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The Walt Disney Family Museum: A gem in our own backyard

Visitors view the video screens in Gallery 9, Disneyland and Beyond, which depicts Walt Disney’s vision for Disneyland and Epcot Center. PHOTO: Walt Disney Family Museum

When you think about Walt Disney, cartoons, movies, and Disneyland come immediately to mind, but there was a lot more to this creative, technology-driven man. The Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio celebrates his many accomplishments, illuminating his successes, his disappointments, and his tremendous optimism.

The 40,000-square-foot museum is celebrating its 10th year in San Francisco. Co-founded by Disney’s daughter Diane Disney Miller and grandson Walter E. D. Miller, the museum is a 501c(3) nonprofit organization. Although Diane died in 2012, her son Walter sits on the museum’s board with other family members.

The museum features 10 interactive galleries alive with artifacts, early drawings, movies, technology, interactive listening stations, more than 200 video screens, a 14-foot model of Disneyland, and more. There is also a cafe, a museum store, and a 114-seat Fantasia-themed theater that shows Disney films on an ongoing basis. Other highlights are Disney’s 26 individual Academy Awards (including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with a full-size Oscar and seven miniature statuettes); original drawings from Disney’s early years; cartoons from Laugh-O-gram Films, his first company; and the earliest known drawing of Mickey Mouse.


Much of the museum is dedicated to the life of Walt Disney, starting with his childhood, and his rise to fame with the creation of Mickey Mouse, one of the world’s most iconic animated characters. While the first films featuring Mickey were silent, the first sound-and-music short, called Steamboat Willie with Disney as the voice of Mickey, was an instant hit.

Disney Studios’ first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released in 1937, changed the face of the animation industry. Yet in 1940, Fantasia, now considered a cinematic landmark, as the first major film released in stereophonic sound, did not draw large audiences, and the studio nearly went bankrupt.

Disney embraced new technology in filmmaking, using story, character development, color, dimensionality, and original music to enhance his storytelling. He opened a new location for Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank in 1939 and completed Dumbo, Bambi, and Pinocchio between 1940 and 1942.

During World War II the studio produced morale-boosting and pro-allied films. Interested in both the fantastic and science, Disney made live-action nature movies, including Seal Island, filmed in Alaska, which won the 1949 Academy Award for best two-reel documentary.

Disneyland, Disney’s $17 million theme park, opened in 1955 in Anaheim, Calif. Disneyland has expanded its rides and opened new locations, including Disneyworld in Florida and parks in Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.

Toward the end of his life, Disney developed attractions for key events like the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, where his “General Electric Progressland” featuring Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress and other rides were popular; after the fair they were transferred to Disneyland. Disney died in 1966.


Kirsten Komoroske, The Walt Disney Family Museum’s executive director, explains the museum is based here in San Francisco because Disney’s daughter Diane Disney Miller lived here and felt it was the right place. When asked about the museum’s target audience, which appeals to film, animation, and Disney fans alike but perhaps may not resonate with today’s children who didn’t grow up with Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters, she said, “When the museum opened there was some confusion about its name. Many thought it was a museum for kids, with attractions like those at Disneyland. But Diane made it clear that one of the main purposes of the museum was to tell her father’s story, including his financial challenges and his humble beginnings as well as tell the stories of those who helped him along the way. Walt Disney was truly the Mark Zuckerburg of his time.”

Komoroske added that the museum is dedicated to education, not only in the form of summer camps, art classes, field trips, and fun interactive activities, but also by partnering with local organizations to reach out to those children without the means to visit the museum. A virtual field trip experience has just opened, and there are numerous outreach programs designed to reach children (and adults) with special needs, including preopening hours for those with autism who can appreciate the museum without the clamor of the general public. “More than 50 percent of the children who visit the museum come from Title I schools — a state schoolwide program available to schools with a student base where at least 40 percent come from low-income families — and we waive admissions fees for them,” Komoroske said.


On May 16, the museum opened “Mickey Mouse: From Walt to the World,” a special exhibition chronicling the little cartoon mouse’s impact and influence on art and entertainment over the past nine decades, the story of his origin and rise to fame, and his enduring appeal. The exhibition is displayed in the Diane Disney Miller Exhibition Hall, a building adjacent to the main museum, through Jan. 6, 2020. Guest-curated by well-known animator Andreas Deja in collaboration with co-curator Michael Labrie, the Mickey Mouse exhibition features more than 400 objects that include rare, never-before-seen original sketches (fascinating!), artwork, vintage merchandise and photos, and many of Mickey’s earliest and most recent short films. The exhibition also includes a gallery with renowned artists, including depictions of Mickey Mouse by artists ranging from Andy Warhol, Wayne Thiebaud, and Damien Hirst to San Francisco-based muralist Sirron Norris.

In a statement Deja said, “I have been collecting and studying classic Disney animation drawings for a long time. Among them are very rare sketches by master animators.” He added, “I am proud to include these artworks, never before seen by the public, along with many other artifacts and production pieces, all depicting the one and only Mickey Mouse.”

With its views of the bay from its setting in the Presidio and its expansive collection of memorabilia and creative exhibitions, Disney fans and history buffs alike should make plans to visit this innovative museum.

The Walt Disney Family Museum: Wed.–Mon. 10 a.m.–6 p.m., $25, 104 Montgomery Street, 415-345-6800,

Email: [email protected]

Updated Sept. 6

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