The Pilgrim’s Journey and the Walt Disney Family Museum

The Walt Disney Family Museum closes in just under three hours and I’m still exploring the lobby.

It includes a setting from the Disneyland firehouse apartment, portraits of Walt’s two daughters by someone named Norman Rockwell, and hundreds of personal awards and trophies. The staff – dressed in red button-up sweaters that are part Walt Disney, part Mr. Rogers – wait patiently for me to finish my circuit.

I approach the official start of the museum and the ticket taker gives me a cheery “Ready to go inside?” It feels like a veiled shot at my time in the lobby.

I step into a dark room dominated by a WWI ambulance and blanketed in pictures of Walt’s family. As I approach the first exhibit and comprehend its rabbit hole of detail, the horrible realization hits.

I am going to run out of time.

The Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio

The Walt Disney Family Museum is nestled in quiet hills near San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate. From the outside it looks like all the other buildings at the Presidio—wide and blocky, crusted in red brick, with a green common in front.

It’s three miles and an hour’s walk from Fisherman’s Wharf. I know this because I hiked the entire distance from my hotel. I could have taken a car, but it felt more appropriate to walk. If Walt Disney is a religion, then this is a pilgrimage. You don’t go in with a cell phone app and an uber driver. You climb the mountain and enter on your hands and knees.

Once inside, modern presentation blends seamlessly with archaic content—old telegrams, faded letters, a Hoarders episode of miniatures from Walt’s personal collection. There’s even a ride of sorts (#WDFM1). The elevator to the second floor is a virtual train ride from Kansas City to Hollywood, accompanied by narration. When you step out into the birth of the Walt Disney Studios, things get progressively more dynamic.

The Griffith Park Bench Where Walt Disney Conceived Disneyland

The Griffith Park bench where Walt conceived Disneyland is there. So also the spinning golden globe from the True-Life Adventures, looking delightfully like the cheap, chipped movie prop that it is. A glass case protects Elias’ devil-music fiddle. A sawhorse props up Zorro’s saddle. A towering multiplane camera worms through the building like a private Wonkavator.

And of course everything is carpeted in acres and acres of cartoon drawings – including the oldest verified drawing of Mickey Mouse (artist unknown).

Growing up in the Midwest, my school library had three biographies about Walt, which I endlessly devoured. For fans steeped in Disney lore, the museum offers little in the way of new information. But rarely does all this book learning come to life in such a captivating way.

If Walt Disney is a religion, then Bob Thomas’ Walt Disney: An American Original is its bible. It is not the most exhaustive biography, but it is the most accessible. From its pages I first read Walt’s letters to his old Kansas City cohorts begging them to come West, his telegrams to Roy on the loss of Oswald, and his simultaneously fiery and despondent feelings about the Studio strike.

To see these same words again, but on the actual documents in which they were printed is nothing short of remarkable. It’s as close to a time machine as you can get.

Forty-five minutes before closing, I leave behind the Studios displays and enter the last room, with a spiral ramp through its core leading back to the main floor. And for a guy who started a website called Parkeology, it is here that the Walt Disney Family Museum delivers its knockout punch.

Theme Parks have an advantage over animation, in that everything about them is tangible, touchable, dimensional. Mechanical tiki birds, Abe Lincoln sculptures, Wally Boag prop teeth, a vintage Autopia car… They have a texture to them, a weight, a palpable scent of history. Other Disney exhibits such as One Man’s Dream and the Blue Sky Cellar might present park artifacts, but the Walt Disney Family Museum lends them a sense of spirituality, as if these were holy relics buried in the church vault, now made available to the faithful.

So it’s not without a touch of irony that my favorite piece in the museum is not a real artifact at all.

At the center of the spiral is a giant model of Disneyland–beautifully sculpted, animated in spots, dazzlingly illuminated and riddled with special effects. Main Street twinkles.The Pirates of the Caribbean fire their cannons. The Primeval World lava glows and flickers.

Walt Disney Family Museum Disneyland Model

It appears to exist only for the Museum’s sake. It represents a Disneyland out of time: A pre-1980s Fantasyland, a concept version of Space Mountain, a current New Orleans Square.

I spend a half hour staring at this model from every angle. With ten minutes to go, I reluctantly proceed to the rest of the museum, covering the last years of Walt’s life.

As I exit into the gift shop (some Disney traditions are inescapable), I glance back for one last farewell and take in a final reminder at the projects Walt left unfinished. The revelation I received at the start of this adventure has become a universal truth.

We all run out of time.

Walt Disney Family Museum Exit

4 Theme Park Musical Moments from Pixar in Concert

The concept is a bit strange.

