Report: D23 Member Preview Weekend at the Walt Disney Family Museum (Review)

It makes its official debut this Thursday, October 1, but D23 members were offered an exclusive preview this past weekend to visit the new Walt Disney Family Museum located in San Francisco’s The Presidio. Reports of the free tickets selling out fast were all too common and it’s not any fault of the Museum. A steady stream of D23 Members crowded the ten galleries focusing on visually and audibly telling the story of Walt Disney’s life.

From the moment you step into the beautiful but non-descript building, you get a taste for what you’re in for. Nine trophy cases line the walls filled with literally hundreds of different awards and recognitions received by Disney along with a few bonus items thrown in. Also on display in the lobby area is some of the original furniture from the Disney apartment above the Disneyland Fire Department as well as the multi-plane camera just inside the gift shop area (the multi-plane camera is so large that it actually extends to its proper exhibit on the second floor).

Inside the first Gallery, you are introduced to Walt’s family, even pre-Walt. There are literally hundreds of photos that help depict the life of the childhood of Walt and his siblings. You also get your first taste of the technology heavily employed within the museum: LCD monitors (a few of *many*) play a short, stylized video along with actual records of Walt recalling his youth — everything from growing up on a farm to forging a document so that he’d be accepted by the American Red Cross to join an Ambulance unit in France during the war after being rejected by the Armed Forces for his age (he was 16 at the time).

The next gallery introduces visitors to the transition from drawing editiorial cartoons to starting Laugh-O-Gram Studio with collaborator Ub Iwerks, a company well known for its innovative Alice comedies but also proved to be a financial failure. When other more contemporary commercial ventures proved to be unsuccessful in keeping the company afloat, Walt packed up his bags and moved with brother Roy to Hollywood, California, ultimately convincing Iwerks and the family of Virginia Davis (the star of the Alice comedies) to join him.

An elevator takes visitors to the second floor where a beautiful exhibit integrating video displays with photos, audio and physically displays introduce us to Walt’s first days in Hollywood. Mostly dedicated to the Alice comedies (there were 57 titles in all with a total of four actresses portraying Alice), the exhibit treats visitors to clips and virtual posters of the films as multiple themed displays seamlessly interact with eachother against one wall.

It was here that we learn about Disney’s contracts with Winkler Pictures who acted as key distributor for the Disney Brothers films and the entrance of Margaret Winkler’s husband, Charles Mintz who eagerly snatched up the role of the villain in the story of Walt’s life. With never a kind word to say about the films and Walt’s next hugely successful project, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, it was Mintz who acted as middle-man between Disney and Universal Studios and Mintz who ultimately left Disney high and dry by firing Walt from the production of Oswald. It’s in the next gallery which features posters, art and even cartoons of Oswald that we learn through correspondence that Universal Studios was even willing to work with Walt directly — once the contract with Mintz expired. Now swearing off middle-men completely, Walt decided to branch out completely on his own, but one has to stop and think and consider how differently things could have turned out if he had dropped the pioneering experience and simply waited to work for Universal directly.

While Oswald greets us in this gallery, it’s really all about his next creation: a mouse famously first-dubbed Mortimer. A mouse — who despite being created by a man who already had an established repertoire of animated characters — nobody wanted to see. That was until the mouse’s third film, Steamboat Willie, in which Walt was successfully able to synchronize sound with the cartoon. It was then that the world noticed Mickey and couldn’t get enough of him. Among the gallery’s displays is its first interactive display in which several individuals can team up together to follow on-screen directions to synchronize their ‘instruments’ along with Steamboat Willie.

Another impossible-to-neglect display in this gallery is a wall full of Mickey Mouse merchandise from the 1930s. Having just been introduced to the world in 1928, it’s absolutely mind-boggling how quickly Mickey became a part of pop culture. Live stage shows introduced the world to a costumed Mickey Mouse decades before the first theme park did. Dozens of merchandise items are on display here including several Mickey Mouse watches and clocks and a collection of Charlotte Clark Mickey Mouse dolls. An interactive display located next to the merchandise guides you through items in the collection and offers much more detailed information.

The next gallery covers further advancements in Disney’s cartoons and ultimately the first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Here you’ll find countless pieces of art in the form of cels, concept art, storyboards and more for the Silly Symphonies, the use of technicolor in Flowers and Trees, the importance of music in films like these and The Three Little Pigs and even an interactive exhibit focusing on selecting the right music and tempo for the right mood. While all of this is going on, Mickey Mouse’s success continues to grow and it’s here that we meet Donald, Pluto and Goofy (in retrospect, Minnie, who debuted with Mickey in Steamboat Willie, seems to have gotten the gloss-over) as well as the enormously successful introduction of Fab Five comic strips and comic books.

If that doesn’t seem like enough, there’s still the exhibit on Snow White which features much of the same type of items pertaining to the film, including several mementos from the world premiere. Production notes on display refer to an un-named dwarf as well as to the dwarf known as Jumpy. There’s also a sizeable display dedicated to Ward Kimball’s soup scene from the film which was ultimately cut out by Walt for timing purposes.

Moving forward, you’ll get another vantage point for the multi-plane camera as well as further innovations with films and music such as Pinocchio, Bambi, Fantasia and more, all offering various insights on the films’ development. There’s a great anecdotal recording of Walt trying to explain to his daughter (I believe Sharon) on why Bambi’s mother was killed in the film and her response.

