The Walt Disney Family Museum (Part 3)

By Brad J. Aldridge

Picking up where we left off with Part II of this series: The Walt Disney Family Museum opened on October 1st in San Francisco’s historic Presidio. The $110 million museum explores the life, family, and accomplishments of Walt Disney, the man, in an attempt to restore the “Walt” to “Walt Disney.”

The first two-thirds of the museum explore Disney’s life and accomplishments through a mix of traditional display cases and a smattering of multimedia displays that help explain various periods from different angles and perspectives.

The Walt Disney Family Foundation chose New York’s Rockwell Group to design the interior spaces of the museum. Rockwell, whose projects include Jet Blue’s JFK terminal and the 81st Academy Awards, artfully succeed at using multiple styles of exhibit design to give an encompassing view of Walt’s life—their use of architecture and space mimic what it may have been like to experience Walt’s life as if you were Walt. (Not unlike Disney’s own concept for his Fantasyland rides in Disneyland in 1955, where you become the central character.)

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Presidio
The Golden Gate Bridge, seen from the Walt Disney Family Museum

At the end of Part II of this series, we began the voyage into the 1950s. The transition is perfectly captured in “Walt and the Natural World” (Gallery 8). It’s a hallway that is decorated differently on its two long walls. One side displays monitors and props from the “True Life Adventures” series as well as “People and Places.” The other wall consists of floor to ceiling windows that display a breathtaking view of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

This hallway is calmer than the rest of the gallery—the contrast is noticeable and necessary for what happens around the corner: A huge, two storied open room that covers all of Disney’s activity from roughly 1952 to 1966.

As any Disneyphile can tell you, that period was an explosive time for Walt Disney Productions: live-action films, television, Disneyland, WED, Audio-Animatronics, the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair,EPCOT, Walt Disney World—the list goes on.

This one room is so filled it’s overwhelming—again, Rockwell’s design mimics the feeling of the times. The creative burst from Walt Disney and his team in the 1950s & 1960s is exponential; many separate projects happening at the same time lead to an even greater breakthrough, and on and on. The room feels more like an artists studio, source material and work scattered throughout in a way where you must stand back to see the oeuvre.

Walt's train set at the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco
The Lilly Belle from Walt Disney’s backyard railroad

As the excitement of the room sinks in, Disney’s miniature backyard train, The Lilly Belle, sits on a small track adjacent to a slanted walkway we use to descend into the gallery. Trains arguably start Walt’s transition from animation and film into the creation of Disneyland. Disney built his backyard railroad, The Carolwood Pacific Railway, in and around his Holmby Hills property: an architectural model of the train route hangs from the ceiling on its side, and it’s actually moving.

Quickly, displays on the handrails of the ramp detail Disneyland’s development—this seems to be covered far more lightly than many other historical moments of Disneyana in the museum. As we descend, we’re hypnotized by an amazing sphere that is covered in projected images (eight projectors total) which visualize all the ’50s and ’60s activity together, furthering the cumulative relationship of everything in the last 15 years of Walt’s life.

The treat of this room is a 13-foot scale model of Disneyland. The detail is remarkable.

Model at the Disney Family Museum
Main Street USA in the Disneyland model

The model is an imaginative version of Disneyland as Walt imagined it would eventually evolve. So the park exists in no particular time period: Tomorrowland is a mixture of now and then. Flying Saucers sit next to a massive Walt Disney World style indoor-outdoor Space Mountain.

The care and detail go down the foliage and leaves that lay nearby the miniature Disneyland Railroad—which moves around the model. This unique view of Disneyland was crafted by Kerner Optical along with Walt Disney Imagineering executive Tony Baxter and former Imagineer Geoff Puckett of EffectDesign, Inc. The love, care, and knowledge of these craftsmen glows off this miniature magic kingdom—many ride show buildings are exposed revealing detailed scenes, every light fixture on every lamp on Main Street is illuminated, and there is even a single white horse on the carousel.

Instead of being a simple, static model, there are monitors embedded into the railings surrounding that detail each land, much like the Disneyland TV show. As the land is introduced, the lighting configuration of the model refocuses on the respected land. This multimedia effect perfectly links Disneyland and the growth of television and Walt Disney’s TV persona.

Matterhorn model at the Disney Family Museum
The Matterhorn of the big Disneyland model

Moving farther down the gallery, facing the Disneyland model, is a monument to Disney on television, a wall of 1950s and ’60s era TVs plays a long, continuous loop of footage from Disneyland & The Wonderful World of Color. Walt Disney himself leads us on trips through Disneyland, outer space and color TV. The arrangement of the monitors mixed with the kaleidoscopic editing make for an overview of Disney-TV that illustrates how Walt truly mastered the medium, not only as a storytelling tool, but also as a way to drive interest in his own projects and ideas.

