Forty years ago this Saturday, Florida sprouted a permanent pair of mouse ears. For better or worse — depending on your tolerance for urban sprawl, empty wallets and endless listens of It's a Small World — the world's most famous talking rodent moved into a second vacation home on Oct. 1, 1971. The trousered critter single-handedly redefined the Sunshine State as a place to ride rather than an old-school oasis to relax.
Behold, the Magic Kingdom.
The Walt Disney World resort is now, of course, a mega mousetropolis, the most popular recreational resort on the planet. But in the beginning, it was just the Magic Kingdom, a mondo version of its Disneyland predecessor in Anaheim, Calif., which had opened 16 years earlier.
Disneyland is a relatively quaint, cozy, throwback place; its Sleeping Beauty Castle is about one-third the size of Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom. When Uncle Walt wanted to expand his park desires on the East Coast — buying 27,443 acres of Central Florida swamp — he was thinking bigger, a lot bigger. The Magic Kingdom was thus designed to accommodate massive swaths of global lookie-loos. As a result, it feels a little less ornate, less fantastical than his original SoCal nirvana.
Which is not to say the Magic Kingdom isn't awesome. It is, very much so, the "architecture of reassurance" in all its true tingle. Yes, the zero-alcohol rules can be rough on certain mommies and daddies; seriously, they should turn the Enchanted Tiki Room into a high-tech tavern and attendance would double!
But I digress. If you have out-of-town guests who have never been to Disney World, which park do you send them to first? Magic Kingdom, of course. Why? Because unlike the other three parks (even beautifully boozy Epcot), the MK has the ability to mess with your mind in wild ways. It takes you back to that first time you toddled down Main Street and begged Mom and Dad for a $17 balloon that you got sick of holding in less than three minutes. Of course, that was also the happiest you've ever been in your entire life. So there's that.
I've been going to the Magic Kingdom for 35 years. And as much as I dig Splash Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean, I've especially learned to enjoy the park's smaller, more intimate charms, too. (Yes, they exist, smart aleck.) So in celebrating the big 4-0, here's a list of my favorite "secret" places in the Magic Kingdom, the Florida theme park that started, and changed, it all.
Walt Disney World Railroad: Most guests blow right past the Main Street train station on their frantic way to Fastpassing Peter Pan's Flight or trying to hit Dumbo before that godforsaken line triples. But a trip on the steam-powered choo-choo is the best way to remember what the MK was like way back when, as a smattering of charmingly cheesy mannequins and effects — deer, rattlesnakes, teepees — still creakily reside on the periphery.
Memories of Toady: Not only is 1949's The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad my all-time favorite Disney flick, but Mr. Toad's Wild Ride is easily my all-time fave attraction. The "motor mania" still exists at Disneyland, but the superior two-track version of the ride was controversially shuttered at the Magic Kingdom in 1998. Nevertheless, soothing Toady reminders still exist, from his statue in the Haunted Mansion pet cemetery to a cameo in the Winnie the Pooh ride to a blessed sliver of regal Toad Hall still visible next to the Mad Tea Party. Toad rules. So pay your respects.
Dole Whip: Best theme park snack of all time? Has to be the pineapple soft-serve goodness at Aloha Isle in Adventureland. When you have to drag the entire screamin' brood from Adventureland to Tomorrowland for one last spin on Space Mountain, a Dole Whip (or, even better, a Dole Float!) is a rejuvenating gift from the park gods.
Columbia Harbour House: Here's another foodie respite from the hellacious heat and thick, cranky crowds. On the edge of Liberty Square, across from the Haunted Mansion, the cool, moodily lit joint is all New England nautical. It's rarely crowded, even when the rest of the park is. I was born and raised in Boston, but no hyperbole here: Harbour House serves the best clam chowder I've ever tasted.
Queue at Haunted Mansion: This is the best new addition in years. The very height of imagineering, the macabre merriment of the new outdoor queue at the Haunted Mansion is a genuinely eerie, totally fun interactive graveyard, with all the sly story lines from the ride inside being threaded outside. From a moaning sea captain whose hulking crypt blows bubbles to a hyperactive bookshelf intent on driving you mad, this tight, cozy pocket of the park is Disney at its escapist peak.
The Fixin's Bar at the Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe: There's an argument to be made that the Magic Kingdom has changed too much over the past 40 years. But it got smart about eats, from the best (and saltiest) popcorn around to fast food with a twist, such as the self-serve fried onions and 'shrooms available at the Pecos Bill burger joint. Sometimes it's the little things that make your day.
Frontierland Shootin' Arcade: It's still cheap to pick up a rifle on Boot Hill and "fire" infrared light beams at 100 Wild West targets, from graves to vultures. This sucker's a little beat up, but the Magic Kingdom is best enjoyed when you slow the heck down and take it all in. You'll never enjoy yourself if you're simply hauling tail to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Aunt Polly's Dockside Inn: When she heard I was putting together this list, colleague Kelly Stefani, a Disney sorcerer to my mere apprentice, offered this out-of-the-way snack shop on Tom Sawyer Island. "Sip on lemonade while sitting on the porch," she recommends. Done and done.
The naughty secret of the "Partners" statue: The bronze statue of Mickey Mouse holding hands with Uncle Walt sits in the peaceful hub at the end of Main Street, a great place to take a deep breath and soak in Cindy's digs. The statue is a kind, heartfelt piece of art that, when viewed from a certain angle, is totally wrong. We'll say no more about this risque legend, but rest assured every cast member knows about it — but won't admit it. The rest is up to you.
WEDWay PeopleMover: I don't really care what it's called today (okay, fine, the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover — sigh). And I really don't care if you call me a wheezy old man for loving this steady cruise through the upper reaches of Tomorrowland. I loved this subtle sucker when I was 10 years old, too! This was Walt's vision for how we'd travel in the future, and I'd gladly trade in my dented Nissan Murano for that! Don't knock the PeopleMover. Just sit back, smile and have the time of your life, kid.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. You can also follow his antics on Twitter (@seandaly poplife) and Facebook (facebook.com/seandaly.tampabay).