Disney offers its first-ever 'virtual half marathon' race, but what is it?

January 3, 2018, 11:11 AM · What is the price of imagination? For runners who happen to be Disney fans, the price is now $59.

Disney today opened registration for its first "Virtual Half Marathon," which has a Star Wars theme. Registration is open through February 28 and costs $59. So what's a virtual half marathon? Despite what some people might infer, it's not a virtual reality experience, where you run 13.1 miles wearing a VR headset, chasing Imperial Stormtroopers or First Order baddies... though that would be amazing and I'd pay good money to experience that!

No, while Disney's virtual half marathon is a 13.1 mile run — or walk — it's just a "race" that you can run at home or anywhere else you choose. And you can run it whenever you'd like. Unlike the communal experience of a runDisney event at a Disney theme park, you can run this virtual half marathon alone or with friends. It's all up to you. Just complete the 13.1 miles by March 31 and Disney will send you a medal.

How does Disney track whether you've run the full course or not? It doesn't. As Disney explains on its FAQ for the race, it's all done on the "honor system." If you say you ran the half marathon, that's good enough for Disney. Well, assuming you paid your $59, of course. You can download a finisher certificate with your self-reported race time, too.

When you were a kid, did you ever play a pretend day at Disneyland? Maybe you were like the young lady in this delightful Efteling commercial, and you built make-believe rides and shows in your room, so that you could feel like you were back at the Happiest Place on Earth. Well, now Disney is selling you the opportunity to pretend that you are in a runDisney race, though with the added benefit of a medal and certificate (paper not provided) to "prove" it.

Why is Disney doing this? For one, this becomes the first runDisney race with unlimited capacity. There's no way to sell out a virtual marathon, so Disney can collect an unlimited amount of $59 registration fees. It has to pay only the cost of ordering and shipping finishers' medals, which, let's face it, Disney can get for way less than $59 a pop. (Move the decimal point over a couple of places, I am guessing.) It's almost pure profit for Disney, so if people actually go for this, it's ingenious on Disney's part.

Disney's also offering one of its multi-race challenges for people who buy into the Star Wars Virtual Half Marathon. Runners who register and complete both this race and the real-world Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon on April 22 at the Walt Disney World Resort can get a "Kessel Run" Millennium Falcon medal, too. Which, if you are a cynic, means that the Kessel Run medal is just a $69 upcharge for Dark Side Half Marathon finishers, who actually do have to complete a 13.1 run in one go in a reasonable amount of time. (The Kessel Run challenge costs $10 more than just the virtual race. Hey, extra medal!)

If you're an optimist, the virtual half marathon might inspire some would-be runners among Disney fans who'd never been able to get into a runDisney event before to lace up the sneakers and get out there. And if paying $59 to participate in this virtual event is what you need for motivation to get more active, I say... go for it. Whatever it takes.

But I wonder if this event might not be more appealing if Disney had made it an actual virtual event, if that's such a thing. (Let's put that term in the "jumbo shrimp" Oxymoron Hall of Fame, shall we?) Schedule the virtual half marathon for a specific start time on a designated day and encourage all participants to flood social media with photos and videos of them running and walking their 13.1 mile course. Use a #StarWarsHalf hashtag to draw attention to the posts and get some mainstream media coverage for what likely would be a huge event inspiring people to get active.

Instead, Disney laid up and played it easy with a pay-$59-for-a-medal literal non-event. Maybe fans who actually are planning to run can use social media and schedule a mutual run time and share their experience online. Then dress up, get active, and have fun.

Whether they pay Disney the $59 or not.

Update: Disney's PR people called and asked that we hit a couple of points (that some of you raised in the comments anyway): One, that Disney didn't just come up with the idea of virtual races — they've been around for a while and run by other promoters. And two, that this isn't runDisney's first virtual race — that it started a virtual shorts 5K series last year.

However, I also want to note that a portion of those $38-40 race registration fees did go to charities, including the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando. (One comment below noted that virtual races have been a charity staple.) Disney's made no announcement of a charity donation associated with the Star Wars Half event.

Replies (11)

January 3, 2018 at 11:29 AM · Strong point made here from a reader on Twitter:

Remember that runDisney recently cancelled all future races at the Disneyland Resort, citing construction. (The announcement came before Disney cancelled the Eastern Gateway project and announced its fourth hotel, which will take out the western side of Downtown Disney.) So it is possible that this is nothing but an attempt to move the medals it had ordered for one of those races.

