Walt Disney Family Museum – San Francisco

The Wonderful World of (Walt) Disney

IMG_3882Walt Disney Family Museum – San Francisco

If Walt Disney wasn’t the most innovative and creative person on the planet in the 20th century, he’s certainly close. So when Kim and Mary told us about the Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio in San Francisco (they had visited once before), a museum that chronicles the life, achievements and legacy of this creative genius, we donned our mouse ears and headed out (ok, we didn’t wear mouse ears).

Tracy and I had viewed a PBS two-part documentary about Disney the previous month, and learned he was quite a complex man (as most geniuses tend to be). He had his failures to be sure, but his triumphs were astounding, and this museum would showcase them all in a most ingenious manner (hey, it’s Disney, what did you expect?).  The museum is operated and funded by the Walt Disney Family Foundation, which is a non-profit organization established by Disney’s heirs (including Diane Disney Miller, Disney’s biological daughter and founder of the museum). It opened in October of 2009.  The family lives in Northern California, which is why they chose San Francisco for this venture.

P1070387On an unusually warm San Francisco morning, the four of us arrived at the already crowded Presidio, full of families enjoying the food carts and the beautiful weather. We navigated through the throngs to the three historic buildings on the main post. The primary museum (#104 of the Montgomery Street Barracks) encompasses 40,000 square feet (there are three buildings in total).

P1070507With an array of interactive exhibits, films, posters and listening stations, the museum took us on a journey through the life of Walt Disney…and what an incredible life it was.  Unlike Disneyland, this is a place geared a little more for adults than kids, but they could also be mesmerized by some of the memorabilia and videos displayed here.

Tracy and I first paid respects to Walt at the entrance.

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As we entered the the museum we spied some of his nearly 250 awards (including 22 Academy Awards; the most of anyone in history).  (photo below is from internet).

800px-Disney_Display_CaseDisney even had an apartment at Disneyland (above the Disneyland Fire Station near Main Street as you enter), and some of his furniture is on display.

P1070396It was now time to travel through the decades and learn how the father of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto and Disneyland became one of the most famous people on the planet.

P1070397Walt was born in Chicago in 1901, and the first room (1901 – 1919) tells about Walt’s upbringing with some very clever devices that illustrate his family history.  They were a type of “pop-up” movie (hard to describe, but pretty neat to watch).

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After looking at a couple of photos of Walt as a youngster…

P1070400…I gazed across the room and saw an ambulance (perhaps they knew I coming, I thought).  In 1918, Disney enlisted in the Army, but was turned down (too young).  Not dissuaded by a little old thing like age, he forged the date of birth on his birth certificate and joined the Red Cross in France as an ambulance driver. It was there he started drawing cartoons, some of which were picked up by Stars and Stripes.

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The next room, 1920 – 1923, were the years that Disney started to figure out his career path.

P1070407Disney started working at Kansas City Film Ad Company.  It was here he created a series of topical pictures and began using a camera for the first time.

P1070410The following room explained how Disney made his way out to Hollywood with “$40 dollars in my pocket.” His brother, Roy, was already out here, recuperating from a bout of tuberculosis.  Together they formed Disney Brothers Studios…

P1070409…and we saw posters from his “moderately” successful “Alice Comedies.”

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That led to his creating the successful character “Oswald The Lucky Rabbit,” which proved to be not so lucky for Disney…at first.

P1070416 In 1929, Disney lost the rights to his first animated star, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, which, I assume, was hare-raising.

P1070419Undeterred, Walt started sketching an idea for someone we all know…Mickey Mouse (although the first name he had was Mortimer…a name quickly nixed by Walt’s wife).

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As we toured through the rooms (and next decade), we would see Mickey in videos, stills and a cool way of explaining how they used orchestration to integrate music into these projects.  By the way, Walt was the voice of Mickey until 1947.

P1070423We witnessed some Silly Symphonies…

P1070424…and made no bones about watching The Skeleton Dance, too, although In took a ribbing.


It was interesting to see how Disney incorporated color into his cartoons and films…

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..and some of the old equipment intrigued us as well.

