The Walt Disney Family Museum: San Francisco, California -
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The Walt Disney Family Museum: San Francisco, California

by Bernie Edwards, PassPorter Guest Contributor
Last modified 08-10-2011 > Articles > U.S. Travel > General Travel  

The Presidio of San Francisco is a popular tourist spot in San Francisco.

Located at the northern tip of the city just before reaching the Golden Gate Bridge, it offers spectacular views of the bridge and the bay. The word “presidio”refers to the fortified military base originally established by the Spanish in North America and eventually used by the U.S. Army. Today the Presidio of San Francisco is a park within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is a great place to visit. Of course, as most Disney fans know, the Presidio is also home to the Walt Disney Family Museum!

The Walt Disney Family Museum features the professional and personal life of Walt Disney, including his lasting legacy. The museum is located within three existing, but heavily renovated, historic buildings on the Presidio’s Main Post. It is not formally associated with the Walt Disney Company, but instead is owned and operated by the Walt Disney Family Foundation, a non-profit organization established by the Disney family. The stated mission of the museum is to present, “...the life and achievements of the man who raised animation to an art, transformed the film industry, tirelessly pursued innovation, and created a global and distinctively American legacy.” It opened to the public on October 1, 2009.

On the surface, the museum appears to be small and perhaps something that would only occupy an hour or two of your time. That’s only partially true! The museum is relatively small, but one could easily spend hours and even days there absorbed in the many exhibits, especially the more interactive ones. Unfortunately, photography and video recording is not allowed in the museum; you can only take pictures in the “pre-show” area outside the formal galleries (otherwise, I'd have more photos to show you). The museum is basically laid out in chronological order, starting before Walt Disney was even born, with the permanent collection arranged into 10 distinct galleries. Besides just looking at various artifacts, there are also listening stations and more than 200 video screens. The first level of the museum covers his childhood and early adulthood and the beginnings of his animation career, including Laugh-O-Grams Films, and his time as an ambulance driver at the end of World War I. The second floor of the building covers his move to Hollywood, success with Mickey Mouse, early cartoon shorts, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and other early feature films, the building of the studios in Burbank, World War II and the early post-war films, and nature documentary films. The third level, which is really back on the 1st floor of the museum, covers the 1950s and 1960s, especially television, Disneyland, the 1964 World Fair, Mary Poppins, and the beginning of what was to become Walt Disney World.

Any Disney Parks fan will find the scale model of Disneyland absolutely incredible. It is not a model depicting Disneyland Park as it is, or was during some time in the past. Instead, it is a model developed together with Walt Disney Imagineering depicting the ideas Walt Disney had in his head for the park before his untimely death. The model is referred to as the “Disneyland of Walt’s Imagination.” For example, the Space Mountain model (my favorite attraction at Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and Disneyland Paris) is not a model of any Space Mountain actually built; instead it’s a model showing Walt Disney’s original idea for the attraction. The entire model is stunning and one can easily spend over 30 minutes looking at all of the details! I so desperately wanted to take a picture of it!

Walt Disney Family Museum photo
Walt Disney Family Museum

- photo by Belle*

Another artifact that took me by surprise was Walt Disney’s original 1/8 scale Lilly Belle. The Lilly Belle was a miniature steam-powered train that he operated in his backyard. It was built by Walt and future Imagineer Roger Broggie for what Walt Disney called the Carolwood Pacific Railroad. He named the steam engine in honor of his wife Lilly. Walt Disney used the train to entertain guests and neighbors, and the train could carry adults as well as children. The backyard railroad is believed to be part of the inspiration for the creation of Disneyland, so it was great to see the train in the museum. The Lilly Belle can be found just before the model of Disneyland.

I also enjoyed examining the multiplane camera in the museum. The multiplane camera is a special camera used in the traditional animation process that moves different pieces of artwork past the camera at various speeds and distances to produce the illusion of three dimensions. The first multiplane camera, allowing four layers of artwork, was invented by Walt Disney Studios animator Ub Iwerks. The most famous multiplane camera, allowing seven layers of artwork, was built for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and was first tested in the production of a Silly Symphony short called The Old Mill, which won an Academy Award in 1937. The multiplane camera at the museum is one of the last three surviving Disney multiplane cameras; it’s enormous and it was great to see it in its fully glory.

The most moving gallery, in my opinion, is in the last room before exiting the permanent exhibits. There, guests can read about, and listen to, actual newscasts about Walt Disney’s death and the worldwide response to the news. I have been lucky to have had the chance to visit the museum three times since its opening, and I’ve never been able to get out of that room without a few tears. From being in that room, I get the sense of what it must have been like on December 15, 1966 for true Disney fans.

There is also a gift shop, and a small café operated by Wolfgang Puck Catering, inside the museum building. In the basement, there is also a 114-seat theater for screenings and special events. In fact, there are a lot of special events scheduled at the museum, including discussions, classes, and special activities. For example, at the end of July there is a discussion titled, “Walt’s Fascination with Outer Space,” where Disney historian and author Jim Korkis will discuss Walt Disney’s scientific and cultural contributions to building support for the U.S. Space Program. As a NASA engineer and a Disney fan, I really wish I could be there for that! Be sure to examine the calendar of events on the museum’s website while planning your visit.

