I found myself in San Francisco last week. Other members of my family wanted to visit Alcatraz (creepy), ride the cable cars (it’s a train, so?), or check out the redwoods (they’re trees; you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all), but like the good self-proclaimed Disney geek that I am, my one and only request for the trip was a visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum.
Opened in late 2009, the Walt Disney Family Museum was established and is operated by an organization founded by the Disney family. It is not part of the Disney corporation. The museum is an homage to the man himself: his ancestry, his childhood, the naissance of his creativity, his personal style, his inventions, his innovative thinking, his family, his friendships, and all of his many creations. Can you say, “Must do!”
The museum is located at 101 Montgomery Street, on the grounds of the Presidio, a former military base and current urban national park. My companions for the visit were my 12-year-old-twins Josie and Louisa. There are some public transportation options, but we decided to take a taxi to the museum. I had downloaded the address from the museum’s website and the concierge at our hotel (the Westin St. Francis, very nice by the way) had given us a brochure which included a map of the location. I gave those both to the driver.
Despite this being only my second day ever in San Francisco, I could immediately tell he was not taking us in the right direction. I knew that the Presidio was near the water and the Golden Gate Bridge; he was taking us deep into the heart of the city. It turns out that there are two Montgomery Streets in San Francisco; we were headed to the wrong one. It took a difficult and exhausting argument with the cabbie to get us pointed in the right direction. Seriously folks, if you’re taking a cab, just say that you want to go to the Presidio and then get further directions from the extremely nice gate attendant at the park.
THE WELCOMING LOBBY
The museum facade is minimalist red brick with just a simple san-serif banner marking the destination. The interior lobby is similarly spare with a ticket desk followed by a bare wood floor surrounded by display cases.
Our ticket clerk informed us that we could stay in the lobby as long as we wanted to and could take as many photos as we wanted to there, but once we were inside the galleries, our cameras, phones, and other electronic devices must be put away. (More on this in a bit.)
We took our time lingering by the lobby display cases which were filled with more than 200 plaques, awards, and honors that Walt Disney received during his lifetime: everything from the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Seventeen Magazine’s Movie of the month award. Many of the prizes were themselves works of art. Of course we fawned over the honorary Oscar for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but were equally enchanted by Trofeo d’Arte della Biennale for Snow White which is adorned not only by the dwarfs by also lovely birds and bunnies.
Before visiting the museum, I had read that cameras are not allowed in the galleries. I was disappointed, but of course understood. What I didn’t process was that NO electronic devices were allowed out in the galleries. I can barely read my own handwriting any more and typically take notes on my iPad. The guards at the WDFM wanted none of that. I had wanted to take copious notes on the displays, but ended up mostly scrawling keywords on the back of the map I had printed out. Forwarned is forearmed: if you’re a note taker, bring a proper note book.
The thematic flow of the galleries is chronological, from the ancestral arrival in America to Walt’s death in 1966. I won’t catalog the contents of each room, the museum’s own website does a better job of that than I could, but I will recount some of my personal impressions.
- Each gallery includes artifacts not only about the cinematic parts of Walt Disney, but also concurrent pieces related to his family situation. These included photos of the Disney children and grandchildren, gifts Walt gave to his wife, a display of dollhouses Walt gave the girls, and notes about the coincidence of family milestones with corporate milestones. There really is family in the Family Museum.
- Throughout the galleries are listening stations where you can hear recordings by Walt and his contemporaries explaining their motivations for or feelings about pivotal events. These provide personal color to the displays.
- While Walt was the man with the plan, ample attention is paid to the dozens of friends and collaborators Walt worked with over the years. Sometimes when the branding is so monolithic, it’s easy to forget that creating a film or a theme park is the work of hundreds, not just one man. The museum lets us know some of these many players in the story.
- In addition to friends and coworkers, Walt had relationships with many artists and dignitaries of his day. One display features correspondence between Walt and notables such as Diego Rivero, Salvadore Dali, and Frank Lloyd Wright. One wonders if today’s artists have similar correspondence, how will we know? Scrolling Twitter feed?
- The wall full of Mickey Mouse merchandise highlights the idea that ancillary sales were part of the plan from the get-go. Folks that say “Disney is getting more commercial” can plainly see that, for better or worse, “commercial” was there at the start.
- Along with artistic and entertainment achievements, Walt Disney was also instrumental in many technical and scientific developments related to the films and amusement industries. Among these is a totally “naked” audioanimatronic for guests to examine.
- I’d be curious to know what Walt’s reaction would be to the recent hubbub about nutrition information in the parks. The display of family menus makes it abundantly plain that Walt himself was had some fairly atrocious eating habits, by today’s standards anyway.
- The wall of tribute illustrations and newspaper headlines from the day of Walt’s death is gut wrenching. There’s nice bench there for contemplative reflection. You’re going to need it.
THE CHILD’S VIEW
The museum is open to all ages, but there were very few children present there. In addition to my preteen daughters, we saw maybe half a dozen other children over the course of a three-hour stay. The experience is reading intensive and full of historical detail.
