First Visit To Walt Disney World In 1972 Launched A Lifetime Of Cherished Memories

The Walt Disney World we visited in 1972 was a vastly different place than the expansive resort we know today.

That trip, 52 years ago in November, was our first to the Vacation Kingdom of the World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, which opened to guests in October of 1971.

Chuck Schmidt, left, and his brother-in-law Bob pose with Dumbo during a visit to Walt Disney World in 1972. [Janet Schmidt]
To begin with, Walt Disney World in 1972 consisted of the Magic Kingdom theme park, River Country water park, Fort Wilderness campground, and two on-property resorts, the Contemporary and the Polynesian … as opposed to the four parks; two water parks; a shopping, dining and entertainment district; a sports complex; and thousands of on-property hotel rooms that exist today.

Most guests who visited WDW in 1972 stayed in hotels or motels off-property and arrived at the Magic Kingdom by automobile, either on their own or a rental. Those guests who stayed on the property got around the resort by either monorail or boat.

And the intricate bus transportation system that permeates the resort today didn’t exist in 1972.

Once you paid for parking and found a parking space, you took a tram to the Transportation and Ticket Center, which had great views of Seven Seas Lagoon as you waited on the first of many lines.

You purchased your park tickets at the T&TC. Those tickets – by today’s standards – were downright primitive.

Included in your ticket book was admission to the Magic Kingdom, as well as individual tickets marked A, B, C, D, and E; you needed these tickets to experience each “adventure” in the park.

Melvin, Buff, and Max are part of the Country Bear Jamboree show in Frontierland. [Chuck Schmidt]
An A ticket [which cost 10 cents] got you on the least exciting attractions [a Main Street vehicle, for example], while an E-ticket was reserved for the most “thrilling” experiences [thrilling was a relative term back then: The E-ticket attractions, which cost 90 cents, were Jungle Cruise, Country Bear Jamboree, Hall of Presidents, Haunted Mansion, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and “it’s a small world.”]

If you ran out of tickets, there were kiosks located throughout the park where you could purchase more.

During our visit in 1972, we flew into what was then known as Orlando Jetport at McCoy [hence its MCO designation], which at the time served both commercial and military aircraft. Our party consisted of me, my wife Janet, and her younger brother Bob.

We rented a car near the airport and drove past vast open fields that were home to cattle farms and citrus groves. Big box stores and condo communities along the route were still years away. Our hotel was located off International Drive, which was a far cry from the bustling thoroughfare it is today.

The next morning, we headed down Route 4, following the still-glistening road signs pointing the way to a place we had heard and read so much about: Walt Disney World.

We would spend three full days in the Magic Kingdom, with wait times averaging 45-60 minutes for most attractions.

The Walt Disney World monorail, shown near the Contemporary Resort, with the Magic Kingdom in the background. [The Walt Disney Company]
It was unseasonably cool and the ride on the open-air tram after we parked was, shall we say, invigorating. After purchasing our tickets, we headed over to the monorail station … the thrill of riding on a futuristic-looking monorail far outweighed the less-than-exciting prospects of boarding a stodgy Osceola boat.

We could see the glowing Cinderella Castle as we stood on the monorail platform, a harbinger of the excitement that awaited us.

After the monorail pulled out of the station, we were floored by the hand-crafted topiaries that lined the early part of the route.

The Grand Canyon Concourse inside the Contemporary Resort. [The Walt Disney Company]
Moments later, we were positively gob-smacked when the monorail glided into and then through the Contemporary Resort.

The bustling Grand Canyon Concourse was a sight to behold, as was the beautiful floor-to-ceiling tilework that adorned the elevator shaft in the middle of the resort.

We would learn that the individually handcrafted tiles were the work of Disney Legend Mary Blair and a team of skilled craftsmen.

A detailed look at one of the dozens of scenes portrayed on the Mary Blair-created mural in the Contemporary Resort. [Chuck Schmidt]
To this day, it is a stunning work of art.

Once the monorail exited the Contemporary, it was off to the Main Gate at the Magic Kingdom.

We passed through the thigh-smacking turnstiles, under the train station, and into an exciting and magical new world. It took a few minutes to get our bearings as we stood in Town Square, where early 20th-century-style vehicles, some horse-drawn, traversed.

We walked along Main Street, U.S.A. with a true sense of wonder: It was as if a Currier & Ives painting of early Americana was coming to life in front of our eyes. Halfway up the street, four gentlemen in colorful pinstriped clothing [known then as the Barber Shop Quartet, now The Dapper Dans] were delighting a group of guests with their classic songs, done a cappella, and witty, if corny, repartee.

Along the way, we took note of the wide variety of stores: The Chapeau Hat Shop, the Cup’n Saucer China Shop, Wonderland of Wax Candle Shop, Uptown Jewelers, and The Shadow Box Silhouette Studio among them.

Flower Alley was once a featured element along Main Street U.S.A. The Walt Disney Company]

Off to our right was a side street known as Flower Alley, which was brimming from one end to the other with giant planters and colorful blooms.

As we walked further along Main Street, the looming presence of Cinderella Castle came into focus. It was a curious juxtaposition: We stood on Main Street, with its distinctly 1900s charm, and looked ahead to the European-inspired, multi-spired castle, with its ageless elegance.

With our guide maps in hand, we paused in The Hub area to plot our day.

We decided to turn left and head into Adventureland, which consisted of three attractions: Swiss Family Island Treehouse, Sunshine Pavilion and its Tropical Serenade, and the Jungle Cruise.

We skipped the Treehouse and opted to check out the Tropical Serenade [now known as Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room] and the Jungle Cruise. Both were – and still are – winners in my book. Note that the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction would be added to WDW’s Adventureland lineup in late 1973.

