Walt Disney Family Museum

A visit to the brand-new Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

Walt Disney Family Museum

A narrow gallery affords expansive views across Presidio roofs and San Francisco Bay.

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On a sunny Saturday morning, people are streaming into a former army barracks in San Francisco’s Presidio to visit the Walt Disney Family Museum, a high-tech celebration of one of America’s greatest showmen. The setting—an austere brick building on a woodsy spread—is as modest as the man was colorful, and you may wonder whether Hollywood might not have been a better place to pay homage to the creator of Mickey Mouse and Tomorrowland. Here’s another question: Inundated as we are by Disney products, is there anything left to say about the Disney phenomenon?

Such quibbles fade as you tour the $110 million museum, which opened in fall 2009. Although the location remains surprising and some of the curatorial choices seem random (buttons from Walt’s aunt’s wedding dress?), the place is an exhilarating tribute to a creative genius whose accomplishments have overshadowed his life story. Starting with no money, connections, or college education, Walt Disney pioneered the art and technology of animation, dreamed up dozens of lasting characters, invented the modern theme park, and built a powerful media empire incorporating film, music, comics, television, and books. But today, how many of us think of a human being when we hear the word Disney?

The museum makes it easy to absorb a rich understanding of Walt and his impact on our culture. Children play with hands-on interactive stations featuring the likes of Goofy and Tinker Bell or watch clips from animated and live-action films in 10 compact galleries as well as a 114-seat screening room. Adults linger over more than 1,400 artifacts, from the earliest known sketch of Mickey to Walt’s 1/8-scale backyard train. “You forget that this huge conglomerate was once just a guy who was fascinated with animation,” says Michael Cushing, who worked at Disney World as a teen and is paying his first visit to the museum three days after its opening.

Evoking the man himself is just what members of the Walt Disney Family Foundation had in mind when they began planning the museum a decade ago. They chose this location in part because the family has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for decades, and in part because Walt’s archives were stored at the Presidio. And if you think of Walt as the first link in a chain leading to the innovations of Bay Area firms such as Lucasfilm and Pixar, that choice starts to make sense.

The museum succeeds in the Disney tradition—by telling a compelling tale, in this case the story of Walt’s life. “We knew that anything with my father’s name on it had to be kind of terrific,” says Diane Miller, Walt’s daughter. “It had to have real showmanship.”

And it does. Packed with interactive exhibits, original artwork, archival material, and more than 200 video monitors, the 18,000-square-foot space follows Walt’s life chronologically. A visit begins in a dim room with the ambience of an Edwardian parlor, filled with portraits of dour Disney ancestors. Born in 1901, Walt grew up on a hardscrabble Missouri farm, and the claustrophobic entrance evokes his early life’s narrow horizons. Yet his star quality comes through in photos and home movies. “So much of Disney’s life was filmed that we were able to make this a very first-person museum,” says David Rockwell of the Rockwell Group, which designed the space. Even in the elevator that takes you up to brighter, noisier galleries, there’s an audio clip of Walt: “I think it’s important to have a good hard failure when you’re young.”

He had plenty. In the 1920s, Walt went bankrupt and saw his creations stolen. But when he was 26, he and his colleague and friend Ub Iwerks invented a perky rodent named Mickey. Nothing—not Walt’s life, not the world—was ever quite the same after that.

One of the most arresting displays is a corkboard wall with 348 sketches of Mickey feeding hay to a cow; when assembled into a film, they account for just 16 seconds on-screen. Cartoons are often for children, but making them was never child’s play. You could spend days poring over the sketches, notes, cameras, and miniatures used to develop this character- driven animation style. An exhibit that lets you manipulate models of instruments in time with a cavorting Mickey reveals the challenge of synchronizing sound in a cartoon. Artifacts from the 1930s and early ’40s—when Walt produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the 75 Silly Symphonies shorts, and Fantasia—constitute the most enthralling section.

As the exhibits progress to Walt’s final years, you descend a winding ramp past a 12-foot-wide model of Walt’s early idea of Disneyland. Beyond are 19 TV sets screening The Mickey Mouse Club, then concept art from Mary Poppins, which Walt transformed from an unsentimental kids’ book into one of the highest-grossing films of the 1960s. He died in 1966 at 65, and as you exit the museum you can’t help wondering what else he might have dreamed up had he lived 10 years longer, or five, or even just one.

Photography by Mitch Tobias

This article was first published in May 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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If You're Going: 

The Walt Disney Family Museum is located at 104 Montgomery Street in the Presidio of San Francisco. Tickets: $12–$20 at the door or at waltdisney.org. For more info, call (415) 345-6800.

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