Magic Kingdom's First Family

by Jim Korkis
Disney Historian

Feature Article

This article appeared in the May 17, 2011 Issue #608 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)


Two days before the opening of Walt Disney World on October 1, 1971, the Florida Highway Patrol had issued a statement that they had determined that as many as 300,000 people might try to be among the first to get into the Magic Kingdom that first day.  

Actually, October 1st had been selected by the Disney Company as the slowest day of the week in the slowest month of the year in Orlando to try to keep crowds manageable, fearing a repeat of the disastrous opening of Disneyland in 1955, where many more people than expected flooded into the park and there were challenges with food and attractions.

The Walt Disney World Employee Bulletin tried to prepare the cast members:

"Tomorrow... we raise the curtain for the beginning of the October Preview Month of the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World.  Planning began in 1965.  Now... four hundred million dollars and six years later and untold gallons of blood, sweat and tears, the public will visit this most ambitious creation in the history of the Disney organization... It will be a great an memorable day…for all of us.  This does not mean that it won't have its frantic... hectic... confusing moments. If your costume doesn't fit... a tram breaks down, and other things don't happen like they should, don't get up tight.  That, as they say... is show business."

The night before opening, work was still going on either instituting temporary measures where the job simply could not be completed by the next morning or by making final finishing touches. 

People had already started lining up at the toll booths by midnight.

By 8 a.m. as the sun was starting to burn away the early morning chill, there was a crowd of reporters and photographers hovering inside the ticket gates just outside the main entrance to the Magic Kingdom. They were waiting for the first guests to enter the park officially for the first time to record this moment in history.

A mob of eager, noisy Disney fans pressed against the gates in hopes of being the first family into the park. While there were actually only a thousand or so hearty souls that had ignored the warnings of huge crowds and the early morning hours, it seemed like many more because of their enthusiasm. Director of Marketing Jack Lindquist, who had been there many hours earlier with Charlie Ridgway from publicity and Dick Nunis, walked slowly back and forth surveying the crowd to determine which gate would be opened first. By 9:30 a.m., he had made his decision.

"I did that by walking the gate and looking at people at the front of the line. I wanted a family who represented a typical Disney family to me," wrote Lindquist in his book "In Service to the Mouse." "I picked a family with a father who looked like (popular golfer) Jack Nicklaus and a mother who looked like Mrs. Brady (from the television show "The Brady Bunch").  They had two blonde sons. After the first family entered, we opened the Walt Disney World gates and people came in to a well-staffed and well-organized day."

That lucky sandy-haired father was William "Bill" Windsor Jr. from nearby Lakeland, Florida, who was accompanied by his pretty blue-eyed wife, Marty, and their sons Jay, who was 3 years old, and Lee, who was nearly 19 months old. It turned out they had arrived so early that the entire family had slept in their car overnight at the nearest roadside rest area in order to be among the first into the parking lot. 

The reporters swarmed toward the family, bombarding them with questions as cameras flashed, and the Disney Dixieland band broke into a loud and lively rendition of "It's a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight."

A small parade was forming on Main Street and the Windsor family was helped into the antique fire engine that would be featured prominently on Magic Kingdom postcards and photographs in the early years to lead the parade by Debbie Dane, Walt Disney World's first Ambassador, and Mickey Mouse. Guest Relations cast members walked along the side of the slow moving vehicle and were followed by the Magic Kingdom marching band attired in bright red uniforms. 

The rest of the guests that had crowded at the gates followed behind the procession. 

As the parade moved slowly down the street, cast members poured out of the buildings clapping and cheering as they crowded the edge of the curb of the street. Many of the cast members had tears streaming down their faces at the realization that Walt's final dream had come true. Magic Kingdom, and Walt Disney World, were now officially open.

Jay Windsor, riding in the fire engine, exclaimed, "This is better than Christmas!"

