by James Goodman a/k/a swabikedude
The Walt Disney Family Museum (WDFM) is located in San Francisco, CA inside the Presidio. We stayed at a hotel in the Wharf, and although it is easy to navigate San Francisco without a rental car, the Presidio presented some challenges. You first must know how to use the Muni system to get around (city buses). It wasn’t hard, but I found out after the fact that bus #43 makes a stop right inside the Presidio. From that stop it is a good 10 minute walk to the WDFM. You can also drive into the Presidio and park at the DFM for about a 6-hour limit. Parking was around $1-$3 an hour depending on location. It’s a 3-hour max directly in front of the WDFM – or up to 6 hours in the lot (also very close).
The WDFM is amazing and my wife, who isn’t the most interested in Walt Disney’s life was also impressed. But for any Disney “junkie” I think after you experience the WDFM you will have a more profound respect for what Walt has done for us. His story is not only fascinating, but I think everyone can put themselves in his shoes at some point in his life and follow in Walt’s footsteps.
For someone with a disability or in a wheelchair, the WDFM is easy to navigate with ramps and elevators. The building is about 4 levels. You enter on level 2 where you will buy your tickets and receive a bunch of valuable information about the Museum, classes you can attend, and what it means to become a Member.
Here are the rules: you can take photos and video of anything you want in the lobby…but after you walk INTO the actual museum, you must put those away. I was tempted to sneak out my camera several times, but there are camera’s watching you everywhere…so don’t do it. Otherwise, your admission is good for the entire day. You wear a small sticker so you may be admitted in/out throughout the day. I spent about 3 1/2 hours total exploring and I still didn’t read and do everything!
Now before you enter the main museum, an Employee (they are NOT Cast Members, they work for the “Foundation” not “Disney”) will scan your tickets and allow you entrance. You must consume any beverage and food prior to entering. The day we were there, we were allowed to enter at any time…on some of the busier days, you may receive a “timed ticket” which means you can only enter at your designated time (think FastPass).
On the lower level you will find restrooms (men, women, companion) and a coat check area; stairs or elevator to access the lower level. The gift shop is on main level 2 as well, along with a very tiny food stand featuring Wolfgang Puck food and the soup of the day served in a sourdough breadbowl.
Some of the items on display in the Lobby are the Academy Awards Walt has won throughout his career – well most of them – some are owned by the Studio and are not on display here. But the Academy Awards for Snow White are here…along with the tiny ones for each of the dwarfs! Great photo opportunity! You can also see the “Key to San Francisco” and several other awards from all sorts of leagues, guilds, and organizations.
SPOILER ALERT – from this point I will take you on a tour of the WDFM…
You enter into “Small Beginnings” and it feels like you are in the small one-room house where Walt was born. From the red-striped wallpaper to the ornate ceilings you were just transported back in time to the 1900’s. You can see an entire Family Tree of the Disney Family and some amazing old photographs of the family farm in Ellis, Kansas. You will read about Walt’s birth on December 5, 1901 and discover he lived at 1249 Tripp Avenue, Chicago, IL. There is a copy of Walt’s Birth Certificate on display here as well. A story of Walt attending Chicago’s McKinley High and drawing for the local High School paper called “The Voice” in 1917. Here you will also see a collection of his early cartoons. There are small TV’s set up, walking you through Walt’s life stories growing up, with his voice narrating. The way the screens are showing you his life is similar to his first cartoons where he used paper cutouts and pinned joints and moved them…kids should really like this part. Speakers overhead make it easy to hear each of the TVs individually.
You then walk into a black and white room showing sketches of Walt’s early cartoons. This is where you also hear from his Mother about how Walt filmed his family for practice and then reversed the film to make some interesting effects. Next you walk inside an elevator to the 2nd floor. The elevator is set up to resemble a train car and while you are traveling up a floor, you hear Walt narrating some more. It’s all part of the story. Very nicely done.
