Did you know there’s a Disneyland in San Francisco?
Well, not exactly.
But there’s a full-sized model of it at the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio, which, if you’re not into lines full of children and like museums, may be even better than the real thing.
The Disney Museum is a hidden gem of the Bay Area that not only shows you artifacts from all of your favorite classic films, but also documents the life of the man behind the mouse: Walt Disney. Even though we don’t give tours in the space (yet), we still thought we would bring you three stories from this fantastic space, Museum Hack style.
Hack #1: Snow White and the Honorable Mention
Everyone knows how the story of Snow White goes, right?
Once upon a time, there was the weirdest one-man show ever…
Alright, let’s start over.
The year was 1934 and Walt Disney had already left an undeniable mark on American culture. In the nine years since founding his company, Walt introduced the world to Mickey Mouse, as well as his series of Silly Symphonies, which synced music and sound effects to animation for the first time in history.*
Riding the high from these successful ventures, Walt asked himself, “What was next for the Disney Company?”
One day, Walt gave his entire staff the morning off and told them to be back promptly in the afternoon at the studio meeting room. Thes staff returned to a darkened theater and the buzz of anticipation. Everyone knew that whatever Walt was planning, it was going to be big.
Walt emerged from the darkness into a single spotlight and announced that they would be making the world’s first full length animated feature, based off of the Grimm Brothers fairytale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Now, a normal boss would have probably gone into a storyboard pitch with lots of diagrams and timetables and all that Hollywood jazz. Except none of that existed yet. There had never been an animated project of this scope before, so there were no rules.
To sell his vision, Walt did something that probably no other director has done since; he proceeded to act out the entire movie in a one-man show, including physical actions, set details, and voices for each of the characters. Walt did this so that his staff would understand the importance of the journey he was about to take them on. This was not only a commercial endeavor; it was an entirely new artistic field they were inventing.
Everyone was on board with Walt’s crazy plan … except for his brother and business partner, Roy Disney.
Roy thought that Snow White was far too ambitious for a project and that it would sink the company financially. Of course, Walt said this was utter nonsense and the project ended up going forward.
As it turned out, Roy wasn’t half wrong. Walt ended up draining his personal savings and mortgaging his family’s house in order to pay for the project. The final bill to create Snow White came out to $1,488,422.74, which almost ten times over Walt’s original budget estimation and a ridiculously expensive price for a film at the time.
Word spread around Hollywood of what Disney was up to, and the project soon became known as “Disney’s Folly” due to its ambitious scope, massive budgetary problems, and glacial production speed.
Three years after initially going into production, the film finally premiered to a somewhat hesitant audience. Then the opening shot of the castle hit the audience right in the heart and floored any doubts they might have had.
The film was universally praised by everyone who saw it, with some even going as far as to call it, “the single greatest film ever made”. Snow White even made back its budget eight times over in its original run and left fans hungry for more.
Unfortunately, being the single greatest film ever made doesn’t mean sh*t at award season.
The film was snubbed for best picture and every other serious category that year. However, it did pick up Best Original Soundtrack and a special trophy made by the Academy featuring seven miniature Oscars along with the traditional statue.
This pandering pissed Walt off. He felt like Hollywood still treated him as an outsider and didn’t consider what he was doing to be “real art”. Even though Walt accepted the award, those who knew him best said that he felt he was handed the honorable mention at the school talent show.
If you want to experience secondhand ego burn and gaze into one of the greatest achievements/snubs of movie history, you can check out the Oscar(s) in the opening hall of the Disney Museum. Don’t take it too personally, Walt, no animated picture has ever won best picture.
Hack #2: The Mouse on Strike
Next up, we have a picket sign…with an angry Mickey Mouse on it.
It turns out good old uncle Walt wasn’t really the best of bosses at times. According to lots of people who use to work for him, he was a man with a vision. If you somehow didn’t read his mind and see what that vision was, “he would come down on you like a ton of bricks.”
One joke in the office was that workers would yell, “Man is in the forest!” whenever Walt was walking through, as a reference to the scene in which Bambi’s mom is killed. (Err, sorry for spoilers for anyone who hasn’t seen that movie.)
