Walt Disney World – which, at the time, consisted of just the Magic Kingdom, two resorts and a campground – had been open a little more than a year when my wife and I decided to check out Walt Disney’s “latest and greatest dream,” located just a few miles south of Orlando, Fla.
That first visit came during Thanksgiving week in 1972, about 14 months after the Vacation Kingdom of the World opened in October of 1971. We brought my wife’s youngest brother Bob, then 9, along for the adventure.
We flew from Newark Airport in New Jersey on Eastern Airlines, which was then The Official Airline of Walt Disney World, to Miami for a few days of sun and relaxation.
After the short flight from Miami to Orlando Jetport at McCoy [now Orlando International Airport], we rented a car and drove to our hotel, which was located along what was then a nearly deserted International Drive.
Looking back on that 45-minute drive, I remember how barren the area was … nothing but open, empty fields with the occasional cattle ranch or orange grove to break things up.
These days, the roadway is lined with big box stores, condo communities, chain restaurants and strip malls.
The next day – chilly, bright and early – we were off to the Magic Kingdom! We drove down Route 4 and followed the shiny, still-new-looking signs to Walt Disney World.
After driving through WDW’s toll booths, we joined a seemingly endless line of cars and were directed to the massive parking lot. After parking, we followed a seemingly endless stream of guests walking to a tram stop.
We boarded the tram – a string of vehicles hundreds of feet long that maneuvers around obstacles like a snake and is open-air – and received a friendly reminder from the driver before we started: “Remember that you’re parked in the Dopey section. When you return later tonight, all you Dopey people should get off at this stop.” Cute.
After about a five-minute ride, we were dropped off at the Transportation and Ticket Center, where we hopped on a long line to purchase our park admission and attraction tickets.
Back in those days, you needed a separate ticket just to enter the Magic Kingdom and then additional tickets to experience each attraction. Those ride tickets ranged in cost from 10 cents all the way up to 90 cents.
The rides were rated in terms of their “thrill level,” with an A Ticket being the mildest, and an E Ticket being the most thrilling. As it turned out, “thrilling” was a relative term.
E Ticket attractions during our visit in 1972 were The Jungle Cruise, The Country Bear Jamboree, The Hall of Presidents, The Haunted Mansion, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine voyage and It’s a Small World.
FUTURE E-TICKET RIDES WERE YEARS AWAY
Future E Tickets attractions, such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train were years – if not decades – away. After purchasing our tickets, we headed over to a mode of transportation that, to this day, leaves me awe-struck: The Monorail.
We climbed aboard the sleek, futuristic “highway in the sky” and listened intently to all the instructions. Then it was off to the Magic Kingdom, which was enticingly visible right across Seven Seas Lagoon.
Our monorail quietly pulled out of the station and headed toward the giant A-frame building known as The Contemporary Resort. Just a few hundred feet from the station, our eyes fixated on a host of Disney-themed characters, all creatively carved out of giant shrubs, on the clearing below us.
It was a magical moment, seeing those topiaries … to be topped later by dozens more magical moments.
The monorail slowed somewhat as it approached an opening in the side of the Contemporary.
The beam we were riding on took us directly inside the building, where the magnificent Grand Canyon Concourse was visible. Below us, dozens of people milled about, heading to shopping or dining areas. Some simply stared up at the incongruous site of a gleaming transportation conveyance gliding quietly through the heart of a populated hotel.
Visible from the monorail was a massive floor-to-ceiling tile mural, its style reminiscent of the It’s a Small World dolls I had seen at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair … which wasn’t surprising, since both were created by Disney artist Mary Blair. After exiting the building, the beam curved sharply to the left and we made our way to the entrance of the Magic Kingdom.
From our elevated vantage point, we could see the hordes of people walking toward the entrance turnstiles, as well as the large groups who were posing for photos in front of the giant Mickey Mouse head, expertly designed using flower pots, located in front of the Main Street train station.
We literally jogged down the long ramp from the monorail to the park entrance, presented our tickets and walked through the turnstiles. Then we walked under the train station, emerging in the bustling Town Square.
Those first few minutes were truly sensory overload. Town Square and Main Street were modeled after a typical, turn-of-the-20th-century Midwestern town and, as such, exuded a stylized charm and ambiance that brought guests back to a simpler, less-hectic time.
To the left as you entered Town Square was City Hall, cleverly disguised as a lost-and-found and guest information center. To the right was the Town Square Café and a hospitality house, which housed The Walt Disney Story, a short movie about Walt’s life.
A wide variety of vehicles – be they jitneys, fire engines, horseless carriages, omnibuses or horse-drawn trolley cars – dropped off and picked up guests at designated stops for the short, but grand ride up around Town Square and up Main Street. Along Main Street proper there were stores and souvenir shops. On sale were items ranging from cameras and film, hats, clocks, fine china, crystal, jewelry, Disney-themed toys and clothing, and tobacco.
There also was a cinema, featuring Mickey Mouse shorts; a baby center; a first aid station, and a place for lost children to reunite with their parents.
Halfway up Main Street, on either side, was a respite from the retail hustle and bustle. These areas were known as Flower Alley, where guests could find relative peace and tranquility, as well as floral displays, flower shops and the Harmony Barber Shop.
