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What's your first memory of visiting Walt Disney World?

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Published: September 29, 2011 at 11:26 AM

I woke up in the back seat of my parents' car, around 7 in the morning or so, opening my eyes to see a line of cars parked behind us. We were staying with my grandparents, who lived in St. Petersburg, and must have gotten a pre-dawn start. How I got from the bed to the backseat of the car, I don't know.

But there we were on the road to Disney World. And on a Monday! Back when we lived in Los Angeles, we'd visited Disneyland plenty of times, but the park was never open on Mondays. Not only was Walt Disney World bigger than Disneyland ("You could fit all if Disneyland in our parking lot!" we'd hear on the tram later that morning), you could visit it seven days a week!


Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, under construction. Video courtesy Disney.

We weren't going to be visiting anything for a while, though. The line if cars queued up for the parking lot toll booths stretched almost all the way back to Interstate 4. Walt Disney World had been open for six years then, but with only one theme park, everyone was heading in the same direction that spring break morning.

It seemed like hours before we made to into the park. First, there was the long line to get into the lot. Then, we had to wait for a tram. Where's the castle? They said it was bigger than Disneyland's, but I can't even see it from here. Then, the ticket lines. (No online ordering in the 1970s, kids. Heck, there was no online anything back then.) All this waiting, waiting, waiting. This was nothing like Disneyland.

I must have been pretty frustrated after waiting in three lines, so I'm sure that my parents weren't too happy with me when I discovered that we'd have to wait in a fourth - for the monorail that would take us (finally!) to the park. But cruising through the Grand Canyon Concourse of the Contemporary Hotel must have shut me up. This was nothing like Disneyland!

Waiting became the theme of the day. You know that candy shop next to the Country Bear Jamboree, Prairie Outpost and Supply? That used to be part of the Country Bear queue. We waited it in. We waited in queues that no longer exist for the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and Space Mountain. I missed not being able to sail through Monstro's mouth, or being shrunk by the Mighty, Mighty Microscope, but the singing bears were funny and the submarines looked just like Captain Nemo's, instead of those boring old subs back at Disneyland.

There were fireworks after dark, just like at Disneyland. And I remember the road sign pointing to Tampa just before I feel asleep. The next morning, I woke up at my grandparents. How I got into the bed, I don't know.

Walt Disney World celebrates its 40th birthday on Saturday. There will be a character parade up Main Street before 10am and a celebration in front of the castle. Like many years on October 1, guests who arrive early will get cupcakes. (Thank heavens Disney won't be decorating the castle to look like one this time.)

Disney isn't planning a year-long celebration for its 40th, the way it did for its "Tencennial" in 1981 (when I visited with my Boy Scout troop, then breathlessly returned home with the news that Disney was building a new theme park - EPCOT Center - and that you could buy a passport which meant you didn't need those A through E tickets anymore!). Or as it did for its 15th birthday, when I started working for Disney.

Robert

But the anniversary is enough to send many Disney fans down memory lane, recalling the first time that they visited what is now the world's most popular theme park.

What's your first memory of visiting Walt Disney World?

Update: If you're interested, I've just posted some pages from a 1988 Magic Kingdom guidebook (the oldest I still have) to the Theme Park Insider Facebook page.

Readers' Opinions

From Mike Gallagher on September 29, 2011 at 12:10 PM
As I've established on here before, I'm not a Disney-phile by any stretch. But I can answer this question. My first visit to WDW was in the mid-70's just before my dad got sick. The first memory I have..and the only one that has stayed locked in my brain...was the smell of fresh made popcorn, sold at a cart near the gate. Unfortunately, I had just recently gotten braces on my teeth, and for those of you who have had them, and those who haven't...popcorn is a big no-no, along with chewing gum and peanut butter. I always knew that when I got back to WDW, popcorn would be my first order of business.

Took care of that business in 1977.

