Entering into San Francisco’s Presido was as magical as entering the threshold of a fairytale. Lustrous swathes of sunshine, full of swirling particulates, mingled with the leaves. Birds twittered as they floated through the air. A mixture of eucalyptus trees, redwoods, and other foliage lined the edge of a bright green golf course. In the distance sailboats dotted the waves of the San Francisco Bay. Nestled amidst the trees and the sea, inside a red house as quaint as Snow White’s cottage, was the Walt Disney Family Museum.
The Walt Disney Family Museum offers an excellent blend of escapism and education, a perfect place for anyone to learn and dream with the eyes of a child. Amidst a grand total of ten permanent rooms, and a rotating special exhibit, The Walt Disney Family Museum traces the life of Walt through clever layouts and multimedia presentations. Just be sure to pace yourself because there is a lot to see.
The sheer amount of information held inside the Walt Disney Family Museum speaks to Walt’s creative genius. Placards explain Walt’s early life, the creation of Disney and his later projects with an impressive level of detail. Audio from interviews with Walt Disney, his peers and coworkers are available in every room, along with a collection of artifacts that range immensely. A room focused on Steamboat Willy, for example, contains sequential frames from the cartoon, effectively showing the laborious process of animation. Other artifacts include original drawings made by Walt in his youth, original Mickey Mouse merchandise, watercolors and sketches from Walt’s movies, Walt’s Academy Awards (including the Academy Award for Snow White with a full-sized Oscar and seven miniature statuettes), and an incredible 14-foot diameter model of the Disneyland of Walt’s imagination. Walt was certainly an productive man.
My only objection to the contents of the museum was its length. As I walked through the exhibit I questioned how well a child would fare in the Walt Disney Family Museum. Though there is a visible effort to appeal to children, by adding games and other touches that are age appropriate for a youngster, its sheer length and density might pale in comparison to, say, a snack.
The museum starts with a mixture of video, letters, and drawings, which display the beginning of Walt’s talent. These objects provide a clear picture of Walt as a boy and young artist, riding paper routes with his brother Roy, creating cartoons for his school and local newspapers and eventually journeying to France with the Red Cross at the age of seventeen (where he continued to amuse people with his cartoons and caricatures).
A thoughtful elevator ride splits the exhibit between Walt’s early years and his life in Hollywood. As Walt journeyed from Kansas to Los Angeles in 1923, so the viewer literally journeys from the first floor of the museum to the second floor, where a large Hollywood sign beckons her into the second part of the exhibit.
This portion is much larger than the first and encompasses information about Walt’s most renowned achievements. Included are the creation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and other Disney feature films, Fantasia, Steamboat Willy, the Silly Symphonies series, and Disneyland. You would think that this would be enough for a whole museum, but no. The Walt Disney Family Museum also details Walt's work in television, his True-Life Adventure series and his involvement in the Olympics and the New York World’s Fair.
In the second section of the exhibit one can see the growth of America reflected through Walt’s art. Walt’s life and work encompassed a tenuous time in American history and ran parallel to incredible achievements in the entertainment industry. Advertisements and video from WWII display the ways in which entertainment was affected by the war. Disney employed Mickey Mouse characters such as “Private Pluto” for war propaganda, a use I'm sure he never originally intended. Information throughout the museum, and especially in the special exhibit Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: The Creation of a Classic, captures the ways in which Walt’s ingenuity elevated the genre of animation, helped secured animation’s place in the film industry, and started a legacy that influences current generations.
The Snow White and The Seven Dwarves: The Creation of a Classic exhibit also highlights the intensive process that Walt and his animators followed to create Snow White and subsequent films. Snow White was groundbreaking because it was the first full-length cel animated feature film ever created. The exhibit follows the progression of Snow White, highlighting the seven steps of the animation process, which Walt and his team undertook to create it. Artifacts include more than 200 works of art: conceptual drawings, character studies, watercolors and colorful cels. In addition to these artifacts are animation “outtakes,” scenes that never made it to the finished movie, such as a fantasy of Snow White dancing in the stars. The outtakes, some of which remain unfinished, seemed especially poignant to me. As each second of the film was carefully planned out and arduously drawn, the presence of outtakes higlights Walt's dedication to the integrity of the film. Though it must have felt like a painful loss of resources and energy to animate scenes and then discard them, he and his team did so to preserve the quality of the characters and the story. In the end it paid off, Snow White was a smashing success and paved the future for animated films and Walt's legacy.
The last last room of the permanent exhibit highlights Walt's legacy. It is a tribute to Walt, a collection of changing screens with quotes and pictures from his life. This room ties all of the different aspects of the exhibit together. Looking at the walls one realizes just how multifaceted Walt was. Amongst the pictures are shots that highlight Walt the artist and pioneer, creating new technology in animation and sound, and stretching the possibilities of animation through ventures such as Fantasia and Snow White. Family photos show a cursory glance at Walt the father and devoted husband. Pictures of the Disney Studio reveal Walt the businessman, who started Disney from nothing, succeeded through crooked business deals, war, workers strikes and debt to build a studio that allowed its employees an unprecedented amount of freedom and creative license. In all of the pictures one sees a man who maintained a belief in the goodness of stories to alleviate suffering, laughter to alleviate pain, and cartoons to sooth the souls of both adults and children.
Yet, somehow, as I walked out of the exhibit I still held onto the question: who was Walt Disney? Who was this man outside of his achievements? What did he dream of? What did he fear? What drove his ambition? There is a complexity to him, a part of Walt that must have been deeply private. Or perhaps he was simply always larger than life.
The Walt Disney Family Museum is open from Wednesday-Monday: 10am-6pm and closed every Tuesday.
Snow White and The Seven Dwarves: The Creation of a Classic, which runs through April 14th 2013, celebrates the 75th anniversary of Walt Disney’s first feature-length animated film.
The Walt Disney Family Museum,
104 Montgomery Street
The Presidio, San Francisco, CA 94129
Photos courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Museum