Monday, May 8, 2017

The Story of Walt Disney World's First Family

By Keith Mahne

On October 1, 1971, Bill and Marty Windsor crawled sleepily at dawn from their Volkswagen parked behind a Texaco station off I-4. They'd been slapping mosquitoes all night, and there was no time for breakfast if they wanted to make their destination. The goal for the Windsor Family that morning was to be among the first guests to enter Walt Disney World for the very first time. Learn the story of how the Windsors actually became Walt Disney World's first family in today's new article...

As dawn was drawing near, Bill and Marty Windsor dressed their children, Jay and Lee, yawned and started off. Marty was exasperated, but Bill insisted they go on. It was Walt Disney World's opening day, and if they could be first in line perhaps they could get a free day in the new park.

At the main entrance they squeezed through the crowd, to a spot near the front. Not a minute too soon. "Let this family through," they heard someone say. They had been chosen! And when the gate opened long enough for the First Family to walk inside, it was the most exciting moment of the day for Bill and Marty.

The Windsors enter the Magic Kingdom as the First Family with Mickey Mouse, Disney ambassador Debbie Dane, and members of the press, Oct 1, 1971 (The late Jack Lindquist can be seen on the left side of the photo in the blue jacket)

Call it luck, but a more all-American family couldn't have shown up if Disney had advertised. With 3-year-old Jay and 19-month-old Lee, the Windsors were statistically perfect: mother, father and 2.5 children, because Marty was pregnant with her third. No question, they fitted the bill.

Looking back, Bill and Marty still get excited about that first day and the adventures that shoved them into the limelight. Their kids don't remember much, just Mickey Mouse, ambassador Debbie Dane and a blur of excitement.

Marty thinks of their Lakeland neighbor, Ronnie, wanting to keep them home for a game of poker. Then the night vigil in the Volkswagen, with a cop keeping them awake. And arriving at Disney, being pushed to the front of the line with no makeup and the keys to the car locked inside in the excitement.

Mickey Mouse presented the Windsors the Key to the Magic Kingdom as they stepped through the gates on opening day, October 1, 1971

"I remember the ride down Main Street in the red fire engine, at the head of the parade," Marty once said. "Then at the Polynesian they had orchids for us flown in from Hawaii! And most of all I remember meeting Roy Disney, who told us, 'You're just the family we wanted.'"

There was attraction after attraction – Mickey Mouse Revue, Hall of Presidents, Country Bear Jamboree, It's a Small World – and they were the first official visitors.

"The band played 'When You Wish Upon a Star' and the Disney characters started dancing in the street and Lee took a pennant and got out in front and started dancing too," Marty once recalled. "That really sticks in my memory."

The Windsors moved from Lakeland to Jacksonville, Florida in 1973, after a housing venture failed. Times were tough, but they give Walt Disney credit for the inspiration to pull through.

"One thing really meant a lot to us," Marty once stated. "Bill had gone broke, but we had seen the Walt Disney biography, the one where he says everyone should go broke at least once. We've stuck through it, we had the strength. Disney has been a real inspiration in our lives."

Bill started a new carpet and upholstery cleaning business in Jacksonville. A group of Orlando investors eventually bought the company, so the Windsors moved to Casselberry, where Bill could be close to the business.

Disney is omnipresent in the Windsor household. A 9-ft.-by-12-ft. poster of that first day in 1971, a gift from Disney after the fifth anniversary celebration, once covered a wall in the family room. The dining room wall was lined with silver lifetime passes. The family checks had Minnie and Mickey Mouse and "The First Family of Disney" under the Windsors' names.

The Windsors pose for a photo 10 years after opening day with two new children and the large poster of the family on opening day behind, 1981

"Disney has always treated us so special," Marty said. "I wonder if they know how much all this means to us?"

The Windsors never tire of Walt Disney World; it's like a family member with whom they spend as much time as possible.

"The first year we went every week," Bill once remembered. "After moving to Orlando we would go at least three times a month."

Their favorite ride? Bill and Marty have adored It's a Small World, with its chorus of dolls from countries from around the world, ever since that first ride in 1971. The children always loved Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but Space Mountain ran a close second. They also really loved River Country when it was open, and Joy used to always giggle about the big splash in Pirates of the Caribbean when she was young.

The Windsors enjoy one of their favorite attractions of the day, It's a Small World with Disney ambassador Debbie Dane

"It's neat because it's free," Bill once said. "It's like we own the place. We always get good treatment with our silver lifetime pass. Just flash the 'ol card and we're through the back gate."

But Bill's favorite part of Disney is the people. The Windsors get a lot of attention at the park; some old timers would recognize them as the First Family, but more often it's because Bill looked a lot like the popular golfer Jack Nicklaus.

"When people would wave we weren't sure if it was because we're the First Family or because they thought I was Jack," Bill once said. "Parents would send their children to ask for my autograph, and rather than disappoint them, I would usually just sign," he once recalled with a grin.

He also once remembered the first celebration when a newspaper reported that Jack Nicklaus and his family were the First Family of Disney World.

The Windsors ride aboard the Golden Carousel with Mickey Mouse and Disney ambassador Debbie Dane on WDW opening day, Oct. 1, 1971

The family would spend every New Year's Eve in the Magic Kingdom, listening to the entertainment and anticipating the release of hundreds of balloons at midnight. "It's like a whole year passing before me," Marty sighed as she recalled. "And the fireworks are the best around."

"When we moved to Orlando, to a new neighborhood, and all the neighbors had a get-together, who do you think had the most to talk about?" Marty once asked. "All the neighbors wanted to hear about us. Being the First Family. It's an ice-breaker and a super way to entertain friends."

Card Walker, right, former president and chief operating officer of Walt Disney Productions, kicks off Disney World’s tenth birthday celebration by welcoming the Windsor family, Oct. 1, 1981

"So many people would give anything to be a part of Walt Disney World," Marty once said wistfully. "Our family has a title no one else can ever have."

Source: Orlando-Land Magazine, Oct. 1981 Issue


Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true every day.

You can find all of Keith's articles here.

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