This excellent museum in San Francisco is a treasure and is especially strong in illuminating Walt Disney’s family, early life and career before Mickey Mouse, and studio realities during the labor strike and World War II (all topics that the existing company itself focuses very little on for various reasons). However, its location is certainly puzzling; I will not pretend to know the reasons for its siting but intend to show its context and nearby museum ‘competition’ in this thread. I believe I have seen it stated that it was located close to his family’s and foundation’s current area since his daughter Diane owns the Silverado Vineyards in Napa Valley, about 40 miles North of San Francisco; she is a co-founder of the museum along with her son Walter Miller. However, contextually the museum would have been far more relevant in the Los Angeles-Orange County area, or even in one of the Midwestern cities of Walt’s pre-Hollywood days. The museum’s literature, website, and gallery displays do not address this rift.
The city is a dense one that is 7 miles by 7 miles at the tip of a peninsula, with a population of about 800,000. As American big cities go, it is the second densest. The largest area that is mostly green and park-like (and among the lowest density in the city) is at the Northern edge, adjacent to the Golden Gate Bridge where the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay meet. It is called the Presidio, and until 1994 it was an active military base for 219 years with a fascinating history. When it was decommissioned, it was saved from massive development through a complex process; it became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which is a unit of the National Park System, along with many other sites around the area. One of the provisions of accepting the Presidio into the parks was that it would become a self-sustaining financial entity, managed by a trust; in other words, restoration of the existing old military buildings of various quality and age and improvements to make the park more park-like would not be made at great taxpayer expense. This is a large and ongoing task (the Presidio is 2 miles by 1.5 miles with about 800 buildings scattered throughout its clusters and green forested hills) and is partially accomplished by long-term leasing of old buildings to a wide variety of unique facilities, especially non-profit foundations…like the Walt Disney Family Foundation. When the foundation was searching for a place to headquarter and build a museum in the Bay Area, this was probably a location offering great incentives.
Aerial Map of a large part of the Presidio:
The ‘You Are Here’ label toward the upper left is the museum site.
The Main Post:
The museum is located in the densest cluster of buildings, a large area that featured two large military parade grounds and was the headquarters of the base. This area is lined with restored buildings housing many tenants, and the former officers club houses the park’s main visitor center.
In front of the museum is the larger of the two parade grounds, which is almost entirely a paved parking lot now (with plenty of free parking, a rarity in this city). Future plans call for the parade ground to be restored to its large grassy expanse, which will drastically change the approach to the entry. The main museum building is housed in one of the Montgomery Street Barracks, a line of five buildings built in the 1890’s that are three stories (including basements).
Once inside, to the left is a small café counter and tables, and a little further is the gift shop. A large brick central column conceals a real treasure: just behind it is one of the 3 original multiplane cameras. It is tall, so the lower part is actually viewed in the gift shop while the upper part extends into a special display area above in one of the exhibit galleries on the second floor. Photos are not allowed in the gift shop for this reason. A stairway leads down to the basement from this area, where the theater (for separate-admission films, concerts, and lectures), coat room, and art and media studios (for classes) are located. Photos are also not allowed in the lower level since a large collection of original Disneyland attraction posters and movie posters are framed on the walls, probably on loan from the company.
To the right of the entry is the ticket desk; beyond this are display cases filled with many of Walt’s fascinating awards. Behind the ticket desk is a small display of furniture from his apartment in Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. Fire Station. This is also the entry to the 10 exhibit galleries; while photos are not allowed in them, they are allowed in the lobby. The no-photo policy in most of the galleries is a standard one in many museums that feature a significant amount of items that are on loan from other sources rather than permanent collections of the museum; other sources often have restrictions on publications of images of their items. The content of the galleries is described well in both the museum’s website and the current ‘Sticky’ page in this thread category.
This gallery is entitled ‘Walt + The Natural World’ and details the True-Life Adventure series of films. To one side is a large expanse of glass with a view out to the Presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge beyond, and photos are allowed here. In the foreground is a small building for mechanical equipment for the museum.
Museum Campus Map:
The main museum, the mechanical equipment building, and another building compose the facility.
Offices and Special Exhibitions Building:
The third building is housed a short distance away in a former gymnasium from the early 20th century. It is now the location of the foundation itself, and in a few years will be opened for temporary gallery exhibits.
San Francisco National Cemetery:
A close feature to the museum is this nearby military burial ground, one of only 3 cemeteries in the city.
Letterman Digital Arts Complex:
Less than a half-mile from the museum, and still within the Presidio, is this complex of four modern buildings from 2005 built around a park. It was designed to recall the historic military architecture of the base, but with high-tech tenants: it is occupied by several divisions of film producer and director George Lucas’ Lucasfilm Ltd. company. The divisions include LucasArts (video games) and Industrial Light and Magic (film special effects). Disney films whose special effects have been generated at this facility include Herbie: Fully Loaded, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, The Nightmare Before Christmas (3D Version), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, WALL.E, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and Jonas Brothers: 3D Concert. The only clue to the complex’s tenants on the outside is a small fountain with a statue of Yoda in a courtyard!