January 3, 2018 at 11:43 AM · This isn't the first virtual race with unlimited capacity that Disney has done. They've had the Virtual Running shorts for a couple years now.

Virtual races are very much a thing in the runner community. This is nothing new.

January 4, 2018 at 12:51 AM · It's pretty easy to be cynical about this, and probably with good reason. In today's age of rising obesity and the myriad of comorbidities that goes along with that, if this inspires even a few people to get moving and get a bit healthier, then it's worth it.
January 3, 2018 at 12:51 PM · I just ran my virtual half marathon while reading this article.


I saved the $59 because superheroes really don't need any more accolades.

January 3, 2018 at 12:58 PM · ooooOOOOOOooooooo....

I just forgot...I'm a Disney character now...


I think this is a great idea and this is definitely something you should be spending your money on. I'm all for this. In fact I just ran the second half of my virtual half marathon and sent a HUGE excess tip to the Mouse for facilitating such a wonderous event.

January 3, 2018 at 1:03 PM · I've seen other virtual runs/walks available on social media, but to the best of my understanding, those were always virtual - and are based on fundraising for some cause. I coordinate my company's participation in the yearly Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure Breast Cancer event. They offer participants who want to give, but don't want to walk, an opportunity to make donations and raise money, but to not come to the event. Those I understand. This seems like a money grab. $59 to do nothing and get a medal for it? I offer a big 'ol Liz Lemon eye roll at this one y'all.
January 4, 2018 at 8:51 AM · It turns out I'm offering the same deal but for $10 less. I'll make you a medal and I'll include the certificate! I also offer virtual days at theme parks. For $60 I'll send you a pack of microwavable popcorn, a soda, and an admission ticket to your virtual adventure. Then you can wander your neighborhood and pretend that you're at Disneyland.
January 4, 2018 at 11:40 AM · It's a cash grab for Disney. I have to applaud their accountants that came up with this idea to generate more revenue. $59 for something that probably costs them less than $10 per a medal.

I think it does cheapen the Kessel Run achievement for past runners that have participated. Doing coast to coast races in the same year for Disney is not something that a majority of people can achieve. I'm speaking from the expense side to travel to both parks within a year. From a running standpoint, it is quite an accomplishment for a novice runner to finish two half marathons in one year. Allow the virtual medal to count for this lessens the strides that past years participants have taken.

There's also the whole other issue of RunDisney races being purely for profit rather than benefiting a charity. It is true that you can sign up for a limited amount of bibs through a charitable organization, but one has to question whether the charities participating have to give Disney a percentage of the race fee in order to be involved.

Do yourself a favor and find a local race to run. 5k through marathon, there are plenty out there and most benefit an organization that could definitely use the revenue.

RunDisney used to be a fun event, but the overcrowding of its races and general runner satisfaction with the courses have waned significantly.

January 5, 2018 at 6:06 AM · RunDisney crowd going crazy over this in the popular facebook groups. This is really just Disney's way of keeping the Kessel Run challenge and medal -- which in previous years involved doing both the Lightside (Disneyland) and Darkside (Disney World). Yup, it's basically just paying for medals for a fake race.....but, whatever.

BTW this is hardly the first virtual race Disney has done -- they've been doing them for years, though I think those were "shorts" and not as long as a half marathon. Other race organizers do them, too. They've been increasing in popularity.

Why do people want to pay a race fee to not actually run in a race? Who knows.... the love of bling is strong.

January 5, 2018 at 10:39 AM · This is pure genius: "Send us $59 bucks and go jog around the block 100 times."
January 5, 2018 at 1:11 PM · I wonder what would happen if I send Disney a "virtual $59"? Would I get a virtual medal instead of a real one?

Honestly, I don't understand the appeal of these events and others that advertise runs for profit (not charity). The number of charity runs/walks is already out of control, and now we've got for-profit organizers further muddling the picture. These runs are like a plague particularly in big cities where they cripple street grids for hours on end practically every other weekend during warm weather months. For as much good as the charity events do, I'd just as well see all running events disappear, aside from sanctioned professional competitions.

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