During a trip to Orlando, Fla., in 2015, I was reminded of a previous vacation my husband and I took to Orlando’s Disney World – one where I actually tried running at Disney World. For runners, the city can be so aggravating: I call it the home of “sidewalks to nowhere.” That’s assuming there are any. Usually there are not. The moniker “sidewalks to nowhere” came up a long time ago when I would find that sidewalks just ended – wheelchair ramp and all – leaving any unlucky pedestrian in the middle of a busy street or slogging through rough grass and mud beside an endless stream of cars and trucks. Basically, this city ain’t designed for anything but automobiles.
But enough about 2015. It was during that previous trip to Orlando I mentioned above that Disney turned me into an outlaw. With gorgeous, green, thickly wooded grounds, and flowing waterways, you’d think running at Disney World Resort in Orlando would be a sublime outdoor experience while on vacation. I was about to find out just how wrong I was.
I surveyed the passing scenery while on the shuttle from the airport, encouraged by all the greenways, but since it was dark I wasn’t able to fully see what was out there. We checked into our hotel and I immediately requested a resort map. I also asked for suggestions on running at Disney World and was blithely handed a 2-inch-by-3-inch square of paper with that was, apparently, the “official Disney jogging map.” It consisted of a little dotted line along the main road out onto the widest, most traffic-clogged thoroughfares on the edge of the resort (turnaround at Olive Garden, it noted) for a grand total of 3.5 miles. This was not what I had in mind. But since I was very used to finding my own way on frequent travels around the globe, I pocket the map with a bemused smile and a thank you.
The next morning I headed out, confident I could discover SOME basic route to manage a mere 6 miles or so of easy running at Disney World. But I quickly discovered that there were few sidewalks, few recreational paths, very few trails and not even the tiniest increment of a shoulder on the road. The road was flanked by mostly steeply sloping rough grass and it was buzzing with large Disney buses, racing cars, and frantically speeding vans filled with Mickey-intoxicated families fumbling maps as they tried to find their way to the next gift shop or attraction. I did my best to dodge them all, chin tucked down and feeling less encouraged by the minute. (Let me digress for a moment: This visit was a few years ago. Advances are being made, and these days there are a few – a FEW – paths, but you still won’t be able to get in more than a handful of miles without looping yourself dizzy (on hard surfaces). Most “official” trails are less than a mile to about 2 miles with a couple of exceptions, but no more than 4. And they are not connected. Oh, and you can forget about soft dirt under your feet for much more than the shortest stroll. Or much shade. Back to my story…)
Here I am eyeing the greenery, yet every time I’d find a side road into a Disney resort area and try to get past the security gate, I was rebuffed. “Sorry, this is a construction zone,” the first told me rather curtly. At the second, “Sorry this isn’t safe.” At the third, I asked the elderly man in a security uniform if there was a road loop in there. He looked at me rather suspiciously, kinda eyeing my running gear and the sweat dripping from my chin, and then answered after a long pause: “No.” That’s it. Just “no.” I glanced past him, eyeing the peaceful and open roads behind him, and said, “Oh, so there are no roads in there?” He paused, silent again for a long moment and then simply replied, “Not for jogging.”
I could tell my attempts to find a running route off the main road wasn’t going to get me anywhere so I turned back to dodging careening kiddie-filled vans. As if this were safe?
A short way down I noticed another road, this one without a security gate although it did have a security arm across the road. By this time, I was ready to flout the Disney running rules and protocols to ensure my sanity and safety. Let’s see what happens, I thought, as I ran past what looked like a security camera and an unmanned guard shack. Ah, peaceful! Deep breath! No cars, no people, a resort area that was obviously shut down. And trees! But it didn’t take more than five minutes for me to hear a car approaching from behind. Disney security was on the job to track down what was clearly an outlaw runner lady.