From Brian Emery on September 29, 2011 at 12:24 PM
I was 39 years old.. Yes 39… I had never been to Orlando. My daughter wanted to visit Sea World so badly, I finally booked the vacation.. I was waiting until she was old enough to remember it; she was 7 at that time…

The first Disney Park we hit was Animal kingdom. It was hot and humid and crowded. Waited in line for tickets mostly because of my ignorance for purchasing them before we went… Then I signed up for TPI and now I am informed….(Like how I got a plug in for TPI)

From Daniel Etcheberry on September 29, 2011 at 3:51 PM
It was the summer of 1982 (I was 9), and my first memory was to see how organized the cars parked next to each other on Magic Kingdom's parking lot.

From Jack Curley on September 29, 2011 at 2:21 PM
I first visited in December of 1983. I was 7 and we flew from Newark airport (it was also my first time on an airplane). My first WDW memory wasn't even in WDW; it was how Disney-fied the Orlando airport was, and how technologically advanced it seemed. We flew down on Christmas Eve morning, and WDW closed early that day, so we went to Sea World instead and saved WDW for Christmas morning.

I remember driving into the entrance to the property, I remember waiting for tickets, I remember riding the ferry across the Seven Seas Lagoon. I remember being overwhelmed by everything. I remember not wanting to go to EPCOT that night because I thought it wasn't part of Disney World. I remember going to EPCOT the next day and LOVING it! Well, except all the countries. I remember going to Walt Disney World Village, where they had a huge Christmas tree up. I remember buying lots of souvenirs, and not having any room for them in our baggage. We put them all in a big plastic bag, and forgot to retrieve them from the X-ray scanner in the airport.

We don't have many pictures left from the trip, but I also remember the tiny shorts I wore back then with the giant socks with three stripes on them.

The next time I went back was in 2000, for my niece's first trip to Disney. The whole family went, and we had a blast. AGAIN.

From Frank Forrester on September 29, 2011 at 2:27 PM
My first trip was in December of 1973 at the young age of 7. My dad had us leave home early in the morning while it was still dark and we drove all the way to Florida from Virginia. The main things that stood out in my memory was the Monorail going thru the Contemporary, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and meeting Tigger. I still have a button that my parents bought me from there.

My next trip to any Disney park again wasn't until 1988 when I went to Epcot. During the 90s I went to Disney 6 different years either hitting MGM Studios or Epcot until the final trip in 1999 when I hit both MGM & Epcot. I didn't go back to the Magic Kingdom again until August 2007 almost 34 years later.

From Don Lancaster on September 29, 2011 at 2:55 PM
It was July 1975, and after driving down from Vermont, our car was just approaching the main gate. Back then the sign above above the toll booths read "Walt Disney World" rather than "The Magic Kingdom". At my insistence, my dad had tuned to the Disney World information station on the radio. The repeating loop kept reminding us that we should be sure to visit WDW's newest attraction, Space Mountain!

We stopped at the main entrance and got directions to our hotel. We were staying at the Contemporary, and as it came into sight, I could barely contain my excitement. Could there be a more modern looking structure?

Then, as if on cue, a monorail emerged from the resort. "Look, its the monorail!" I exclaimed. "It's ok" my mom replied, "There will be another one". She thought I was worried that we missed the ride to the park. She didn't get it. How could anyone not get excited when suddenly confronted with the transportation of the future come to life?

Thus began my first visit to WDW. The place is bigger now, there is much more to do and I have been back many, many times, but I will never forget the excitement and wonder of being a 13 year old kid visiting for the very first time.

