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Walt Disney Family Museum thrives at the Presidio

Gallery 9, the museum’s largest gallery Photo: Jim Smith, courtesy The Walt Disney Family Museum

Nearly four years ago, those of us who are fortunate enough to write about innovative programs in San Francisco were treated to the site of carpenters, electricians, and painters renovating the barracks at 104 Montgomery Street in the Presidio. As we toured the half-finished floors, members of the Disney family introduced the concept of a museum dedicated to the memory of Walt Disney.

No Mickey Mouse, no “It’s a Small World” and no spine-tingling rides would be part of this museum, devoted to the man who spent most of his life (1901-66) inventing and producing entertainment for children. How fitting that the Disney family was the first group to renovate the historic Montgomery Street barracks.

Why the Presidio? Walter Elias Disney Miller, Walt’s grandson and co-founder of the museum, explained at the outset of the project that it was close to the Disney family’s main residence in Sonoma County. Also, the family thought the museum would draw more people in San Francisco than it would in Sonoma or in Walt’s boyhood home in the Midwest.

Risk and Reward

When the Walt Disney Family Museum (WDFM) opened in October 2009, exhibits, drawings, and audio-visual displays demonstrated how young Walt learned to create the cartoon characters that have been part of children’s lives for generations.

The museum is a reflection as well as a demonstration of the talents, triumphs, and failures in the mind of Walter Elias Disney, whose name has become synonymous with all that is magical. As his characters, movies, theme parks, and innovations grew, so too did his corporate value. Walt Disney became beyond rich doing what he loved to do: entertain children with the products of his imagination.

In 2009 there was a potential risk to building the museum in the Main Post of the Presidio. There was no walk-in traffic and it would be vital that visitors understand that it was not a mini Disneyland, Disney World, or Epcot Center. In addition, the only museum in the nearly 1,500-acre Presidio — which in 2013 is still the case — charges entry fees and offers memberships. Doubts quickly vanished after the major construction site turned into 40,000 square feet of 10 galleries that include history, technology, a cafe, gift shop, and thousands of original items owned by the Disney family over several generations.

Diane Disney Miller and her son, Walter Elias Disney Miller, daughter and grandson of Walt, are the co-founders of the museum. After years of planning, they explained their motivations.

According to Diane Miller, WDFM represents a tribute to her father, the man, and his achievements. “My father’s name is probably one of the most well-known names around the world, but as the ‘brand’ or trademark has spread … the man has become lost.”

Co-founder Walter Miller adds, “While we had been known as one of the best-kept secrets in San Francisco, our inaugural years in the beautiful Presidio have shown that one does not need to be a fan of Walt Disney to get something out of a visit to our museum. This institution has something to offer everyone … and we welcome guests to join in on and be inspired by my grandfather’s life and legacy,” Miller said.

The Sights Inside

According to Andi Wang, WDFM’S communications manager, 360,000 visitors have entered the WDFM since it opened. With the introduction of special exhibits, such as the current Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, great numbers are expected to follow.

The 10 galleries of the museum have themes, beginning with Walt’s earliest attempts at drawing. As a Kansas farm boy, he developed an avid interest in drawing and, later, the movies. Walt succeeded in creating early technology that produced the cartoons and characters for which he is known.

Examples of Gallery 1’s offerings include Walt’s mementoes from his childhood, as well as cameras similar to those he used in Kansas City. Highlighted in Gallery 2 are vintage artifacts, animation art, and family photos that chronicle the creative explosion of the 1930s. By that time, Walt’s successful cartoons had led to a revolution in the art and technology of animation.

The gallery exhibits illustrate Walt’s groundbreaking achievements and innovations, including: the first film that successfully synchronized sound and picture; one of the first nature documentaries; and the first to receive an Academy Award (he eventually won 32, more than any other winner).

Many of the technological displays are interactive. In one example, the visitor is able to produce sound effects to coincide with the visual cels shown directly above the equipment.

A key employee of WDFM is Chief Executive Officer Gabriella C. Calicchio, who came aboard in November 2011. She previously served as managing director of the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis and brings extensive experience in the field of children’s entertainment and the arts.

She explains that the museum has advanced far since its first days. “We have launched an exhibitions program and opened our first major special exhibition, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic. We are revamping our public programs and expanding our reach in the community. And Animate Your Night!, our after-hours party, has received rave reviews and been an enormous success, with hundreds of people attending each event. As some of our closest neighbors, we hope to engage Marina residents with our … programs and exhibitions,” Calicchio said. Calicchio also points to the increase of visitors and memberships in the past year.

Dana Polk, Presidio Trust’s senior advisor for media and government relations, explained that as with other Presidio residents, WDFM pays rent to the Presidio Trust.

Full Picture of the Man

As the WDFM pays tribute to a man whose work eventually led to monumental theme parks and full-length films enjoyed by children the world over, rumors of alleged anti-Semitism have circulated. Not so, said Andi Wang.

“Walt Disney was not only good friends with, and employed, many people of Jewish descent — including Marty Sklar and the Sherman Brothers, who all provided interviews on this subject, which can be seen in our galleries — but also was a frequent contributor to Jewish charities, including the Yeshiva College and the Jewish Home for the Aged.” Wang said.

“In addition, Walt was made Man of the Year by the Beverly Hills Lodge of B’nai B’rith in 1955, and was also awarded a recognition from Hadassah,” she added. “These awards can be seen in the Lobby of the Walt Disney Museum.”

Craig Middleton, Presidio Trust executive director, praised the Disneys’ success. In taking a risk and investing in the Main Post early on, the Disney family demonstrated the vision and creativity for which they are famous. “They saw the potential of this magnificent place, and are helping us to fulfill that potential by welcoming thousands of new visitors to the park every year,” Middleton said.

There is a $20 entrance fee for adults with scaled down charges for seniors and children.

For museum hours, directions and much more history, please visit www.waltdisney.org.

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