 entrance fee. I have done several races, and none were as expensive as this RunDisney Half Marathon race weekend.

Day ONE: Arrival & Disney Springs

On the day of my flight, my wife dropped me off at Logan International Airport in Boston, and I flew non-stop to Orlando on JetBlue. Upon my arrival in the afternoon, I took Disney’s Magical Express Service, which “provides complimentary transportation for Disney Resort hotel guests between Orlando International Airport and their Disney Resort hotel via motor-coach.” This trip offered me the chance to use a magic band, which is extremely popular and fashionable, for the first time. Once I made it to the appropriate staging area, I checked my bags with a Disney representative and joined a shuttle to Disney’s Pop Century Resort. I chose this particular value resort because of the cost, first and foremost, and its proximity to the ESPN Wide World of Sports area, where RunDisney held its expo.

Today, Disney’s Pop Century Resort is situated close to the Disney Skyliner, which uses Aerial Gondola to get you from the resort to several premier locations with incredible ease. I did not have this option in 2014, so I used bus transportation, which could be slow. When I arrived at the resort, I checked in, explored the resort area, its pool, and rested before a planned evening at Disney Springs. I didn’t have a lot planned, other than visiting the RunDisney Expo on Friday and Saturday, a visit to Epcot, and the half marathon event on Saturday night, with a departure Monday. Three nights, two full days, but ultimately the point of the trip was running 13.1 throughout Disney World, so anything else was simply a bonus. After unpacking and organizing my race gear, I went to Disney Springs.

At Disney Springs, I enjoyed the lively crowds and lovely atmosphere. The race is famous, having sold out after merely a day, so I expected large crowds, and even on a Thursday night, they indeed were dense. I meandered, going into various shops, especially the LEGO store, and found entertainment around every corner. Jeff didn’t arrive until the following day, so these hours felt a bit lonely, but I filled the time and eventually had a delicious meal from Cookes of Dublin in Raglan Road Irish Pub at The Landing. In my defense, after watching Paging Mr. Morrow, the food options seem incredible at Disney Springs. While I was pleased with my choice, today I’d chose Polite Big, with food and craft beer that is more my taste. My dinner and beer were fine, but I needed dessert, which I found at Disney Springs’ AMC Theater.

Sure, that’s an odd place to get dessert, but it was the opening night of Christopher Nolan’s new film, Interstellar. As a fan of Nolan, whose films, Memento, Prestige, and Inception I love, I was eager to watch his latest creation. After dinner, I purchased tickets for the first screening of Interstellar on a massive IMAX screen. The theater was reminiscent of the Omni Theater at the Boston Museum of Science; that’s how immersive and thrilling it was to watch Nolan’s film in this environment. With a bucket of popcorn, luxury seating, and water, I watched a nearly three-hour-long movie and enjoyed every second. After the film, I got a hot chocolate and sat near Lake Buena Vista. It was pleasant, but I headed back to the Pop Century Resort for a night’s rest once I finished.

Day TWO: Race Expo & Epcot

The second day of my trip was justifiably race-centric. I started Friday, November 7, with breakfast in the Pop Century Resort cafeteria. It was adequate, although nothing special. It was enough, so that shortly after, I jumped on a bus and headed over to ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and, officially, begin the weekend race festivities by visiting the RunDisney Health & Fitness Expo. I have included numerous discussions about race expos on this blog, but, for the most part, they were regarding a Rock n’ Roll Running Series event. While those were similar, they were not equal, and some were far better than others. The RunDisney Expo established a high watermark.

Disney is a major company, so their RunDisney Expo would have everything one could need or want. When I arrived at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at 10:00 am, tons of people were already in line, but organizers were ready, and everything was simple to navigate for a race novice like myself. My immediate goal was to pick up my race bib and anything else that seemed reasonable. The Expo was held on two days, Friday and again on Saturday, but I was eager to go on day one, and I was there on time, along with thousands of other excited runners, from all over the world. It didn’t take long to make it through the line, hand in my waiver form, and obtain my race bib and t-shirt.

