A Visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum


logoEarlier this year I joined Disney’s D23 on an impulsive whim. Sometimes I am given to these flights of fancy and usually pay for it, literally in dollars, soon thereafter. However it has only taken me 6 months to see a return on that investment: admission for 4 to the soon-to-be-opened Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio in San Francisco. This visual/architectural/technological/audtorial spectacle is sure to be the destination of many a pilgrimage from the time it opens this Thursday October 1st.

There are countless Disney fanatics who can (and probably already have) go into great detail about anything and everything, including ‘easter eggs,’ found in each of the museum’s 10 galleries. I am not that person, but I will do my best to try! As they would not allow cameras of any kind inside, and I had to rush through due to my tickets being for the last timeslot of the day, my memories will have to suffice.

Ticketing Counter and Lobby (courtesy of the Blue Parrot)

Ticketing Counter and Lobby (courtesy of the Blue Parrot)

The lobby is where I we spent the least amount of time, though I’m sure 30 minutes could have gone by in a blink. If I remember correctly there was a wall with detailed Disney family history, a re-creation of Walt’s living room, various Oscar statuettes (including the miniatures created especially for Snow White) and other displays that we had to hurry by. Museum admission operates on timed tickets scheduled 15 minutes apart. Once you gain entry you can stay as long as you like, but you will not normally be allowed in before you time window. Because of previous engagements I had to take the absolute last timeslot which gave use an hour and 15 minutes to view it all. This was the absolute minimum recommended time and I should say you could spend twice that time and still be whizzing by many points along the way.

After having our tickets scanned and entering Gallery 1 I knew we were going to run out of time. The museum is set up in a chronologically (and technologically for that matter) linear fashion. The first gallery begins with Walt’s birth and some personal stories told by Walt himself through plasma TVs and direct overhead speakers. The next room showed some early drawings and his own testing of special effects and camera tricks before he got to Hollywood. By the time we left the first gallery a kind attendant (can we call them Cast Members? I don’t know…the organization is separate from the Walt Disney Company) directed us towards and elevator and told us to keep in mind that there were still 9 more galleries to go.

Gallery 2 (courtesy of the Blue Parrot)

Gallery 2 (courtesy of the Blue Parrot)

The elevator ride up to the 2nd floor was a treat. It was a normal sized elevator but decorated to look like a train car with “windows” looking out at the scenery. Walt’s voice accompanies the ride up and I was shocked to find that even the 15-second elevator ride was entertaining. Once you step off the elevator you enter the limelight of Hollywood. You are shown monitors describing Walt’s Alice Comedies and his other early achievements. It is also here that the interactive exhibits become more prominent.

Rotary Candlestick Phone

Rotary Candlestick Phone

In addition to the video screens with directed speakers, the next few galleries sport “personal” audio information devices in the style of an old telephone earpiece (shown at right hanging in the cradle of a “Candlestick” phone). My daughters got a kick out of picking them up and holding them up to one ear. The audio plays automatically in sync with the video screens and can be manually started with the push of a button. As you travel through the museum, the style of handset progresses to the modern telephone (of Walt’s time) style. The technology of the displays continues to progress as well.

Gallery 3 introduces Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie. Artifacts and original sketches are littered throughout all the room. One new exhibit display allows you to play a “mini-RockBand” foley game in which you time your hits/pulls/cranks on various devices to match the sound effects of the image on screen. This was, of course, another hit with my kids. More and more monitors with Walt and other animators describing how they made their magic continue to fill each room. The gallery was also the first time I saw a touchscreen on display, but it definitely wasn’t the last. 

The next 3 galleries were kind of a blur because everywhere we turned the kind “purple people” (employees all wear a lone-sleeved coat of purple) were  reminding us that we only had 45 minutes left to see ‘X’ number of galleries. There were the 1930s capped off by Snow White exhibits. The 1940s saw tales of a Union strike and all the work that was done for the war. More and more monitors began using touchscreen technology along with an iPhone-esque slide-browsing technique. I even think I got to see Microsoft Surface in action on one of the displays. Gallery 7 brought my next “wow” moment, however.

Gallery 7 (photo by Mike Kepka, San Francisco Chronicle

Gallery 7 (photo by Mike Kepka, San Francisco Chronicle

This picture may be too small to do it justice, but the seamless interactivity on display here is an awe to behold for a techie like myself. Overhead there are a dozen or more projectors that display various images and movies on a flowing ribbon that surrounds the room. Not a pixel is out of place and very rarely does any stretching or warping occur. If it does, it appears it was meant to be that way. Projectionists probably know, but I had fun just trying to figure out how there is no bleeding over the edges (i.e. – onto the wall) or other anomalies that should happen when not projecting on a flat surface. The interactive exhibits in this room are the where I could lose most of my time, however.