At Cinderella Castle, Mickey Mouse led Magic Kingdom's First Family to the center of the Hub as the band formed behind them and began to play "When You Wish Upon a Star." From the castle entrance came a huge stream of Disney costumed characters including Cinderella, Snow White, Donald Duck, Peter Pan and scores of others, all dancing and waving as they ran down the two broad sloping pathways on either side of the entrance. 

As the band continued to play under the now bright morning sky, all of the characters converged around the Windsors, still dancing with enthusiastic joy. Those characters continued to rejoice in the streets as the band played on and paying guests poured into the park's lands for the first time. Several reporters commented that a steady stream of humanity seemed to keep entering the park all day, even though officially the final total would be close to 10,000 guests, and many Disney cast members working that day would discuss how few people had come to the party.

The First Family was taken from attraction to attraction, many of which didn't exist at Disneyland, like the Country Bear Jamboree and the Mickey Mouse Revue. Other attractions like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea would not be ready to open for weeks.

"I hope it never changes our life. We've always been so happy together," Marty Windsor told Orlando Magazine publisher Edward Prizer. 

Later, William Windsor would admit that technically the first people who should have been admitted to the Magic Kingdom were three college boys: Keith Padgett, Jack Sherrod and Gary Walker. These University of Florida students had devised an intricate plan. They camped out overnight but were shooed away by police officers and Disney officials. Security officers spent much of the pre-dawn hours trying to shoo away eager early guests. 

Once the gates opened to sell tickets, the three college students cleverly divided to conquer. Sherrod, a former high school football star who had a 9.7-second time in the 100-yard dash, would run to the gate. Walker, also a high school football star, would run for the tickets. Padgett would park the car. That plan worked amazingly well and technically these three friends were the very first paying customers through the gates of the Magic Kingdom. However, for the honor of the offiical First Family, Disney was looking for a wholesome family, not three rowdy college students. There were multiple gates and Lindquist chose to first unlock the one with the Windsor family. Linquist told Disney historian David Koenig, "You didn't want to pick teenagers. You didn't want to pick an old couple... There can really be no first person because there are 20 gates." (Actually, at the time, there were 14 gates.)

There had been no official announcement in advance that a first family would be chosen nor that they would receive additional favors. While the Windsor family claimed to be overwhelmed, publicist Charlie Ridgway stills laughs about how during the day William Windsor came to Jack Lindquist asking for coins to play in the Penny Arcade on Main Street.

According to Jack Lindquist in his book, "In Service to the Mouse," it was not necessarily a happily-ever-after ending for the First Family of the Magic Kingdom and the Disney Company.

"After selecting the first family for the opening of Walt Disney World, I welcomed them in to a mass of flashbulbs and hoopla. The Windsors received a royal day of VIP-hosted functions, including lunch and an overnight stay at the hotel," said Lindquist. "We gave them lifetime passes -- but these are the mistakes we soon learned -- as they took unfair advantage of their perks. Appreciating an advantage is fine, but taking advantage in an uncalled for manner is not okay. After opening day, the Windsors often called and said, 'We'll be there in about two hours and we want someone to meet us to do this and this and this. We're bringing 12 people. We want to have dinner and stay overnight.' It sort of put a damper on the All-American family concept. The Windsor family is probably still visiting the park today for free."

To be fair, here is an excerpt from the November 1971 issue of the Walt Disney World cast member newspaper, "Eyes and Ears": "Day One for the Windsors was full of tours, important persons, and dozens of reporters and photographers. But, Day One was not the only big day in the Windsor's lives. They received a lifetime Silver Pass to Walt Disney World. So we hope to see them often in the days and years to come."

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Jim KorkisABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney Historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. He is the author of the popular recently published book The Vault of Walt, which contains nearly 40 chapters of untold Disney stories. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, his skills and historical knowledge were utilized by Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

Read more about the The Vault of Walt: http://astore.amazon.com/debsunoffiwaltdi/detail/0615402429


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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.