The Walt Disney Family Museum

Located in the Presidio in San Francisco, The Walt Disney Family Museum is a thoughtfully crafted journey through Walt’s life, career, family, and creative impact on the world. It is Disney, but don’t expect any rides or costumed characters here – this is a cultural/historical museum, not a park.  It’s run by the Disney family rather than by the corporation.

The Walt Disney Family Museum entrance

That said, it is still Disney, so the storytelling is excellent. Walt has become this larger-than-life figure over the past century, but he was also a real human being who had a family and lived through two world wars and took major business risks that sometimes changed the world but sometimes fell totally flat. There were also a number of key people around him whose expertise made his dreams possible. This museum does an excellent job of showing the struggles as well as the triumphs while weaving a cohesive story of his life and legacy. I found hearing parts of the story in Walt’s own voice was especially powerful.

The Walt Disney Family Museum display
“He just wanted to do wonderful things. He wanted to make people feel good and make them feel happy and take them away from the trials and tribulations of everyday living. That’s what he did. That as his purpose in life.” -Dick Sherman, describing Walt Disney

I also particularly enjoyed the perspective the museum offered. For example, we take for granted that movies and sound effects can always be edited or fine-tuned after the fact, but in the early era of Disney movies, the sound effects and orchestra recordings and everything had to be recorded simultaneously because “dubbing” had not been invented yet. Likewise, the simple idea of animating the candle and having that glow reflected in the Blue Fairy’s face in Pinocchio counted as “special effects” back then because no one had figured out how to animate that level of realism before. Imagine that! As an artist and a millennial, I found that kind of reality-check utterly fascinating. So much has happened in less than a century!

In a Nutshell

The museum showcases various artifacts, photos, video clips, audio clips, drawings, and other elements of Walt Disney’s life and career. It’s set up as a series of interactive galleries in chronological order, from his early interest in art to his journey to Hollywood to the founding and growth of his company. It talks about the movies he made, the technologies he pioneered, the challenges his company faced along the way, the inspiration and process behind Disneyland’s creation, and more. Even hardcore Disney addicts will find new details and stories here. Although you’re free to explore the galleries in any order, they’re designed to be seen in chronological order and I definitely recommend it.

The Walt Disney Family Museum display

We saw all ages here, from infants to grandparents. The younger visitors seemed engaged by the wide variety of visuals and interactive displays, while the older children/teens and adults were engaged by the storytelling in the museum plaques and displays. There is a LOT of information to absorb along the way, so if you’re someone who likes to read all the plaques and milk all the detail you can out of a museum, your younger (elementary school-age) children will likely lose interest before you do.

The Walt Disney Family Museum display
Individual frames in the animation of Steamboat Willie

In addition to the main galleries about Walt’s life, there is often a special exhibit going as well. This may be focused on a particularly famous Disney animator, a landmark Disney movie with an anniversary coming up, or another topic of interest. During our visit, it was about Glen Keane, the Disney animator/artist who drew Beast, Tarzan, Ariel, Pocahontas, and others. Check the museum’s website for current exhibitions.

Location

The Walt Disney Family Museum is located in the Presidio in San Francisco, very close to the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s about an hour north of San Jose.

The address is 104 Montgomery Street. As the museum’s website notes, “there are two Montgomery Streets in San Francisco—the museum is located in the Presidio of San Francisco, not in the Financial District. If you are using a GPS, please remember to enter the zip code 94129 when planning your route.”

There’s metered parallel parking available in front of the museum and throughout the Presidio. (This is where we parked. These slots are free with a disabled parking placard and are closer than the parking lot.) There’s also a main parking lot available nearby. See the museum website’s transportation page for details.

The transportation page also tells you about the public transit options (including the free PresidiGo shuttle and the regular MUNI or Golden Gate Transit busses)  and where to lock your bike if you choose to ride to the museum instead of driving. This is San Francisco, after all!

Weather

This is a fully indoor museum, so weather isn’t really a factor here. It will be enjoyable year-round.

The Golden Gate Bridge as seen from The Walt Disney Family Museum
View of the Golden Gate Bridge from the museum

Cost

Although it’s not a Disney theme park, this museum still has that premium Disney experience in the ticket prices. When we visited (2018), tickets were $25 each for adults and slightly discounted for children, students, and seniors. Children 5 and under are free with adult admission. Some special film screenings or other events cost extra. See their website for current pricing and membership options. (The museum is part of the Time Travelers and NARM and ROAM reciprocal membership programs with other historical societies and museums throughout the country.)

In the past, we’ve found coupons for the museum on those little tourist brochures you pick up at local hotels or airports. It’s also included in the San Francisco Go Card if you’re planning to spend several days seeing multiple locations in the city. If you only want tickets to this one museum, you can sometimes find $1-3 discounts for buying tickets online ahead of time through various sources, but please make sure you’re using a reputable website before purchasing.

If you’re active or retired military, you and your family can get in for free with valid ID year-round and can bring guests for free over the summer.

The Walt Disney Family Museum display

Unless you have a disabled placard/license plate, you’ll also need to pay for hourly parking.

Length of Time

I’m told the average visit here is about 2 hours, but you could easily spend all day. It depends on your level of interest and how quickly your brain gets saturated by either the richly detailed information or the high level of sensory input. If you have children with you, a couple hours is probably the limit. If you’re coming only with interested teens or adults, you could easily spend at least half a day or more.

The Walt Disney Family Museum display
Original furniture from Walt’s apartment above the fire station on Main Street in Disneyland. (What’s in the apartment now is a replica.)

Wheelchair Access

The building fits the Presidio’s historical look on the outside, but is fully modern and accessible on the inside. There’s a ramp to the left of the main entrance and an elevator between floors. The galleries are laid out in an open enough way that there were no issues navigating.

