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Museum Celebrates Remarkable Life of Walt Disney

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He's the reason adults of a certain age can't stop themselves from finishing the song line beginning "M-I-C-K-E-Y," the force causing untold legions to see marching mops when they hear the rousing strains of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."


But the story of Walt Disney the man sometimes gets forgotten in the telling of his legend. Descendants of the 20th-century innovator hope to fix that disconnect with The Walt Disney Family Museum, opening this fall in San Francisco.


"My dad's story is an inspirational story," Disney's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, said. "I want people to understand his character and how he pursued his career."


And have fun.


"Our museum will be entertaining," she said. "That's what dad was all about."


Since Disney's death at 65 in 1966, some of the coverage of the man behind the mouse hasn't been the happiest thing on Earth, starting with the oddly persistent falsehood that his body was cryogenically frozen. He was cremated and buried.


Meanwhile, the icon has become so distinct from the person that some younger people think "Walt Disney" is a made-up corporate character, said Richard Benefield, founding executive director of the new museum.


Even for those who know, the story can get confused.


"People remember very specific things about Walt and it's bits and pieces and you don't necessarily remember them in a collective way," Benefield said.


Seeing Disney's work in one place — the cutting-edge animation, the theme parks, the technological advancements — "the order of magnitude is pretty outstanding," he said.


Still under construction, with an opening date of Oct. 1, the museum will feature 10 galleries, starting with Disney's beginnings on a Missouri farm. Among the artifacts is the form on which a 16-year-old Disney lied about his age (changing his birth date from 1901 to 1900) to train as a Red Cross ambulance driver in World War I France; he arrived as the war ended. Exhibits include listening stations and more than 200 video monitors as well as interactive displays.


The museum consists of three historic buildings that have been redesigned and upgraded by Page & Turnbull of San Francisco, with interior architecture and installations by the Rockwell Group. It is set in the Presidio, a former Army base with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge. That puts it, said Benefield, "in the center of the animation universe right now" with Lucasfilm Ltd. to the north and Pixar to the east.


Across the San Francisco Bay, Pixar co-founder John Lasseter is delighted about the new venture.


"Not only will it be a great illustration of Walt's life and career, but also his impact on entertainment and the medium of animation," said Lasseter, who studied under former Disney artists at the California Institute for the Arts, where he earned a film degree, and worked as a Disney animator early in his career. "I really think it will become one of the must-see places in San Francisco."


Exhibits highlight Disney innovations from synchronizing sound to a cartoon to fully capitalizing on the marvels of Technicolor to developing the multiplane camera to add depth to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," which was dubbed "Disney's folly" until it opened to wild acclaim.


The Oscar statuettes — one full size and seven little ones — awarded to that film will be on display. In all, Disney won a record 32 Academy Awards.


"His ideas were way beyond what was being done in Hollywood. He kept pushing the technology of animation and that is something that at Pixar we've always been doing as well," notes Lasseter, chief creative officer of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios.


(The Walt Disney Co. bought Pixar in 2006. The Disney Co. is collaborating on the project, but the $110 million museum, co-founded by Miller and her son Walter E.D. Miller, is an independent project fully funded by the Walt Disney Family Foundation.)


The story of Walt Disney is one of lows as well as highs and Benefield said the museum won't shy away from the former. "We're just putting it out there," he said.


After the success of "Snow White," the movie "Fantasia" (1940) got mixed reviews — years later it would become a success — and nearly bankrupted the studio. Then came a strike at Disney Studios followed by the war years when the company was essentially taken over by the military. The museum will deal with the strike, which was bitter, and includes Disney's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.


Although it's not finished yet, what looks to be a visually arresting feature of the museum deals with Disney's fascination with trains, a hobby that eventually led him to create Disneyland. Visitors walking down a spiral ramp will pass a track suspended from the roof holding the "Lilly Belle," the 1/8 scale-model train Disney ran on a half-mile track around his home.


Disneyland would become the model of a modern theme park. It was also the place where a young Lasseter learned comic timing, telling "wonderful bad jokes" as a captain of the Jungle Cruise ride.


"What is so great about this museum is really teaching people about the man behind the name, the man behind all this great work," Lasseter says. "What I'm so excited about is for people to learn how creative this guy was and what an innovator he was."




Hopefully it is a success, but it seems like something that would belong better at Disney World.

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Well, yeah, whatever.


I'm not really anti-Disney - hell, I just spent my b'day at Disneyland - but it does seem ironic that a number of the political and social movements San Francisco has historically been known for - from leftism and union activity to long hair and facial hair on men - are things ol' Uncle Walt was opposed to.


I really, really can't figure out why someone with essentially no ties to the Bay Area should have a museum here. Pixar, sure. But WED was a SoCal sort through and through. And don't get me started on the misuses of the Presidio. Why on earth should a celebration of Disney be put on National Recreation Area grounds, exactly? Heck, wasn't he behind the aborted despoilation of the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park?


Ah well...when money talks, irony flies out the window, just like Peter Pan.

