We were lucky enough to be invited to the sneak preview of the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco yesterday. It was only the second day of previews, and although there are still a couple of minor bugs to work out, I can say with confidence that I believe any Disney fans will react the same way that I did: WOW!
First off, the museum is located in the Presidio of San Francisco, which was until a few decades ago still a working US Army base. You may remember it from the ‘80’s movie The Presidio, but its main claim to fame today is that it’s been the home of LucasFilm for the past couple of years. It’s located at the northernmost tip of the City, just where the Golden Gate Bridge connects it to my home county of Marin.
As noted beforehand in a different discussion, the museum unfortunately has a firm “no photography” policy, so I wasn’t able to take pictures inside. So this Trip Report will be (very) text-heavy, with my notes on exhibits and items I found interesting as I worked my way through the galleries. I had meant to include some photos of the museum’s exterior, but unfortunately I left my memory card reader at home so those will have to wait until tomorrow.
The entrance lobby houses about nine display cases containing various awards Walt received over his long career. Among the standouts is one filled with Oscar awards, including the special Snow White one with the seven mini Oscars. There’s also a display of original furniture from Walt’s apartment above the Main Street Fire Station and photos of it in context. But enough with the introductions, let's go in!
Gallery 1: Beginnings:
Walt and his family’s story is told via photos, mementos (Elias’ violin) and videos incorporating Walt’s own narrative with old photos. Some of young Walt’s early artwork is featured, but the dominant feature of the first room is a replica of the WWI ambulance that he drove in France. The next room explores Walt’s years with Laff-O-Gram in Kansas City.
When you finish in this gallery, you’re faced with the choice of going through a doorway on the right side of the room to walk upstairs, or taking an elevator up on the left. Take the elevator. It’s decorated inside as an old railroad car, and just might be the shortest but most memorable elevator ride you’ll ever take.
Gallery 2: Hollywood.
You’re greeted by a faux Hollywood sign with video displays within the letters. On the opposite wall are several large flat panel screens disguised as old movie posters showing a variety of the Alice comedies. You’ll then move into the next room and learn the story of Walt’s creation (and loss) of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and the new character he created to replace it. You may have heard of him, he’s a mouse who goes by “Mortimer”.
Scratch that. We then hear Lily describe how she thought “Mickey” sounded friendlier. Highlights here include a pair of pages thought to be the earliest sketches of Mickey Mouse and an original drawing from Plane Crazy. I especially enjoyed a couple of photos of Walt with an actor who was portraying Mickey Mouse in a stage show. The second photo shows the actor in the suit without Mickey’s head! That’s something you’ll never see today! Rounding out this gallery are a huge display of original MM memorabilia, an interactive exhibit where you try to match sound effects to animation, and a wall with 348 replica drawings animating a sequence of Steamboat Willie.
Gallery 3: New Horizons in the 1930’s.
Ah, success. Walt begins the era with Silly Symphonies and continues to innovate. Disney begins publishing comic books and the rest of the Fab Five are introduced. Like several other galleries, there is a “Family” display detailing some of the events in Walt’s personal life. The ones here detail the birth of daughter Diane and later adoption of Sharon.
Gallery 4: The Move to Features
One of the real stars of the entire museum. All aspects of the creation of Snow White are depicted. Among the highlights is an interview with Ward Kimball talking about (and showing) “the soup scene”, cut from the movie with much heartache due to time constraints. (Ward was consoled for its deletion by Walt offering him a chance to animate a character for a new movie – Jiminy Cricket!) I was also interested to see some original documents and notes on the movie’s production, one of which in describing the characters notes one of the dwarfs named “Jumpy”! (He later evolved into Sneezy.) A couple of interactive displays allow you to see how an animated scene is “set” to a type of music, as well as a neat re-creation of a Moviola showing how it animated drawings for the artists.
Gallery 5: “We Were In A New Business”
Snow White's smash success allows Walt to move the studio to Burbank and expand his operations. I enjoyed seeing photos and literature detailing the campus, which is described as providing all types of services and amenities to the staff (including “The Penthouse Club” – membership extended to men only!) I would swear I was reading about Google’s headquarters today. Of particular note was an annual report from 1946 showing an aerial view of the campus with the caption “51 acres of Disneyland.” Hmmm, I like the sound of that!
The rest of the gallery includes Bambi, Pinocchio, and Fantasia. A small seating area is fronted by a large screen showing scenes from the latter movie. Also on display are an original multiplane camera and a notebook kept by a visual effects staff member which has been scanned into a very cool touch-screen exhibit to browse through.
Gallery 6: “The Toughest Period In My Whole Life”
The 40’s brought a lot of pain to Walt and the studios between a major labor strike and the war. Details of his South America trip are explored (and make one eager to see the upcoming documentary “Walt and El Grupo”) as well as its culmination in the production of Saludos Amigos. We then move on to Dumbo, WWII films and literature. Among these look out for an R-rated pinup produced by Disney artists to buoy the spirits of our fighting men!
