Thoughts on the Walt Disney Family Museum

A few months ago, I saw an article in the Times about a Disney museum. I read it only out of interest in Disney stuff, but when I saw that the museum was in San Francisco, I knew I had to go. Over Thanksgiving break, I made my way into the city and got to spend a few hours looking around.

The museum is located in the Presidio, one of the few urban national parks around, according to a sign I saw there. It covers the northwest part of San Francisco just below the Golden Gate Bridge and has large fields and neatly laid out buildings. We arrived at a relatively small, but well-labeled building just before noon. Although most of the Presidio was quiet, many people buzzed around and in and about this one.

The Walt Disney Company has been making dreams for kids for decades, and the museum tries to capture the process that led to its cartoons, movies, TV shows, theme parks, and more. Instead of focusing on the company, however, it focused on the man Walt Disney.¬†As I mentioned, the building wasn’t huge, but the designers used all of the space effectively. The exhibits span 9 rooms, starting with Disney’s family and childhood and ending with his death in 1966. Much of Disney’s work since then, including the movies of my childhood, weren’t addressed, but we did get to see more into Disney’s personal interests, such as the vision of the Epcot center and Disney TV shows.

The museum goes through all of these topics in a completely controlled manner. My sister once took a college course where they talked about how museum’s present items to generate a certain response from patrons, and I got the sense that everything in this museum was carefully displayed. Traditional museums can get away with less cohesion: a natural science museum might put dinosaurs and the room next to the Amazon, and an archaeological museum is somewhat constrained by what a particular collection might contain. Those sorts of museums allow patrons to jump around, but in this one, each room leads directly into the next, forcing you to view exhibits in a particular order. I was struck by how well everything fit together and how they built a picture of Disney’s life and who he was.

Given that the building is small, that they packed a lot of content, and that everything is sequential, some areas in the museum felt more crowded than they should have been. Especially towards the beginning when everyone still wants to read all of the panels, I had to squeeze myself into awkward angles to read how Disney drew for his high school paper or how he served in WW1. To avoid crowding, the tickets are marked for timed entry, though they weren’t enforcing it when we came in.

The reading did make me think that the museum wasn’t necessarily designed for children. I thought for a second that it might have been meant for people my age who had grown up with Disney productions and were now old enough to appreciate how it happened, but kids have been growing up with Disney forever. I would put myself at the lower end of patience to read this, so the museum is meant for adults. 7 year old Kevin would never have put up with all of the reading, though he might have liked all of the TVs everywhere.

In fact, the integration of technology was one of the most impressive parts of the museum. TVs were everywhere. Some were just monitors playing clips of movies interspersed with commentary, but many were more cleverly added, such as embedded inside a frame on a wall of other pictures. The museum was mostly looking, not touching, but there were just enough activities to liven slow sections. For example, patrons got a chance to watch footage from “Steamboat Willie” and play instruments to synchronize the sound with the cartoon (also known as “Disney Rock Band”). Many other touchscreens and projections were spread across, but none were too time-consuming to develop lines or keep you from moving along.

Although I would have liked to see more detail on how the animation and filming process happened, I was too engrossed with all of the imagination I saw laid out before me. We finished in just about 3 hours, which should be fairly consistent across all visitors given how the museum is designed. The museum is likely a one-time deal, but anyone with any interest or familiarity with anything Disney should find it an eye-opening and fascinating experience.

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