“Hollywood” is next! Here, you will hear the story of “Alice in Wonderland” from 1921. You listen to some of these stories while holding an old telephone receiver.
“Oswald, Mickey & Walt Disney Studios” is next…here you will find on the wall about 348 frames from “Steamboat Willie”. Those 348 frames only equal 15 seconds of the cartoon! You will hear the story of Oswald, how he was sold to Universal by the deceiving Charlie Mintz. But – secretly how Walt designed a new character “Mortimer Mouse” – soon to be known as “Mickey Mouse!” Here you will see one of the earliest known drawings of Mickey from 1928. You get to see scenes from “Plane Crazy” from 1928 – specifically #179, #80, and #286. You also see scenes from “Steamboat Willie” from 1928 specifically #3, #387, and #57. In this room you get to play a game about synchronizing sound to cartoons. This is like a cross between Rock Band & the interactive queue at the Haunted Mansion! There are 3 teams, each of you wear a headset with instruments in front of you. The instruments work by touch (one of them by pouding) and you play the correct instrument following directions on the screen in front of you. It’s a lot of fun…and definitely something the kids will love.
The next area is called simply “SUCCESS!” – Here you find the most amazing collection of Mickey merchandise! Some very unique items in a large display case.
“New Horizons in the 1930’s” and “The Silly Symphonies” features the story of the “Silly Symphonies” with classical music and COLOR. Hear stories about the Ink & Paint department and the women who worked there. You see a display of original ink bottles mixed and labeled (look for the Donald Yellow). You also will notice this room just got a lot more colorful than the previous ones.
“Creative & Personal Success” is snuck in this room and it features Walt’s original pair of skis from Switzerland! You will also see colorful cels from “Three Little Pigs”, “Tortoise and the Hare”, original copies of “Walt Disney Comics”, the storyboard from “The Story of Ferdinand” and learn all about the early life and creation of Minnie, Donald, Pluto and Goofy (who was also known as The Goof!)
“The Move to Features” showcases the amazing “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and there are meeting notes on how the artists planned the behaviors and personalities of the Dwarves. Just about everything in this area is dedicated to Snow White. There are interactive kiosks with computer touch screens and headsets that allow you to play some Music Games…Music with Scenes, Tempo, Themes, and Songs. This is also a FUN family activity.
“The Storyteller” features a small screen with a handle that allows you to control the animation speed…this is fun! Also there are benches with a computer screen and headset that acts as an interactive storybook about what it was like to “Work with Walt”. Did you know he loved the sport of Polo and was actually pretty good at it? This room features his trophies and other awards.
“We Were in a New Business” and “Burbank” are the next areas you walk into and here you learn about his 2 daughters: Diane & Sharon. My absolute favorite photo is located in this room – it features Walt with his daughters on both his knees reading to them the story of Pinocchio – before it was even finished! A tear ran down my cheek at this point – it began getting emotional, because I am now at a point in Walt’s life that I am currently in for my own life. Then the entire story of “Pinocchio” begins to enfold around you with how “Jiminy Crickett” was created in 1939 along with “Bambi.” It’s interesting to hear how Walt helped his artists create more realistic animals in “Bambi” – because he brought in deer, a raccoon, and sent his camermen out into the woods to photograph and film real animals in their real habitat. Here you also find a replica of an Artist’s Desk, so you see how they set things up for drawing these cartoons.
Next you walk into the “Artists and Musicians” room and “Fantasia” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is brought to life. You will also see an actual “Multiplane Camera” and it sits below you in a very large glass display case. It’s just awesome! There is a small viewing area behind here with seats that look like they are stools direct from the circus from Dumbo! You hear about the amazing special effects and music used in the Disney cartoons and movies.
“Toughest Period in my Whole Life” showcases what happened when the Artists struck and the war began between 1941-1945. This is a small area, but definitely a learning experience for Walt and explains another time in his life that he had to overcome.