Pay a hundred bucks for the right to dress up in nice clothes and go to a theater to watch a full orchestra play background music from cartoons.

It’s even crazier when you’re a theme park fan and you spend half the time relating various peripheral melodies to your favorite park moments.

Last Sunday I donned my nice jeans, and my wife put on the good flip flops, and my son wore actual, bona fide pants and we went to the fancy shmancy Walt Disney Theater at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando to see Pixar in Concert.

Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts

Dr. Phillips is a famous Orlando personage who seemingly owns half the city.

I had never been to see an actual orchestra except for that one time I glimpsed the Trans Siberian Orchestra playing Carol of the Bells at Universal Studios while on my way to ride The Mummy. But the Orlando Philharmonic is the real deal, and they tune up just like the beginning of Fantasia.

The tune-up process is interesting, because it basically sounds like a street fight between a few flocks of discordant geese and the Channel 4 News Team. They produce this cacophony in full view of the audience, like nothing else in live performance. It’s like watching actors blow straw bubbles before Glengarry Glen Ross or the Golden State Warriors accidentally setting up their lay-up line at the concession stand. What, you can’t tune your instrument unless a thousand strangers are watching you?

Finally one gal stands up (first chair violin?) and everyone plays the same note and that’s how they know they’re ready.

Walt Disney Theater

This guy owns the other half.

The conductor comes out, the lights go down, and the orchestra launches into the Pixar intro music. And somehow it sounds perfect. All that’s missing is the hopping lamp.

Pixar in Concert turned out to be a mesmerizing experience, and comes highly recommended if it’s showing in your area. Obviously, you need to love the movies and have some appreciation for music. Pixar movies differ from traditional Disney animated films in that there are not many iconic songs. But there is a surprising amount of iconic film score music, courtesy of such movie luminaries such as Randy Newman, Thomas Newman, and Michael Giacchino.

Pixar in Concert

A movie screen plays clips straight from the films in synchronization with the music, and in spite of the fascinating musicians (which included a harpist, two guitar players, and during the Brave segment, a bagpiper), your eyes will be drawn to the screen until you completely lose yourself in the moment.

Every Pixar feature is represented, with the exception of Inside Out (presumably because it is too recent). Toy Story – which incredibly is 20 years old this year – kicks things off.

It’s important to note that this really is about the orchestra. Vocals are non-existent, so you won’t hear songs like Woody’s Round-Up or When She Loved Me. And it’s an illuminating experience to watch the movie clips without the benefit of dialogue or sound effects. You can see just how much of the emotion is driven by the music.

Pixar in Concert Orchestra

Probably took the job for the halibut

As much as I love movies, I’m hard-wired to be a park fan, so every now and then there will be a musical cue or riff that took me straight out of the movies and dropped me right into a memory from the parks.

Here are 4 of my favorites (you can hear a sample by clicking the headers below):

Randall’s Attack – Monsters Inc.

This song has a fast, menacing structure that repeats itself in variation throughout Monsters Inc.

Not only is it instantly recognizable, but it’s one of the primary musical cues in Monsters Inc Mike and Sully to the Rescue at Disney California Adventure.

The ride is actually one of Disney’s weaker dark-ride efforts, which helps make the music stand out all the more.

The City – A Bug’s Life

This jazzy riff marks the distinction between the sleepy island where Flik and his ant friends live, and the hustle and bustle of the Bug City (basically a trash heap under a mobile home).

Unsurprisingly, it also forms the catchiest background music in A Bug’s Land at California Adventure, where it seems fully at home introducing the various spinning and whirling carnival rides that comprise the land.

Married Life – Up

The melody is so flexible, it can sound supremely happy or depressingly sad, depending on the context. It is used to introduce Carl and his marriage to Ellie, and goes full-tilt for both emotions.

At the Magic Kingdom in Florida, it sticks to the happy side of the scale, as one of the background loops on Main Street, U.S.A., where its meandering, simple notes seem to be a perfect fit with turn-of-the-century Americana.

McQueen and Sally – Cars

This song, which is used at the beginning of Radiator Springs Racers at California Adventure, is one of the most perfect uses of a film score in a Disney ride.

The sample contains the jaunty, twangy beginning as your Racer curves its way up the Cadillac Range, and it also contains a breathtaking moment as your car goes through a tunnel for a stunning glimpse of a towering waterfall.

This moment, which occurs in both the movie (for Lightning) and in Radiator Springs Racers (for us) is one of my all-time park “reveals.”

