07 January 2011 by By Jason Garcia, Orlando Sentinel
In almost a matter of hours after the smoke cleared from its New Year's Eve fireworks, Walt Disney World abruptly lurched from its busiest time of the year to one of its leanest, as holiday vacationers flew home and children across the country returned to school.
And yet, this weekend, an estimated 110,000 visitors are descending on the giant resort — more people than attended last week's Capital One Bowl or will attend next week's International Builders Show.
They are in town for the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend, the largest in a rapidly expanding roster of races that Disney is now scheduling in hopes of boosting off-season attendance at its theme parks in Orlando and Southern California.
The effect is substantial. Disney says that four of every five registrants for this weekend's events come from outside Central Florida. Between a third and a half of them have booked rooms in Disney hotels — and they will spend an average of three nights on company property.
While the resort won't provide more detailed figures, it says events such as the marathon weekend have significantly improved business during what are otherwise lean times of the year. Disney has even added an extra feature in 2011: "Marathon Monday," in which racers will get a free theme-park ticket to use the day after the final race — an incentive to stay just one more day and spend a bit more money at the resort.
"We're seeing greater occupancy levels, we're seeing longer lengths of stay, we're seeing people that might not have come into the marketplace at all coming into the market," said Ken Potrock, senior vice president of Disney Sports Enterprises.
The Disney executive added that the boost spills over to other business, as well. "On the night before, you won't be able to get into a pasta restaurant," Potrock said, as runners load up on carbohydrates for the next day's race.
Disney World has always searched for ways to drive attendance during the slower points on its calendar, using Halloween-themed events, for instance, to boost business in the early fall, or Christmas events in November and December. But improving nonpeak crowds has become even more important in recent years, as growth through expansion has become more difficult for a resort that already operates four theme parks, two water parks, two dozen hotels and other venues.
"Anything that they can do to expand that 'shoulder season,' they're doing," said Duncan Dickson, a professor in the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
The Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend, which kicks off today with a 5-kilometer race at 7 a.m., began in 1994 as a single-day event with about 5,500 runners. This year, it stretches across four days, with races ranging from a children's "Mickey Mile" to the namesake 26.2-mile race Sunday, and will attract approximately 54,000 registrants. (Runners can register for multiple races; Disney says the number of unique individuals is somewhere in the neighborhood of 45,000 to 50,000.)
The average party size of each registrant is between two and 21/2 people, as many racers bring families or friends with them.
Disney says the growth has been dramatic recently: Registration for the Disney World Marathon Weekend has doubled since 2005. (Though this year's is about the same as last year's.)
During that time, executives have also added more events, including the Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend in 2006, the Disney's Princess Half Marathon Weekend in Orlando in 2009, and the Disney Wine and Dine Half Marathon Weekend in Orlando last year. The company last September began tying all of the events together under the marketing umbrella "runDisney."
All of the events are timed to lift otherwise slow periods. The Princess half-marathon, for instance, will be held in February, amid the current lull between the Christmas holiday and the Easter travel rush. The Wine and Dine half-marathon, meanwhile, is in September, a notoriously slow month as schools have just reopened after summer breaks.
Even some of the events themselves are strategic. The Wine and Dine event last year featured a half-marathon relay in which guests reluctant to attempt a 13.1-mile, half-marathon could split the race with a friend. The goal of such races is to get people more willing to attempt longer distances in the future.
Why? People who run half-marathons and marathons are willing to travel farther to participate in races.
While other well-known marathons emphasize prestige to lure competitive runners, Disney says it emphasizes "friendly races" that draw from a much broader pool of casual runners. The resort doesn't require runners to qualify for its races, and it touts Orlando's flat terrain, which eliminates grueling climbs.
Potrock said organizers also focus on creating "differentiators" that set Disney races apart from other well-known events, such as the Boston Marathon. Races are routed through theme parks — runners in the Disney World Marathon actually run through Cinderella Castle — and the courses are lined with hundreds of waving characters and entertainment ranging from gospel singers to trampoline artists.
Of course, as Disney's races have expanded, so have their price tags. During the past four years, the registration charge just for this weekend's half-marathon has mushroomed from $90 to $135. (Runners registering for the " Goofy's Race-and-a-Half Challenge," which combines the half-marathon and the full marathon, must pay $310.)
"On the one hand, Disney is a business and, like any good business, it's exploring how much the market will bear. On the other hand, I do think they're starting to run up against the very limits of what I, at least, will bear," said Kevin Yee, a blogger with the Disney-news website MiceAge.com who has run in Disney races. "You don't' want to feel like Disney's gouging you."
Then again, with 50,000 runners signed up for this weekend, there is little evidence that rising fees have dampened interest. Potrock says Disney has been so pleased with its race results so far that it hopes to add more, both in Florida and elsewhere.
"I think there's great potential to expand it, potentially, to all of the Disney sites around the world," he said.