Utilizing what I call an overhead “touch screen projector” images are displayed on a table in front of you. The wall in front of you has a plasma display and as you touch the projected images on the table the screen displays information (text, picture, audio, video, etc..) about what you touched. There is a list of hundreds of topics each with dozens of items to drill down in to. There is information about actors/actresses, interviews with animators, movie and charater summaries…seeming endless amounts of data on all things Disney. Again my kids enjoyed the interactivity, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I would have been content to spend my whole day just going through that one exhibit.

From the Walt Disney Family Museum's Facebook page

From the Walt Disney Family Museum's Facebook page

Gallery 8 is an interesting design choice. It’s a long downhill hallway. To the left are floor-to-ceiling glass windows that overlook the Presidio, bay and Golden Gate bridge. On the right are monitors all displaying the same thing. However, they are all facing the opposite direction, so you have to turn around (hopefully not into oncoming traffic) to view them. We were there in the early evening as the sun was going down so you had to face the sun to face the monitors. We were hurry through, though, because we had heard that the piez-de-resistance was Gallery 9 and we weren’t disappointed.

After you turn the corner from the previous gallery you realized that it all has been leading up to this gigantic two-story open air gallery. This is, I’m sure, one of the reasons they don’t allow cameras. It has to be seen and experienced to understand it. There is a winding walkway that takes you from Walt building his personal railroad through the building of Disneyland.

Artist's rendering of Gallery 9 is pretty close to the real thing (courtesy of MiceAge)

Artist's rendering of Gallery 9 is pretty close to the real thing (courtesy of MiceAge)

There is a model of the original Disneyland that is just a joy to look at. Hanging from the ceiling over the entire room is a sphere upon which projected images make it look as though it’s a perfectly round screen with hardly any portion untouched by the projectors. As you keep moving you see more and more exhibits with artifacts and drawings and models and miniatures and videos and….! This gallery is overhwelming but in a good way. It ends with Walt discussing his purchase of some land in Florida that could be the “biggest thing” he’d ever done.

Then, like that, you enter a narrow room where a small television is playing a newscast (I don’t know if it’s historical or newly created for this exhibit) describing Walt’s death and immediate reactions. On the opposite wall there are facsimiles of political cartoons and telegraphs and letters written to his wife that show just how shocking and sorrowful his death was to the world. It was an emotional and sobering gallery that completely caught me off guard. I guess I sometimes forget that though his name, company, ideas and inventions live on the man himself is no longer with us.

Your final room, before you get to the gift shop (of course), is resplendent white with variously arranged screens summarizing everything we have seen: the life of a uniquely gifted visionary that has impacted so many all over the globe.

There is a gift shop and cafe as you exit, but since we got out late the cafe was closed and we could only stay a few minutes in the gift shop. There was also a stairwell leading down below where I guess some offices, conference rooms/classrooms and the theater are located. Alas, my whirlwind tour was at an end. Perhaps next time I’ll wander downstairs to the conference rooms or take in a screening at their 114-person theater. It would definitely be worth it.

WDFM Theater (photo by Mike Kepka for the San Francisco Chronicle)

WDFM Theater (photo by Mike Kepka for the San Francisco Chronicle)

Finally some bonus video footage (not mine):


7 responses »

  1. That’s funny, Slim…

    Wow…Walt’s living room? Cast members? Starts with Walt’s birth? Do they HAVE a place like this for Hugh Hefner? Why did I just wonder that?
    Some of the things you mentioned ALMOST sounds like they might be using organic LED’s in the museum…is that true?
    Wait, so Walt set up the introduction to his own museum before he died? Creepy…and something I think I might do in a couple days to have ready for my own museum…or did they digitally insert real Walt and manipulate him with CG to talk? Again, creepy…and something I’ll have to work on…
    The hallway looking out onto the Presidio looks great.
    That last gallery sounds…I couldn’t tell, but sounds grandiose.

    Great article, Joe, you should post more.

  2. Watched the video…and those old-time TV cabinets with the LCD’s or plasmas or whatever they are are a GREAT idea. Not sure why some company doesn’t markets those for real.
    I know plenty of people who would buy them for nostalgia’s sake…

  3. Slim, I was thinking the same thing when I sat down to write my post and saw yours. I had to laugh..

    Film, Walt’s stories were audio & video cobbled together from a myriad of interviews given over the years. I don’t think there was anything specifc to his own future museum.

    And I added a “picture” of Gallery 9 I found on another website. Pretty amazing

  4. Watched that first video…like that it was created by his family and not the Disney corporation, though they are intrinsically one-in-the-same…no?
    Either way, his fam made a cool building and museum and I’d love to see if Walt dictated the layout and things that went into it…modern day Citizen Kane… “I think it would be fun to open and amusement park”

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