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Disney Museum In A Word: Dazzling

by Leonard Maltin
December 10, 2009 9:54 AM
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A cut-out of Walt Disney and his family on their backyard train greeted guests on opening night.


When Walt Disney’s surviving daughter, Diane Disney Miller, set out to create a museum in her father’s honor, no one (including Diane) knew how it should look or what it might include. I sat in on an early meeting with a prospective museum designer, and while I agreed with others who attended that confab that the plans were disappointing, none of us could easily articulate how we would make it work.

On September 29 my wife and I attended the Gala Opening of the Walt Disney Family Museum, at the Presidio in San Francisco, and our response was considerably different this time around. It’s a knockout!

In fact, words cannot adequately describe what Diane, her son Walter Miller, and a talented team of designers, contractors, advisors and experts have pulled off. Even the official Museum photos don’t capture the ingenious use of space or the kinetic nature of the exhibits. Perhaps the best way I can sum up my feelings is to say: this Museum is so appealing and innovative, it might have been devised by Walt Disney himself.


A wall of rare, vintage Mickey Mouse toys is just one of the alluring displays at the museum

How does one go about tracing this man’s remarkable life and career in the context of an engaging and interactive museum exhibit? With cutting-edge multimedia displays, an effortless flow from one gallery to the next, attention to detail, and a staggering array of Disney artwork, artifacts, souvenirs, merchandise, and unique personal memorabilia culled from family albums and archives: snapshots, home movies, letters, and possessions, from a Seven Dwarfs necklace made for Walt’s wife Lillian by Cartier & Co. to Walt’s own Kodak Instamatic camera.


I think it’s fair to say that guests who attended the official opening gala came away impressed—or, to put it more honestly, flabbergasted!


One might fairly expect a display of Walt’s earliest work in silent films, but to find a display of 1920s-era picture frames spread across a wall that come to life and feature animation of Alice from the Alice comedies—scampering from one frame to another—is something else again.



How do you convey the idea of all the work that went into creating Steamboat Willie? With a wall covered top to bottom with hundreds of sequential animation drawings...but some of them are actually video screens in which the drawings come to life.


An explanation of how sound and music were synchronized to create Disney’s landmark cartoon Steamboat Willie would be a must...but no one could expect an interactive display that enables you to try your hand at replicating sound effects on virtual woodblocks, cymbals, and ratchets in time with the film.


That’s what makes this museum so special:
it exceeds your every expectation and presents the kind of sensory experience that one normally associates with (dare I say it) Disneyland.


For many people, the piece de resistance is an enormous model diorama of Walt’s “dream vision” of Disneyland in Anaheim—that is, if all of his original ideas had been realized, nothing replaced or torn down, and if there were no backstage area to take up space. It’s a realization, in miniature. of a place that was already a dream come true when Walt opened its doors in 1955. (My friend, Imagineer and lifelong Disneyland buff Tony Baxter, consulted on this project and showed me some of his favorite details. One could stare at this display for a long, long time and still not take it all in.)

Here is the intricate model of Walt’s “dream vision” of Disneyland; it’s enormous!



I wasn't allowed to shoot inside the museum galleries, but their authentic multiplane camera takes up two stories and extends into the gift shop-so here's the bottom part of this famous device, with a painted animation background ready to be photographed.

Mouths were agape everywhere I turned. Famous Disneyana collectors like Bernie Shine and Tom Tumbusch were shaking their heads in wonderment. Mouseketeers Bobby Burgess and Sharon Baird pointed with glee—and pride—as the opening of the Mickey Mouse Club came up on one of several dozen TV screens in a huge television display area. (These aren’t just TV monitors—they’re actually replicas of vintage TV sets.) Filmmaker Terry Zwigoff couldn’t get over some of the rare and beautiful Oswald the Lucky Rabbit posters. I spotted Roy Patrick Disney and told him how happy I was to see so much of his grandfather—Walt’s brother and business partner—in the various displays; he told me he was equally pleased. (Diane later told me that one of the main things she wanted to convey was the closeness of Walt and Roy’s family ties.)


As of October 1 the museum is open to the public. There will be screenings (at a compact theater on the ground floor—a floor decorated with Mary Blair-inspired tiles) and educational activities. You can learn more at the museum’s website, which is still a work in progress; but you can now sign up for membership at the museum's website. My wife Alice has joked with Diane for several years about the importance of a really good gift shop (which is Alice’s favorite destination at any museum) and we can report that the Walt Disney Family Museum has a very nice one indeed, although the best is yet to come: unique merchandise and publications are in the works and aren’t ready just yet.

The stately exterior of the Walt Disney Family Museum on the Presidio in San Francisco doesn't provide even a hint of the wonders awaiting visitors inside.


Anyone who cares about Walt Disney should make a pilgrimage to this museum, and I hope San Franciscans will support it—all the more because it is part of the continuing renovation and revitalization of the historic Presidio. (The Museum building was once an Army barrack!)

To see my snapshots from the opening night gala, click HERE.


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