Walt Disney’s Dream Lives at San Francisco’s Walt Disney Family Museum

At Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park in Walt Disney World, our family loves to visit Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream and learn more about the man behind the park.  In 2009, Diane Disney Miller (Walt Disney’s daughter) and Walter E.D. Miller (Walt Disney’s grandson) opened the Walt Disney Family Museum.  I’ve wanted to visit ever since the museum opened, and was thrilled to get a chance during our recent press trip to Pixar Studios.  I was awestruck by the collection inside the Walt Disney Family Museum, and learned so much more about the achievements of Walt Disney as an innovator in animation, film, and themed entertainment.  Continue reading for more photos and highlights of the tour.

Walt Disney Family Museum

DISCLOSURE:  I was hosted by Walt Disney Studios on this all expense paid trip to Pixar Studios in San Francisco, California including airfare, hotel accommodations, transportation, and meals to attend this press event and learn more about their films.  However, all opinions expressed are those of the author.

Before entering the museum, I should say a few words about its stunning location.  The Walt Disney Family Museum is within the confines of The Presidio of San Francisco, part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area.  The Presidio is a former military base dating back to the 1700’s (initially fortified by Spain), and the museum itself is housed in a former Army barracks built in the late 1800’s located on the base’s parade grounds.  The Presidio is now operated by the National Park Service, and a family can easily spend a day there exploring its hiking trails, historic buildings, the beach and more.  The park offers many scenic vistas, overlooks, and views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Golden Gate Bridge from Walt Disney Family Museum

However, we were there to visit the museum itself.  I don’t want to give away all of the Walt Disney Family Museum’s secrets, but I’ll touch on some of the more unique highlights.  Upon entering, directly behind the admissions desk is the awards lobby with large displays of Walt Disney’s Academy Awards and other trophies – including the seven miniature Oscars awarded for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”  To this day, Walt Disney continues to hold the record for most Academy Awards won by an individual (as well as the most nominations) in history.

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In this opening gallery, you will also find the Walt Disney family furniture from their personal apartment above the Disneyland Fire Station.

Walt Disney Family Museum

This opening space focusing on awards and Disneyland reminds visitors how innovative Walt Disney was for his time, and as we continue into the galleries, we go back in time to learn where Walt Disney came from and his path through history.

Walt Disney’s early years in Marceline and Kansas City, Missouri are depicted through numerous family pictures as well as Walt’s own recorded voice describing his memories of those moments.  A World War I era ambulance serves as the centerpiece of the “early years” gallery – similar to the type Disney might have driven in France immediately after the conclusion of the war.

Walt Disney Family Museum

Throughout the museum, I was always taken with things Walt Disney himself had personally drew or written such as this early cartoon from the 1920’s.

Walt Disney Family Museum

Walt Disney’s move to California was very cleverly depicted via an elevator “train car,” that transported our group to early 1920’s era Hollywood.  Throughout the museum the galleries feature a mix of materials including many state-of-the-art video screens.

Walt Disney Family Museum

As one would expect, the historic artifacts in the museum are vast and numerous.  For example, the formation of the Disney Bros. Studios in Hollywood, California on October 16, 1923 is recognized as the official beginning of the Disney company.  This hand written letter by Walt Disney to long-time partner Ub Iwerks from June 1924 was less than one year into the Disney company’s existence.

Walt Disney Family Museum

Or this, one of the earliest sketches of Mickey Mouse, drawn by Walt Disney himself (note Minnie’s there too).

Walt Disney Family Museum

Throughout the galleries you will also find original animation cels from seminal films such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Walt Disney Family Museum

Galleries of the museum walk visitors through the chronology of Walt Disney’s rise in the world of animation and films, through the war years, a good neighbor trip to South America, the shift to live-action movies, and Walt’s continual dreaming… This bench is one of the many from Los Angeles’ Griffith Park Carousel where Walt Disney sat watching his daughters ride.

Walt Disney Family Museum

On benches like the one above, he dreamed of building his own amusement park, where parents and their children can enjoy time together, and step into the stories from Walt Disney’s films.  Of course, the themed entertainment park he dreamed of became Disneyland, and around the corner from the bench is a remarkable model of the Disneyland of Walt’s imagination filled with twirling rides, flickering lights, and moving vehicles.

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After the model of Disneyland, guests are lead through some of Walt Disney’s final projects including the 1960 Winter Olympics, Mineral King ski resort, 1964 World’s Fair, the Florida Project, and, ultimately, Walt Disney’s passing, and the world’s reaction.  The final room was quite emotional and moving, and punctuated by the actual news broadcast announcing Walt Disney’s death.

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In addition to the permanent collection, the Walt Disney Family Museum continues to offer rotating exhibits such as a celebration of the 75th Anniversary of Snow White or the current display Tomorrowland: Walt’s Vision for Today narrated by Brad Bird, director of Disney’s TOMORROWLAND.

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Or the separate ticketed exhibition Disney and Dalí: Architects of the Imagination located in the Diane Disney Miller Exhibition Hall, a separate building behind the main museum.

Walt Disney Family Museum

Disney and Dalí examined the unlikely friendship between Spanish Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí and Walt Disney.  A friendship that led to their ultimate collaboration on the short film Destino.

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The Walt Disney Family Museum is a must-see pilgrimage for any fan of the Walt Disney Company, films, or parks, and would make for a very entertaining day during a family vacation to San Francisco.  If you’re close to the San Francisco area, a membership to the museum is certainly worthwhile for the rotating exhibits, Disney film screenings, and special presentations by Disney Legends, Imagineers, actors, artists, and Disney family members.

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About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.