“Latin America” follows directly behind and features “El Grupo” which was the name given to Walt and his group of Artists who visited South America. He created a film called “Saludos Amigos” and then “The Three Caballeros!”
“The War Years” shows the creation of “Dumbo” and many clips of the war pictures, posters, and film clips and public service announcements that Walt created. Very interesting to see the Disney characters with guns and in battle!
“The End of the War” and the “Postwar Production” areas cover from 1946-1950. Here you learn about “The Song of the South” from 1946 and some personal films like “So Dear to My Heart.” This room is amazing, the top looks like curled paper with constant clips of animated and live action movies constantly playing above you. You can sit in the center seats and it’s almost like a 360 degree theatre, but on a much smaller scale. There are small interactive immersive kiosks with touchscreens and speakers all around you that lets you explore everything that happened postwar with Walt’s productions. Kids will love this area because they may recognize some of the clips like “Cinderella” from 1950, “Wind and the Willows” from 1949, “Peter Pan” from 1953, “Lady and the Tramp” from 1955, “Alice in Wonderland” from 1951 and “Mickey and the Beanstalk” from 1947. Here is the “Move to Live Action” and it features “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!”
“Walt’s Collections & Family Treasures” is a tiny room, but that seems to be the point. The room is covered in family vacation photos – I love the one of the Disney Family in Paris. Also – Walt’s love of Jell-o and chili are featured along with his fascination of miniatures! Miniature everything. You can spend a long time looking at every little detail here. It’s fun to play the “EYE SPY” game with the kids in this room. You also see wedding photos from Sharon & Diane’s weddings. Diane was married in 1954 and Sharon married in 1959. Look in this room for the Oscar Bracelet. It features miniature Oscar statuettes in a bracelet that Walt had created for his wife Lilly and there is a photo her wearing it just days before Disneyland opened.
“Walt and the Natural World” is the next room and it’s definitely themed appropriately because here you get the best unobstructed view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay right outside the windows. In fact the entire left side of the room is glass and it’s bright and simply beautiful…but this can’t prepare you for what you see next…
“Have a Seat!”, Here you find one of the benches from the Griffith Park Observatory – just like the one Walt used to sit on watching his daughters on the Merry-go-Round thinking to himself why couldn’t he create a theme park where families could spend time together and it was CLEAN! I just had to sit on the bench…this was also a very emotional area for me. I don’t know where else as a Dad can you sit just as Walt sat and feel like he felt. It was very surreal. I didn’t want to get up. But – hey – this tour is only about 1/2 over!
You then find the story of the saddle that Walt won with a raffle and then used it for filming in the movie “Zorro” – but only for still shots, the saddle was too heavy for the horse to wear and carry someone while galloping. So a different saddle was substituted for the action shots. Round the corner and your jaw will DROP!
“You can dream, create, design & build the most wonderful place in the world, but it requires people to make the dream a reality!” A most wonderful quote to prepare you for what you see next…the room has a long walkway that circles down a level around some amazing models!
You first see, what I think are some of the original cars from the Lilly Belle Carolwood Pacfic train that ran at Walt’s house around his yard. There are videos, stories and a huge model showing the track and how he built this at his home. The story moves into the creation of “WED Enterprises” and some amazing details about the proposal of Disneyland in 1953. Did you know that the original proposal featured the following lands: (clockwise) Holiday Land & Circus, Pony Ride, Frontierland & Mickey Mouse Club Island, Granny’s Farm & Stagecoach & Mule rides, Recreation Park, Fantasyland (Snow White, Peter Pan, Alic in Wonderland & Mother Goose), LilliputianLand, Land of Tomorrow with a Freeway System, and True-Life Adventure. Some of the original proposal never came to fruition, but most of the designs made it to life!
