When was the last time you gave the name Disney a real thought, I mean, a
real, genuine, thought?
The name Disney has become such a brand, such a machine, such a conglomerate,
that the name has ceased to be simply a last name, a last name representing just
a man. When you step inside a Disney theme park, watch a Disney film, buy a
Disney toy at a Disney store, take a cruise on a Disney cruise ship … do you
give a moment's thought to the man behind that famous name? The man whose name
grew over time to represent this brand, this machine, this conglomerate, this
corporate behemoth that today we all know as Disney. Do today's kiddies even know
there was a Walt Disney, a man who started up all this hoopla?
He was quite a guy, Walt was. And he was so much more than what the
brand now represents. If you really give the name Disney more than just a
cursory thought and for a moment stop connecting it with the brand, dwelling
only on the man, you will find what is left is a man who had a profound
influence, through his innovations, his unstoppable curiosity, and his
never-ending sense of child-like wonder, on not only American culture, but on
the whole world's culture.
Luckily, you are now living in a place in time where you have the chance to
really discover Walt Disney the man, to hear his voice, learn his story, and see
of all the amazing accomplishments this man gave to the world ... because now,
it's Walt's turn to be heard.
Forget the Disney company, just throw that out. Step inside the "giant
scrapbook" provided by Walt Disney's family and through his family's eyes, see
the story of an ordinary American's extraordinary vision, of his career, of his
life … come and learn about Walt Disney at the Walt Disney Family Museum.
It isn't often I go to an event involving Disney and come away feeling like
it was a privilege to be there. I won't kid you, it is nice to get to the things
I do, I like it. But it is work, and there usually is a slick-ness, a
corporate-ness to it all. Last week though, when I was treated to a preview of
the Walt Disney Family Museum which opens to the public on October 1st,
I walked away feeling like I had seen something special and the word, "Wow," was
on my lips. I don't think it's at all hyperbole to describe the Walt Disney
Family Museum as amazing. And though I have been giving you little snippets from
the museum each week in my Pressing Matters column, those sneak peeks didn't
even begin to touch the surface or paint the picture of what's in store for you
when you actually set foot inside this terrific place.
So dear readers, come along and let me take you on a tour of the Walt Disney
Family Museum as I saw it…
As your car drives into the historic Presidio, past the Lombard gate and
round the gently curving road heading toward the former military parade grounds
on Montgomery Street, you can't help but be struck with how beautiful the
setting is. The first thing you see when you come up to the museum is an
unassuming brick building, a former barracks. No hoopla, no fanfare, just an old
brick building with a tiny, equally unassuming, sign announcing this building is
the Walt Disney Family Museum.
The museum is housed on the Presidio's Main Post and while the three
buildings comprising the museum, restored by Page & Turnbull, may still look
like barracks on the outside, don't let that fool you. The three buildings have
become a campus-within-a-campus and inside, it's all state of the art. Former
storage for machine guns and ammo now houses mechanical equipment, what once was
a gymnasium with an indoor track now houses the museums offices and a
2000-square-foot hall for special programs, concerts (and the special exhibition
program that will begin in 2012). The main building, the former army barracks,
is the centerpiece of the museum, containing the galleries, a 114-seat theatre,
a learning center, cafe, and gift shop. Outside, just across from the museum,
the former parade ground where troops once practiced marching, now serves as
parking for the museum.
Walk into the museum and step up to the ticket booth inside the front door.
If you haven't already purchased your timed entry ticket on line, the friendly
folks costumed in jackets reminiscent of uniformed theatre ushers of yesteryear,
await your every need at the ticket desk. Just past the ticket desk are huge
display cases filled with the many awards Walt Disney won over his lifetime.
Beside the usual Golden Globes and Academy Awards, of which there were many
(including the famous special Academy Award for Snow White), I was charmed by
the lesser-known statuettes such as the Commando Mickey Award. Walt received
this from the Artists of Brazil in 1935. You've got to love any award featuring
Mickey Mouse happily riding atop the back of a tortoise!