I stayed at the expo for a couple of hours, purchasing a running belt capable of holding an iPhone 6 Plus; it cannot store an iPhone 12 Max Plus, FYI. I had an impulse buy, purchasing a therapeutic body massage stick to aid muscle recovery and improve my flexibility. With my bib and newfound “stick” in tow, I went back to the resort to drop off my purchases, threw on a bathing suit, and sat by the pool. I didn’t relax long, as I needed to change clothing and head to Epcot. I had purchased a pass for Epcot, although I still refer to it as Epcot Center. I planned to explore those food and drink stands representing the Epcot Food & Wine Festival and enjoy a few rides. Only a short bus trip away, I excitedly observed the large silver globe as we approached.

I made my way to Spaceship Earth first and enjoyed the dark ride that has been around since 1982. Then, walking to Future World, I went on Journey into Imagination with Figment, which I enjoyed tremendously. It is probably one of my favorite rides in Epcot, which may be strange, but as a kid, I had an incredible encounter with the Figment puppet, and it became my favorite. Eventually, I rode Soarin’ Around the World, Living with the Land, and, lastly, The American Adventure. It was a full day, but the opportunity to sip, savor, and stroll my “way around the park during this flavorful festival” made it memorable. Even though the half marathon course ended in Epcot, I was eager to go separately with an opportunity to enjoy these pavilion booths.

After my Epcot-filled day, Jeff texted me he had arrived at Walt Disney World. He, along with his wife and daughter, was going to Disney Springs for the evening. I left Epcot and met him there. We spent the evening walking around and eventually had a delicious dinner followed by coffee and a sweet treat. We explored the gift shops, and I watched as my niece beamed with excitement and eagerness to see and do as much as possible. It was fun spending this time with Jeff, Lauren, and their first child. Living in Hawaii had made seeing them so infrequent, so this time was exceptional. Even if it was simply sitting near the lake drinking coffee or watching the little one on the Marketplace Carousel, it was precious time to soak up. Exhausted, I returned to my resort, where I fell asleep immediately.

Day THREE: Walt Disney World Wine & Dine Half Marathon

When I awoke, I got breakfast in the resort cafeteria, and, expectedly, it was no better than the first day. I didn’t have any plans for the day and didn’t want to do anything that required too much walking, which at Disney World is impossible to avoid. So, I joined Jeff at the RunDisney Expo while he picked up his bib, and we explored together. Then, I took a bus back to Disney Springs and had lunch while resting near the lake since the weather was glorious. Shortly after, I went back to the Pop Century Resort, where I stretched and took a very long nap. Since festivities began at 10:00 PM, the buses would pick us up from our resorts around 7:00 PM. With time getting later, I used it wisely, but my nerves started to peak. The time was 6:30 PM; I was dressed and ready.

Yes, I was nervous as I sat on the bus from Pop Century Resort to ESPN Wide World of Sports, where the race began. I was honestly anxious that I wouldn’t be able to finish. I heard stories of golf carts that picked up slow runners, thus denying them their moment to cross the finish line. As soon as I got to the massive sports complex, I made it into the runner’s zone, and, even amongst over ten thousand runners, I found Jeff. Now, we didn’t stay together long. Jeff placed into the first corral since he submitted an official 10k/half marathon time. I did not. Because of my injury and slow progression in my running regiment, I never ran an official 10k race. So, although the race began at 10:00 PM, I started much later.

I was with Jeff for over an hour, and then at 9:30 PM, RunDisney organizers prompted runners to enter their corrals. So, with a fist bump, Jeff and I found our appropriate corrals. Jeff didn’t have to wait long. Maybe five minutes after the playing of the National Anthem, Jeff was off, although I couldn’t be sure, I was in the last group. From my perspective, this was the most challenging part of the entire race. From 9:30 PM, when I entered the corral, until 11:30 PM, I slowly made my way to the starting line, in what had become a brutally cold rain. Lots of precipitation and a temperature of no more than 60°F, it wasn’t very nice. Wet and cold, time dragged on slowly, and as I waited, I knew Jeff was flying through the course. Then it was my turn.

