Monday, March 17, 2014

Walt Disney Family Museum

The Museum, located in San Francisco's Presidio

Despite my love for all things Disney, I still hadn’t visited the Walt Disney Family Museum, though highly recommended by friends as well as other Disney fans. So I finally went this past weekend, while in San Francisco on other business.

Now I’m not one for what I call “the cult of Walt Disney,” but my friends were right: I had a wonderful time reading about his early life and listening to oral histories about the ups—and, interestingly—the many downs of his career. Arranged chronologically, the exhibits feature sketches, storyboards, film clips, sound recording technology, and fascinating historical context, along with “Family Story” transcripts of interviews with Walt’s daughter Diane and brother Roy. Everything is here: Walt’s early childhood drawings, his first Hollywood studio, Oswald the rabbit (who pre-dates Mickey), Steamboat Willie (Mickey’s first major cartoon), the Silly Symphonies, Disney's first full-length motion picture Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the brilliant but unpopular Fantasia, the little-known “good will” trip to South America in 1941, Smoke Tree Ranch, the real-life nature documentaries we watched when we were kids, the Mickey Mouse Club and The Wonderful World of Color, the 1964 World’s Fair (where Walt premiered audio-animatronics), and the beginnings of EPCOT. 

Sprinkled throughout were touching Disney family home movies, showing how much Walt loved his wife Lillian and two daughters. But the real highlight for me happened about three hours into my visit: 1955 and the opening of Disneyland. There, in a dark room, surrounded by copies of the original ride posters, is an enormous—and quite glorious—diorama of the park in all its various incarnations (see below). I would fly to San Francisco just to see it again and marvel at all the miniature representations of my favorite attractions.

Sadly, [spoiler alert!] Walt dies by the end of the exhibits, leaving behind a room filled with tributes and tearful depictions of a grieving Mickey. After spending almost five hours following the great man’s story, I didn’t have the heart to stop and read the eulogies, so instead ran for the exit before I started sobbing. Walt’s legacy obviously still lives on, but what a shame that he died so young (only 65 years old).

Here’s just a fraction of the fascinating artifacts I saw (click on images to enlarge):

 When Walt was a teenager, he drew
cartoons for his hometown newspaper in Kansas

Early self-promotion

Quote about his first real job

Early Mickey merchandise:
watches and clocks

And tricycles: Mickey's feet are the pedals
(I want one!)

Paints used to make color cartoons

Snow White, the first feature-length
cartoon—a major risk, but Walt
prevailed, permanently launching Disney
studios into animation history

Disneyland grand opening

 The fabulous Disneyland diorama

Matterhorn/submarines/Monsanto house of the Future

Tomorrowland detail

In addition to the museum, I also visited the annex, which was showing an exhibit on Mary Blair, the artist who famously designed the characters for and bright palette of the “It’s a Small World” attraction. Mary and her husband accompanied Walt on the 1941 South American tour, where she developed her flair for color. She also designed the concept art for Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Song of the South, and Cinderella movies.

Post-South America

The view from the museum: Golden Gate Bridge

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