Out the other side of the train station in the Town Square, you’ll be greeted by your first few costumed characters and to a full view of Cinderella Castle at the end of Main Street, U.S.A. Like the first time you see the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Opera House, there’s something seminal—oh, help me, dare I say magical?—about laying eyes on that Castle, and it can’t help but stir feelings of gratitude. This view is as American as the Grand Canyon. There’s a lot of Disney history to absorb if you’re paying attention.

The original Main Street, U.S.A., was created as a perfected vision of Walt Disney’s fond memories of a formative period of his childhood spent in Marceline, Missouri. To impart a sense of coziness, designers built the Main Street facades at diminishing perspective as they rise. Other subtle touches: Shop windows are lower than normal to enable children to see inside, walkways are pigmented red to accentuate both unreality and safety (it alerts walkers of shifts in levels), and buildings on both sides of the street inch closer to each other as you approach the Castle, subconsciously drawing your attention forward.

Guest services cluster around the square. To the left of the park is City Hall. If you forgot to make reservations for sit-down meals or schedule other activities, this is the place for that. Out front, a cast member mans a street cart full of free badges for guests who are having a birthday, visiting for the first time, having an anniversary or a family reunion, or just celebrating something. Ask for a badge and you’ll receive bigger smiles (and maybe treats) all day.

A few people attend the daily flag retreat ceremony here at 5pm—no characters, just a brass band (the Main Street Philharmonic) and a member of the military or veteran selected from the guests—sometimes it works to volunteer at City Hall right after opening. Many guests find the ritual moving.

There are no nonstop rides or shows on Main Street, just the park’s best souvenir shops—call it Purchaseland. The 17,000-square-foot Emporium, the largest shop in the Kingdom, takes up almost the entire street along the left, and Le Chapeau (on the right, facing the square) is one of the only places where you can sew your name onto the back of one of those iconic mouse-ear beanies ($3–$7 per cap; also available at Fantasy Faire and Storybook Circus in Fantasyland). They resist stitching nicknames. Crystal Arts may have a small glass-blowing demonstration going. In the middle of Main Street, the east side has a little side street, Center Street, for caricaturists and silhouette artists, a Disney World institution since 1971 ($8 for two copies). If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a performance by the Dapper Dans, a real barbershop quartet that ambles down the street, or you’ll be glad-handed by old Mayor Weaver, who’ll remind you the election is approaching (“pull the lever and vote for Weaver!”); otherwise, you’ll hear recorded stuff from “The Music Man.” Those songs have a pedigree—at the opening ceremony of the Magic Kingdom, Meredith Willson, who wrote “Seventy-Six Trombones,” led a 1,076-piece band up Main Street.

Strategy: Main Street is the only way in or out of the park, which fosters a sense of suspense, but just as surely creates bottlenecks at parade time. If you need to leave the park then, cut through the Emporium. A variety of free Main Street vehicles trundle up the road at odd hours and on odd days (you never know when) and you can catch a one-way ride on one: They include horse-drawn trolley cars—they wrap up by 1pm as not to overheat the animals—antique cars, jitneys, and a fire truck. They won’t save time, of course, but you’ll remember them forever. Pause at the end of Main Street, where the Plaza begins, for that snapshot of a lifetime in front of the 189-foot-tall Cinderella Castle. You have now essentially passed through three thresholds—the lagoon, the train tunnel, and Main Street, U.S.A.—that were designed to gently ease you into a world of fantasy. You have arrived. Welcome to Disney World! (Whew!)