Walt Disney Family Museum : A San Francisco Treasure

By Kathy Chin Leong


On Sunday nights in the 1960s, watching the Wonderful World of Disney was like inviting the revered Walt Disney  into our home. I, like millions of other kids, thought of the man as the ideal grandfather, kind and generous, and most of all, fun.


I anticipated visiting the new Walt Disney Family Museum based in the former Presidio army compound, and it met my expectations and more.  The late Walt Disney remains one of my heroes for his out-of-the-box thinking and ingenuity.  But, parents, let me set you straight from the get go, this is not a mini-Disneyland. There are no rides or characters in costume milling about.  This is not a place to let your kids to cut loose and run. 


This is a serious museum which chronicles the legacy and detailed life of a man serious about creativity. Driving up to the two-story brick facility, I was giddy. There is no large signage as there is in Disneyland which already tells you the experience is going to be remarkably different.  There is a small banner that simply reads, Walt Disney Family Museum .  The brick building blends in with many other brick buildings so it is quite modest.


Parking is free and vast and closeby. What a treat to be able to do this in the city where private parking lots can charge up to $40 a day for parking. 




Once you pay the $20 entrance fee, you start out on the main floor.  In the first room, you see black and white photos of the Disney lineage and learn about Walt Disney’s grandparents and how they came to the United States .  More detailed  photos and signs show Disney’s parents and their family. Walt Disney grew up in Southern California and was extremely close to his brother.  I liked how the information was displayed in creative ways with some cutout photos moving across a board and some important info was printed on rotating text. 


The early displays of his life pre-Mickey Mouse, require patrons to do lots of reading.  You learn about his passion for drawing and his thirst to learn new things.  The museum cases hold much of his personal belongings such as original sketches and pens and notepads.  The site is indeed a shrine to his life.  But it also tells about the not-too-pleasant parts such as when Disney artists went on strike, upset with working conditions and wages.


I recommend parents bring children who can read or kids who are willing to be read to.  Each level describes his life in vivid detail with so much information that you cannot get through it all in one day.




Children will love the learning about the second phase of Disney’s life, the era where when he launched cartoons and animated motion pictures. In the subsequent rooms that display his animation and movies, the pace of the museum seems to pick up,for there seem to be more interactive displays with touch screens, music buttons, headsets, and more.


Kids will see film clips of the early movies and Mickey Mouse Club TV show. Also on display are movie posters, Disney and Mickey Mouse collectibles, and a full 3-D miniature of Disneyland .


In addition to learning about Walt Disney as an artist, you learn about Walt Disney as the husband and family man.  You find out about the time he gave his new bride a dog for Christmas and had it wrapped under the tree.  You find out about the time he gave his daughters a backyard playhouse which was custom built to replicate the Hansel and Gretel house in the movie.  You see photos of the many exotic places the Disney family went to on their vacations.



Parents, take advantage of this day at the museum to encourage creativity for your children in all forms. Walt Disney was inventive technically and always the visionary.  His engineers created machines that were cutting edge in the animation process, making the scenery in movies such as Bambi have depth and texture.


I advise taking your time to linger and read as much as possible. The Disney family has done an excellent job in depicting the life of a man who never stopped at roadblocks.  If you must have a souvenir before you leave, WDFM gift shop is right in the entry.  The restrooms and snack bar is downstairs.


Families and kids can extend their WDFM experience with classes offered in the summer and throughout the year. 


The life of Walt Disney was so rich and inspirational, I know I will come back the next time I need to unblock any writer’s block or when I need a jumpstart in motivation. Here was a man who was tireless and constantly meeting new challenges and thinking of new ones. Before he died of cancer on December 15, 1966, he and his business associates were already drafting plans for Walt Disneyworld in Florida .  The last section of the museum discusses the final phases of his life, and I got choked up when I saw the cartoon strips from all over the world that honored Walt Disney the day after he died.  It is a very, very touching treatise.


When I left the museum after 3 hours, I felt like I knew the man personally. The life of Walt Disney has not yet been put into a movie, but when it does, I want a front row seat.





Walt Disney Family Museum

104 Montgomery St
The Presidio of SF














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