From Eric S on September 29, 2011 at 2:58 PM
While I consider myself extremely lucky to have grown up so close to Walt Disney World, the one regret I have is that I was so young that I don't remember the first time. That's why I'm so excited for the first time I go to Disneyland. They may be similar, but I'll always remember my first time at Disneyland.
From Amanda Jenkins on September 29, 2011 at 4:16 PM
My first memory was in September of 1986, I was a couple of months shy of being seven years old. My grandparents decided to rent an RV and take my parents, myself, my two aunts and uncles, and my four cousins to Walt Disney World for the first time. We drove from Memphis to Daytona Beach. Then we decided to drive on to Disney World. I remember the sky ride, the monorail, the Contemporary Resort, the Haunted Mansion, the Main Street Electrical Parade (and having the best seat in the house, my tall father's shoulders), and of course Epcot. I fell in love with Spaceship Earth and the Living Seas. I recieved my first "kisses" from Mickey Mouse, Minnie, and Donald Duck (each dressed in furturistic silver outfits) right between Spaceship Earth and Horizons. After that encounter, my grandparents surprised me with a large plush Mickey, Minnie, and Donald. I also remember loving how my name looked in gold thread on the back of my Mickey ears. I rememeber that it became quite cold one evening while my cousins (though teenagers at the time) played along with me in the jumping water fountains close to Journey into Imagination. We all went and bought matching gray Epcot sweatshirts that had a multi-colored Spaceship Earth on the front. I still have this along with the toys and my first "ears". I also have the Birnbaum Disney World travel book that my mom had made all the notes and plans from. She had starred all that everyone had felt was a must see, and wrote the dates of when we rode those rides. This trip is one of my fondest memories of spending time not only at the most magical place on earth, but that I had this special trip with all of my family. Now we have grown and expanded so much, that it is too difficult to get us all together for a trip. We all though, have this memory to look back on.
From Jorge Arnoldson on September 29, 2011 at 4:46 PM
Hey, Robert, how about a picture of that Randy nametag?
From Zackiel Marsh on September 29, 2011 at 5:24 PM
I was 6. We took the ferry and it was me and my dad. I forgot that me and Disney World share a birthday.
From 74.77.237.43 on September 29, 2011 at 6:07 PM
It was August 1977. I was nine. It was my first airplane ride. We spent our first full day at Magic Kingdom, and returned to the hotel late that night. My mom went into the bathroom, and my sister and I turned on the tv. The news was reporting that Elvis Presley died. My mom was a HUGE fan of Elvis, so I ran over to the bathroom door and broke the news to her. I heard her crying behind the closed door. I remember almost nothing about the park. This is the memory that permeates when I think of my first Disney trip.
From Robert Niles on September 29, 2011 at 6:57 PM
Sorry, Jorge. Couldn't get rid of that one fast enough. No time to take a photo. ;^)
From Kelly Muggleton on September 30, 2011 at 1:13 AM
July 1989, 11 years old, leaving to go to Florida and being the envy of all of my friends here in the UK as no one really went to Florida then.
Trying to get our bearings at the TTC - what to do! Boat or Monorail...we opted for the ferryboat. Crossing the Seven Seas lagoon and seeing that castle for the first time... I have started welling up just thinking about it. Pure Disney Magic. I still feel the same way now when I approach the castle, emotional and so grateful that I have been able to have that magic for 22 years!
(What a sap I am!) :-)
From KJ Simpson on September 30, 2011 at 3:51 AM
Woops, this was me- I guess I wasn't signed in...

It was August 1977. I was nine. It was my first airplane ride. We spent our first full day at Magic Kingdom, and returned to the hotel late that night. My mom went into the bathroom, and my sister and I turned on the tv. The news was reporting that Elvis Presley died. My mom was a HUGE fan of Elvis, so I ran over to the bathroom door and broke the news to her. I heard her crying behind the closed door. I remember almost nothing about the park. This is the memory that permeates when I think of my first Disney trip.

