I was lucky enough to attend the grand opening of the new Disney exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library last week in Simi Valley, California, and I urge every diehard Disney fan to make a pilgrimage there between now and next April. There are more than 500 artifacts on display in the 12,000 square-foot presentation, making it the largest exhibit ever curated by the Walt Disney Archives. (Equally impressive is the fact that the whole project was conceived and executed in six months’ time.)
On its own, the Reagan Library is worth seeing; it’s a magnificent building complex, perched on a hillside, that offers visitors a chance to step inside (a now retired) Air Force One, and trace the life of a self-made man from the Midwest who followed an unpredictable path to Hollywood and then the White House. He was friendly with Walt Disney and, as you probably know, he co-hosted the telecast of Disneyland’s opening day ceremonies in 1955. (After returning to private life, he officiated at the park’s 35th anniversary in 1990.) Walt was also one of his staunchest supporters when he first ran for governor of California. It is not an exaggeration to say that the two men had much in common, which is why the Library approached the Disney Company about mounting this temporary exhibit. The idea won the wholehearted approval of Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger, who kicked off the grand opening last Thursday alongside the former President’s widow, Nancy Reagan.
It was a special treat to wander through the exhibition halls with a handful of Disney Legends, including composer Richard Sherman, voice artists Tony Anselmo (Donald Duck), Bill Farmer (Goofy), Russi Taylor (Minnie Mouse), and Dick Jones (Pinocchio), and celebrated Disneyland designer Bob Gurr.
Having seen the ultimate Disney display, at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco (an absolute must if you’re visiting the Bay Area), I didn’t know what to expect. What I got was an exciting panorama tracing Walt’s life and career from Kansas City to Hollywood and beyond: the megaphone he used when he directed his first Laugh-O-Gram shorts, an original animation drawing from an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon, a typed script for Steamboat Willie, an array of maquettes for Pinocchio from Joe Grant’s famous model shop, some of the miniature pieces Walt fashioned as a hobby before he started thinking about Disneyland, the replica of his office that served as the set for his television show, and much, much more. Props and set pieces include a huge model of Harper Goff’s futuristic submarine from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the actual Model T used in The Absent Minded Professor and Son of Flubber, and Mary Poppins’ original costume. Disneyland is represented by Herb Ryman’s legendary original map, and various artifacts from the park.
I’ll admit I was dubious when I read that the Reagan Library exhibit would also include items from recent Disney movies and attractions, but frankly, these pieces are also fun to see in person: costumes from the Broadway musical Beauty and the Beast and the live-action fairy tale Enchanted, set pieces and costumes from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the neon motorcycle and costumes from Tron, and two “miniature” pirate ships from the Pirates of the Caribbean series that are the size of a small room. (The artifacts are much more interesting than the movies themselves, in many cases.)
Toward the end of the exhibit is a Presidential room which houses the original sculptures for the Hall of Presidents at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, and other presidential memorabilia, including personal letters to Walt from Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower (an especially warm message after he and his grandchildren spent a day at Disneyland in 1961), along with a letter of condolence to Walt’s widow Lillian from Lyndon Johnson. Souvenirs from Mr. Reagan’s era include a personalized Mickey Mouse “ears” hat from 1985 that is embroidered with the name “Mr. President.”