From 1951-1956 you will see an original model of the Disneyland Castle by Marvin Davis, a Circarama Camera with eleven 16mm Kodak Cine Special Cameras – soon to be called Circlevision, and a photo of Walt & Lilly on their anniversary on the stage of the Golden Horseshoe in Disneyland on July of 1955. Then you see the FULL-SCALE model of Disneyland itself. Here you can spend a very long time looking at the detail of each of the attractions as you listen to the story of each one. You can see the original Skyway and Stagecoach Ride in Frontierland, the Pirate Ship in Fantasyland, and the House of Tomorrow and Flying Saucers in Tomorrowland. Some of the attractions light up and move with sound and color. You can plan out your day just by looking at it all. You do NOT see the Matterhorn mountain in this model.
From 1957-1963, you read about “Transportation and Travel” and see the Autopia Car that was given to Walt’s grandson Christopher as a gift. You also see plenty of pictures with Walt and his grandchildren in a Christmas Parade from 1957.
In 1955 – you learn about “The (second) Mickey Mouse Club” and some of the live action films like, “Swiss Family Robinson”, “Castaways”, “Third Man on the Mountain”, “Johnny Tremain”, “Old Yeller”, and “The Calloways”…then onto 1964-1965 and you learn that Walt was asked to design the opening and closing ceremonies for the SquawValley Olympics in the Winter of February 1960. Here you will see one of the Olympic Torches on display. “Mary Poppins” from 1964 is featured in this area along with live broadcasts from the red carper of the premiere. You also learn about the 1964 World’s Fair and how Walt Disney was present in 4 of the major attractions: GE Carousel of Progress, Ford Magic Skyway, Pepsi-Cola Pavillion featuring It’s a Small World, and the Illinois Pavillion featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.
Next in 1966 – you learn about “The Florida Project” and how EPCOT would change the world. Many more family photos and then begins the “Walt’s Final Projects” display.
In “Walt’s Final Projects” you learn about Mineral King, California – a family ski resort that Walt was envisioning to build. This never got off the ground because the Sierra Club closed this down just after Walt’s death.
The next room proved to be the most somber of the tour. In fact, tears welled up in my eyes as soon as I entered, because everyone who is a Walt Disney fan knows what happens at this point in Walt’s life. You enter a room with much plainness to it. A very old-style radio from the late 1960’s and small television are on one side, with a eulogy written on the opposite side. You hear the actual announcement of Walt’s death and immediately you begin to react. You tear up, or at least I did. It’s emotional. It’s powerful. It’s real. 1901-1966 Walter Elias Disney died at 9:35am at St. Joseph’s Hospital directly across from his studio in Burbank. He was 65 yrs old. Although this is the room that you knew was coming, you are not prepared for what happens next. Because you think you are emotional now – walk into the last and final room and you are overwhelmed with what happened after Walt died.
The last and final room is completely WHITE…except that in a few short moments it will begin to change into color and scenes and clips of Walt’s most amazing journey. You will read quotes from so many celebrities and companions and colleagues of Walt. You hear from his family and friends. You see glimpses of the future and hope. You hear that EPCOT was revised. You hear that special quote, “It was all started by a mouse.” I say it was all started by a man and is dream.
I hesitated before exiting the last room and going through the final double-doors, but I couldn’t stay in that last scene any longer. I looked over at my wife and she was even more emotional than I was. It was very nicely done. Tastfully, creatively, and totally immersive of Walt’s life. I feel like I know Walt even more than before.
After you do exit the last room – of course you will find a gift shop. But this isn’t a theme park gift shop. In fact, you find some interesting and unique gift items. I bought a collection of paintbrush pens and Snow White pencils with a diamond at the end of them to remind me to remain creative and spontaneous. I also bought a few pins – there were some other discounted items on the shelves, too…so you can find books, notes, pins, collectibles, kid items, baby items, and so many more things from coffee mugs to ornaments to videos.
Definitely take time to visit and spend a good part of your day. You can learn so much and play along as you do. I recommend this for anyone who loves passion and the story of Walt Disney.