It didn’t help Walt’s case that he was very light on praise. If he liked something someone was working on, he would just say, “That will work” and move on.
Walt’s next two feature films after Snow White were Pinocchio and Bambi. When both did very badly at the box office, Walt blamed his critical failure on WWII and kept on pushing his way of doing things. Well, Walt’s way of doing things included paying some of his animator friends $200 to $300 a week for their work, while paying others he wasn’t close to only $12.
Naturally, this pay discrepancy didn’t sit well with workers who talked about unionization unless better conditions were given to those whose sweat and blood went into bringing Walt’s vision to life.
Of course, Walt took whispers of unionization as signs of a great Communist conspiracy in Hollywood set out to destroy his reputation and his animation empire.
When workers went to Walt with demands, his response was not exactly what they were hoping for. In so many words, he basically told them to take a hike.
This indifference went over so poorly that half his workers started a picket line the very next day after their bigging. These signs you can see at the museum are left over from the strike. Most specifically called out Walt for all the terrible things he did, as well as poked fun at him for his commercial and critical failures.
Some close to Walt say that the strike changed him as a person. At one point Walt had his secretary refile the payroll sheets so that everyone who was “loyal” and stuck with him throughout the strike was in a separate case than those who had “deserted” him. And during the strike, when one of his ex-workers yelled, “There goes the great man!” as Walt tried to cross the picket line, Walt jumped from his vehicle and bull-rushed the heckler before being restrained by the police.
Eventually, Walt when on a family vacation and his brother, Roy, stepped in to settle the strike and ensure workers got everything they wanted. But the strike broke Walt’s heart, and sources say he never trusted anyone truly again.
Okay, so I know I’m really selling this museum about the most magical place on Earth as a pretty depressing place itself, but I promise this last story has a happily ever after!
Hack #3: The Midlife Crisis That Founded the Magic Kingdom
I know this headline sounds like it will be depressing but we promise it ends with all of us going to Disneyland.1
After the financial failure of some of Walt’s dream projects (like Pinocchio, Bambi, and Fantasia) Walt retreated somewhat inward and took a bit of a backseat in the creative process of his company.
When Disney’s next animated feature, Cinderella, premiered, it was hailed as a return to form for the company but Walt wasn’t pleased with the movie. To Walt, Cinderella was a lazy film that cut corners and lacked the artistic value of his earlier works. At one meeting, he was particularly down on himself and claimed that he would never make something as good as Snow White.
Okay, I know I said this story wasn’t depressing but the first part kind of is. But this is where a model train comes in and makes everything better!
During Walt’s minor depression, he got really into model trains. Boy howdy, did Walt get into trains.
Walt bought himself a 1/8 scale, fully functional steam train and set up over a half a mile of track in his backyard. The train was named the “Lille Bell” after his wife Lillian. He would invite all his friends and family over in order to give them rides around the little world he created.
Through his train, Walt was able to escape the real world and live in a simpler one, one that he could control. A little creepy, yes, but without this creepy tendency, we wouldn’t have Disneyland.
Because of his obsession with his train and the idea of creating a fun place he could control, Walt started to have a dream. This dream was of a cleaner, simpler world, one that families could come to in order to escape from the harsh complications of reality.
Naturally, Roy thought this was a terrible idea. Theme parks were a huge economic expense, not only in terms of construction but in upkeep. Up to that point, families had only been able to visit carnivals, which were often unsanitary and, according to Walt, morally dubious. Walt’s park would be different. Despite Roy’s protestations, Walt drew up some plans, which you can see at the top of this section. The original park was divided up into four sections:
- Fantasy Land
- Adventure Land
- Westworld Frontierland
And thus began the dream that launched one million family vacations.
Since I promised I would end on a positive note, I won’t go into how much of a disaster the opening day of the park was or how it was a turbulent nightmare to even get the park open on schedule. Instead, I will leave you with the recommendation that if you want to learn more about Disney, I highly recommend road tripping out to San Francisco and checking out the Walt Disney Family Museum!