At last Sarah is old enough to justify a trip to Walt Disney World. At 4, she's not old enough to want to go on Space Mountain (thank goodness; I've never liked roller coasters), but she loved the Jungle Cruise and Peter Pan and It's a Small World and Dumbo, the Flying Elephant. Her favorite was the merry-go-round; and while it hardly seems necessary to go to Florida to ride a merry-go-round, the Disney people have designed it so there's never more than a five-minute wait. That's a real break when you have a tired, impatient child, and typical of the way everything at Disney World's Magic Kingdom is planned.

So brilliantly is it planned that most people don't stop to think what a departure it was--and what a business gamble --when the original Disneyland was opened in Orange County, Calif., in 1955. We take what we now call theme parks for granted; but there was no such thing in 1955. Amusement parks and traveling circuses drew their audiences strictly from local metropolitan areas or from summer resort crowds; they weren't destinations themselves.

Disneyland changed that. Publicized on Disney's TV show, incorporating the characters from his movies, it used national publicity to attract people from all over the country to Anaheim. Even Khrushchev came, and was delighted.

Disney provided a product for a market that no one else was sure was there: the mobile, affluent America, the family in shorts and T-shirts and baggage-laden station wagon making its vacationing way across a continent that had taken its ancestors months to cross. By 1971 the Disney organization was confident enough of the size of this market and the appeal of its product to place Disney World in Orlando, a metropolitan area even now of only 800,000 people, in a part of Florida that is hideously muggy four months of the year and chilly during much of the winter.

Disney World likes to talk of the future, and much of its technology is futuristic--the monorail, the waste disposal systems underground. But that technology only works because the Disney people have hired a huge and well-trained work force to help it along: you get aboard the monorail easily because someone tells you where to stand and wait.

And the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland exhibits are actually a little behind where we live today; they're no surprise to people who travel here by plane and the monorail car in the Orlando Airport, or even those who come in a car equipped with CB radio and cruise control. Tomorrowland, a sign tells us, is being redesigned; the Disney people are trying to catch up.

The technology that the Magic Kingdom really celebrates are the inventions of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and others of the years just before and after 1900. They're worth celebrating: nothing since has changed the lives of ordinary people as much as the electric light, electric kitchen and laundry appliances, and the automobile.

The antique cars scooting up Main Street, the exuberant array of electric lights on the floats at the Electric Parade at 9 o'clock each night, the railroad that circles the Magic Kingdom, the storefronts and facades of various historical eras on Main Street, Liberty Square and Frontierland--all these express, with delight, a vision of life in early 20th century America. No, they don't duplicate the reality, and they're not supposed to; we wouldn't want to listen to the loud noises or smell the smells or put up with the foul-ups that actually occurred in those times.

The Magic Kingdom is a vision of an ideal, as even the much more sophisticated and accurate reconstruction of Williamsburg is. It tells us about America as a young Walt Disney wanted it to be and which, as a result of his own success and genius, he was able to recreate for all of us.

For the Magic Kingdom everywhere reflects the personality of one man. The buildings and the people who work there are clean, cheerful, optimistic, but not sanctimonious. They're willing to poke a little fun at convention and at themselves, but there's none of the sense of irony or parody that is a part of so much contemporary humor.

One biographer of Walt Disney says that he was actually not a pleasant person, at least to his fellow workers. Of course not: you don't stamp such a personal vision on a series of cartoons, movies, and Disneylands (one has just opened in Japan) by being a nice guy. It requires painstaking attention to detail and a fierce unwillingness to compromise.

Epcot Center, in contrast, is the work of a corporation, not an individual. I suspect the genesis for Epcot came when marketing executives found that more than 60 percent of U.S. households contain no children, and hence are not likely to be interested in meeting Minnie Mouse and Goofy at the Magic Kingdom. So they decided to create a theme park for adults, and the theme they chose was the future.

Epcot stands for "experimental prototype city of tomorrow," but if that's right then I have seen the future and it doesn't work. The day we were there the monorail was stuck for an hour, Spaceship Earth (the 180-foot geodetic sphere at the entry) was totally out of commission, and Exxon's World of Energy went on the fritz after we had waited in line in the sun for a half-hour.

To get around Epcot you mostly have to walk on unshaded paths; while the Magic Kingdom is centered on the square in front of the Fantasyland castle, with paths radiating everywhere, the center of Epcot is a lake. It appears that the Disney organization subcontracted out the exhibits to corporations (General Motors, Coca-Cola, Kodak, Kraft, etc.) and to foreign countries (Mexico, France, Japan, Canada, etc., with Spain and Israel coming soon); that presumably helped pay for these elaborate and, I suspect, interesting pavilions (we didn't see much of them because they're not aimed at 4-year-olds), but it didn't provide an overall theme.

Epcot and the Magic Kingdom share one distinction: they may be the most egalitarian places in America today. In a society where we are stratified according to the shopping mall we shop in and the credit card, if any, we flash, Disney World treats everyone the same. Everyone waits in the same lines (the crowd control, by the way, is as brilliant as you've heard: even with a 4-year-old a 40-minute wait goes by quickly) and rides the same monorail. Everyone pays one price for admission, which covers every ride and attraction. They used to have differently priced tickets for different rides; but the Disney organization has replaced free- market rationing by price for welfare- state rationing by queue.

Disney World, as my wife observed, is not cheap, but it is thronged with people, some 20 million a year. It's one measure of the achievement of our society that so many Americans can afford it. We're not talking about an elite; most people here are part of the vast American middle class who, if you can judge from T-shirts and sweatshirts, are the beneficiaries of the vast proliferation of state universities, colleges, and junior colleges in the last 30 years. Probably most of them come from humble backgrounds: when Disney was producing his first cartoons in the 1930s, their parents or grandparents were scraping together enough money so that the youngsters would have the nickel they needed for the Saturday matinee. Today they can afford admissions that can run up to $50 a day for a family of four, plus transportation and lodging.

I suppose some people see a right-wing political message in Disney World. There's a lot of flag-waving patriotism, and exhibits financed by big corporations tell us all the wondrous things America has accomplished. I can't get very bothered by this. Ordinary people these days are exposed to plenty of complaints about the status quo and criticisms of greedy businessmen, ande I think they can sniff out the difference between baseless propaganda and a accurate portrayals of the country they live in.

What struck me is how Disney World reflects the America of a generation ago, the nation where everybody together went through depression and war, where people were all treated the same way and enjoyed the same entertainments--not the culturally anarchic America where every generation and affinity group pursues its own form of happiness oblivious to others.

Walt Disney World takes care of you: it assumes you are interested in certain kinds of things, tells you which path to take and where to stand in line; its ever-present employees even make sure a nurse washes your daughter's scraped knee. Walt Disney's vision of America is a lot like Franklin Roosevelt's. It's friendly and egalitarian and paternalistic--as American as apple pie and the flag and public schools and the welfare state. It may or may not present an accurate vision of our future, but it gives us and our children an eloquent vision of our recent past.