Why running 19.3 miles was the easiest part of my Disney World trip

A few weeks ago, I ran the Glass Slipper Challenge in Walt Disney World. The runs themselves were a challenge, alright. But compared to the rest of my 7-day trip, pounding pavement for almost 20 miles was a breeze. Why? Here are 5 of the top reasons:

1. Disney World magnifies whoever you really are.

Disney World is only slightly cheaper than therapy, but it will help you find out who you are a lot faster. That’s because, contrary to the marketing campaign, Disney World is not a resort. It is a microcosm of your world, in full Technicolor and with no easy escape. If you usually go through life fairly chipper but find yourself being super cynical when cast members mutter “Have a magical day,” chances are you’re a closet cynic. If you are usually happy-go-lucky but at WDW you get really angry for no reason, chances are you are, at heart, coping with some anger issues.

If that were the end of it, I wouldn’t have been frustrated. But dealing with thousands of people — many under the age of 10 — who are being uber versions of themselves, is exhausting. Which is why…

2. I should not travel with or around children.

I met my brother, his wife and son, her mom and their neighborhood friend in Florida. (They came from North Carolina. I came from California.) I love all those people. But after watching my 6-year-old nephew morph from a well-behaved, polite young man into a manipulative, whiny wuss, I was ready to melt down. Ok, I did melt down at least twice. And my nephew is a GOOD KID. The other 500,000 brats on the property made me consider taking up drinking again.

In case you haven’t guessed, I don’t have kids. After a week surrounded by tailholes begging for every piece of merchandise around them, and worse their tailhole parents either letting the little jerks act like that or snatching them by their arms and tossing them bodily into strollers, I think my ovaries shriveled beyond repair.

I paid entirely too much money for a weeklong vacation in hell. I don’t think Disney is hell. In fact, Disneyland is one of my favorite experiences ever. So why did this trip suck? Because…

3. Disney World is way too big for its britches.

Disney World is made up of 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, 26 hotels, an outdoor shopping center, pavilions, a complete sports complex. It has its own commuter bus system, waterway boat system, monorail. It is larger than the city of Orlando.

And everyone on property is trying to cram in as much fun as possible to account for the obscene amount of money they’ve paid to visit this “magical” city. So Disney World combines the worst of suburban life — commuting everywhere you want to go, eating out all the time, coping with people you don’t want to see — with the worst part of vacationing — trying to fit an impossible set of activities into a tiny timeframe.

There is nothing spontaneous about a Disney World visit. You can’t get a wild hair and decide to eat at the 5-star restaurant — it’s been booked for a year. You don’t happen upon characters very often (unless you’re my brother, in which case Alice walks up to you and engages you in a detailed discussion about tiaras, which is awesome). If you don’t have an expert traveling with you, you are pretty much guaranteed to be disappointed. But for me, nothing was more disappointing than how I was treated at almost every restaurant on property.

4. Disney World treats its gluten-free guests like pariahs.

Look, I get it. Gluten-free people have a reputation for being a pain in the butt to serve at restaurants. There is no one reason for being gluten-free — some, like me, are intolerant but don’t have to worry about dying if we eat food cooked on the same grill as a hamburger bun. Others do have that worry. It isn’t easy to cope with. And I appreciate that Disney at least cares enough to have gluten-free food on hand. Granted, it’s frozen in the back and microwaved (usually inadequately) to make it palatable. That’s still better than nothing.

But darnit, do NOT make me talk to a chef every time I eat.

Seriously, I could not order a meal without talking to a chef. Quick service, buffet, table service, whatever. This sounds like good customer service on the surface, but it isn’t. It’s draconian in its execution and makes the gluten-free person feel singled out and too complicated for a server to be able to help. The entire party has to suffer through this at every meal.

My last two dinners were the only exception. One, at Via Napoli, was the highlight of my trip. See, their head chef is a guy named Joe. He’s from Staten Island and has been with the restaurant since it opened. You know how I know this? Because Joe comes out and talks to the whole table like we’re humans. I had eaten at the same place the year before, so when I saw Joe I hollered his name (instead of waiting for our server to remember to track down the chef). He came right over, struck up a great conversation, went over the menu with me. And when my sister-in-law’s order came out incorrectly, Joe spotted the discomfort on her face from across the room. He investigated, then remade the dish himself. Joe is the saving grace of Disney food in my book.

The other great experience I had was at Tony’s Town Square. Like Joe, that chef engaged the whole table and actually knew the difference between gluten intolerance and allergy. He asked my specific issue and explained the flour content of each of the meals I had considered. He trusted me to make an informed decision.

In contrast, a server at the All Stars Sports “quick service” counter got into a full-scale argument with me after I told her I’d already talked to a chef the day before, and I just wanted her to make what he told me to eat. When the chef FINALLY came out 15 minutes later (and everyone else in my party’s food had gone super cold), she told the woman to just do what I asked. The woman’s response? This was all MY fault because I “didn’t know how to order right.”

