It was December 25, 1971 and one of the last winter break vacations I would spend with my whole family. We were in Central Florida, Orlando to be exact, and almost three months earlier something happened here which would forever change this sleepy village - Walt Disney World (WDW) opened its gates for the very first time.
We arrived at our hotel on December 24. It was an off property hotel of course, since there were only two in WDW itself, The Contemporary and The Polynesian Village. Both were quite expensive. Along route 192 in Kissimmee there were a few hotels, but for the most part, Irlo Bronson Highway was pretty much empty. One could only imagine what it would look like in the years to follow. Walt Disney could, having seen what happened outside of the gates of Disneyland in Anaheim a decade and a half earlier, and that was what prompted him to buy 42 square miles of land in Central Florida - twice the size of the island of Manhattan.
We watched the news the night before and saw the major traffic backups onto I-4 of people hoping to get into the parking lot of the only theme park in WDW at the time - The Magic Kingdom. We knew we needed to leave very early in the morning the next day, our first ever in WDW. (We had been to Disneyland a few times already.)
So on December 25, 1971 we left our hotel and drove towards the only entrance to WDW and the parking lot for the Magic Kingdom. I was 18 years old, but just as excited as I had been years earlier the first time we visited Disneyland. I had grown up watching Disney every Sunday night, and my favorite episodes were always the ones that dealt with Disneyland, and more recently, the building of WDW.
But where was all the traffic we saw on TV? We were able to drive right up to the booths at the parking lot where we had to wait for them to open! We drove right to the front of the lot once we were in, with only a relatively few others alongside of us. We bought our ticket books, containing A through E tickets, and then took the monorail over to the Magic Kingdom. (We had to use a special transportation ticket to board.) Did you notice the price of admission and 7 attractions? $4.75!!!
Once inside The Magic Kingdom, we discovered that the entire park was not yet complete and open. Tomorrowland was boarded off since it was not yet finished. We would have to be content with the other lands. Another disappointment was that there was no Pirates of the Caribbean. No, it's not that it wasn't ready yet, but a decision was made that since Central Florida was historically pirate country itself, people might not want a pirate attraction in WDW. That was a mistake in judgement that was promptly corrected.
But despite these disappointments, we did have a great first day at The Magic Kingdom. And there were no crowds! As it turned out over the years, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were very low attendance days. On Christmas Eve, many of which we spent at The Magic Kingdom over the years, the park (and later parks) closed early and people stayed away. Leaving the park on Christmas Eve was nice in the early days, as Cast Members would line up and shake your hand and wish you a Merry Christmas as you left the park. Christmas Day was also a low attendance day ... until the year after the Christmas Parade was first televised live. The second year it was scheduled, we found The Magic Kingdom more crowded than it had ever been, and we were funneled backstage from the entrance directly into Tomorrowland. Now Christmas Eve and Day are among the most crowded in the Magic Kingdom.
Which bring us to Christmas Day, 2011 ... 40 years after my first ever visit to WDW. On December 25, 2011 my wife and I will be arriving in WDW. We are staying on property this time, as we always do, and will be spending time with our daughter (who has worked in WDW for over 11 years now and got married there) and son-in-law. It no longer has the same excitement that it had in the early days since we are here so often, but more of a feeling of "coming home."
I don't know exactly what time we will arrive in WDW, but if it is early enough, and if The Magic Kingdom isn't closed due to high crowds, I hope to be able to go into the Magic Kingdom, even if we don't get onto a single attraction, to celebrate 40 years to the day since I first set foot into the park.