Disneyland is Closed — What of Walt’s Museum?

Update 11/28/2020: The city of San Francisco has announced new COVID-19 restrictions in light of a spike in cases in the Bay Area.

Today the Walt Disney Family Museum announced they would be closing again — effective Sunday.

I’ll keep an eye on this story. — CJB

It’s hard to believe but by the time COVID-19 ‘runs it’s course’ — Disneyland is likely to hit at least a full year of being closed. The last time Disneyland was closed for a year it was 1954. The park opened in 1955, so you can see what a big deal this is. Every day those gates are sealed a new closure record is set, and the next day broken. For Disney fans, like me, something about Disneyland being closed hurts. Our one reliable source of mental release, the very place where we can escape to safety and happiness in a chaotic world — is unavailable. Locked away for our own protection.

I have sometimes imagined a world without Disneyland, like it was something out of a dystopian nightmare. I never imagined I would live to see it. But it is not forever.

This nightmare — COVID-19, ends the way all nightmares end. Eventually, we will wake up. A vaccine will come, and Disneyland like Walt Disney World before it, will re-open and millions will again pass through those hallowed gates into Walt Disney’s original park.

In the meantime, fans are left to wait for an opening date, and to dream of returning to Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Southern California.

So where do you go for a healthy dose of Disney magic? (this is a thing, don’t @ me)

If you live near the east coast — Walt Disney World is always an option. They seem to have their social-distancing game down to a science (forgive the pun) and are managing to keep the gates open.

If traveling to Florida isn’t an option there’s always Disney +, which I have and admittedly never watch.

If you live in, or near San Francisco, California — you are in luck because there is a lesser-known but every-bit as special piece of nostalgic Disney history right here in San Francisco.

But I’m not talking about princesses (TM?) and mice — I’m talking about Walt Disney — the man. His family has deep bay area roots, and opened a museum in his honor in San Francisco’s Presidio in 2009.

Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller created the Walt Disney Family Museum to honor the legacy and life’s work of her Dad. The man behind the legend of Walt Disney, or Uncle Walt to several generation of Americans.

As such — the museum and foundation are directly affiliated with the surviving members of Walt’s family, but not with the Walt Disney Company.

Friday was my first visit since the museum’s reopening with an adjusted schedule after initially closing in the early days of the pandemic, and I went in with two goals. One was to see what WDFM looked like with COVID-19 precautions in place — and two, to shop…for myself. More on that later. Thursday night I jumped on WaltDisney.org (possibly the coolest web address ever, no?) and reserved a 1pm time slot for the next day.

I arrived at 12:50pm on Friday afternoon and was promptly greeted by a very cautious employee who asked if I had a reservation. After showing her the email confirmation, she radioed inside to see if there was room for a party of one to enter early — I would soon learn there was plenty.

I was ushered inside to a hand sanitizer station, given some general info (no flash pictures) at the front desk, handed a baggie containing a stylus “to push the buttons” and a sealed pair of wired earbuds, then I was sent into the museum’s first room.

As you might expect — this room represents Walt’s birth in Marcelene, Missouri in 1901, to his time “in the war.” Walt famously lied about his age and scored a job driving an ambulance in the Red Cross during World War I, and the star of this room is an actual ambulance, the same model Walt would have driven. The walls of this introductory room are lined with plaques and knick-knacks, video screens and photographs. Normally — this room is full of people, but today it was completely empty.

As alarming as it was — I kind of liked the feeling of being alone in the museum.

Vacant was the next room, as well as the elevator to the museum’s second level. The first place I encountered guests was in the room representing Walt’s arrival in Hollywood in the 1920s. I only crossed paths with a handful of parties, varying in size from two to as many as six people, the entire time I was in the museum. Everyone was masked and socially distanced appropriately.

I noticed that the museums many hands-on exhibits, mainly targeted at children, were all deactivated and marked “closed.” Important to note if you are planning to visit with fidgety kids.

Throughout the museum hooks for large diaphragm headphones sat empty on the front of the exhibits, right below them you’ll find an empty headphone jack for those complimentary earbuds.

Without the small sounds coming from the headphones in every direction — and throngs of distant voices — the massive museum was silent save for one sound. Walt Disney’s voice. Not in your face but sort of, everywhere and nowhere. The effect is especially prominent in my favorite spot in the entire museum — the park bench.

At the end of this long glass hallway overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge sits a weathered park bench against a red brick wall. This bench, which once sat in Los Angeles’ Griffith park, is believed to be the place where Walt first imagined the idea for Disneyland. Sitting here I noticed Walt’s excited voice talking about Disneyland, “…and things” off in the distance. Even in his 60s and unbeknownst to him, slowly dying of cancer — his voice has the energy of an excited child, I find it infectious. There was something about his voice, and the acoustics of the space that inspired me to just sit on that historic bench and close my eyes.

Along a spiral walkway past Walt’s backyard train, a hypnotizing scale model of Disneyland, audio-animatronics, and a looped replay of the EPCOT film — you can feel Walt’s presence there.

His fingerprints are literally all over the room.

The Walt Disney Family Museum is taking all of the prescribed precautions and working to keep as much of their collection open to the public as possible. The collection is really magnificent. If you are a Disney fan like I am…a visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum will replenish a little of that joy you are missing. The final space will make you weep. Luckily for you — it’s followed by a gift shop.

If you have visited before — you might actually find the Walt Disney Family Museum a bit more more enjoyable with reduced crowds. I missed the cafe, and the ability to meet friends at the museum. Otherwise — the experience was about the same. A warm and tangible reminder of the man Walt Disney — in a time when the gates to his kingdom remain closed for the greater good.

I wonder what Walt would have made of COVID-19?


Updated: If you need a little Disney right now — the Walt Disney Family Museum has a great slate of virtual programs. For more information head to WaltDisney.org.

If you enjoy theme parks and trivia, you might like the other podcast I host Theme Park Pulse: The Game.

I have been an Individual ($100) member of the Walt Disney Family Museum off and on for the last 5 years and am a regular visitor. I was not given a free ticket for this visit.


Christopher J. Beale is an independent journalist and radio host/producer based in San Francisco. You can reach him on Twitter at @RealChrisJBeale, and listen to his podcast Unpacked.

Journalist and Broadcaster based in San Francisco. Host of the podcast "Unpacked," reporter for KQED’s Bay Curious. More: christopherjbeale.com

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