After the thrills and spills of its 'coasters, the Disneyland Paris half-marathon is a doddle, says Shane Scanlon.
You're going to Disneyland Paris for a weekend, the boss tells me.
You don’t need to worry about expenses - all the rides are free and you can bring someone with you as well.
Privately, the inner child inside me leaps about six feet in the air, does a fist-pump and shouts ‘c’est magnifique!' On the outside, however, years of experience has taught me to wait for the inevitable ‘but’...
So by now, at least, I know to ask what’s the catch?
Why has trip come all the way down a long line of high-ranking officers and fallen into this ordinary private's lap? “Er, there is one small thing alright – you are going to have to do a half-marathon on the Sunday morning.”
Unlike most normal who would instantly come up with the ‘Im busy that weekend’ excuse, this additional piece of information was only going doing to provoke one response from a greying, balding, and waist-expanding middle-aged man.
“Brilliant, when can I go?”
So off I galloped to get my passport renewed, with a detour into a strict training regime that would take me two months of long-distance running to build enough stamina reserves to get me through 13.1 miles.
Thanks to pure stubbornness - a trait which I'm told I have in abundance - reaching my weekly targets didn't prove too much of a problem, aside from the odd stray from a healthy diet, and off I headed for Val d'Europe, the resort built by Disney from a greenfield site in the early nineties and located just over 20 miles from Paris.
The main purpose of the visit was to complete the first-ever Disneyland Paris Half-Marathon. The idea is an offshoot of Disney's popular race series in America which have been on the go for many years and are extremely popular with exercise-conscious fans of the brand.
There was an extra incentive to encourage American participants, as anyone who took part in the Disney half-marathons or marathons in California or Florida in the same calendar was in line to receive a special commemorative medal for completing the 'Castle to Chateau' challenge. As a marketing ploy, it worked big-time as half the 8,500 participants were from across the Atlantic.
Thousands more took part in the family 5k they day before which enabled families to run through the two parks, Walt Disney Studios and Disneyland, while there were also kids' races for the toddlers with Mickey Mouse and Minnie running side by side.
Family exercise is a theme that Disney hasn't been slow to embrace, running various healthy living marketing campaigns in recent years, and the phrase doing things by halves is not in their lexicon.
Women's world record marathon holder Paula Radcliffe was brought in as the event ambassador and to underline their commitment, the weekend kick-started with a pasta party on the Friday night in which Walt Disney Studios was opened just to participants who got free access to five of the park's rides. For my teenage partner, it was the modern-day equivalent of the kid being let loose in a candy shop.
"Dad, will we give that a try," he innocently enquired as we approached the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, which looked to me like a simple tour of a ghostly hotel. How wrong I was. Having entered a large lift in which you sat into a seat with belt buckled, I was soon clinging on for dear life as we bounced up and down at a rate of knots. This wasn't in the half-marathon exercise manual.
When my young accomplice stopped laughing, eventually, and the blood started to drain back into my veins, I became - rather worryingly - more adventurous as the adrenaline started to flow.
The high tempo of the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster got the pulse racing again as we were hurtled around 360-degree circuits in pitch blackness, but my favourite ride was the Ratatouille Adventure - a 3-D experience where you are "shrunk" to the size of a rat and get to experience the rooftops and floors of a busy Paris night-life. This comes highly recommended, and it's one for all the family too.
After all that, the half-marathon itself proved a doddle. The pace was far more sedate and the first 5k proved a surreal experience as the route went through the two theme parks, in which staff – sorry ‘cast’ members – cheered everyone on, and every 500m you were invited to stop momentarily and get a photograph taken with a Disney character - be it Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Captain America, Woody from Toy Story, or even the Stormtroopers from Star Wars.
It was strange to see in the middle of a race runners stepping out to queue for a picture. "Are they mad or what," I thought to myself. Two kilometres later under Sleeping Beauty's Magical Castle, there I was pulling in to get a photograph with Baloo the Bear from Jungle Book as he duly gave me a proper bear-hug.
Adding further to the surreal nature of the run was the wide variety of bands dotted along the route. At one roundabout half-way through, there was an Australian Aboriginal group with a digeridoo accompanied by a scantily-clad lady juggling a giant stick on fire; at another, a marching band was belting out Michael Jackson's 'Thriller’. I mean if that doesn't inspire to run faster, I don't know what will.
At the finish line, there was more Disney magic and a cluster of characters to high-five all the runners home. So having got that far, it was treat-time and we ended up at Bistrot Chez Remy to sample a fine steak. In fact, the variety of cuisine available at the parks was one of the welcome discoveries of my weekend – there are all types of restaurants to tickle all tastebuds.
And would an old cynic like me go back? Of course – Disneyland Paris has that ‘je ne sais quoi' to keep all the family happy. That represents value for money in my book and as the resort prepares to celebrate its 25 birthday this year, there are some excellent offers available at the moment.
The 2017 half-marathon takes place Sept. 21-24 (run.disneylandparis.com).
A four-night (five-day) trip with accommodation at Disney’s Santa Fe Hotel starts from €470 for a family of four (flights excluded).
The price is based on two adults and two children sharing a room and includes an early booking offer (subject to availability; T&Cs apply).
To book, see disneylandparis.ie or visit your local travel agent.