From Adventureland, we headed over to Frontierland, which had the fewest attractions of any land in the park: The Country Bear Jamboree, the Frontierland Shootin’ Gallery, and Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad [1979] and Splash Mountain [1992] were still years away from joining the fun.

The Country Bear Jamboree was good, old-fashioned, toe-tapping fun. The Audio-Animatronics bears were the stars of the show … that, and their penchant for telling corny jokes.

Big Al, the unquestioned star of the Country Bear Jamboree. [The Walt Disney Company]
And Big Al, of “Blood on the Saddle” fame, became my new favorite crooner.

Next up was Liberty Square, which was, in my mind, the most intriguing land within WDW. The Hall of Presidents blew me away … from the inspirational story of America to the Audio-Animatronics figures of all [at the time]] 37 U.S. presidents … some swaying side to side, others nodding their heads, but all looking amazingly life-like.

I had seen Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair and now here was Honest Abe, joined by all of his fellow Commanders in Chief. A stunning presentation.

The Haunted Mansion proved to be equally entertaining, for different reasons. The ride system – aka Doom Buggies – was ingenious; the “Grim Grinning Ghosts” theme song and the 999 happy haunts who tried their best to scare us also were a hoot.

We finished off our stay in Liberty Square with a relaxing trip aboard the Admiral Joe Fowler Riverboat before taking in the hilarious Diamond Horseshoe Revue. We managed to grab a quick bite to eat at Columbia Harbour House, one of our favorite restaurants in the Magic Kingdom.

Before heading back to our hotel, we stuck around to watch a new nighttime feature: The Electrical Water Pageant on the Seven Seas Lagoon. The bright lights and catchy songs were exhilarating. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful first day at Walt Disney World.

The Walt Disney World Railroad. [The Walt Disney Company]
We started the next day by riding the Walt Disney World Railroad. We boarded at the Main Street Station for what was called a “grand circle tour” of the park. Back in 1972, however, there were just two stops: Main Street and Frontierland [a new stop at Fantasyland was added with the expansion of New Fantasyland from 2010-2014]. And after the Frontierland station, there wasn’t much to see other than trees and vegetation.

After getting off the train at Main Street, we made our way over to Fantasyland, which was awash with several unique and fun attractions.

We started off with “it’s a small world,” which we had also seen at the World’s Fair. WDW’s version was decidedly longer and more elaborate.

Then it was on to Peter Pan’s Flight, the Mickey Mouse Revue, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Submarine Voyage, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Snow White’s Adventures, Cinderella’s Golden Carrousel and, finally, Dumbo the Flying Elephant.

Mickey conducts his character-filled orchestra in the Mickey Mouse Revue attraction. [The Walt Disney Company]
The Mickey Mouse Revue was, to me, a showstopper. It featured Mickey and all his pals – all beautifully crafted Audio-Animatronics figures – in a concert setting, performing many of Disney’s classic songs. The MM Revue was in the same show building where Mickey’s PhilharMagic now resides.

The 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Submarine Voyage was exhilarating. You stepped down into a realistic-looking sub, took a seat, and peered out through a porthole as the submersible traveled through an elaborately detailed undersea world.

A panoramic view of Fantasyland, which then featured the Skyway to Tomorrowland. [The Walt Disney Company]
After finishing in Fantasyland, we boarded the Skyway to Tomorrowland from a Swiss chalet-styled boarding station.

The skyway took us to a land which, frankly, was misnamed: There was very little that was futuristic about Tomorrowland in 1972.

The Grand Prix Raceway [WDW’s version of Disneyland’s Autopia] was underwhelming; America the Beautiful was a CircleVision 360 travelogue featuring top American tourist spots; and If You Had Wings, sponsored by Eastern Airlines, gave us a look at all of Eastern’s travel destinations.

The entrance to the Eastern Airlines-sponsored If You Had Wings attraction in the Magic Kjngdom, circa 1971.

Flight to the Moon, the only thing remotely futuristic in the land, was already outdated in 1972 as man had landed on the moon in 1969. Small wonder it became Mission to Mars a few years later.

We managed to catch the afternoon parade, which was fun, if only because we got to see many of the Disney characters in one place.

On our third and last day, we made it a point to go on as many of our favorite attractions as we could a second and third time.

We had a blast during our first visit to Walt Disney World in 1972. We’ve been back dozens of times over the years, either with family or with a special group of people we’ve come to know as “our Disney friends.”

Indeed, although we didn’t know it at the time, that first visit launched a lifetime of cherished memories at the Vacation Kingdom of the World.

 Chuck Schmidt is an award-winning journalist and retired Disney cast member 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 On the Disney Beat and Disney’s Dream Weavers for Theme Park Press. He has written a regular blog for AllEars.Net, called Still Goofy About Disney, 2015.

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Chuck Schmidt, bitten by the Disney bug at an early age, remembers watching The Mickey Mouse Club after school in the mid-1950s. During his 48-year career in the newspaper business, he channeled that love of Disney as the Sunday News and Travel editor for The Staten Island Advance. Chuck has written or co-authored seven books for Theme Park Press, including Disney's Dream Weavers, On the Disney Beat, An American in Disneyland Paris, Disney's Animal Kingdom: An Unofficial History and The Beat Goes On. Chuck has shared his passion for all things Disney in his Still Goofy About Disney blog on AllEars.Net since 2015. He resides in Beachwood, N.J., with his wife Janet. They have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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3 Replies to “First Visit To Walt Disney World In 1972 Launched A Lifetime Of Cherished Memories”

  1. Oh, my mom just told me last week about the phone call she got from my Grandma in (probably) 70/71. “Janet, they’re building a Disney in FLORIDA! That’s so much closer!” And she, my mom and I drove down over my spring break in 72 and I swear I can still feel Mickey’s hands tugging on my braids.