Two of the more popular eateries adjacent to Main Street were the Refreshment Corner [later renamed Casey’s Corner, sporting a baseball theme] and The Crystal Palace, perhaps the most upscale restaurant in the Magic Kingdom.
At the end of Main Street loomed the majestic Cinderella Castle, towering nearly 200 feet tall and linking all the “lands” of the Magic Kingdom.
Sailing around the castle’s moat were whimsically designed, covered watercraft known as the Swan Boats.
We walked up a winding ramp and then through the castle’s main entrance and took note of the elaborate tile murals adorning the walls on each side.
Up ahead, Cinderella’s Golden Carrousel beckoned, as well as medieval-looking stone buildings to either side. All were in an area appropriately called Fantasyland.
Those stone buildings housed Merlin’s Magic Shop and the AristoCats Gift shop to the right and the Tinkerbell Toy Shop to the left.
Just steps away were two of the more popular Magic Kingdom attractions, Snow White’s Adventures and the Mickey Mouse Revue, which became a personal favorite thanks to its classic Disney music score and an impressive Audio-Animatronics cast of Disney characters.
The Fantasyland lineup in 1972 also included the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Submarine Adventure, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Dumbo, Peter Pan’s Flight, It’s a Small World and the Mad Tea Party.
There also was one of the loading/unloading stations for the Skyway gondola ride.
For those of us who had seen the Small World attraction at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, this new iteration was a joy … bigger, brighter and much longer.
Fantasyland, as well as the other themed lands throughout the Magic Kingdom, also featured kiosks where guests could purchase additional attraction tickets.
After leaving Fantasyland, we walked over to Liberty Square, which was home to The Hall of Presidents and The Haunted Mansion, two attractions that left a lasting impression me.
The Diamond Horseshoe Revue, a raucous, saloon-style stage show, was a nice respite from hustle and bustle, while Liberty Tree Tavern and the Columbia Harbour House were two of the most popular sit-down restaurants.
As we walked around the land, we couldn’t help notice that there was major work taking place in the area that would become Tom Sawyer Island in 1973.
TOM SAWYER ISLAND UNDER CONSTRUCTION
Instead of the Admiral Joe Fowler riverboat, the Mike Fink keel boats and the Davy Crockett canoes, earth movers and other heavy construction equipment had taken up residence on the drained Rivers of America.
Our first impression of nearby Frontierland was … frankly, disappointment.
Yes, the buildings were appropriately themed to the wild West of the late 1800s. But aside from the Country Bear Jamboree, a target Shootin’ Gallery and some stores and food establishments, the land was sparse.
Big Thunder Mountain  and Splash Mountain , which would become the cornerstones of Frontierland, were years away from debuting.
That same underwhelming feeling happened as we walked into Adventureland, which consisted of The Jungle Cruise, the Swiss Family Treehouse and the Tropical Serenade [aka The Tiki Room].
The land’s featured attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean, wouldn’t open until 1973. Tomorrowland, too, was still a work in progress in 1972. Aside from Flight to the Moon, the attractions in Tomorrowland were far from what you’d call futuristic.
There was America the Beautiful [a film touting America’s natural beauty], If You Had Wings [an Eastern Airlines travel promo], the Grand Prix Raceway [WDW’s version of Disneyland’s Autopia] and the other Skyway station. Even Flight to the Moon was outdated, being that man had landed on the moon in 1969.
TOMORROWLAND STAPLES ON THE DRAWING BOARD
The Star Jets , the WEDway PeopleMover  and Space Mountain [also 1975] were on the drawing board. Even though the Magic Kingdom was a shell of what we’ve come know and love, I was awestruck during our first visit.
The lines for each attraction were long, but the excitement level and sense of anticipation was exhilarating. We’d hop on an attraction line, wait an hour or so, spend maybe five minutes on the ride itself, then race over to the next line for another long, yet ultimately satisfying wait.
At the end of the day, after the park had thinned out, we’d revisit our favorite attractions to experience them for a second or third time. Then it was back to the hotel for rest, relaxation … and to formulate a game plan for what we’d see and do the following day.
Although the Magic Kingdom in 1972 was a shell of what it has become, we had the time of our lives … and we couldn’t wait to get back.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THE MAGIC KINGDOM IN 1972
The cleanliness of the park and the friendliness of the cast members. Being completely blown away by the life-like Audio-Animatronics figures in The Hall of Presidents, as well as the truly patriotic presentation.
Buying my first Mickey Mouse T-shirt on Main Street, which I wore proudly for most of our visit. Being totally enthralled by the If You Had Wings attraction and its exotic “destinations.”
Laughing it up after hearing Big Al and the rest of the Country Bears for the first time.
First in a series. Next: THE FIRST TIME I VISITED: EPCOT
Chuck Schmidt is an award-winning journalist who has covered all things Disney since 1984 in both print and on-line. He has authored or co-authored seven books on Disney, including his most recent, “The Beat Goes On,” for Theme Park Press. He has written a twice-monthly blog for AllEars.Net, called Still Goofy About Disney, since 2015.