Twelve-year-old Josie, who wants to be an Imagineer when she grows up (good girl), stuck with me gallery by gallery. Our process ended up being that we would each take a fairly slow lap around the room taking it in on our own, then we’d meet back for quiet discussion. Seeing the history from her eyes was fascinating. She didn’t know much about Disney’s participation in the war effort or his collaboration with so many other artists. For her, “Disney” mostly means a few films and theme parks. The trip was invaluable in giving her a more global perspective on the situation.
Josie also got a big kick out of sitting on the actual bench that Walt used to sit on while he watched his daughters ride the carousel at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, an inspiration for the creation of Disneyland. She felt a real connection to history, sharing a seat with the man, even if it was decades apart. I also got a kick out of Josie’s observation that an early pre-Mickey animation camera on display (a much older version of the one pictured here) looked a bit like a hidden Mickey. She wondered if the camera’s big, round “ears” were an inspiration for the mouse’s development. I’ve never read any evidence of that, but I liked hearing her thoughts.
By contrast, Josie’s twin sister Louisa lost patience with the slow pace of looking and reading in the galleries. She was well-behaved but got museum fatigue after about an hour. We ended up letting her walk ahead of us or wait on a bench at the end of each gallery. If you have a young pre-reader, or a particularly active or impatient child, you may want to find a way to leave her behind if you’re planning to explore in a leisurely manner.
One of two exhibits that best held both girls’ attention was an interactive sound synchronization activity. Guests put on headphones and had to strike various faux instruments to coordinate their sound with the visuals in a scrolling Mickey Mouse film. For example, you bang a drum so it makes a sound when Mickey on the screen bangs a drum. This activity was surprisingly engaging and aptly illustrated the challenges faced by film pioneers.
But the girls’ favorite artifact was a scale model of Disneyland. However, rather than being an exact representation of the Disneyland building exteriors, there are interior cutaways of many attractions with whimsical features accentuated. My children are more familiar with Walt Disney World rather than Disneyland, so they enjoyed finding the compare/contrast attractions and identifying which parts of Disneyland do not have Florida counterparts. Because Louisa was working through the exhibits more quickly Josie and I, she got to the Disneyland model before we did. Completely unbidden by me (I promise) she did manage to snap a contraband phone photo of the model. This does nothing close to justice to the gorgeous rendering, but it does help you get the general idea.
THE GIFT SHOP
Like any good Disney attraction, the Walt Disney Family Museum wouldn’t be complete without a gift shop, and this one doesn’t disappoint. The merchandise includes an eclectic combination of non-park Mickey gear, non-Disney versions of stories adapted for Disney films, WDFM logo clothing, DVDs of non-aminated Disney films, random jewelry, art supplies, and books related to Walt or the Walt Disney Studios.
I purchased two books about the museum itself: “Picturing the Walt Disney Family Museum” and “The Walt Disney Family Museum: the Man, the Magic, the Memories.” My biggest find was a large selection of back issues of the now defunct magazine “E-Ticket.” I already owned half a dozen issues of this gem of reporting on Disney history and was thrilled to be able to buy several more, as well as CD-ROMs containing the first 24 issues. The WDFM doesn’t have a merchandise sales portal on its website (a missed opportunity if there ever was one), but I’m considering giving the museum a call to see if I can purchase a few more issues by mail.
Next to the gift shop is a tiny concession stand. The selection is not large, just a few pre-made sandwiches, beverages, and fruit. It reminded me a bit of the food you’d find at an airport. You’re not going to starve, but don’t go expecting Mickey waffles on the menu.
In addition to the static exhibits, there is a live educational component to the museum. They frequently host lectures or films related to the Disney family or creative pursuits in general. If you’re flexible in the timing of your visit, check the online schedule to see if you can combine your gallery visit with a film.
Throughout the museum building are charming touches for the Disney fan. For example, the floor of the downstairs lobby is tiled in Mary Blair-esque colors, and the lobby of the screening room area showcases a dozen posters of live-action Disney films. I also have to say that this was by far the cleanest museum I have ever been in. Perhaps this was owing to the relative newness of the facility, but truly, everything was spotless.
From arrival to departure, we spent a bit over three hours on site. Had I been on my own without the girls, I easily could have spent another one to two hours there before hitting the information overload point. If you find yourself in the area for an extended time, perhaps two intermediate length visits would be ideal.
As noted above, the museum’s location is a bit off-the-beaten-path. When we inquired about where to find a taxi back to our hotel, the attendant at the ticket desk was very kind to call one for us. We had to wait for about 15 minutes for our cab to arrive, so if your next destination is time-dependent, factor that into your planning.
The museum is open Wednesday-Monday (closed Tuesdays), 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., with the last entry at 4:45. There are closures on some major holidays.
General admission for adults is $20.00. Senior admission is $15.00. Students with ID are $15.00. Children ages 6 to 17 are $12.00. Children under age 6 are free. Additional charges my apply for special events.
While I had previously read several biographies of Walt Disney, I found that the WDFM brought the man himself alive in a new and vivid way for me. For example, the awards in the lobby were, of course, incredibly impressive. But my favorite item there was tucked away in a corner. This was the pair of drawings of the the Disney daughters, Sharon and Diane, that were created by iconic American illustrator Norman Rockwell. The drawings highlighted for me the confluence of superstar and regular dad that Walt Disney embodied.
Have you been to the Walt Disney Family Museum? Would you like to go? Tell us more in the comments below.