This room clearly presents Disney as a “genius” or “visionary.” Everything here is grand and new. The entire space explains how Walt’s life and work led to this burst of creative output. It’s an astounding room, but the downside is that by cramming so much into one place, it runs the risk of homogenizing the true greatness of this 15-year period. So many things sit right next to one another: Sleeping Beauty next to The Mickey Mouse ClubWalt Disney Family Museum, Mary Poppins next to the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair next to EPCOTnext to the 1960 Winter Olympics, and so on.

But this is where my geek should be quiet. To a devout Disneyana enthusiast, there are portions of the Walt Disney Family Museum that he or she probably feels glance over that really important thing too quickly. But, like any element of teaching, or storytelling, the curators have to make choices that make this space accessible to people who don’t know anything about Walt Disney.

So, this last gallery does a fine job at giving patrons an overview—with the hope that future exhibitions will shed light on details. (A nearby building at the museum will house temporary exhibitions starting in 2012.)

The final nooks of this giant room provide some unique views at some of Walt’s last projects. As you walk past a small display of Mary Poppins you find yourself in front of a large glass wall, behind which stands a monstrous machine with lighted buttons and motors and, what appears to be, film reels atop. Suddenly, Dick Van Dyke appears as a one-foot-tall projection on top of a stack of film canisters. Van Dyke narrates an explanation of this giant machine, the Optical Projector, making this now-extinct piece of movie magic a fun and entertaining part of the gallery.

Dick Van Dyke as a Pepper's Ghost effect at the Disney Family Museum
Dick Van Dyke

EPCOT is displayed in a small monitor with some reduced concept art around it. Footage of Walt Disney and some computer animation sketch out his plans for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Some of the footage comes from the film Walt made for prospective investors in the project a mere six weeks before he died—at one time a rare thing, since released on one of the Walt Disney Treasures DVDs. The EPCOT concept was a big idea to Walt, and—much like other areas in this room—it’s importance is lessened by its small display and crowded placement.

The remainder of the gallery touches on more unfinished projects, including the Mineral King Ski Resort, and rekindles the family side of Walt by displaying more family photographs and memorabilia.

Continuing on, the space becomes much more confined. You enter a small wallpapered room that has a single television set. Emanating from it, radio and TV broadcasters announce Walt Disney’s death on December 15, 1966. Letters, newspapers and fan-mail grace the opposite wall, collectively mourning Walt’s death but celebrating the greatness of his life.

A 1950's television set in the Disney Family Museum
The death of Walt Disney, portrayed through TV and radio

This room punctuates the whole museum: the scale compared to all the other rooms with its stark decoration makes for a solemn place. The room remains quiet even with a dozen people passing through. The creative burst is halted. The seemingly infinite possibilities of Walt Disney’s leadership stop, announced by a tiny color television.

We move forward to a widening room with white, glass walls: Walt’s afterlife. Flat screen TVs, embedded within the walls, play a celebrating stream of images of Walt Disney’s life and work. This wall montage functions as a fine ending, reminding us of all we’ve seen both in the museum and in the world, thanks to Walt Disney. We’re reminded of the humble beginnings of a farm-boy who got hooked by the early days of animation and, with his love of entertaining and telling stories, reinvented entertainment as we know it.

A wall of photographs at the Disney Family Museum in the Presidio
The last room of the exhibit

The Walt Disney Family Museum is a living celebration of a man who many people don’t know much about anymore. It celebrates Walt Disney the artist, the dreamer, the husband, and the father. As visitors, we pass through the galleries as invited guests, much like a visitor to Disneyland. We experience the progress and innovation of Walt Disney as if peering over his shoulder and seeing his life firsthand.

Diane Disney Miller and the Walt Disney Family Foundation have done a remarkable job at letting us into Walt’s life in a way that only someone from Walt’s family could have—with love and devotion. There is nothing camp here—The Walt Disney Company could not have done the exceptional job that the curators, designers, and staff at the Walt Disney Family Museum have.

And, while this may not be the museum for little kids or perfectly represent every detail of Walt Disney’s 65 years, it leaves you with a seed of inspiration. You walk away with a tiny feeling inside, the very thing which epitomized Walt Disney’s life: Nothing is impossible.

Model of Disneyland at the Disney Family Museum
The Disneyland model

(Return to Part 2, Visiting the Walt Disney Family Museum)

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