To the back of the ticket desk is a display sure to appeal to any
self-respecting Disneyland fan … original pieces that once sat inside Walt's
apartment above the Fire Station on Main Street ... Green velvet rocking chairs
and a stool, a faux kerosene lamp, painting of a sheep herder, a portrait of
Walt's parents, Elias and Flora, and a marble washstand. A quote from Diane
Disney Miller (Walt and Lillian's daughter) explains the display, "Dad and
Mother spent many weekends in the apartment, often with some of their
grandchildren. They decorated in the Victorian style they both knew and loved."
I looked at the comfy old Victorian chairs and wondered, "Have I sat in one
of those?" It was quite a while ago, but once I was lucky enough to get to see
Walt's apartment and I was allowed to sit in one of the chairs by the window.
It's nice to see these pieces in the museum and they set a tone for the next
gallery to come, Gallery One.
Moving on, as you enter the first room of Gallery One you get a homey
feeling, not unlike stepping back in time into someone's Victorian parlor. The
walls are covered in period-appropriate garnet-colored wallpaper and just like
many an American home of the time, are adorned with numerous family photos.
Walt's father's violin sits in a display case, his baptismal certificate hangs
up there on the wall in good company with all the ancestors, and video screens
explain the time period.
As you will find all throughout the museum, in every gallery there is a
plethora of multi-media displays explaining what was happening at that particular point
in Walt's life. For me, this is made a big impression walking through the museum
and I'm sure it makes the difference between displays that are simply good and
truly outstanding displays. All this interactive media allows Walt to tell his
own story through the vintage footage of Walt and the numerous voice-overs in
each gallery and as you proceed through each decade of Walt Disney's life, he is
literally talking to you, telling you what he experienced as you are looking at
It's pretty darned cool.
David Rockwell (whose Rockwell Group was tasked with designing the museum's
displays) explained to the media before we all set foot into the museum, "The
challenge of the museum was physicalizing the input of one of the 20th
century's greatest storytellers. The point of the museum is to simply tell the
story of Walt Disney, the man. We wanted to resonate with kids and adults today
who may not know who he was."
With over four and a half hours of never-before seen footage of Walt Disney
playing on the monitors throughout the galleries, you can't help but go away
from the museum with a real sense of Walt Disney, the man. For someone like me
who remembers Walt coming into my living room every week on the television, all
this footage of him is a welcome sight and for someone who has no concept of who
Walt Disney was (I know … hard to believe, but there are people who don't know
there was a man named Disney), this vintage footage liberally sprinkled
throughout the museum is a great way to get to know Walt, the man.
Back to Gallery One … As you leave the little room with all the family photos, you round the bend into
a room housing a World War One ambulance, the first thing that grabs your
attention here …because you know, Walt, being too young and bad boy that he was,
faked his age on his passport so he could go off to France and serve as an
ambulance driver to help with the war effort. The war ended almost as soon as
Walt arrived in France though so it was back to America and Kansas City where he
took a job as a commercial artist.
Turning away from the ambulance you realize how much more there is to be seen
in Gallery One … loads of Walt's high school cartoons, an original drawing done
around 1917-18, mementoes from Walt's childhood, and video displays explaining
Walt's discovery of the world of animation and Laugh-O-Gram Films. All the
while, as you explore the visuals contained in the gallery, you hear Walt's
voice, describing his experiences. And as I've already noted, that's certainly a
nice layer added onto what you are seeing. There is so much to explore here but
no detail is too small … you've got to love that Gallery One has something as
big as a World War One ambulance and as tiny as Walt's Order of DeMolay
membership card, dated May 1920.
Much as Walt designed Disneyland to unfold before the guest's eyes in a
movie-like fashion, so too, does the museum (and this multi-part review). In the
next article you'll find out what happens after you leave Gallery One via a very
pretty and period-looking elevator (nothing slick and cold like today's
elevators). The doors close, the elevator begins its descent, it settles on its
designated floor, the doors open, and it's… HOLLYWOOD!
Part two of this story is at this
If you're planning a trip up to San Francisco to see the museum, The
Walt Disney Family Museum's website has all the pertinent information including ticketing info, prices, how to get
and -- you can order your tickets for a visit:
http://www.waltdisney.org You can also follow the Walt Disney Family Museum on
Twitter for the latest
scoop, and of course discuss it all to your heart's content at