Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area is a beautiful, powerful, and humanizing tribute to the Walt Disney. In this post, we’ll present a photo tour of WDFM, provide information about its exhibits, and cover why it’s a bucket list-worthy experience for Disney fans.
Your initial reaction to the notion of a Walt Disney Family Museum might be that it’s a neat idea, but not enough to convince you to take a trip to San Francisco when Walt Disney Presents at Disney’s Hollywood Studios or Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland offer sufficient exhibits on the life of Walt Disney. As we’ll cover in this post, neither of those (or any other Walt Disney exhibits anywhere, for that matter) hold a candle to the Walt Disney Family Museum.
In our Disneyland Planning Guide, we’ve implored those who consider Walt Disney World their home park to visit the West Coast parks if they have the time and financial means. This is due to the way Disneyland “oozes history” and since it’s the only park Walt Disney personally walked, among other reasons. Well, you could say Disneyland is something of a gateway drug with Walt Disney Family Museum being the more serious stuff. (There’s a reason many fans say they’re Disney addicts!)
While we don’t buy into the notion that there are any prerequisites for being a serious or real Disney fan (other than considering yourself one), we do think that any self-described serious Disney fan will love the Walt Disney Family Museum. Simply put, Disney fans will leave WDFM with greater admiration for the company’s founder and deeper appreciation for what he created.
We’d actually go one further: that just about anyone will enjoy the Walt Disney Family Museum. It’s truly an experience with universal appeal, for all ages and interests. The presentation and quality of the museum are far above what you’d expect for a “niche” museum like this.
Given how many cynics there are who view the Disney Parks as crass commercialism, a tourist trap, etc., this might seem like a bold proclamation. However, the Walt Disney Family Museum is operated by the Disney family, not the Walt Disney Company. (The latter has loaned several materials from its Archives, and is a regular benefactor of the museum.)
WDFM is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that was founded by Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, and is operated by people who are passionate for sharing the history and legacy of Walt Disney, the “American Original” as a person.
All of this is abundantly clear while walking through the exhibits. Rather than attempting to elevate Walt Disney to a mythical status, as the company is prone to do, the Walt Disney Family Museum seeks to humanize him and to tell his story.
To be sure, there’s plenty of celebrating his accomplishments and creative legacy (how could you not?!), but it never devolves into fawning idolization; it always feels real and authentic. This is true even in the museum’s lobby, which is a veritable trophy room.
Rather than playing up how super important Walt Disney was, this showcase puts Oscars on display next to an award for “greatest contribution ever made to the sport of racing pigeons.” In so doing, this tongue-in-cheek move actually underscores just how Walt Disney made an indelible impact for countless individuals, far and wide.
Walt Disney Family Museum begins with a detailed look at Walt’s upbringing in the Midwest, military service in France, move to Hollywood, and more. This was by far the deepest dive I had seen into these portions of his early years, which are often glossed over as trials and tribulations of his early life in his successful pursuit of the American Dream.
It was refreshing to see this portion of Walt’s life thoroughly detailed rather than just what he had to ‘overcome’ as part of a feel-good narrative arc. There’s plenty of material on the Alice Comedies, what Walt wanted to do versus what was commercially successful, and early advertising work he did, among many other things.
These first several exhibits also covered Walt marrying and becoming a father, and in greater detail than simply using these facts to establish him as a family man.
Steamboat Willie is featured here, with its expensive technology and difficult production highlighted. There’s also a huge collection of early Mickey Mouse merchandise, and exhibits explaining how merchandising deals basically kept the company afloat.
These exhibits feature a lot animation up until Walt Disney’s big breakthrough with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. After that, it’s mostly chronological, but you also start seeing more of a topical breakdown (nature, theme parks, patriotism, etc.).
There are even some attention given to some controversial moments, such as the 1941 Disney Animators’ Guild Strike. While a pro-Disney slant here is arguable (we’re not experts on the topic), it feels deferential to the plight of the animators, too.
Walt Disney Family Museum’s penultimate exhibit is “Disneyland & Beyond.” As much as I enjoyed everything that came before it, this was my favorite area of the museum. From models to Audio Animatronics to posters and more, there was a ton to see.
Most impressive of all, and where I spent an obscene amount of time was the large Disneyland model in the center of the room. “Yawn” you might think, you’ve seen this before in the Great Moments lobby. You have never seen anything like this. It’s what I call “The Disneyland That Never Was, And Always Will Be” model, with a veritable highlight reel of attractions grafted onto it. Many of these never coexisted, but I sure wish they did.
This Disneyland model changes from day to night and has various Easter Eggs. You’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to walk around its perimeter and admire its many details. This is the coolest theme park model I’ve ever seen. It was the highlight of a highlight reel exhibit. I left the sprawling Disneyland & Beyond exhibit with an unbridled sense of glee.
I don’t know if my emotions have ever turned on as tight of a dime as they did going from that exhibit to “Remembering Walt Disney.” If the lobby awards showcase offered a glimpse at the lives Walt touched, this hammers that point home with the sense of loss felt around the world when he passed. It’s a bit somber, but that quickly gives way to optimism as the exhibits pivot to Walt’s creative legacy and the impact he continues to make generations later.
Now that we are several generations removed from Walt Disney’s passing, this final exhibit is probably the most important of the bunch. Millennials and young kids might not have any knowledge of Walt Disney beyond the name at the front of their favorite films; this final gallery elucidates what he meant to the world, and his significance. As a Disney fan, this was powerful stuff, and a fitting cap to a museum that absolutely blew me away.
Even if we were not Disney fans, we would’ve been impressed by the Walt Disney Family Museum. As any museum celebrating Walt Disney should, it has a creative flare and production value rivaling some of the best children’s museums we’ve ever visited. From the type of medical ambulance Walt drove in the war to a variety of animation techniques brought to life, this museum utilizes myriad types of mixed media to tell Walt’s story in vivid detail.
It excels from the fact that neither the details is balanced expertly with the vividness. Often, museums that are flashy are devoid of substance, and those that are densely informative are dry or difficult to digest. Neither are the case here, and while the sheer joy we had in perusing the museum likely is tied to our enthusiasm for the subject matter, the quality of the museum’s presentation is undeniable. I’d rank this among the United States’ elite museums even if I were Neal Gabler.
Given that San Francisco is a 7-hour drive from Anaheim, visiting the Walt Disney Family Museum as a Disneyland day trip is not feasible. Instead, we’d recommend doing both as part of a California road trip, flying into San Diego or Los Angeles, doing a one-way rental car, and working your way north along Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur before arriving in San Francisco and departing from from one of the Bay Area airports.
Alternatively, if you have over a week, starting in Los Angeles (or San Francisco) and doing this as a loop works well. Take Pacific Coast Highway through the beach cities one way, and then go inland, hitting Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks the other direction. We’ve done this both ways, and minus the stretches through the middle of California (ugh…Bakersfield), this is one of the best imaginable road trips.
Regardless of how you do this trip, Walt Disney Family Museum is an incredible experience for anyone, and also a moving experience for Disney fans. Thanks to its rotating temporary exhibition spotlighting other animators, it’s also one we’re sure to revisit annually. (If we lived in the Bay Area, we’d go more than that. We’d get Annual Passes–that is how much we loved it.) It’s sure to give you a greater respect for Walt’s humble beginnings and the empire he built, and greater respect for what he created–and his creative vision. Beyond that, WDFM offers a humanizing depiction of someone who the modern Disney company has turned into something of a caricature or corporate mascot, of sorts.
Have you visited the Walt Disney Family Museum? What did you think of it? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment of the WDFM? Any questions? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!