While life often takes too much of our time, one thing my wife and I have always managed to pull off is to get away and do something fun for our anniversary. More often than not it has involved Disney. Our honeymoon was Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, our 1st anniversary was Disneyland in Anaheim, California, as was our 8th last year. So, when we heard about the new museum built by the family of Walt Disney and dedicated to his life, we knew it was the perfect little day trip to celebrate another year.
Opened in October 2009, the museum sits in the historic Presidio of San Francisco, where the descendants of Disney live today. The first thing that separates the Disney Family Museum from the Disney theme parks is free parking. The second explains the first, as it is not owned by the Walt Disney Company. This is purely a creation of Walt’s clan and their non profit Walt Disney Family Foundation, although the two entities do work closely together. Therefore, it is open to a less glossy approach to his life and work, revealing even the darker moments of the company.
When you arrive, you will enter a hall filled with Walt’s awards. Hundreds of them. Trophies, plaques, proclamations, ribbons, medals, you name it, you will see it. There are Emmy Awards, Grammies, honors from virtually every major film festival and recognition from international film societies. But the most impressive case is the one containing all of Walt’s Academy Awards. Walt holds the record for both Oscar nominations (59) and wins (26) and all of his statues are present at the museum including the honorary award given to Snow White in 1939. It is a large trophy featuring one normal size Oscar statue (representing Snow herself) and seven little statuettes for each of the dwarfs. It is a one of a kind piece of movie history.
Once inside, you will follow a winding path through the retrofitted brick building (a former army barracks) revealing every step of Walt’s story. In fact, the first room doesn’t even concern Walt, but rather his grandparents! The thorough examination continues, but is never boring. The museum is cutting edge throughout, featuring motion sensors that begin playback of sound and video as you approach, giant touch screen consoles that let you peruse virtual books, interactive exhibits, and enough LCD TV’s to fill a dozen Best Buys!
And of course you will see truck loads of animation cells, maquettes, hand written letters, movie posters both real and digital, and all the other normal trappings of a history museum, but you can’t take pictures of any of it due to copyright issues. Blast! I really would’ve loved to shown you the Disney Co. hierarchy flow chart where all roads led back to Walt! It was hilarious.
Filled with film and television history, my favorite part of the museum is after you pass the large window and you spiral down into what was once the courtyard of the building. Here you will find a giant model of Disneyland as well as a 40 foot tall wall with “old timey” TV sets showing a variety of the live action programming from The Wonderful World of Disney TV show. There is the actual small scale train that Walt rode around his property, a Circle Vision camera, and some fun clips of live action Disney films playing all around. This is when you go from modern museum to the more familiar glitz of Disney in the 50s and 60s. By the time you get to the TV set showing old clips of reports on the death of Walt Disney, the experience has been quite an incredible ride.
Other highlights include one of only three remaining original Disney multiplane cameras which is visible in both the gift shop and through a glass ceiling in the museum proper. Another technical marvel is the (and forgive me I forget the exact name) composting camera that allowed movies like Freaky Friday to be born by layering images together on a single frame of film. It was the predecessor to “green screen.”
And when I said they weren’t afraid to touch on the less glossy side of Disney, I wasn’t kidding. Never to be found inside Disneyland are references in the museum to the studio strike of 1941 that even goes into detail about how the communist party was involved and a collection of anti Walt picket signs. There is a corner of World War II memorabilia including anti Nazi propaganda and a cartoon pin-up of a naked girl drawn by Disney animators for a military publication. If that wasn’t enough, there is a full case on one of the most controversial Disney features ever made, Song of the South.
Tickets are available online or at the museum and are “timed.” Running $20 for adults (a good value for what you get to see), each ticket gives you a 15 minute window to enter the museum. With so much to read and watch etc., this spreads out the guests, but I can’t imagine trying to get through all the exhibits on a busy day. There’s just too much, so if you can, avoid weekends.
Also, give yourself plenty of time. It took us nearly five hours to walk the whole thing! Be sure to eat a good meal prior, as no food is allowed. There is also only one bathroom and water fountain along the journey, so when you see it, take advantage. And of course, there is a gift shop.
Why there is no major motion picture about Walt Disney yet confounds me on a weekly basis. Thankfully, this museum is a treasure of facts and memorabilia about the man who helped change the face of film television many times over through his animation and later live action. A ground breaking force in entertainment, the museum is a wonderful place to learn more about the man behind the mouse. It is a true must see.