Of all the highways and byways sprinkled throughout our country, Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdoms at Disneyland and Walt Disney World are perhaps the most photographed.
They also may be the most crowded.
From rope drop early in the morning, to the afternoon parade, to the evening’s fireworks display, the street is almost always jam-packed with park guests.
When the park opens each day, the folks entering can usually be seen power-walking up the street, bound for their favorite attraction or show.
By nighttime, those same guests are more often than not dragging their feet toward the exit, exhausted from a day of fun and enchantment.
Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland and Walt Disney World is a throwback to a Midwestern town in the early years of the 20th century.
Even the modes of transportation seen on the street, such as horseless carriages, horse-drawn streetcars and British-style omni-buses, reflect that bygone era.
Main Street also is the place where guests gather to be entertained, particularly if shopping is your definition of entertainment.
The afternoon parade has been a staple almost from the day Disneyland  and WDW  opened. And in the evening, fireworks – and, more recently, castle projection shows – have delighted guests as they stand shoulder-to-shoulder along the world-famous thoroughfare.
Our latest collection of vintage Disney photos highlights Main Street U.S.A.
SIMILAR PHOTOS OF MAIN STREET, TAKEN 15 YEARS APART
If nothing else, these two photos illustrate how little Main Street U.S.A. in Walt Disney World has changed over the years.
The photo on the left was taken in 1983. A horse-drawn streetcar, which rides on rails, makes its way toward Town Square. The streetcar has a distinctive sign on the front that reads “Main Street Transportation Co.”
Magnificent Cinderella Castle looms large in the distance.
By today’s standards, the street in the 1983 photo seems almost empty. Although trees block the views of most of the storefronts, a sign for the Market House, sponsored by Smuckers and Dixie Crystals, can be seen to the right. To the left, a stylized trash can can be seen.
In the photo to the right, taken in 1998 from a similar location, the number of guests has increased, but a similar horse-drawn streetcar makes its way down the street.
The Market House sign is still visible to the right, as is the trash can to the left.
And Cinderella Castle seems bigger and more spectacular when shown in vivid color.
DISNEYLAND’S MAIN STREET UNDER CONSTRUCTION
For decades, the site that became known as Disneyland consisted of acres and acres of orange groves.
After the Walt Disney Company purchased the land in the early 1950s, those orange trees were removed and the world’s first theme park began to take shape.
In the photo above, taken weeks away from opening day on July 17, 1955, workers lay the tracks for use by the horse-drawn street car.
In the distance is Town Square and the Disneyland train station. Trees have been planted and lampposts are affixed to the sidewalks on either side of the street.
To the left, the name Swift appears on a storefront’s marque. In Disneyland’s early – and notoriously cash-strapped – days, outside businesses [Swift, Carnation, Eastman Kodak and Upjohn among them] leased space along Main Street, which turned out to be a profitable move by all the parties involved.
Main Street U.S.A. was designed by Wade B. Rubottom, who was an art director for a number of major Hollywood films.
His job was critical to the success of the park, since Main Street was the first area guests would see. Like the opening sequence of a movie, Main Street would set the stage for the rest of the “show” ahead.
It had to be just right. And, judging by the hoards of people who flock to the street each day in California and Florida, they did get it right.
45 YEARS OF MAGIC CELEBRATED AT DISNEYLAND
Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and more than 45 other stars of Disney’s animated films played a leading role in the “45 Years of Magic … Parade of the Stars” afternoon celebration on Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland.
The occasion was Disneyland’s 45th anniversary during the year 2000.
Towering over the procession of friendly Disney characters was a trio of gleaming, gold-leafed giraffe sculptures, inspired by the animated feature The Lion King.
The colorful parade was presented daily throughout 2000 as part of the year-long anniversary celebration.
Disneyland’s first major anniversary celebration was held in 1965 … its 10th year of operation.
Disney Legend and marketing genius Jack Lindquist dreamed up the term Tencennial for the occasion, as well as several promotions linked to the celebration.
Indeed, anniversaries have become a big part of Disney parks’ marketing pitch over the years, the most recent of which is Walt Disney World’s current 50th birthday celebration.
WHO DIDN’T GO BONKERS OVER MICKEY MANIA?
The year was 1994.