P1070440As we were reminded throughout our wanderings, music was very, very important to both Walt and his creations, so the museum displays videos of Disney and his music collaborators coming up with various song ideas.  Very cool (and humorous) stuff.  This was one office where you could literally “Whistle While You Work.”

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Then, in 1937, came “Disney’s Folly,” or so Hollywood thought. Walt was worried about the million and a half dollar investment for a movie he was making, and many thought he was nuts.

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Fortunately, after viewing a cut of the film, his banker thought otherwise.  He said, “Walt, that picture will make a potful of money.”

P1070436His banker was, of course, correct…Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs earned $8 million during its initial release and briefly held the record for highest grossing sound film.

There is a little Hall of Fame at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

P1070442In a clever twist, you turn the cubes to garner information about each person,including Frank Churchill, the man who composed all the songs in Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs.

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When Disney accepted an Oscar at the 1938 Academy Awards, Shirley Temple was there to help out.

P1070446We looked at videos from Pinocchio and Fantasia…

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…but, deer me, I had to pass on Bambi and Ol’ Yeller…too depressing, plus my nose had grown longer for some reason.

P1070448High tech was next on the agenda with a room showcasing many of Disney’s movies and cartoons.  A lot of thought went into the design and flow of this museum.

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We were nearing the end, but as we walked toward the next room we marveled at the great view of the world’s most famous bridge on a gloriously sunny day.

P1070468Passing by a colorful bench that was once located on a Griffith Park Carrousel (where Disney often took his daughters on the weekend)…

P1070472…and Zorro’s saddle…

P1070474…we entered the late 1940s and 1950s area. Jiminy Cricket, this was a very cool room, including the giant ball hovering overhead with photos of Disney and many of his visions projected inside the ball.

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When he was quite stressed in the late 1940s, Disney visited the Chicago Railroad Fair, which reignited his love affair of trains (like this one on display,,,his beloved Lilly Belle locomotive).

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Descending a ramp, there were signs on the wall depicting a place I had visited dozens of times as a kid…Disneyland. In those days, my dad could actually take my friends and me to the park without having to dip into his retirement fund.

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Next up was a small-scale version of the park as it looked in 1955 when it opened…

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…and the original model (designed by Walt) of the Fairyland Castle.

IMG_3885We passed by television sets playing a number of Disney television shows and movies…

P1070490…and then posters of films beloved by millions.

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The final part of our journey was also the final part of Walt Disney’s life. In 1965, he was the Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade in Pasadena, CA (photo below from internet).

1180w-600h_TDID_walt-disney-grand-marshal-rose-parade-780x440During the next couple of years, Disney worked on a number of movie projects (Jungle Book and Happiest Millionaire), and was also in the midst of a project at Mineral King ski resort, which eventually was turned down.  On November 30, 1966, he complained of not feeling well and checked into St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank. A little more than two weeks later, Disney died of complications of lung cancer.  The final room at the museum displayed dozens of cartoons and magazine covers from around the world depicting many of his characters in mourning.

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That was the end of of our visit, too. There’s no doubt that Disney has his detractors…he played tough with the Unions and testified about supposed Communists in Hollywood…those issues are touched upon at the museum, too.

P1070505However, there is also no doubt that Walt Disney was one of the greatest creative geniuses of any generation. As you would expect from anything with the name “Disney” attached to it, The Walt Disney Family Museum has been put together perfectly and is quite an intriguing and enlightening place to spend a couple of hours examining the life and accomplishments of this fascinating man.

Or, in other words…

Mickey_Mouse_Club_Mouseketeers_1957“M-I-C” (see you at the Walt Disney Family Museum).  “K-E-Y” (why, because you’ll learn things).  “M-O-U-S-E.”

Walt Disney Family Museum
104 Montgomery Street
San Francisco, California 94129
Hours: Wednesday – Monday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Cost: Adults: $20 • Seniors (over 65) & Students: $15 • Age 6 – 17: $12 • Under 5: Free
Parking: Main Post Parade ground – $1.50 an hour


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