Wednesday, November 30, 2011

It's Been 40 Years

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.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Last Day - Take 2

It's not often that you have two last days in the same location on a single trip. But thanks to Hurricane Irene that's exactly what we have had on this visit. Earlier in the trip we thought we were approaching the end of our stay in WDW, but it turned out that we found ourselves with an additional 4 days. Barring any last minute natural disasters, today will be our last day at Disney World. We decide to spend it at The Magic Kingdom.

We arrive at the Magic Kingdom and, as usual, head back into Liberty Square where we gravitate towards the Haunted Mansion. However, as we enter the Hub area, the Move It! Shake It! Celebrate It! Street Party Parade is going on, so we take a few moments to watch - though not participate. It's actually a good way to get the energy up for the last day of a longer than planned vacation which has featured exhaustively hot weather.

Once the parade is over, we continue our journey back to Master Gracey's Mansion. Earlier in the week we had seen the new interactive queue that now leads you in  to the attraction, but it had been raining that time, and both my wife and I would like to spend just a little more time seeing all the new features of the graveyard. We are able to take our time a bit more as we pass through today. There are some very clever new pieces to be seen as you wait your turn to drag your wretched body into the mansion, and a number of tributes to imagineers and performers who are part of the history of the mansion. After having the time to see the new additions, we enter the mansion for yet another trip through.

When we are finished here, we head into Fantasyland and take a boat trip through It's a Small World. To be honest, by this point in the trip, the activity and the weather are really taking their toll on both my wife and myself, so any attraction where we can sit in air conditioning for any amount of time, is going to hold our attention today.

As we leave It's a Small World, we walk past the construction site for the Fantasyland Expansion, and the new castle (Beast's Castle) is clearly in sight. I can't wait until the new area is finally opened. It will be nice to have something new in the Magic Kingdom - something it has sorely missed for too long. But we can't stop and admire the construction as the day just keeps getting hotter and more humid, so we continue on until we reach Mickey's Philharmagic. Actually the plan had been to get fastpasses for Winnie the Pooh, but along with them came "surprise fastpasses" for Philharmagic, so that will be our next destination. Hey, it's cool and you sit down. Remember the order of the day?

After Mickey's Philharmagic, it is time for our Winnie the Pooh fastpasses, and that is where we head.

Earlier in the week, my wife, along with some of the other gals who were here for the wedding, attending the tea at the Grand Floridian. My wife enjoyed it so much that she wanted to go back again before this trip was over, so this morning, before we left for the park, we stopped at the front desk to see if there were any openings for today. Turned out there were 2, and we took them. Now, it was time to head over to the Grand Floridian and have our tea. (Yes, I enjoyed it and would not mind doing it again when we are there the next time.)

When we return to the Magic Kingdom, I notice something that I must have missed this morning when we first got here. Something I know was not there just a few days ago when I was here last ... the Halloween decorations are up! They certainly must have been there this morning, but I totally did not notice them at all. However, I do see them now. (And when I look at the pictures I took earlier in the day, they certainly were indeed there this morning.) Yep, I am losing it. I hate to say it but it is time to get home. (Okay, I can say that knowing it will not be long until we are back here.)

This time in the park, instead of heading to the right side, we head to the left. The Country Bear Jamboree calls out to us ... SIT INSIDE - IT'S COOL IN THERE. So off we go. But first, we pick up fastpasses for The Jungle Cruise. I know my wife would be very happy to skip it, but I still love the corniness of the whole thing, and it's connection to the history of Disney parks in general. So after spending some time in Country Bears, we head over, fastpasses in hand, to The Jungle Cruise.

By this time my wife and I decide it may be time to start thinking about heading back to the hotel to pack (and relax) in preparation for an early departure tomorrow morning. I consider staying in the Magic Kingdom for a while myself to get some pictures of the park after dark, but quickly realize that I won't make it until then, and decide to accompany her back to the hotel. Before we leave, she stops to see a show at the Castle forecourt, and I stop to photograph some flowers which have - mostly - survived this extreme weather. Then, just before we leave the Magic Kingdom for the final time this trip, we take the train once around the park.

Finally it is time to leave and we pack at the hotel for an early morning Magical Express pick-up the next day. We seem to have actually reached the end of our stay at Walt Disney World for this trip.

(More photos from today can be seen here.)