Beyond the Vacation Kingdom of the World: Treasures from the Walt Disney Archives

by Tom Richards, contributing writer

It's not everyday that we get the opportunity to enjoy a visit to Disney's world right in our own backyard. Recently, however, the Treasures from the Walt Disney Archives exhibition arrived at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry just in time for the holidays. While Chicago is not right in our backyard, it is a heck of a lot closer than Lake Buena Vista or Anaheim. The magic of Disney together with the museum's time-honored tradition of Christmas Around the World was a combination we just couldn't resist.

The Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives exhibition appeals mostly to those Disney fans interested in the history of the Disney company during Walt Disney's lifetime. While there are some artifacts from more recent productions—costumes from 101 Dalmatians, the Pirates of the Caribbean films, High School Musical, and Oz: The Great and Powerful—as well as animation maquettes and posters from films such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King—the bulk of the treasures come directly from the Walt Disney era.

And what a collection of treasures.

The façade of the Museum and Industry is decorated with huge Disney banners featuring Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, and a larger-than-life set of Mickey Mouse ears. Once inside, the entire museum lobby sports huge banners featuring the fantastic five decked out in their Christmas finery. A pair of escalators takes visitors to the Grand Hall of the museum; the vast rotunda houses the museum's' signature Christmas tree—a huge affair covered with white lights, sparkling ornaments (most of which wear familiar Mickey ears or Minnie bows), and surrounded with retro-reproductions of the Disney characters.

The lights in the rotunda are dimmed, Christmas music plays in the background, and fifty additional Christmas trees—themed to countries from around the world—fill the immense space with holiday cheer. As an added bonus, it snows every half hour. The entire experience of entering this winter wonderland was a very Disney-like experience. The fact the floor-to-ceiling banners of Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Pluto surrounded the main tree helped.

The actual Disney archive display is housed in a modest-looking area off the main hall. I wasn't sure quite what to expect. In some ways, the experience wasn't quite as grand as I had imagined. I attended the 100 Years of Magic display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California in 2001. Many of artifacts in this display were owned by the late Diane Disney Miller's family—an Autopia car, the furnishings from Walt's firehouse apartment at Disneyland, the Oscar from the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Academy Award—and are now housed in the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. I also visited the real Disney Archives in Burbank on several occasions during my undergraduate years. I didn't know how this exhibition would rate compared to previous experiences with Disney history.

As it turned out, The Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives was a much more intimate experience than I had imagined.

The exhibit is presented in simple terms, with black curtained display areas augmented with video screens featuring brief videos, most of which feature Walt Disney himself. It was wonderful to hear and see clips of Walt Disney that were once featured in the much-missed Walt Disney Story that was once an attraction on Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom.

But the real stars of the show were the historical artifacts presented throughout the exhibit.

The first piece that really struck a chord with me was the actual telegram that the ever-optimistic Walt sent to his brother from New York after losing the rights to Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit. Walt reassured his brother that his new idea would ensure a successful future; that idea, Mickey Mouse, did, in fact, ensure a successful future for the Disney brothers.

The next item that, quite frankly, took my breath away, was the original storybook from the opening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A beautiful piece of art, the detailed carvings and ornate lettering enhance the "once upon a time" feeling that this book was intended to evoke.

There's a re-creation of an animator's desk, circa 1950, that includes many unique pieces. For example, there's the articulated Pinocchio marionette used as reference for the artists during the production of the film. There are vintage drawings and maquettes featuring Captain Hook as well. A large circular display case showcases the art of the Disney maquette, and numerous characters from Fantasia, Pinocchio, and other late 1930s productions are featured here.

One of the most stunning displays is the re=creation of Walt Disney's office, a sight familiar to Disneyland guests. The most fascinating aspect of this display is the eclectic collection of knick-knacks that fill the shelves and the top of Walt's desk.

Just around the corner hung an original Mary Blair inspirational painting for Cinderella. I never really understood the idea behind "inspirational drawings" as part of the animation process, but after viewing this stunning piece, I do. Miss Blair's use of color and shape to create mood is unparalleled. An exceptional piece of art itself, this piece clearly inspired other Disney artists to create the deep emotional impact found in the film's scene wherein Cinderella runs from the chateau in her tattered dress in a moment of complete desperation and hopelessness.

Another tableau followed, this one featuring two books—from Cinderella and from Sleeping Beauty—that were used in the opening of the classic films. The latter was created by famed artist Eyvind Earle, the man behind the entire look of the highly detailed and multi-layered Sleeping Beauty.

The next area focused on Disney live-action productions. A huge model of Captain Nemo's Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea dominates this area. Highly detailed and beautifully colored, this Nautilus made me long for the days when life-size submarines once plied the seas of the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland.

Walt Disney's television output was also featured here—Annette Funicello's Mickey Mouse Club costume stood near Guy Williams' Zorro costume, complete with mask, cape, and sword. Fess Parker's Davy Crockett coonskin cap was also on hand, as were the original hand-painted cels used in the opening titles for Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.

There is a very large area devoted to Mary Poppins, and there are some true treasures indeed. There is the wonderful Peter Ellenshaw painting featured in the opening credits of the film. It is surprisingly large, incredibly textured, and evocatively colored. The expansive storyboard for a portion of the "Jolly Holiday" sequence is also on display and represents the complex level of creative collaboration that went into making this landmark film. A charming Tony Walton drawing of one of Mary Poppins' costumes is also featured, complete with fabric swatches. There are several complete costumes, Mary Poppins; original carpet bag, the building blocks that spell her name, and a chimney sweep brush or two. The simply beautiful snowglobe Mary Poppins holds while singing "Feed the Birds" is the emotional heart of the entire exhibit.

Equally moving for me was the brass bedknob and "Isle of Naboombu" book from Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Everyone seems to have a novel or film or album that is "theirs," and Bedknobs is very much "my" movie.

There was a surprisingly small area dedicated to theme parks, but there were several very special artifacts from the early days of Disneyland. There's a plush Mickey (featured in early Disneyland films and photographs) that accompanied Uncle Walt himself aboard the Disneyland Railroad. There's the immense and highly evocative Herb Ryman conceptual drawing that Walt used to sell the idea of Disneyland to potential financial backers, particularly the ABC network. There's a beautiful original poster for Peter Pan's Flight that is surprisingly large and colorful. My favorite piece of Disneyland history, however, is the original mailbox once featured on Main Street U.S.A. Its colorful, nostalgic design captures the allure of Main Street—and just think of the millions of postcards mailed from this very box (check out the "Please Mr. Postman" video by the Carpenters and you'll see Karen Carpenter at this very mailbox).

Walt Disney World gets a slight nod in this exhibition, but nothing compared to the space it receives at the Walt Disney: One Man's Dream at Disney's Hollywood Studios. As mentioned earlier, the exhibit concludes with a collection of art from the animation studios more recent productions.

Whle not as immersive as the Museum of Science and Industry's Harry Potter exhibition a few years ago, nor as complete as the 2001 Presidential Library display, The Treasures from the Walt Disney Archives presents a well designed overview of the output for the Walt Disney Studios over the last several decades. There is sure to be something there that will touch every visitor in a very special way, so if you are in the Windy City before May of 2014, plan to visit the Museum of Science an Industry to enjoy a memorable, and moving, Disney experience beyond the Vacation Kingdom of the World.