On the edge of the Presidio’s bayfront is this large flat area that was once an important military airfield in aviation’s infancy. Today it is a popular promenade and field and beach, with a small restored marsh area too.
Fort Point and Golden Gate Bridge:
At the Northernmost point of the Presidio is the mouth of the bay, where an 1861 defensive fort was built and is open as an historic site with interpretive graphics (currently weekends only). Towering above it is the famous 1937 bridge connecting San Francisco with Marin County. The approach roads to the bridge travel through the Presidio and are currently being replaced, resulting in heavy construction close to the museum for the next several years.
The Walt Disney Family Museum certainly chose to open in a city that is packed with museums. While there is no specific museum district, a majority of them are near the downtown area about 3 miles away from the Walt Disney Family Museum. Others are scattered in the city, with several major ones located within 2 miles. There are at least 25 museums of similar or larger size nearby; locals generally enjoy attending museums and ensure there is support for such a wide variety of them. Visitors have so many choices of sights to see as well as museums that it is difficult for them to choose. For this reason, attendance at the Walt Disney Family Museum may be a challenge to maintain since it is located away from many of the commonly-visited spots. Its advantage is its close location to the Golden Gate Bridge, which is very popular for visitors to walk on, especially the San Francisco side.
This major hands-on science museum is only a half-mile from the Walt Disney Family Museum. It is housed in a semi-circular warehouse-like space behind the ornate curved facade and rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts, a reconstruction of one of the original temporary pavilions of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition that was held at this site. This museum will only be here for a few more years since its plan to move a few miles away to a new building on a different part of the waterfront has been approved.
California Academy of Sciences:
Golden Gate Park, the city's second-largest green space, is 2 miles from the Walt Disney Family Museum and is home to this major modern natural history museum designed by starchitect Renzo Piano. It features a uniquely mounded green living roof, natural history exhibits, planetarium, indoor tropical rainforest, and aquarium.
de Young Museum:
Directly across a plaza in Golden Gate Park from the California Academy of Sciences is another major museum, this one housing a diverse collection of fine art. It is housed in another new building, this time by starchitects Herzog and de Meuron. Also part of this museum organization is another major fine art museum called The Palace Of The Legion Of Honor (not pictured) in Lincoln Park a mile away, housed in a much older formal Beaux-Arts style building.
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park:
The Fisherman's Wharf area of the city is the most visited by tourists and contains a few museums. The Maritime Park includes a small museum in its visitor center, inside an historic brick building. Nearby is a larger nautical museum in an art deco-era buidling that is currently closed and being renovated. Also nearby is a wharf area with several historic ships that can be boarded. Fisherman's Wharf is also the ferry departure point for visits to Alcatraz Island, which is also part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; it is the site of the famous former prison which can be toured. In the first photo, the brick building and ship wharf and Alcatraz in the distance can all be seen.
Aquarium of the Bay:
Fisherman's Wharf is also home to this mid-sized aquarium that features local bay and ocean life; its scientific focus and displays can be considered museum-like. It is owned by the Bay Institute, a non-profit conservation organization.
Boudin Sourdough Bakery:
This is admittedly a stretch to consider as a museum, but this facility in Fisherman's wharf does have museum-like displays detailing the history of the company. It also has a store, cafe, and a demonstration factory with a tour. Disney fans should recognize its smaller sister facility located in Disney's California Adventure! The area also has some small museums not pictured here: Musee Mecanique (in a pier building and filled with old mechanical games and amusements from the pre-video game era), Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Museum (one of many similar 'museums' in this chain), and Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf (again, a commercialized attraction more than a museum).
This corporation's headquarters features a small museum of the company's history in its lobby. Not pictured here is another corporate museum in the lobby of Wells Fargo Bank in downtown.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art:
This temple to modern art is a major one, located downtown on the edge of Yerba Buena Gardens, a modern square park with the highest concentration of museums. This one was designed by starchitect Mario Botta and features a see-through bridge soaring over its entry atrium.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts:
Next to SFMOMA is another modern art museum, this one a smaller facility with no permanent collection; instead it hosts a variety of temporary cutting-edge installations.
A neighboring block of the Yerba Buena Gardens features a playground, ice skating rink, and bowling alley as well as this small children's museum fronted by a carousel.
Contemporary Jewish Museum:
This mid-sized museum is for modern art created by Jewish artists. It was designed by starchitect Daniel Libeskind, most famous in this country for his plan for the new World Trade Center in New York City.
Museum of the African Diaspora:
Yet another museum around Yerba Buena Gardens in downtown is this small modern museum detailing the African experience worldwide.
Not pictured here are several other small museums nearby, including the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, The Cartoon Art Museum (probably of interest to Disney fans), The California Historical Society, and The Society of California Pioneers. A future museum in a new building called the Mexican Museum is planned nearby, as is a Museum of San Francisco that is planned to open in the downtown long-abandoned U.S. Mint grand historic building. Also not pictured in this downtown area is another major art museum, The Asian Art Museum. Elsewhere in the city are several other minor museums, so it is clear that there is a plethora of options for gallery devotees...and much 'competition' for the Walt Disney Family Museum!