The place: Main Street U.S.A. in Walt Disney World.
The occasion? Mickey Mania, of course!
Over-sized Mickey Mouse apparel was part of the zaniness of the Mickey Mania afternoon parade held each day at the Magic Kingdom.
Thousands of mouse-related items were featured in the parade, which highlighted everything Mickey … right down to giant walking versions of his hat, gloves and shoes.
Included in the giant-scale production were punching bags, puppets, bouncing balls, over-sized clocks and, as you might expect, a full lineup of Disney characters.
Included in the parade were bikers jumping off ramps on their float, performing tricky stunts; a balloon-themed float featuring Goofy and Max; and, of course, Minnie – dressed as a 1980s rap star – also had her own conveyance.
The final float, fittingly, featured the Big Cheese himself.
No wonder the sidewalks along Main Street were jam-packed with excited fans during Mickey’s special parade.
THE MAIN STREET ELECTRICAL PARADE COMES TO WDW
The original Main Street Electrical Parade debuted in Disneyland in 1972 and thrilled more than 75 million guests during its original 24-year run at the Happiest Place on Earth.
After a three-year hiatus, the enchanting parade found a new home at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, starting in 1999.
The parade was called “part of the most explosive year of entertainment expansion ever at the Vacation Kingdom.”
As mentioned in a previous blog, the Main Street Electrical Parade can trace its roots to the Electrical Water Pageant, which started a few weeks after Walt Disney World opened in 1971 on Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon.
A conga line of music-blaring pontoon boats, all displaying twinkling lights in a variety of nautical-themed shapes affixed to aluminum cages, made its way from the Magic Kingdom boat dock area to the waters near the Polynesian Resort, over the water bridge, then on to the Contemporary Resort’s shores, giving guests “a kiss goodnight” as they were leaving the park.
The Electrical Water Pageant was a big hit, so much so that the powers that be at Disneyland became a bit … shall we say, jealous. They wanted their own “kiss goodnight,” but since there are no large bodies of water at Disneyland, they had to come up with something else.
That was the impetus that gave us the Main Street Electrical Parade.
FANTASY IN THE SKY FIREWORKS … OVER SEVEN SEAS LAGOON?
I have to admit, this publicity photo puzzles me.
Yes, a large crowd is gathered on Main Street U.S.A. at Walt Disney World. And, yes, fireworks light the night during the Fantasy in the Sky display. The year is 1983.
But why is everyone facing the train station, and not Cinderella Castle?
Fantasy in the Sky debuted in Disneyland in 1958 because Walt Disney wanted to keep his guests entertained well into the night. And, coupled with the Main Street Electrical Parade, the plan worked.
The pyrotechnic display was picked up in Walt Disney World after it opened in 1971 and ran there through 2003.
Curiously, the Fantasy in the Sky show during the early years was only shown during peak periods, such as the holidays and the summer season. And the show only happened once a night – at 10 p.m.
But the question remains: Why were park guests facing the train station in 1983? If there’s anyone out there who knows the answer, please let us know.
REMEMBERING THE MAGIC … AND THE PINK CASTLE CAKE
In 1996, Walt Disney World celebrated its 25th anniversary. When it came to over-the-top celebrations, this one took the cake. Literally.
As part of its “Remember the Magic” theme, Cinderella Castle was transformed into a giant birthday cake. Its stately spires became candles … the clock at the front of the castle was covered over with the numbers 2 and 5.
Giant “gumdrops” and blue “frosting” accentuated the rest of the castle not covered in garish pink paint.
Some park guests loved it. Most hated it … especially the couples who had booked their weddings at the new Wedding Pavilion across Seven Seas Lagoon with plans to have the traditional castle as a photo backdrop.
The photo above was taken on Oct. 1, 1996, during the official rededication ceremonies along Main Street at the Magic Kingdom.
Shown are dozens of Disney characters dancing to thunderous music provided by the Florida A&M University Marching Band.
The festivities launched a 15-month celebration that honored past WDW guests and asked them to “remember the magic” of those previous visits.
But all most guests remember from that period of time in Disney history is the pink castle cake.
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 latest, The Beat Goes On, for Theme Park Press. He also has written a regular blog for AllEars.Net, called Still Goofy About Disney, since 2015.