Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Walt Disney Family Museum: The Smithsonian of Walt

The Walt Disney Family MuseumBy the end of my visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum, I was running out of superlatives to describe it.

"Amazing," "eye-popping," "whimsical," "profound," "fun" and "moving" all work, but none come close to capturing the experience. You have to be there to truly appreciate it, whether you're a casual Disney fan, an armchair historian, or a scholar of entertainment arts.

The museum opens to the public on October 1st, but this past weekend, members of the museum, D23 and the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society were treated to a special sneak preview of the facility, housed in a renovated former military barracks in San Francisco's historic Presidio.

Baby WaltThe museum is full of memorabilia and artifacts from Walt Disney's personal and professional life and is cleverly integrated with high-tech interactive displays. There are many video monitors and listening stations to completely immerse you in the story of Walt's life and to present him as the living, breathing PERSON he was and not just the corporate symbol he became, especially in the 40+ years since his death. It's as much a testament to his daughter, Diane Disney Miller, and the Walt Disney Family Foundation that Walt is given back his humanity while still surrounded by all the iconic films, characters and attractions so closely associated with him.

The museum gets just about everything right as it takes you chronologically through Walt's life, starting with his Midwestern childhood and early fascination with drawing. We meet his entire family through photos and rare film footage shot by Walt himself when he was a young, aspiring filmmaker in Kansas City (a clip of his parents, Elias and Flora, playfully jostling with each other is a real treat). And after Walt rides the rails west (his love of trains is a recurring theme throughout the museum) on the journey that will make him "Walt Disney," his family never fades into the background. In each of the ten galleries, no matter what significant cultural or business event is being depicted in Walt's life, you'll find plenty of family treasures, whether through pictures, film or audio clips. It's the "family" part of the experience that gives the museum its name and makes Walt as accessible as he's ever been to the public.

Letter from Walt to the Davis familyNot that you'll ever fully separate the man from the company he founded. And, let's face it, as a fellow Disneyphile, you've come to gawk at all the toys, tools and trinkets that made the man and made his studio. The museum definitely does not disappoint in that area. You'll see the original, hand-written note from Walt to Virginia Davis's mother, inviting young Virginia to Kansas City to become Walt's first silent-screen Alice. You'll also see the earliest known drawings of Mickey Mouse--most likely from the hand of Ub Iwerks, but probably with an assist from Walt. There's concept art, pencil sketches and cels representing virtually every feature-length animated film released during Walt's lifetime. My personal favorites are Ward Kimball's drawings for the never-used soup-eating scene in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (he almost quit the studio over the scene being cut), and Bill Tytla's dramatic sketch of "Fantasia's" evil lord Chernabog, complete with production notes. Likewise fun is a multitude of concept artwork by Mary Blair for such films as "Peter Pan," "Alice in Wonderland," "Saludos Amigos" and "The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad." Of course, just when you think that Walt's artists are getting a bit too much of the credit (not that they don't deserve their share), you come face-to-face with a copy of the studio's poster-size organizational chart with Walt's name clearly displayed at the top. There was no argument about who ultimately made all the decisions at the studio.

For all his successes, Walt Disney hit more than his share of bumps in the road, and the museum doesn't shy away from them. On the heels of such artistic triumphs as "Snow White," "Pinocchio," and "Fantasia" (don't miss the multiplane camera on display--it takes up two floors!), the museum takes a somber look at the 1941 animators strike that divided and almost destroyed Walt's company. In a presentation that never takes sides, you see and hear from both the striking animators and those who aligned with Walt, as well as those who got caught in the middle trying to be loyal to both sides. Regardless of who you think was right or wrong, you come away realizing that the strike forever changed Walt and the studio--and not necessarily for the better.

Likewise objective is the treatment of Walt's 1947 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Still stinging from the strike six years earlier, Walt was subpoenaed to Washington, D.C. as a "friendly" witness in Congress's investigation of Communist infiltration in Hollywood. The museum lets you listen to Walt's unedited testimony--he only implicated strike leaders and groups he though had "smeared" him--and draw your own conclusions.

San Francisco BayOne of the most spectacular sights at the museum isn't even in the museum. Turning the corner from a darkened Gallery 7, full of memories and memorabilia from the the post-WWII years ("Cinderella," "Peter Pan," "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"), you emerge into the bright light of Gallery 8 - Walt and the Natural World. On your right are video monitors, cleverly hidden inside a variegated white wall resembling a cliff face. On your left is nothing but glass, giving you a breathtaking view of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. The video monitors tell about Disney's "True-Life Adventures" and "People and Places" documentaries. You're excused if you forget to look at them.

The one gallery you won't forget is Gallery 9, the largest and most elaborate room in the museum. On display here are the trappings of an entertainment icon who, after decades of making a name for himself as a producer of (mostly) animated films, is still looking for worlds to conquer. For all the accomplishments and life experiences we've witnessed in the previous galleries, this room may be the one that epitomizes the artistic genius at the height of his creativity.

DisneylandFollowing a walkway that gradually winds and slopes from the upper level to the ground floor, you first pass Walt's beloved Lilly Belle, the 1/8 scale train he built and operated in the backyard of his Holmby Hills home in the 1950s. You learn about the development and construction of Disneyland and see the Circarama (also known as Circle-Vision 360) camera with nine individual cameras arranged in a circle. I was surprised to see the camera that shot "America the Beautiful" for Tomorrowland looked much smaller than I expected. There is the original torso frame for the first Audio-Animatronic Mr. Lincoln at the New York World's Fair, monitors showcasing the many Disney television shows of the 1950s and '60s, and even Walt's personal Autopia car. The display that is the most jaw-dropping, mouth-gaping experience, however, is the "Disneyland of Walt's Imagination," a scale model of the park not just with all the rides and attractions open at the end of Walt's life, but also with those that were under construction or in development at the same time. So not only will you see a mini Main Street, Mine Train and Monorail, you'll also see Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion and Tomorrowland 1967, which were completed after Walt's death. There's a wispier, more ethereal Space Mountain too, consistent with its '60s-era concept art. Walt's Disneyland is a miniature Magic Kingdom on steroids, an Olszewski model gone slightly mad with plenty of whimsical touches. And yes, Tinker Bell is there, making magic above the castle. You could study the display for hours and still pick out new details. It's simply amazing.

Your tour of the museum concludes with a final, fitting tribute to Walt in the form of the world's reaction to his death in 1966. Editorial cartoons mourning his passing adorn the walls while a period television plays the network news stories that honored his memory. Move to the next room of this gallery and you'll see, one last time, a splashy medley of old photos, films and quotes about him. It's a touching coda for the life of a man who may have been "Uncle Walt" to millions, but was foremost a son, brother, husband and father.

And isn't that what a family museum should be about?

Walt reads to his daughters
For more information on the Walt Disney Family Museum, visit If you're planning to visit, make sure you order your time-stamped tickets in advance through the website. You should allow at least 4-5 hours for your visit. Museum memberships are also available.

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