The only minor wheelchair accessibility challenge came in reading some of the displays. Some of the artifacts are arranged in tall glass display cases with tiny number labels next to each item, and then the numbers correspond to the explanation plaque down at hip height. While it was easy to read the plaques, it was not always easy to make out the numbers on the tiny labels next to the artifacts. This wasn’t an issue everywhere and didn’t interfere much with the overall experience, but was an annoyance in places.

Hearing & Vision

This is a very interactive multimedia museum. (See below for sensory notes.) Nearly everything can be read on plaques and/or accessed through the on-demand closed captioning system available through the ticket desk when you arrive. (We didn’t make use of this, but it’s a great service.) Therefore someone with significant hearing loss would still be able to enjoy most of the museum without issue.

Guests with partial hearing loss who use hearing aids may find the museum’s constant background noise from overlapping movie clips and audio recordings playing everywhere, as well as other visitors’ voices, makes it harder to focus on what you’re trying to hear. If you’re visiting the museum with someone who uses hearing aids, realize that the background noise may make it harder than usual for them to hear you, so make sure you’re close and/or have their attention before speaking.

Like many museums, the displays are mainly visually oriented, but I think a guest with a visual impairment could still enjoy a visit here. Many of the galleries incorporate movie clips and audio recordings that are on continuous loop through TV sets or speakers. Other displays include telephone handsets that you pick up to listen to an interview segment or other recording. In many places, the lighting feels low and the font feels small, so some visitors have trouble reading the plaques comfortably, but again it’s more of an annoyance than an actual hindrance to enjoying the museum.

Although we didn’t use it because we don’t have smartphones, there is also an “Enhanced Content” experience available through the STQRY app. This offers additional audio, video, and photo content as you walk through the museum. This is good for all guests but could be especially useful to visitors who need closer access to visual or auditory content.

Sensory Processing

To be honest, the intensity of the sensory experience in this museum caught me entirely off guard and nearly spoiled the whole experience for me. After we took a break about 45 minutes into the visit and I adjusted my expectations, the rest of the day was much more enjoyable. If you’re a sensory-sensitive type, or if your children are, be prepared. This museum throws every modern interactive multimedia museum technology at you all at once and it can be overwhelming for some of us. (For others, that’s a huge selling feature and is what helps visitors stay engaged. To each their own.)

Specifically, some of the galleries have oddly low ambient/overhead lighting while multiple screens run videos on continuous loop. At any given point, I could hear overlapping audio from at least 2-4 speakers, which made focus a challenge even with my earplugs in. This is a picture of the first gallery:

The Walt Disney Family Museum first gallery

The layout is such that the galleries flow in chronological order but there’s no linear order to the displays within a given gallery. This makes it easy to casually wander the space and explore at your own pace, which I appreciate, but it also added to my feeling of there being simply too much to see and do at every turn.

The Walt Disney Family Museum animation gallery

Personally, the sensory combination of video, voices, music, unusual lighting, visually busy displays, and nonlinear flow was intense and unsettling. After taking a break and putting in my earplugs, I was able to handle it enough to avoid sensory panic and focus on enjoying the content instead, but I was still wiped by the end of the day. (I’m an adult. Two of my godchildren (ages 5 and 9) have significant sensory processing challenges, and I honestly don’t think I’d bring them here. I think they’d be overloaded.)

The Walt Disney Family Museum Disneyland gallery

This video that I found on YouTube shows some of what I’m talking about, although the intensity is lower in the video than in real life because the camera zooms in on displays one at a time. As I said, for most people, this rapid and varied input is not a problem or can even be a feature, but for some of us, it’s almost a show-stopper. I would have liked to have known what to expect going in, so I want to help you feel prepared. If you bring your earplugs and go in with your internal “shields” up, the museum can be a very positive experience.

Food

There is a little cafe and adjacent seating area within the museum building. They have a nice array of soups, salads, sandwiches, baked treats, coffee and tea. The prices were surprisingly reasonable, especially by San Francisco and/or Disney standards, and the quality was very good. (No greasy theme park pizza here.) Their menu notes the vegetarian and gluten-free options. There was even a vegan-friendly quinoa salad that was quite good! The half-plate size was plenty for one person. You can also bring your own food to enjoy at the tables. (We did this and I saw plenty of other families doing the same thing. The museum is only picky about not eating/drinking within the galleries, which is understandable.)

The Walt Disney Family Museum food
Vegan Quinoa Salad

The Walt Disney Family Museum cafe menu

In nice weather, you could enjoy a picnic on the grass outside the museum. There are also several restaurants outside of the museum in other parts of the Presidio. Of course, if you go a bit further outside the Presidio gates, the whole city of San Francisco is at your culinary disposal!

Would we go back?

Perhaps. The sensory overwhelm was strong enough that I would not want a membership here, to be honest, but I can see why some of my friends and family who’ve visited in the past were so impressed. The quality of the displays and the level of thought that went into this museum really are Disney-worthy. It’s an impressive place. After all, where else can you sit on the bench where Walt Disney himself sat when he first thought of creating Disneyland?

The Walt Disney Family Museum bench

We’re both lifelong Disney buffs so we deeply enjoyed the stories we learned in the museum. There’s so much detail there, I’m sure we didn’t get it all on the first pass. I thought the museum did a fantastic job of tying everything together, so even the stories that I already knew as trivia or standalone stories were put into context as we walked through the timeline of the galleries. In that way, the day was very satisfying, and I know there would be more to absorb in a future visit.

Whether you’re a lifelong Disney buff, an artist or aspiring movie pro, or just someone who enjoys a good rags-to-riches story, The Walt Disney Family Museum has a lot to offer that will make you smile!

The Walt Disney Family Museum Disneyland model
Model of Disneyland