Yes, the cartoon rodent who helped spawn a vast entertainment empire is here in all his glory. But he’s just a small part of a wide-ranging, state-of-the-art presentation intended to please casual fans and Disney geeks alike.
Housed within a former military facility with a sweeping view of the Golden Gate Bridge are original artworks from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and other Disney classics, early animation artifacts, Academy Awards and family mementos, including the miniature train that ran around Walt Disney’s back yard and provided inspiration for Disneyland.
Is this place destined to be the happiest museum on Earth?
“Disney taught people how to dream and imagine and the magnitude of his achievements is astonishing,” says Richard Benefield, founding director of the museum, which opened October 1, 2009. “But until now, there never has been a place where you can step back and evaluate the full impact of this man.”
And make no mistake, he was a man. The primary impetus behind the museum is a desire by Disney descendants to let the world know that there was a living, breathing force behind the moniker now emblazoned on everything from books and toys to TV networks, movies and theme parks. “My kids have met people who didn’t know my father actually existed,” says Diane Disney Miller. “They think it’s a made-up brand name. The man has gotten lost.” Miller, co-founder of the museum, also was motivated by what she deems to be negative portrayals of her father over the years. But that doesn’t mean they’re presenting a sanitized version of their subject, Benefield insists. Case in point: The museum features an exhibit devoted to the divisive animators’ strike against Disney’s company in 1941, with eyewitness accounts from both sides of the picket line. “Our real concern was to get the story right without glossing over the bad parts,” says Benefield, formerly the deputy director of the Harvard University Art Museums. “This is a warts-and-all portrayal.”
Mainly funded by the family foundation, the $110 million museum chronicles Disney’s life story, from humble beginnings as a Missouri farm boy to his years as one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood. Filling 10 state-of-the-art galleries are testaments to his remarkable triumphs, his most daunting setbacks and his bold plans for the future, cut short by his death in 1966 at age 65. Much of the story is told in Disney’s own voice, via audio recordings, home movies and more than 200 video monitors. The museum also contains a 114-seat screening room, a learning center, a cafe and gift shop.
Among the visually arresting highlights are an enormous, three-dimensional model depicting the “Disneyland of Walt’s imagination,” built especially for the museum. You’ll also find the earliest known pencil sketches of that famous pants-wearing mouse, and the special Academy Award presented to Disney for “Snow White”—one full-sized Oscar and seven little ones.
Other distinctive and offbeat treasures include pieces of furniture from Disney’s private apartment at his Anaheim, Calif., theme park, the high school yearbook for which he provided illustrations, plenty of artwork from “Steamboat Willie” (the first cartoon to feature sound), a car from Disneyland’s Autopia ride that Walt gave to his grandson, and, yes, even the mechanical innards of the robotic “Mr. Lincoln.”
While the museum is particularly suited to baby boomers who grew up on Disney fare, it attempts to appeal to children through a barrage of glitzy, high-tech gadgetry. Every gallery is crammed with touch screens and interactive exhibits designed to bring static drawings and documents to life. Dick Van Dyke of “Mary Poppins” fame even appears in holograph form.
All the 21st century touches applied amid the Presidio’s historic setting seem appropriate. Throughout his career, Disney cherished the past while simultaneously embracing new technology such as monorails and audio-animatronics.
But why San Francisco? Several Disney heirs, including Miller, live in the Bay Area and many of Disney’s personal items had been stored for years in a Presidio warehouse. Benefield regards the distance between here and the Disney corporate headquarters in Southern California as a plus. “Had it been in Los Angeles, it always would have been overshadowed by the company and Disneyland. It would have been just a side trip,” he says. “But here it can be a destination—even a pilgrimage.”
However, visitors should be aware that, partially because of construction limitations imposed upon Presidio structures, some of the gallery space is constricted. To ease crowd flow, groups of guests will be admitted in 15-minute intervals. Even so, on busy days, visitors are likely to feel the same sense of claustrophobia they do in a jam-packed Disneyland attraction.
Speaking of Disneyland, Benefield says he is concerned that some guests might come to the Presidio anticipating a theme park-like experience. “That’s the one thing that gives me pause,” he says. “Because of the name ‘Disney,’ are people going to expect to get on rides and shake Mickey’s hand? But I think that, even if they do come with that mind-set, they’ll quickly leave it at the door.”
(c) 2009, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.