From Ray Schroeder on September 30, 2011 at 5:46 AM
It was spring break 1973. I was a senior in High School visiting a friend who just moved to Venice Fl. We went Easter Sunday and boy was it packed. Hugh lines for everything. But we saw it all. I still have my souvenirs from that trip, somewhere, I think, I hope.
From 76.23.132.156 on September 30, 2011 at 7:08 AM
April 1989, my first trip at the age of 13. Many of my "memories" have been cemented by repeated viewings of videotape that my father took by renting a huge video camera from the hotel one day. But, one memory that stands out without the aid of technology is the fear I felt on my first ride on Space Mountain. I was so afraid that my flip flops that I had worn that day would be somehow sucked off my feet during the ride. The whole ride I concentrated only on keeping my shoes on! We were also lucky enough to "preview" the MGM Studios before it's opening in May. That was an unexpected surprise that may have led to my working there with the College Program in 1997. :)
From Tyler Stover on September 30, 2011 at 7:30 AM
My first visit to Walt Disney World was my honeymoon, so it is a rather good memory. I was a cast member at Team Disney Anaheim, didn't have much money, and my wife and I are both big Disney fans, so a trip on my cast discount was the perfect solution. We splurged on a moderate resort and a couple expensive meals (California Grill is beyond excellent, Artist Point a little less so) for our one week stay. We wore "Just Married" buttons that they give you at City Hall all week and those got us more free stuff than my cast discount, and I think there is a secret prison on property where they torture CMs who don't congratulate newlyweds. I can't recall one CM who didn't stop what they were doing to congratulate us, even parade performers. This was during the Year of a Million Dreams and on our last night, while we were walking through the magic kingdom, a dream team member stopped us, announced to everyone around we were having a certifiable magic moment, tossed confetti over us, and gave us a certificate.
From Lori Schueren on September 30, 2011 at 7:43 AM
It was June 2002; I had just turned 18. I grew up in Indiana and my parents always took my sister and I on vacations to places like the Smoky Mountains, Washington, D.C., etc. We always had a great time but we'd never gone to Florida. I went to a high school with award-winning music and theatre arts programs. When my handbell choir was invited to play at the American Adventure Pavilion in Epcot, I was ecstatic.

So just a few weeks after I'd graduated high school, I flew to Orlando with a bunch of classmates. It was an AMAZING experience...I will never forget how in awe I was of everything. Magical is the only word to describe Walt Disney World. Playing a concert there was even more incredible. We dressed up in colonial-era costumes and had to stay in character...no waving or smiling to our classmates and family members in the audience!

I've been back to Disney World twice since my first trip there almost 10 years ago, but none have quite compared to that first experience.

From Joshua Counsil on September 30, 2011 at 9:00 AM
Our flights had been delayed, the airline lost our luggage, and my dad left our theme park and return flight tickets at the airport when retrieving our lost luggage, all in the first day. It wasn't until the next day that he realized he left our tickets at the airport. We thought we were doomed - we left a pile of free Disney, Universal, and airline tickets on a counter somewhere in the airport. What were the odds they were still there? Thankfully, we found them the next day.

Needless to say, we were tightly wound as we made our way down International Drive to Disney's Animal Kingdom. The first thing I remember is that the person in the parking booth said, "Have a magical day." Even as a cynical teenager, that made me laugh. The greatest memory, however, was our first attraction - Kilimanjaro Safaris - not because it was excellent, but because the attendant at the front of the line let my dad, my brothers, and I into the line, then stopped my mom from entering.

"Sorry, ma'am. Only 4 at a time."

That was it. That was the last straw. After all the agony of delayed flights, lost luggage, and lost tickets, the last thing we needed was another delay. My mom turned red, ready to explode on this guy, until he said:

"Just messing with ya! You looked like you needed a laugh!"

Man, did we ever, and we laughed hard. From that moment, we were hooked.

Disney, in many ways, has been surpassed in terms of R & D, but what got us hooked in the first place and keeps us coming back is the service.