Gallery 7: Postwar Production
Expansion into live action features. They mention a movie which along with Song of South combined animation with live action: So Dear To My Heart. I’d never heard of that one. There are several neat-looking touch-screen displays allowing you to select a movie, actor, staffer, etc. and see/hear various interviews, scenes and so forth. These particular displays were a little balky when I walked through, and a very apologetic manager was frantically working with a tech support guy over his cell phone (use of which is not allowed within the museum, by the way) to get them back up.
Gallery 8: Walt + The Natural World
This is a small gallery featuring the nature documentaries. It’s squeezed into a corridor, however, and the screens are positioned so that the viewer is forced to face the same direction to view them, and at the same time take in the entire wall of glass that looks outside the museum toward a beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge nearby.
So up to this point I’m thinking to myself, "This is a very nice museum. Top quality exhibits, state of the art audio/video displays everywhere, very professional staff. This place is a keeper."
Gallery 9: The 1950’s + the 1960’s: The Big Screen and Beyond
Wow. For many of us, I’d argue that despite our love of the classic films this gallery is the most accessible.
Since the second gallery we’ve been on the second floor of the museum, but we enter this one to find a large open space with a walkway winding its way down to the first floor. Along the way we’ll encounter such things as the original Lily Belle locomotive and Carolwood Pacific Railroad, Walt’s beloved train which ran at the family home. We read about WED Enterprises, the construction and opening of Disneyland. We see an original Circarama camera. We learn about the creation of the various ‘lands within the park, see photos of Walt with various visiting luminaries, see an original Autopia car which Walt presented to a grandson, until we reach ground level to find: Heaven on earth.
The gallery is highlighted (to me, dominated) by a detailed model of Disneyland. Not the Disneyland of yesterday, not the DLR of today, but a representation of the idea of Disneyland, the one from Walt’s own imagination. So here you’ll see Space Mountain coexisting with The House of the Future. You’ll see the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland and Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln with cutaways detailing their interiors. (And if someone can tell me what is the small cabin-like building that is represented off to the right side of It’s A Small World I’ll be eternally grateful!) Dumbo is flying, and the Teacups are spinning; it’s awesome. My words don’t do it justice, but this is the exhibit I’d most have wanted to take a photo of. I could spend a couple hours just looking at it from all angles.
Moving on (reluctantly), you’ll come across a large wall of old TV sets showing a variety of classic 50’s TV shows, from the Mickey Mouse Club to Zorro. You’ll move along to read about the live action comedy era (Love Bug, etc.) and Walt’s involvement with the 1960 Winter Olympic Games at Squaw Valley. We see Sleeping Beauty and Mary Poppins produced. There’s a nice exhibit of Disney at the 1964 World’s Fair, where audio-animatronics were unveiled to the world via It’s A Small World and Mr. Lincoln. (I also saw a quick video of an AA Neanderthal family that I’d never seen before.) We find ourselves kind of sluggishly continuing on, as we know what’s to come. We’re struck by an award Walt receives around this time proclaiming him “Showman of the World.” Indeed.
Gallery 10: December 15, 1966
We read depictions of Walt’s last projects, including CalArts, Walt Disney World, the Mineral King project and various studio productions. We’re told in Diane’s words about Walt’s cancer diagnosis and his final days. We see various news reports and telegrams detailing the loss felt by the entire world.
I have to admit I was surprised at how moved I was by simply reading these last final panels. It’s not like it was a surprise ending, but I found myself blinking away tears (quickly, before the kids see me!) But it’s clear to see, after being enveloped in Walt’s entire life and career, surrounded by his work, and just feeling the Disney love over the previous few hours, it’s still striking how much the life of this one man has affected all of our own.
We exit a final room paneled all in white, surrounded by video of much of what we’ve just experienced. Are we with Walt in Heaven, reviewing his happy life? You’ll have to visit yourself to decide.
And it wouldn’t be Disney without exiting through the gift store! Lots of high-quality merchandise and not a Disney toy to be found! I was very disappointed to not find a postcard of the Disneyland model. Hopefully they’ll be producing those (and images of other exhibits) in the future.
That’s it. No, not really, just for this report! It’s interesting that on the ticket they note most people will spend about 1.5 hours visiting the museum. We spent two and a half, and with two small kids in tow sped through a number of galleries. You could literally spend a month just viewing every video and reading every panel shown in the various exhibits. While it’s not kid-friendly in the sense that there are lots of things for them to touch and feel, there was enough keep my active four year old busy for that time, but it would also be nice to return and experience it more thoroughly and more leisurely. It’s also interesting how they’ve made a conscious decision to differentiate the museum from the parks. You won’t find cast members here, or the familiar name badges, or hidden Mickeys. But you will find a professional and well-trained staff, hours of fascinating exploring, and a lot of love for the man. The Walt Disney Family Museum is a must for every fan.
Thanks for hanging in there through this long report! I promise a couple pictures tomorrow!