The next gallery takes a somber turn and leads us into the 1940’s and the troubles at both the studio and world-wide. Visitors are immediately greeted with signage which quotes Walt’s feeling to simply close down the studios as he faced an animators strike and the Nazi threat. It’s here we read about Walt testifying in front of Committee on Un-American Activities, his government-sponsored goodwill tour to South America with El Grupo and just a taste of his war efforts.

Moving on, we go post-war and cram the creation of a whole lot of films into one room. A visually appealing film-strip style projection runs along both sides of the room as concept art and more for films including Cinderella, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, 20K Leagues Under the Sea and more including — yes — Song of the South. With much art and other physical items on display, my immediate attention is drawn to the concept art by Mary Blair for most of the films here. There’s also an interactive display which gives more insight into production aspects of the films, but I found it awkward to use and was even more put off by the size and apparent-incoherence of it to the passer-by which generally just seemed to invite other visitors to step in and interrupt with their own agendas while I was trying to make use of it.

Exiting this gallery brings visitors to a small display of mostly personal affects. Probably the most telling item here is a hand-written note to hise housekeeper of Walt’s favorite food items. The fact that such a normally mundane list still exists in such fine shape today speaks volumes to his fame and importance, not to mention those unmistakable loopy E’s. As for the content of the list, let’s just say there’s always room for Walt’s favorite (with fruit).

The True-Life Adventure Series inhabits one wall of the next gallery/corridor in a creatively displayed exhibit chock-full of monitors displaying clips and information on the series along with a few of the cameras and even the globe from the films’ opening, some of which you just might miss if you aren’t walking backwards. The display happens to compete with the opposite corridor wall, a full glass-window view of the back of the property and the San Francisco Bay itself with a sweeping view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

At this point, I cannot emphasise enough that if you think you would have seen more than you could possibly imagine by now, you haven’t seen anything yet. The penultimate gallery covers just about fifteen years of Walt’s life, but is large enough to fit most of the other galleries inside it and it packs a punch, content-wise as well as visually.

Recalling that you are currently on the second floor, the path you take is a long spiral down towards the ground floor, in the shape of a backwards-S — perhaps inspired by the famous S-curve tunnel on the Carolwood Pacific. Speaking of which, the first item you are greeted with when entering the exhibit is the Lily Belle herself with several cars and caboose. A 90 degree wooden model of the Carolwood home complete with a moving miniature version of the train hangs down above the actual cars. As you continue to move down the spiral, the story of Walt continues with the genesis of what will someday be Disneyland. All of which leads to the crown-jewel of the room, a model of what’s described as Walt’s vision of Disneyland which easily spans a diameter of 20 feet or so and includes full lighting (the exhibit occasionally and briefly turns to night mode so the model is all lit up) and moving parts, particularly in the Fantasyland area. Although it’s unclear as to what the description means, the model seems to be more or less a faithful (although not necessarily to scale) layout of the Disneyland park shortly after Walt’s death (first noting that Adventureland is on the side it is today, not the side it was meant to be on, followed by attractions created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, as well as Pirates of the Caribbean which opened several months after his death) — essentially it appears to be the park that Walt knew. In any case, plan on spending a deal of time marveling over the details as the spiral ramp offers ‘aerial’ views of some of the lands before allowing you to get up close and not too personal with the front of the model.

Nearby is a display on Walt’s fascination with all forms of transportation, classic and innovative, with an original Autopia vehicle on display. The exhibits continue further on into Walt’s foray into television with the (second) Mickey Mouse Club, Davy Crocket and more, complete with props to accompany the video.

Further on are smaller, but just as signficant displays on the innovations created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair as well as ‘The Florida Project’ where there’s a great second-hand anecdote (I believe from Dick Nunis) which illustrates the dynamic between Walt and Roy when dealing with the acquisition of more land than Roy deemed necessary. I also was delighted to watch an entire (?) pitch film Walt created for Epcot. Although a clip from it is displayed frequently elsewhere, the entire video uses lots of concept art and animation to show how the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow would function on a daily basis.

Another prized possession in this area is Optic Printer #2. A film printer devised so that multiple images (such as Mary Poppins and an animated penguin or two Haley Mills) could be combined seamlessly onto a single frame, Optic Printer #2 had been used on virtually Disney film from its introduction in 1943 until its retirement in 1986.

The final exhibit deals with the death of Walt and the world’s reaction. Mickey and friends (often crying) are the focus in dozens of editorial cartoons shown from around the world, interlaced with telegrams of sympathies to the Disney family as audio of news reports play in the background.

All of this, of course, leads to the Walt Disney Family Museum gift shop which features hundreds of items, many of which are exclusive to the Museum itself (even beyond those that bear the Museum logo).

For a diehard Disney fan (Walt and the Company alike), this is a mecca of information and treasures that give just a small insight into a man that gave the world so much. It’s worth traveling to San Francisco alone just to visit. For the casual fan, it’s a definite must see if ever in the area. While the museum advocates visiting time will be in the range of 100 minutes or so, it’s quite easy to spend hours perusing the collection. Myself, I spent about 3 hours inside the building which included about half an hour in the gift shop and — had I not had a prior engagement elsewhere — I probably could have spent at least another hour there with so much to see and learn.

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