Today I finally got a chance to spend some quality time at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. Situated in a stately building that was originally an army barracks in the Presidio, the Disney Family Museum is dedicated to the life and legacy of Walt Disney.
As a long-time Disneypark nerd — I’ve been to every single Disneypark except for the one in China — I should have come here long ago.
From a professional point of view, it also made sense for me to visit the Disney museum. Anything associated with Disney would be designed in a way to completely engage the visitor and tell a coherent and entertaining story. After all, Walt Disney paved the way for new kinds of visual storytelling and theme park experiences. Each gallery of the museum was a rich combination of physical artifacts, compelling photos, vivid videos, well-written signs, and interactive displays. As someone who works in a museum, I learned a lot not just about Walt, but also how to design an engaging visitor experience.
Entering the first gallery, you learn about the family history of the Disneys. Honestly, I wanted to skip this part, but I was sucked into the compelling and entertaining animated videos describing Walt’s early years. There’s a very cute story of him as a boy attempting to do a drawing of a horse that won’t sit still, when his family ran a farm in the Midwest. Another short describes his work as a paperboy in Kansas City, and later as a newpaper vendor on an intercity train.
I was most fascinated by the galleries on the early days of animation, and how Walt goes his start in the business as a young artist and entrepreneur. The animated shorts from the 1930s are still so incredible to watch, with animators just going nuts and creating strange and twisted short films in the most painstaking ways possible.
According to the museum, Walt pushed the medium forward, experimenting with all sorts of new technologies and approaches. He also moved the artform beyond shorts to feature length films, which was considered incredibly financially risky at the time.
After achieving success producing animated films, he moved on to live action films, television, merchandising, and the foundations of the global juggernaut that Disney corporation is today.
But the gallery I was most interested in toward the end of the museum, the creation of Disneyland. Walt Disney had visited a number of amusement parks and was disappointed with how cheap and unsatisfying the experience was. He wanted to create something that was completely immersive, a set of alternative worlds you could step into and play in.
And on July 17, 1955, Walt’s vision became reality when Disneyland opened in Anaheim.
The centerpiece of the Disneyland gallery is a massive scale-model of the theme park, created in incredible details. As a helpful docent explained to me, this Disneyland never actually existed, but is pieced together from different versions of the park between 1955 and and the 1970s. There’s a “Monsanto House of the Future” that was open between 1957 and 1967. The iconic monorail and the Matterhorn didn’t open until 1959. It’s a Small World didn’t open until 1964. And Space Mountain doesn’t launch until 1977, which Walt Disney did not live to see realized.
The model is so incredibly well done, and something that every Disneypark fan should see at least once. My only quibble is that it isn’t clear what version of Disneyland you are seeing. I think it would be awesome if there was a semitransparent overlay or even an augmented reality app that allowed you to see the different versions of the park over the years.
There’s a section after this gallery on Walt’s later years, his many other projects that he dreamed up, many of which were not realized until after his death. Yes, it’s a hagiography, but it’s tastefully done in my opinion.
The museum also houses a large rotating exhibit space, a fine gift shop, cafe, and a workshop space where you can create your own cartoons and animations.
Overall, I was really impressed with the Walt Disney Family Museum. If you even a little interested in animation, the Disney theme parks, or the life of this iconic artist, entrepreneur, and visionary, it’s definitely worth a visit. I would happily go back.
The Walt Disney Family Museum is located at 104 Montgomery Street in the Presidio Historic Park in San Francisco. Open everyday except Tuesdays. See their website for more info and current exhibits.
CC-licensed image “Disneyland from Space” by banlon1964