On the 5th Anniversary of the race, the course energy was electric even in the rain. As soon as the announcer said, “go,” I was off. Although wet and uncomfortable, that feeling quickly dissipated as I ran. While I started at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, I made my way towards Animal Kingdom, the first theme park I ran through. I entered the park around mile four, and while up to that point had run purely on highway roads, the race energy enhanced as I entered Animal Kingdom. Disney characters were cheering along the way, offering photo opportunities and giving the race an exciting feel. Still, when in the theme parks, it was uplifting as the music followed me, helping to keep the vibe fresh. After running by the Tree of Life, and other attractions in the Animal Kingdom, I exited roughly a half-mile after entering.

The mile markers were vibrant, the atmosphere exhilarating, cast members were supportive, and I sustained momentum and pace, which allowed me to believe I would finish strong. I could feel my strength, speed, and intensity increasing. Upon entering Hollywood Studies, I felt as if I was improving as a runner. It was fantastic as I ran by Rock n’ Roller Coaster, Starring Aerosmith, and my favorite, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. I subsequently ran down Mickey Avenue, passing several rides and attractions near Mickey’s Sorcerer Hat. The course proceeded to take me along Streets of America, which showcased The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, which were on full display for the holiday season. I passed Echo Lake and ran around the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular before exiting the park around mile eleven. 

The course then directed me, and all runners, towards the final stop, Epcot. With the end in sight, I had the energy to sprint by Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resorts and around Crescent Lake on International Gateway, running adjacent to Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club Resorts. About one mile remained once I bypassed the resort area, and the last leg provided a spectacular view of the iridescent Spaceship Earth. The race concluded with a spectator-packed final half-mile, as I ran, hauntingly fast, by Spaceship Earth and concluded within the gates of Epcot. I felt great as I crossed the finish line for the first time as someone who ran 13.1 miles. As soon as I finished, I received my wicked awesome medal and located Jeff, who concluded reasonably before me as I had suspected.

We walked around Epcot briefly, taking some photos and getting a hot beverage. With the rain unending and since we stayed at different resorts, we said our goodbyes. Jeff stayed at the Caribbean Beach Resort for another week while I was leaving the following day. Overall, what a race! It was fabulous, dare I say, a magical experience. I enjoyed the grandeur of the race, and Disney as a “running vacation” was an exceptional choice for my first-ever half marathon. It was a crazy journey to get there, with injuries helping to dampen my initial confidence. In the end, I did it, and I did well. Even as I finished, I didn’t want it to end. Thus, the power of Disney, even as an adult.

Imagination Set Free

“The things that make me different are the things that make me ME.”

– Piglet (Winnie the Pooh)

Disney offers a little, and frequently a lot, for many. Kids enjoy the magical world, as well as fun rides. Teenagers get an opportunity to explore amusements that thrill them with exhilaration. Adults enjoy the ability to reconnect with their youth and, seasonally, are offered a chance to run 13.1 miles through three impressive theme parks. Disney’s “brand,” synonymous with magical wonder, is enchanting. As soon as I heard the name, “Walt Disney World,” I knew what it was, what it provided, and what it promised. I have traveled, run hundreds of miles, and explored places offering enriching experiences in the last eight years. The Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon reshaped my perspective on running and extended Jeff and me a foundation for our running trips.

I had always thought about Disney in the context of their visual content, amusement park, and childhood experiences. Still, I had not given Disney much thought, or attention, until the onset of the pandemic. Watching vloggers explore Disney cheered Corinne and me up. They made me want to reconsider those tips I took to Disney, including my first half marathon. Jeff recently expressed interest in planning a trip to Disney World with his two daughters. So, I feel that I will have more opportunities to see Disney magic through the eyes of those around me, which I am eager to experience. Well, that and being on the lookout for content creators who have made life a little less miserable. Paging Mr. Morrow, Super Enthused, Dani.702, and, of course, Molly from AllEars.net – be ready because Corinne will require a photo and possibly a New York size hug.

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