The Walt Disney Family Museum is an incredible museum. It will be interesting to anybody touched by Walt Disney or his legacy, and an absolute “must do” for any Disney fan. The museum covers Walt Disney’s incredible successes, disappointments, and never-ending optimism. However, I don’t think it is a great museum for very young guests. Unfortunately, many young guests will want to quickly bypass many exhibits and artifacts that would hold their parents spellbound. A Disney fan could easily spend an entire day, not including any special events. In fact, I think a Disney fan would want to make a special trip to San Francisco and reserve a whole day just to see this museum. However, if making a special trip is out of the question and you just happen to find yourself in the San Francisco area, then go even if only for just a few hours! You won’t regret it!

Walt Disney Family Museum photo
Walt Disney Family Museum

- photo by Belle*

About the Author:
Bernie Edwards lives in Maryland with his wife and two children. He is an engineer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and a member of the Walt Disney World Moms Panel. He enjoys visiting both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, and sailing on the Disney Cruise Line.

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Reader Comments:

I can't wait to get to San Fran to see the museum. It sounds wonderful! The Lilly Belle is an incredible steam powered train that Walt ran in his backyard around 1951-1953. Roger Broggie, a Disney employee and first "Imagineer" actually built a second Lilly Belle, which is on display in the Disneyland train station. Walt used the barn in his backyard to control the train's switches and gave people like Frank Sinatra, his neighbor, rides on Sundays. The barn was moved when the house was sold to Griffith Park in L.A. and can be visited on the third Sunday of each month.
Michael Broggie, Roger's son, is the President of the Carolwood Historical Society and works with the Disney family to preserve the memory of Walt and his love for trains.

The barn is loaded with Walt's train stuff and is admission is free!

     Tcaron on August 11, 2011 @ 11:50 am
I was in San Fran the Oct. the museum opened. We were unable to go because you had to schedule a time of entry. They were trying to keep from getting over run by visitors. If we get back to visit we most definitely will go.

     carrie3211 on August 11, 2011 @ 7:07 pm
This sounds like a wonderful museum! I'm not sure when I'll be in San Francisco again, but it's on my must do list.

     Tere WDW on August 11, 2011 @ 9:54 pm
We visited this summer and spent 4+ hours there. Don't breeze through the lobby. It is full of awards and trophies given to Walt (including most of his Oscars). We got there early and there was no wait to enter the museum.

Right before the room with the Carolwood train and the huge model of Disneyland is a paint-battered bench. This is the bench that Walt sat on and dreamed up Disneyland at Griffith Park. My daughter and I were so excited that they let you sit on it.

A really great museum and well worth the visit.

     gawain07 on August 12, 2011 @ 12:30 am
Our family just happened to visit yesterday! I personally love all things Disney and all things Walt Disney, so this was a perfect place for me! Very well presented history of Walt Disney, and if there was one thing you could take away from this place was that never give up to see your dreams comes true, and always be a kids at heart. It was killing me not to take any photos, but then again if everyone who was there was doing that we never take the time to read all the fascinating history and be able to take in all the wonderful displays!

Thankfully we live only about an hour away, so I am looking forward to visiting again if I can! It is a place I would definitely recommend to anyone who is a Disney Fan, thanks for a great article Mr. Edwards.

     SandiF on August 13, 2011 @ 3:53 pm
Last month I was in San Fran and did not know about this musuem (embarassing!). I saw an ad when we were walking around the city and since we had nothing planned on our last day there, we took a bus over to the Presidio. All I can say is WOW! I cannot speak enough about this place. I had NO idea what to expect. We entered the lobby and the display cases were amazing. It was so cool to see the Oscars in person that Walt received. The day I went there was a gentleman playing piano in the lobby area. He was a past employee at Disneyland and a performer. He sang and told the most amazing stories about Walt. I could have sat there and listened all day! After spending some time in the lobby, we entered. I knew it was going to be something special when the first room went all the way bacak to Ireland and Walt's great grandparents! The paraphenlia in this museum was amazing. Since it's sponsored by the Disney family, there are REAL artifacts from Walt's life. Being an avid Disney fan myself (and former cast member at WDW), I had a pretty good knowledge base of his life...but there was SO much I didn't know! We spent over 3 hours walking around the whole place. We could have easily spent more. There are display cases, video, interactive displays, etc. Probably one of the things I loved the most was watching other people's reactions to it. Children there were excited to see Mickey and other characters. But the magic of Disney didn't fail...upon all the adults faces were smiles and looks of reverie. Experiencing this museum did something I didn't think was made me love Walt Disney even more. I had forgotten exactly HOW much he did for the entertainment industry. There are so many little things and ideas that get forgotten about. And then again there are the large things and inventions. Someone mentioned the bench...when I saw it, I froze. I knew exactly what it was. I was in I was looking at a magical object that really held the root of the Disney World empire. I wanted to take my picture sitting on it but they don't allow pictures.
As the author of this article mentions, the end is the worst. As you're walking through his life and passing through the 1950's and into the 60's, you know what's coming. And speaking for myself, I wanted so desperately to stop NOT have to come to the year of his death. I wasn't even alive yet when he died so it was all new to me. The reactions of the world...the letters to his family...the entries from his daughters about their father's death was just guy wrenching. Everyone who walked through that room didn't speak or spoke in whispers. It was it felt wrong to speak out loud. I know I was choked up walking through there..thinking it wasn't fair that he was taken at a relatively young age.
I cannot recommend this museum enough. If you've wanted to go to San Fran and just never got around to it, I would highly recommend booking the trip and make this place a must see on your travels!!!

     Jazzygirl72 on August 18, 2011 @ 8:14 pm
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Updated 08-10-2011 - Article #712 

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