From Kathy B on September 30, 2011 at 11:20 AM
My first memory was when we took the family on the long 14 hour journey down I-95. When we did arrive and entered the park I think I was the most excited,my eyes were as big as saucers I had tears in my eyes. I've wanted to go to DisneyWorld ever since it was built,but alas we didn't take our journey until 1987. It was awesome until this day I still get excited everytime we visit. Since our first visit we have been there 10x, and are looking forward to our next visit in 2013.
From Robert Waldbauer on September 30, 2011 at 2:45 PM
July of 1972 -- My best friend and I paid $400 for a Greyhound Bus Tour that included transportation from Ohio to Orlando, three nights and four days at the Polynesian Resort, and ten whole ticket books for attractions with admission for four days to the Magic Kingdom. Spent all the tickets, including the "A" tickets for the trolley rides along Main Street, spent an additional $100 on souvenirs (like a three-disc vinyl record set of the music from "Fantasia" and a Beginner's Magic Set!), and pigged out at the Polynesian Resort's Buffet restaurant every night after the fireworks!
From Todd Houts on September 30, 2011 at 3:17 PM
My first visit was in June 1972. I was 9 years old. It was part of a family vacation (including my paternal grandparents) that became an about-every-four-year tradition. We had traveled first by station wagon from Central IL to Jacksonville FL to visit family, then on to Orlando for WDW. I have trouble separating memories of those early trips but my love of the place has never dimmed. (In fact taking my 9th trip or so this December. First time I'll ever see the parks decorated for the Christmas season so I'm doubly excited - even now at 48 - well 49 in two days).
From 75.176.171.77 on September 30, 2011 at 3:52 PM
WOW 40 Years...Man I must be getting (younger) ha. My family first visited WDW in January 1972. Living in Va. and going to year round school meant vacations at strange times of year. We were as Robert pointed out waiting..(yes even then we waited back in 72) in those lines to even see if there was a park at the end that rainbow. And the wait was so worth it....We did have a very exercising day to say the least..but.. what I remember most was leaving after all the fun. We had to board ferrys to cross back over the water..trams full...and yes it was pouring down rain..People were crammed onto the little boat and water started coming in..The crew had to adjust our load of tired and drained bodies,so we could make it back without drowning...Wow 40 years...I am heading back in two weeks..Better check on my walking shoes......Take care TPI..from Myrtle Beach SC...keep the sand between your toes..
From 70.119.215.131 on October 1, 2011 at 4:00 AM
It was 1978, we went to River Country first. I thought it was the coolest water park ever, for that time. I was amazed at how clean and organized the Magic Kingdom was. Today I am amazed at how cheap the tickets were then. Stephen Smith
From Mark Fairleigh on October 1, 2011 at 6:20 AM
It was the summer of 1984. So I was an early teen. Just remember being wowed that I was actually at this magical-heretofore-imaginary (to me at least)-wonderland called Walt Disney World. The stuff of dreams. Though the long line for the Jungle Cruise brought me down to earth a bit, I still remember being amazed by just about everything. I really felt like I was in another world going up into Spaceship Earth for the first time. Great memories.
From Terry R on October 3, 2011 at 7:10 PM
Having live in California most of my life, I, like many other Californians, are probably used to Disneyland. Don't get me wrong; I love Disneyland and nothing will ever replace it. However, my first visit to the Magic Kingdom was when I was 21. It was a bit awe-inspiring. Not only was it huge but the Walt Disney World resort was nothing if not spectacular.

Over the years I've visited Orlando several times and I always make sure I drop by MK, even if it was only for several hours or so. I think it's because when you go to Disneyworld, you're literally leaving the real world behind, not just behind the borders that the railroad sets. I hope that Disney (and Orlando for that matter) always keeps that 'real' world out of that area. It's too magical to be bothered by 'real world' so to speak.

From 208.92.40.137 on October 4, 2011 at 10:55 AM
I visited WDW first in 1987 and it was the year I fell in love with Orlando. I had visited Disneyland as a 5-year-old, but didn't remember much. Two years before our trip to Fla., my younger sis & I watched Disneyland's 30th anniversary celebration on TV (recorded it on VCR). We obsessively watched it over & over again, preparing for our next trip. And when we first came to Magic Kingdom, all the rides -- from the Enchanted Tiki Room to Space Mountain -- were everything we had hoped for and more!
But that video couldn't prepare me for Epcot and I was totally awestruck with Future World and the World Showcase. To this day ... and even now that I'm an Orlando resident ... I love the nostalgia that comes with every visit to the parks.

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