Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Walt Disney Family Museum and More!

For the break week between Sydney Summer posts, I decided to give you a little bonus post review of my travels last week to the Walt Disney Family Museum and more. 

Between the summer and fall semesters of my thesis, I took a trip to San Diego for a school conference and expanded my trip up to San Francisco to go to the Museum. (No trip to Disneyland this time, but probably going back later in the year.) Though the Museum was the main theme park draw for the trip, I discovered a few other things I wanted to mention that pertain to theme park design in some way.

First: Balboa Park in San Diego. Balboa Park is an extremely large cultural park near downtown that was the site of the 1915-16 Panama California Exposition and 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition. Like other World's Fair grounds, it left an impressive environment of architectural and cultural landmarks. San Diego took advantage of this by bringing a dozen or more public museums into the park to fill the existing architecture. Today, it is one of the more popular areas of the city for locals and tourists alike and it was packed with families on a late Sunday afternoon. 

As soon as I discovered the World's Fair history of the park, I knew this would be a great park to visit, even just for the beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture. Once there, I was shocked at how complete and enveloping the themed environment was. It really felt like more than just a group of museums. After walking around for a few minutes, I began to think of this as a cultural theme park and started to find some comparisons. 

It had a theme as defined by the architectural design, in this case a grand Spanish Colonial park.

It had clear circulation and even had a "weenie" icon anchoring one side of the dominant linear pathway. 

It had defined "attractions", as in the museums and gardens. 

It had entertainment and what you could even consider "characters".

And most importantly it was full of activity and felt alive. 

This was a theme park. One that was free and filled with museums, but still a highly designed place for relaxation and entertainment. 

This just makes it clearer to me how close the relationship is between World's Fairs and theme parks in the sense that they share common urban planning philosophies. 

Not all theme parks are like this, but some areas, like EPCOT and some lands of Disneyland style parks, feel just like a World's Fair. There is an overarching thematic structure that self acknowledges that its is an artificial collection of attractions and exhibits. It isn't pretending to be an organically real place, like Adventureland for example. It's almost like the World's Fair design model balances the fakeness of its organization with the thematic realness of the contents. And I think it makes a super successful themed environment.

I find this super interesting and hope I can look into this more later. I would love to get to some more former World's Fair grounds soon. 

Next: Musee Mechanique in San Francisco, near Fisherman's Wharf. This is a free museum/arcade full of antique arcade machines and musical instruments. I definitely stumbled upon this late one evening and am so glad that I did. This place was filled with old games and mechanical dioramas that I can only image are like those that inspired early Disney attractions and figures. 

What amazed me about visiting was how simple the arcade machines were but how popular they were with all ages. While there, there were equal numbers of kids playing games or the first time and adults reminiscing about games of the past. Nothing digital, no complicated interactive systems, just simple mechanics that created compelling and interesting games that everyone wanted to play. Good reminder for theme park design that it doesn't always have to be complicated. Sometimes simple is just as popular and successful. Plus maybe antique arcades could still be successful in a modern park. 

Last: the Walt Disney Family Museum, the reason for the trip up to San Francisco. Located in the Presidio area of the city, the Museum is currently featuring an exhibit called Disney and Dali: Architects of the Imagination along with the standard galleries on the history of Walt's life. I spent about 4 hours there and could have spent a whole day. I'll just share some highlights and general thoughts. 

First, the Disney and Dali exhibit was fantastic. Unfortunately no pictures inside. It was structured as a timeline through both of their lives, comparing their childhoods and early careers and tracking the moments their careers intersect. 

I found most interesting the discussion about how their childhood homes influenced their later work. There was a great video with shots of Walt in Marceline and it was very clear that Disneyland as a whole is just an expansion of his childhood memories of home. Shots of him walking through town or along a creek on his farm could easily be mistaken for Disneyland. Really interesting how the origin of Disneyland is so directly tied to the experiences of a single place and single time yet now have become a universal statement of Americana. 

Then to the main gallery where pictures were allowed. It was an overwhelmingly complete look at the life of Walt Disney, filled with more artifacts and information than I imagined. It went step by step from his childhood, to his beginnings in animation and move to Hollywood, through to the start of what we now know as the Disney Company. There was a lot of focus on the parts of his life that modern Disney ignores, like his Laugh-o-Gram cartoons and Alice live action shorts. In fact, Snow White wasn't until halfway through the Museum. This was really interesting to me, because I really didn't know how important his career was before Disney Studios. Being younger and indoctrinated directly by the modern Disney, a lot of this was new information for me. I really understand the point of the Museum now.

Here's some highlights through this section. 

Cases of dozens of awards that Walt won

Original sketch of Oswalt

The first known sketch of Mickey

Case of Walt's miniature collection

I am primarily a parks fan, so I was most looking forward to the last room that featured Disneyland. The highlight here was the large model of an idealized Disneyland. As you can see, it does not represent the park as it ever was or will be but is instead a compilation of the history and unrealized plans for the park. Its a stunning piece of art that I stayed at much too long. Highlight of the Museum. 

The Walt Disney Family Museum was definitely worth the trip as it is a comprehensive look at the reality of the whole career of Walt Disney. As a parks fan, I just wish it was bigger so as to showcase more of his impact on themed design. I still stand by my blue sky idea that the Carousel of Progress should be moved here when it inevitably is evicted. Add a new wing with the CoP shows scenes, exhibit space on the World's Fair and EPCOT, and a presentation of his legacy to theme parks, and I would be really happy. But even now, the Museum is pretty perfect and worth a visit!

The plan is to start again on Sydney Summer next Tuesday, now looking at the Hollywood Adventure park! Thanks for reading along.


  1. Just got back from a trip to Chicago, so I wasn't able to review your review. Huh. Well, overall your trip to the Disney Family Museum looks really interesting and it's made me quite interested in going there myself.

    1. Chicago is a great place to visit. Good architecture town with all the Wright scattered through the city. I was there early this year when it was still cold and snowy. Bet now was significantly better weather.

      It's not the best review, but I hope you do get to go. It's a pilgrimage for Disney fans and I only hope it gets bigger and better.