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I really, really can't figure out why someone with essentially no ties to the Bay Area should have a museum here.


Probably because Diane Disney Miller (the co-founder of the museum) and her husband have ties to NorCal, specifically Napa.


It makes sense to me, and I personally love the location. I think the true intention of something like this would get lost if it were located on the property of one of their resorts.

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It makes sense to me, and I personally love the location.


Just curious - why?


The Presidio was originally an Army post, of course, and was turned over to the National Park Service with the proviso it become financially self-supporting. It's one of the most historic and scenic parts of San Francisco (and also located in a largely residential zone, with limited traffic access). Many of us residents would rather it not become just another tourist attraction, whether or not a big chunk of Disney money now lives 50 miles away.


There's currently a huge controversy over siting an important art museum there, and though many of us like various aspects of Disney, I'm not sure a private museum glorifying him belongs on National Parks land, any more than a Sam Walton museum belongs at Yosemite. (Or a Harvey Milk Museum should be plunked into the middle of Cumberland Island Seashore, for that matter.) Disney's questionable relationship to public lands is not just limited to the Mineral King development, but also includes controversies about WDW's land-use policies, and Disney's shot-down attempt to stick a theme park next to Manassas Battlefield. Until Pixar, I doubt that "Disney" and "San Francisco" were ever mentioned in the same sentence. And I never, ever heard any San Franciscan wish for a memorial to Disney to be sited here.


But, like I say, it's clearly a matter of "money talks." And at least it'll be just down the road from the theme-parkish tourist trap of Pier 39.



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Well, yeah, whatever.


I'm not really anti-Disney - hell, I just spent my b'day at Disneyland - but it does seem ironic that a number of the political and social movements San Francisco has historically been known for - from leftism and union activity to long hair and facial hair on men - are things ol' Uncle Walt was opposed to.


Ah well...when money talks, irony flies out the window, just like Peter Pan.


The other site I belong too someone had mention what would Walt Disney think of his "baby" today. Of course they said chances are he wouldn't like it. I agree with that but then again chances are I am sure it would be the same with others too. For example our local cable channel the other night aired a program about Barney Kroger who founded Kroger Supermarkets. From what I saw, Barney only wanted kroger to sell FOOD and food only, not anything else. Today Kroger has their own pharmacies, sell furniture and in a few places even jewerly. Ah Barney Kroger wouldn't like today's Kroger. Dittos more/less with the Kohls Family who launched the Kohls Department Store chain. I used to work for them and I remember that video "This is Kohls". A very interesting video. The Kohls family at first really wanted to keep their stores strictly a local chain with locations only in upper midwest and thats it. They were NOT interested in becoming another JC Penney. Somehow the Kohls family became less involved with Kohls. Look at Kohls now?

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I visited the Walt Disney family museum today with my family. The museum is definitely something any Disney fan should check out if they find themselves in the bay area. The various exhibits are laid out in chronological order, with the first actual exhibit after the lobby basically being the genesis of the Disney family, right up to Walt's birth and his early years before hitting it big with the cartoon shorts for movie theatres. As you proceed through the various sections, you're basically walking along hand in hand with Walt through his life as told by Walt himself and those who knew him best. There is an immense treasure of original artwork, letters, models, more awards than you can imagine, the actual train from his backyard railroad, etc. all mixed in with a number of cleverly done video screens and interactive displays that you can move through at your own pace. The last room is entirely dedicated to Walt's passing. Anyone that's ever felt even the slightest touch of "Disney magic" would probably have a tough time not getting at least a little bit choked up in that last room. I saw more than a few tears on the cheeks of those in the room with me, and if they bothered to look at me they'd have seen the same. All in all, I thought it was a very well done tribute to an extremely visionary, innovative, and irrepressible man. Different people have different opinions of Walt Disney, and rightfully so, but there is no denying the incredible influence he wielded, both during his life, and beyond. It was a great way to spend my Father's day.



P.S. Sorry, but I don't have any pictures since they're not allowed.

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Great report! Taking an unbiased view on the whole thing is a great way to go. People may call him some kind of a god, but he is what you described: a brilliant man, but a man nevertheless. I feel a lot of people here on either side of the argument should understand that.

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Sorry, but I don't have any pictures since they're not allowed.


Sounds interesting, and I'm glad you enjoyed it--so please understand that this is not directed at you--but "you're not allowed to take photos" will pretty much always equal "we suck and we don't want anyone to know" in my mind.

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^Or it could also mean that they might not have picked up full rights to some items within the museum and as such cannot permit people to photograph these items for reason of infringement. Or it could also be that they have photo albums, DVDs, etc detailing the museum and several of the items within it and letting people take pictures would cut back on merchandise sales (this is the usual reason at least).


Anyways, thanks for the report on the museum as this is a place I will eventually go see. Just need a reason to go to CA first.

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The museum is very impressive, and included many very interesting pieces of memorabilia, and a giant model of Disneyland in a large room filled with various Diseyland items, like an original Autopia car.


It's definitely worth a visit.


Also, they show classic Disney movies in a theater below the museum.

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