I’m sorry, what?! I told her I never have this problem in Disneyland, where gluten-free food is listed on the quick-service menu. She said, “Well, they’re smaller and can handle this sort of thing.” I looked at her like the moron she is, told her I didn’t have time to argue economies of scale with someone who can’t figure out how to make a taco salad on top of nachos and walked away. I realized…

5. That customer service Disney is famous for? Yeah, it no longer exists at Disney World.

From the time I entered the work force, Disney’s customer service mantras have been held up as the gold standard. Sadly, at Disney World at least, that service is the exception, not the norm.

Yes, you can create your own experience by engaging the cast members around you. That’s what my family does, especially on bus rides and waiting in line. And yes, some cast members really do love their jobs and want to make your experience special. But, for the most part, the people who work at Disney World are less excited about life than their animatronic counterparts on the rides.

I know this isn’t the case at other Disney venues. My sister-in-law is a perfect example of a cast member (at a retail store) who embodies everything truly magical about Disney. I’m sad the people who are lucky enough to work at the flagship of the empire don’t deliver the same.

Up to the Challenges: Glass Slipper and Coast to Coast in one trip!

It’s taken me awhile to be able to write about my trip to Walt Disney World for the Glass Slipper Challenge. It’s not that the races themselves were all that tough. Honestly, it’s the rest of the trip that has taken me awhile to process.

First, the races. The runDisney team thinks it’s fun to get its participants up at unholy hours of the morning. For these races, the buses stopped running at 4 a.m., so my sister-in-law and I were up at 3 a.m. to catch a bus from our hotel to the race area. Remember, that’s 3 a.m. E.T. — my Pacific Time body felt like it was up at midnight.

The Enchanted 10k was the first part of the Glass Slipper Challenge. Unlike the half marathon course, the 10k course takes runners through Epcot’s World Showcase. The ad said we’d run through all 11 countries, but that wasn’t true. But the course starts in a parking lot and runs down the main road through the Walt Disney World compound Resort. So, after a boring jaunt down the highway, I was thrilled to enter the park.

Here’s something you don’t really notice when you walk through Epcot: It’s on an incline. And the race designers sent us runners up the incline, which was surprisingly challenging. So, I was shocked when I got to the finish line at a personal-record 73:51, especially because I had deliberately held back in anticipation of the half marathon the following morning.

And that following morning, we were up again at 3 a.m., this time with my brother in tow, to run the Princess Half Marathon. That’s where things went wonky for me.

First, the night/morning was so foggy that we couldn’t see more than a few yards in front of us. So, the first few miles (down the same stretch of highway) were dark and sopping wet. My body overheated quickly, despite my tank top and compression shorts, and I felt sick within the first mile.

There was a creepy moment when I stopped for the single portajohn at about mile 2: A man, standing alone in a Jedi-esque cowl with the hood pulled over his head, emerged from the fog and pointed silently to the bank of portajohns across the road (meant for the trip back to the parking lot). I hesitated briefly, wondering whether the guy was real and/or a serial killer. But my stomach told my brain to shut up, and we got in, out and back on the path.

Gross story short, my body demanded a bathroom break pretty much whenever there was a bathroom to be had. I don’t know whether I was dehydrated or what, but I had to stop. A lot. On top of that, my knees both decided to hate me after the first half mile of the 13.1 mile race. Thank goodness for Biofreeze at every medical stop!

Something finally shifted in my body at about mile 7. It’s not that I didn’t need to use the bathroom — I ended up stopping twice in the Magic Kingdom, once in the men’s room no less — I guess my body just accepted the idea that it had to hold up its end of the bargain. And in the end, I still didn’t have my worst time ever, even with a half hour spent in the bathroom total. (Yes, I counted.) If not for the bathroom stops, I would’ve had a PR!

I got my water, my Princess medal, my Glass Slipper medal and my Coast to Coast medal, and then I sat down to wait. See, everyone else I knew at the race was back in corral N, so even with my half an hour of bathroom stops I still didn’t make up for the delay from my corral (H) to theirs. So I sat on the concrete, ice on my legs, and ate my snack box food. Yay for gluten free!

I cannot adequately describe to you the pride I felt when my brother walked up to me in the waiting area. It was his first half marathon, and he did a great job! In that moment, all the knee pain, soppy feelings and other discomforts melted away. All I felt was joy for him, and it took all I had not to throw myself at him for a hug. (I imagined his legs wouldn’t hold us up if I did.) He was a cross-country runner in high school, and to see him back on the trail makes me feel immeasurably happy for him.

Then, my sister-in-law came up a few minutes later, bloody. Yikes! She was a victim of the incessant Florida wet, so she ended up with blisters on her feet that exploded and bled into her shoes. I was thrilled she got across the finish line!

We caught a bus back to the hotel, regaled our family with stories, then cleaned up with the intention of grabbing breakfast. Instead, we woke up about an hour later — we’d all crashed for a nap without discussing the idea. We hobbled to get food, then to the parks. And you know what? That’s where my challenges really were housed.

Next up: Why running 19.3 miles was the easiest part of my Disney World trip