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A First-Hand Look at the Walt Disney Family Museum

Editor’s Note: Since Lou hosted the WDW Radio event at the Walt Disney Family Museum this weekend, we thought it would be fitting to re-post this trip report of the family museum by Anthony Sbarra, guest blogger and member of the WDW Radio family.  Anthony visited the museum in the summer of 2012 and shared his experience with us in this informative post.  Enjoy!


by Anthony Sbarra

When I think of the most famous things to see and do in San Francisco, these are some of the things that come to mind:

  • Alcatraz
  • Golden Gate Bridge
  • Fisherman’s Wharf
  • AT&T Park (I’m a huge baseball fan)
  • Lombard Street (the zig-zag street)

The list can go on and on. There’s so much to see and do in this 47 square mile city that the Walt Disney Family Museum wouldn’t be anywhere near this list. However, there’s no question that the Walt Disney Family Museum is one of the hidden gems of San Francisco.

Opened in October of 2009, the Walt Disney Family Museum is located in the Presidio of San Francisco, a converted military fort into park, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  The museum occupies three retrofitted buildings in the Presidio. It is not owned or operated by the Walt Disney Co., but rather by the Walt Disney Family Foundation.

The museum chronicles Walt Disney’s life, but mostly his career as an animator, producer and director; his contributions to what made the name Disney…Disney. Walt’s career is shown in detail, and showcases almost anything imaginable pertaining towards him.

While on an 11-day family vacation to California, we flew into and spent the first few days in San Francisco. On our last full day there, with an open slot of time in the morning before we headed to AT&T Park to see the Giants play the Dodgers that night, we decided to visit the museum.

Saying that the museum was worth the time that day would be a huge understatement.

This is my experience and reflection of the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Upon walking into the museum (which, honestly, just looks like walking into a large house), the counter to buy tickets is just on the right. (You can also buy tickets ahead of time online, like we did). The ticket counter is in the lobby, which showcases the many awards (Academy Awards and other alike) that Walt Disney received during his lifetime, including the special Oscar he received for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as furniture from Walt’s apartment above the Disneyland fire station. You do not need a ticket to look around in the lobby, or go into the gift shop or café. After looking at all this memorabilia, it’s time to get your ticket scanned and head into the museum.

Forewarning:  photography is not allowed inside the museum.

Once your ticket is scanned, you’re in the museum’s first two rooms. These rooms give a brief overview of Walt’s career and some information about his early life. While the museum does focus on Walt’s actual life, for the most part the museum focuses on Walt’s career as well as just about everything that he created.

After exploring these first two rooms, it’s time to get on an extremely elegant elevator, with voiceover from Walt himself playing, up to the second floor, where most of the museum sits.

Once upstairs, the museum spans Walt’s life and career in the animation industry. From here, multiple rooms go on to tell the story of Walt Disney’s career. What the museum does is not only tell a story, but also tells the story in full detail, in chronological order from the beginning of his career until his death.

While walking the rooms of Walt’s career, the successes of his early animation through Snow White and other Disney-animated features are seen, as well as the praise Walt received for using new technologies in filming techniques. Essentially, you can see just about everything that Walt created throughout his career that made him so successful.

But you also see some of the downside and struggles of the story of Walt’s career, which completes the story in a way it wouldn’t without this detail. Here, what can be seen is the failure that was Laugh-O-Gram Studios, the departure of Ub Iwerks from Disney’s studio, and, in detail, the story of the Disney Animator’s Strike of 1941.

All of the facets to this story are seen using interactive technology where you can listen to conversations and watch videos, and to also look at actual letters written by Walt to various people, see other artifacts from the Disney studios and many of the things that Walt collected and owned throughout his life.

Along the way in the museum there is a glass opening, offering stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Other than the lobby, this is the only point inside the museum where photography is allowed.

After passing this viewing area of the Golden Gate Bridge, you move on to the final parts of the museum, chronicling the later parts of Walt’s life, the 1950s and 1960s. And in these final rooms mostly comes (wait for it)…the Disney parks memorabilia.

Here, you see the progression of Walt’s idea to build a theme park, along with the many projects he worked on late in his life. And thus you see the background to many of the famous attractions in Disneyland (as well as Disney World, eventually). This room is definitely the most vibrant, extravagant, and flashy room in the entire museum. Much of this is seen while going down a circular ramp to get back to the main floor.

At the bottom of the ramp is the main exhibit of the room, a 13-foot diameter scale of Disneyland Park. While we were looking at this, a tour was being lead with about a dozen 8-year-olds. The tour leader said that the scale model is the “Perfect Disneyland.” It does not represent what Disneyland Park looked like at any given time. Rather, it contains attractions and scenery both past and present. I spent a good 10 minutes looking at this model, as a mere six days later I would get to experience Disneyland for the first time.

Once you pass this, that is, if you have the strength to eventually walk away from the glamor of this scale-model, you come across Walt’s early plans for the Florida Project, as well as some of the attractions that would ultimately end up in Disney World, including information on the Carousel of Progress from the 1964 World’s Fair. On a TV screen plays Walt’s EPCOT video from 1966, which definitely catches the attention of just about every person that walks by, for at least a few minutes.

At this point, you’re on this high of energy from seeing so many awesome things in the entire museum, as well as the flashiness of this room. While much of the museum is very subtle in look, this vibrant room really gets you begging for more. It has a very “Oh my God, this is awesome!!! What’s next?!?!” feeling to it. But, as you turn the corner past the EPCOT video, the museum kind of just…comes to an end.

The museum gets very subtle again, and the content and detail is at a lower volume. By this point, it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s next. The EPCOT video was made shortly before Walt Disney passed away. Thus, the second to last room of the museum is dedicated to the day Walt Disney died. There are quotes from family and friends on the passing of Walt Disney, and an old-fashioned television set that plays news coverage from the day of Walt’s death. It is a fairly somber room.

Finally, you come to a white-walled room with a couch in the middle. The televisions in the walls of the room celebrate the life of Walt Disney by playing many of the works he created; a celebration of the Disney industry after Walt, so to say. This room gives you the chance to reflect not necessarily on the content in the museum itself, but to reflect on the impact that Walt Disney had during his lifetime and after he passed.

While Walt once said, “it was all started by a mouse,” brings the story together to really show that it was Walt who started it all.

After taking a few minutes to reflect in this room, you exit through a door that leads to a more open room, where it’s time to go to the souvenir shop!

Due to time restrictions, we spent about two hours in the museum. And I can honestly say, we didn’t see the half of it. To look at every piece in the museum and to read each and every caption would easily be an entire eight-hour day at the museum (as it’s open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Also, the museum is closed on Tuesdays).

All in all (no pun intended, Cars fans) this museum is a museum everyone can appreciate. Not just the Disney-obsessed. It’s a museum everyone can appreciate simply for the history behind Walt and his influence not just towards the animation industry, but also towards society as a whole.

When in San Francisco, the Walt Disney Family Museum is a must-see. Disney-nut or not, it is 100% worth it to spend at least a couple hours in the museum. The material presented in the museum itself is great, and is presented in a way that is second-to-none. The Walt Disney Family Museum is the definitive history and story of one man and his career, and is a museum that everyone can appreciate and enjoy.

And, hey, maybe one day the Walt Disney Family Museum will be added to the list of the most famous things to see in San Francisco.

Anthony Sbarra is a college student whose love for Disney has grown only larger over time. When not immersed in studying or reading for college, one of his favorite hobbies is researching the history, detail and little-known aspects of many of the facets that Disney World has to offer.