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Going gallery-by-gallery through the Walt Disney Family Museum: Part I

Going gallery-by-gallery through the Walt Disney Family Museum: Part I

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Walt Disney acknowledged that the name “Disney” had become a thing, a genre, an entity separate from himself. By Walt’s design, he had become was a character, a front man for a grander idea. Many of you remember seeing Mr. Disney on television pitching some amazing story about Disneyland, that latest picture, or some stylized view of the not-so-distant future.

For most folks today, though, the “Walt” is nowhere near the “Disney.” Outside of the devoted minority who dwell over Disney history, “Disney” represents a massive machine that can pump entertainment into us quickly and efficiently.

The brand-new Walt Disney Family Museum is putting the “Walt” back in Walt Disney.

On October 1st, the museum will opened to the public in San Francisco’s historic Presidio. Situated inside a 100-year-old former military barracks, it’s surrounded by a strange nostalgia — the museum sits in a line of restored 1890s buildings on a parade ground that overlooks the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The outside of the Disney Family Museum on the Presidio, next to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California
Photo by Brad Aldridge

For locals the Presidio offers a sanctuary from the city. It’s a hip place to hang out or even work — the Internet Archive and the Letterman Digital Arts Center (AKA the new home for many of Lucasfilm's divisions) are part of the Presidio’s rebirth. For the Walt Disney Family Museum the location remains close to its founders, Diane Disney Miller and her son Walter E.D. Miller. The choice of San Francisco offers a neutrality to Walt Disney’s life that enables to the museum to have a sense of awe and class that could have been overshadowed in Hollywood, Burbank, or even Anaheim.

The museum is very much the work of Walt’s surviving daughter, Diane Disney Miller, who has created the Walt Disney Family Foundation. This nonprofit — funded entirely by Ms. Miller — runs the museum without any additional corporate backing, not even from the Walt Disney Company.

Walter E.D. Disney and Diane Disney Miller in the Disney Family Museum
Walter E.D. Disney and Diane Disney Miller.
Photo courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Foundation. All Rights Reserved

At a cost of $110 million, the museum is a solid E-Ticket all the way. Walt’s life and work is explored through ten galleries that use detailed displays, monitors, and interactive elements that show the rise of kid cartoonist to “Showman of the World.”

You enter the museum on a timed admission, greeted of an attendant dressed in a purple costume that looks more like a bellhop than a gallery guide. The ticketing and lobby area are overflowing with some of Walt’s many honors and awards. Waiting to enter, this room is the preshow: cases filled with gold and silver trophies, medals, and plaques unapologetically present the Disney achievements. The number of awards is overwhelming, from his seven miniature Oscars — honoring technical achievement for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" — to the Key to San Francisco, given to Walt in 1958 by Mayor George Christopher. Hiding in the cases are some unusual items, too, like a Golden Cowbell from the National Dairy Farmers Association.

The key to San Francisco, given to Walt Disney and now in the Disney Family Museum
Photo by Brad Aldridge

The lobby also includes furniture from Walt’s firehouse apartment at Disneyland. A small area duplicates the decoration of the room with chairs, table, lamp and exact duplicates of the wallpaper and carpet.

Walt's Firehouse apartment has been recreated in the Disney Family Museum
Photo by Brad Aldridge

As you examine all these artifacts, the queue to the front door brings you closer to another attendant who takes your ticket. On my visit, my timed entry ticket was for 10:00 - 10:15 a.m. I arrived just after that time and entered without a problem. Tickets are still available to buy on site, but I imagine buying online guarantees one does not have to wait long to enter.

The first gallery explores Walt Disney’s early childhood and his family. The room, decorated in a classic red wallpaper, feels like a 1900s parlor with all the family pictures nicely lined up.

Half the room is taken up by a World War I ambulance, similar to the one Walt drove as a 16-year-old in France.

A WW1 ambulance at the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco
Photo by Brad Aldridge

Between the static photos there are huge framed screens that play videos narrating Walt’s childhood with a puppet-theater style of moving cutouts that synch with Walt Disney himself talking about his youth. The animation is engaging and filled with amusing details — “People would come from miles around to see our orchard!” Another video screen explains how Walt got himself into driving an ambulance in World War I: Walt convinced his mother to change his date of birth on his Christening certificate so he could apply to the Red Cross. The animation shows flat versions of Walt and his mother, Flora, negotiating the white lie. Again, Walt narrates the animation: Flora Disney, turns her back to the certificate and turns 1901 into 1900.

The room is small and, at first, is a bit cacophonous with all the screens playing Disney’s narration at the same time. The muddled sounds die down as you step closer to each screen, where the sound is focused. The room feels like a family gathering where everyone is talking at the same time and you get to move from group to group and hear different parts of the same story. You almost feel part of the Disney family.

Marceline and kansas City artwork
Photo by Brad Aldridge

The adjoining room explores Walt’s first few jobs at a Kansas City commercial art agency and Walt’s first voyage into animation, Laugh-O-Grams. Clips from these crude, early cartoons play throughout the room with—a reoccurring theme—Walt talking about these early animation attempts. Camera equipment and a reproduction of Disney’s first animation camera rig accent this small room, which has an unfinished feel: the walls have furniture and equipment sketched out, as in a blueprint.

The layout of this gallery echoes the time in Walt’s life … small, and transitional. Laugh-O-Grams goes bankrupt in 1923 and Walt takes the train from Kansas City to Los Angeles with $40 in his pocket.

An elevator door with a Santa Fe logo beckons you upstairs, for bigger and brighter things: Hollywood.

Brad Aldridge is an artist and designer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's also an amateur Disneyland & Walt Disney historian, and runs JustDisney.com. His tour of the Walt Disney Family Museum will continue with Part II of this series. Which will be posted on JHM next Wednesday.

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  • I'll be visiting the museum next week. I happen to be on of the fortunate few, who have been inside the apartment above the firehouse at Disneyland. Thus I'm particularly interesting in seeing the original furnishings. (Much of the orignal furnishings do remain in the apartment at Disneyland...including the large Regina Music Box that Walt purchased from my cousins)

  • love the whole family specially Walt himself.

  • Walt was a real family man. A perfect role model to look up to.

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  • Infact these Museums will make new characters sometimes

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