The Walt Disney Family Museum

This past weekend I paid my second visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum located in the Presidio in San Francisco. Both times I was drawn by talks given by my college professor John Canemaker. The first time it was for his book “Two Guys Named Joe” and this time a look at the influence of illustrator Heinrich Kley and other european artists on the Disney studio.

The Disney Family Museum is not connected with the Disney company. Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney-Miller owns a winery in Napa Valley, and this is their family’s personal project. If you love animation, and are in San Francisco, it is a must see attraction.

The museum consists of 10 galleries about Walt, a small special exhibits area, a small and beautiful theater, a gift shop and a cafe. The reception and ticket area is actually one of my favorite parts. Showcases contain hundreds of awards and honors bestowed on Walt, including the famous Oscar with the seven little Oscars he received for Snow White.  Just this room alone communicates what an internationally beloved person he was.

The galleries are arranged chronologically through Walt’s life. After the first two galleries about Walt’s family and youth in Missouri, and participation in World War 1, guest go to the second floor riding in and elevator decked out to look like a train. It represents his move to California, and just on getting out of the “train” is one of the most instructive things I have read there. Upon arriving in Hollywood, Walt believed the animation business was already established, and he was too late to break in with his own studio. If you find yourself feeling like a small figure in the world of animation, remember that Walt Disney once felt that way, but with imagination and hard work, he redefined the art.

The museum is more than a biography of Walt, it is a history of animation, and how Walt influenced it. If you have read much about the history of cartoons, this will bring it all to life. If you haven’t, this is an amazing introduction to early art, technology and business of the craft. There is a multi plane camera that is so big the display case runs through both the first and second floors.

But Walt was into far more than animation. Later galleries address live action movies, music, television, merchandise, theme parks, and his contribution to the effort in World War II. They even have a corner display about the strike at the studio, and how it effected Walt. Halfway into the museum, guests are treated to a striking view of the Golden Gate, recently improved by the removal of Doyle Drive.

At the end, there is a wonderful photograph of Walt sitting out on a rock, smiling and waving his hat. He seems to be saying goodbye. That is followed by recordings of the news broadcasts of his death, and the worlds reaction. Editorial cartoons and telegrams cover the wall.

Everyone knows the bits and pieces of his life. But to have it all laid out together in detail, you can’t help but realize what an enormous figure he was in our culture.

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