Checkout the schedule to see if Pixar in Concert will be performed in your area.


Two Amazing Theme Park Performances Hiding in Plain Sight

Most of us when we go to the movies are there to actually watch the movie.

I mean, I like cup holders and adolescent groping as much as the next guy. But if I’m going to spend the yearly wage of a Nike factory worker to sit in a darkened room for two hours, I want to watch Tom Cruise possibly fall to his death from a dumb plane stunt. Not the idiot in Row 5 texting his mother.

Same deal at the parks. When the lights go down and the butterfly curtain flaps away, our eyes are glued to the fantastic theme park performances on stage or screen.

Unless we’ve been there a hundred times.

We’ve written more tips than Cosmo about ways to spice up your ridemaking. But shows are trouble. Rather than an ever-changing three-dimensional vista of pillaging pirates, it’s often the same static bench in the same faux aquarium, listening to the same turtle factoids in the same phony Australian accent.

Turtle Talk With Crush

Cue the adolescent groping

That’s why it’s often easier to ride Haunted Mansion all day long than it is to see Beauty and the Beast Live On Stage twice in the same decade.

But what if I told you crazy fans that there are secret shows hidden in plain sight?

Great theme park performances that 99% of the audience never sees?

Animatronic actors pouring their entire soul into their role for nary a scrap of recognition?

I’m not talking an occasional unnoticed sight gag. These are full-length on-stage theme park performances that run non-stop throughout the day. These guys are emoting their hearts out, with more stage-time than the stars of the show.

And you never noticed them, you godless heathen.

To find them, you have to look in a place you never would have guessed.

You have to watch the audience.

It’s a surreal situation, like reading Moby Dick from the point of view of the whale. But if you have the fortitude, you can step through the looking glass and watch other characters watch the show.

The Country Bear Jamboree

You all know Blood on the Saddle, the Bear Band Serenade and the rest of the classic show. You can sing all the carols from the Christmas version and may even quote the skunk’s lines from Vacation Hoedown.

But do you know who gets the first lines and the last lines in the show?

Yeah. It’s that terrific troupe of talking taxidermy. Melvin, Max, and Buff.

Photo courtesy of Loren Javier under Creative Commons License

Photo courtesy of Loren Javier via Creative Commons License

And since they’ve got nowhere to hide, they have to watch the show. Again. And again. And again.

Which means while Henry is off adolescently groping Teddi Berra in the attic, Melvin, Max, and Buff are listening to the same corny numbers they’ve been hearing since 1971.

Sometimes they nod along in time to the music. Sometimes they roll their eyes. Sometimes they even whisper to each other. Oh, and Max hides a chuckle at the antics at multiple points in the show.

Try it next time. Try watching the entire Country Bears show while staring at the right wall.

Not only will you creep out everyone around you, but you’ll also see an entirely new Magic Kingdom show that you never knew existed.

Muppet Vision 3-D

MuppetVision 3-D is that rare exception to the rule, where the jokes come fast and furious and the sight gags are rewarding even on the tenth viewing.

But if you are one of those people whose gaze habitually gravitates to the fluffy chickens roaming through the Muppet Labs foyer at the beginning of the film, you’ve probably seen the movie enough times to try this.

And you don’t even need 3-D glasses.

Just like Melvin, Max, and Buff, Waldorf and Statler have minor roles in the main show. And just like in Country Bears, they get the opening and closing lines.

But for the most part, they are there to watch.

If anything, their theme park performance is even more fascinating than Melvin, Max, and Buff. Statler’s mouth is forever falling open in abject shock at the hijinks on display. Both of them spend so much time ducking and rattling from all the shenanigans, you’d think stuff really was flying off the screen.

In a brilliant instance of animated puppetry, Waldorf and Statler will actually turn to face the theater when Waldo, the Spirit of 3-D, flies in close – as if that zany creature was actually hovering over people’s heads.

Speaking of which, watch them bob their head with every bounce as Waldo plays pogo on top of the audience. Or wince in time with Beaker whenever the MuppetVision paddlewheel cracks him in the skull.

And sometimes they simply can’t help looking at each other in horror at what they are being subjected to.

It’s an entire show unto itself.


I was surprised at how engaging this is for a long-timer. It takes some discipline to remain focused on these peripheral theme park performances, when everything from the music stings to the lighting cues is geared to focus your attention on the stage.

It would be great if someone skilled at low-light videography would just set up a tripod and put the entire performance of Melvin, Max, Buff, Waldorf, and Statler up on youtube.

But until that happens, you’ll just have to go to the parks and try it yourself.

It really is like discovering a completely new show.