The woman pulled in beside me. “You can’t be here,” she said, driving beside me and leaning to talk to me out the window. “It’s a construction zone. You might get hurt, and then Disney would be liable.” Seriously? Do they practice that construction zone line at the Disney security school. There was absolutely NO construction anywhere to be seen or heard. I wondered if I could hold Disney liable if I got hit by one of those crazy buses. At least THIS security guard seemed friendly.
I cajoled her with a grin, “Ah, come on, just let me run this loop.” She smiled, “I’m sorry, I really can’t. I understand though. I like to work out too. You need to get in and let me drive you out.” She patted the seat beside her as if I were a toddler and she were offering me some candy to go for a special ride with her. Ex-CUUSE me? Can’t do that, I said, snubbing her offer of a ride. But I promised to turn around and run out … and she could follow me. Before she had a chance to say nay, I’d flipped a U-turn and was running back out.
She turned her van around and putted along beside me, chatting about how she agreed there were no paths or places to comfortably run, walk or bike.
We exited (I waved at the security camera lens as a small tease), and she pulled away. I kept running slowly but had already spied another dirt road a few yards down. I stopped, pretended to stretch until there was no traffic then sprinted off the street and back onto the dirt. Wow! A dirt road and no cars! It led to a service yard, where I dodged behind buildings to remain unseen and kept going, but as soon as I was back on the narrow dirt path I saw a maintenance vehicle coming in my direction through the trees ahead. I dived into the bushes and ducked down. Man, I really did feel like an outlaw, and all I was doing was trying to get in a run!
The vehicle passed and I dodged back out, ready with the story if needed that I had gotten off the road to find a place to pee. Unfortunately, the dirt track was only about a half-mile and I was dumped back out on the main road.
At that point I gave up and resigned myself to dodging cars for three days of workouts. And that’s exactly what I did the first day … until I began to comprehend the network at the resort: If you really looked hard, really hard, you could discover tiny breaks in the thick trees that were unmarked. These were mostly narrow dirt service roads that ran “backstage” (i.e. between attractions, hotels and stores) and allowed maintenance vehicles, lawn mowers and other service vehicles to move between resorts and to service yards without disturbing the carefully choreographed perfectness of the Disney stage. I actually found one out the back of another closed resort (no one caught me this time) that allowed me to avoid a main road and run alongside a small creek as I cut a corner to another road. As you get to know these back roads, you could actually do a decent amount of running off the main road for short distances at a time. I unfortunately discovered this a little late in my stay, but it seemed you could traverse much of the park in this manner.
I even found a “trail” about another three-quarters of a mile long near my hotel behind a well-coiffed berm to hide the less-than-Disney-perfect tangled swamplands. And that served me well for a few intervals! At least for that one interval workout the Mickey police didn’t discover me and cart me away. Still, I did have to keep my eyes peeled for security carts, and I did have to duck behind bushes a couple of times to avoid being seen – Disney managed to turn me into a running outlaw in only a few days. When I exited that hidden gem of a backstage road, I had to peek out between the bushes stealthily, make sure no cars were in sight, then jump back onto the roadside, pretend I was stretching for a moment (so no security folks would see me and ruin my next hidden run), before I resumed jogging along the roads dodging the cars being navigated by parents driven nuts by kids drunk on Disney glee.
We’re back home, but I figure by now there are “WANTED” flyers all over the walls of the Disney offices with my likeness snapped as I dashed past that first security camera:
Wanted: Outlaw running lady with wild curly dark hair.
Violation: Running at Disney World outside the designated Mickey Mouse happy zone.
Penalty: If caught, she is sentenced to 24 hours of non-stop riding through “It’s a Small World.”
Note: On a more recent visit, we noted some short “fitness paths,” marked with signage and distance, sponsored by a large shoe company. This is a start. We think Disney should figure out a way to indeed utilize all those beautifully landscaped green spaces, lawns, waterways and tree-lined expanses to the benefit of its visitors, and also consider linking the trails that do exist. I can’t be the only one who wants a run, walk or otherwise find a quiet getaway.