Travel – Yosemite National Park (Part Two)

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is located in the state of California on the western portion of the Sierra Nevada Mountains ranging in elevation from 2,127 to 13,114 feet.  The park covers almost 1190 square miles but most of the 3.5 million annual visitors spend the majority of their time in the seven square miles of Yosemite Valley.  Visitors to Yosemite National Park will see the majestic El Capitan and Half Dome granite formations and a several waterfalls, such as Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall, the beautiful open space of Tuolumne Meadows and the massive giant sequoia trees of the Mariposa Grove.

In Part One, of the two part series on Yosemite National Park, I discussed the history of the park throughout the years, please click on the link to Yosemite National Park (Part One).  In Part Two, I will discuss Yosemite visitor information and give a list of suggested places to see and things to see and do.

Yosemite National Park Visitor Information

Tips and suggestions for planning a visit to the park

  • I always recommend when visiting any of our National Parks, it is a good idea to start at the Visitor Center where visitors can get maps, brochures, hiking permits and current weather information or road closures.  Also be sure to check the schedule of Ranger presentations or guided hikes which are a great source of information about the park.

Yosemite Visitor Center

  • For general information on Yosemite National Park please click on the link to their website for the most accurate information regarding Visitor Center hours, wilderness permits, road closures or other park restrictions.
  • Once you have determined the time of year you will be visiting the park, be sure to make reservations as far in advance as possible especially during the summer months, Memorial Day to Labor Day.  (Please click on the individual hotel and cabin accommodations website links mentioned in this post for more specific information regarding prices and availability)
  • Yosemite National Park has several campgrounds and reservations are required from March through November.  Campground reservations can be made up to five months in advance, on the 15th of each month at 7 am Pacific time. Be aware that nearly all reservations for the months of May through September are filled the first day they become available.  Click on the link for more complete information.
  • When visiting Yosemite Valley consider parking the car at your hotel, cabin or campground and take the readily available Yosemite shuttle buses which stop at all the major sites in the Valley. 
  • Bikes are another great alternative driving your car and an excellent way to avoid traffic congestion in the Valley especially during the summer months.  You can bring your own bikes or rentals are also available, there are 12 miles of paved trails in the Valley, be sure to bring bike locks.  Please be advised that mountain biking off the trails is not allowed.
  • Rock Climbing has become an important part of the history of Yosemite; El Capitan is one of the most challenging mountains in the world.  Various companies in the Valley offer a variety of classes from novice to experienced climbers.  (For more information about El Capitan can be found later in this post)
  • There are over 800 miles of hiking trails in Yosemite National Park ranging from easy trails that take under an hour, medium trails that can take a couple of hours  and strenuous trails that can be a multiple day backpack adventure such as the John Muir Trail (which require a wilderness permit).  Be prepared and check out the trails in advance, information is available at any of the park’s visitor centers.  (obviously multi-day backpack trips are for the more experienced hikers and will take much more preparation, such as obtaining bear-resistant food storage containers.)
  • When hiking stay on established trails, observe posted warning signs, carry water to stay hydrated and bring along snacks, stop occasionally and rest in the shade; and eat salty snacks.

Places to see in Yosemite National Park

Wawona Tunnel View –

Most visitors that come to Yosemite National Park arrive in Yosemite Valley through the Wawona Tunnel via California Highway 140 (El Portal Road).  The Wawona Tunnel built through solid granite was completed in 1933 is 4,233 feet long making it the longest tunnel in California.  After passing through the tunnel, visitors should stop at the Tunnel View Overlook for a wonderful view of Yosemite Valley.  As you look out into the Valley from the overlook El Capitan is to the left, to the right is Bridalveil Fall and at the far end of the Valley is Half Dome.

Yosemite Valley 1

Yosemite Valley –

Yosemite Valley is the destination for most visitors coming to Yosemite National Park, it is open year-round.  The numerous activities in the Valley include hiking the various trails, rafting down the Merced River, biking, horseback riding, rock climbing and ranger-led nature walks.

El Capitan –

El Capitan is the granite monolith (a large single vertical rock formation) located at the north-west end of Yosemite Valley; it is 3,000 feet from base to summit.  The Ahwanhneechee Native Americans called it “Totokonoolah” and the Mariposa Battalion translated the name into El Capitan.  (Historic Fact: The Mariposa Battalion came to the area in 1851 and they were given the ominous task of removing the Native Americans from Yosemite Valley)

El Capitan

El Capitan is a popular destination for rock climbers, there is also a trail located near Yosemite Falls that can be used to reach the summit.  El Capitan was once considered impossible to climb until 1958 when a trio of climbers named Warren Harding, Wayne Merry and George Whitmore reached the summit of an area known as “The Nose” in 47 days using rope, pitons and expansion bolts.  Throughout the years other routes on the face of El Capitan were created and also new techniques and equipment were developed to make the ascent times faster.

Yosemite National Park Trivia:  El Capitan was used as the filming location for the 1989 “Star Trek – the Final Frontier” movie.  The scene shows Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner, on shore leave from the Starship Enterprise scaling the face of El Capitan, he loses his grip on the mountain and starts to plummet to the ground but is saved by Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy.  Shatner trained for several weeks on the Paramount lot for the close-up shots and stunt doubles for the long shots.  For the scene of Spock floating in the air in his levitation boots as he talks to Captain Kirk, Nimoy stood on top of a crane.

El Capitan and Captain Kirk in Star Trek movie Final Frontier

Bridalveil Fall –

Bridalveil Fall is the first waterfall visitors will see upon entering Yosemite Valley, it is located in the south-west area of the Valley.  Bridalveil Fall is 620 feet in height and in the spring the fall usually runs very full but later in the year it slows to a small trickle.  From the parking lot, there is a paved trail to reach the base of the fall and the viewing platform; use caution when reaching the base, the paved trail can be very wet and slippery.  HAZARD WARNING: DO NOT LEAVE THE TRAIL TO CLIMB THE ROCKS AT THE BASE OF THE WATERFALL!!

Bridal Veil Falls

Yosemite Falls –

Yosemite Falls is located at a point midway through the Yosemite Valley on the north-side; the total length is 2,425 feet from the top of the upper fall to the base of the lower fall.  The waterfall plunges from Yosemite Creek to the floor of the valley; the Upper Yosemite Fall is 1,430 feet, the Middle Cascades is a section with five separate plunges for a total of 675 feet and the Lower Yosemite Falls is 320 feet.  The Yosemite Creek continues from the base of the waterfall and flows into the Merced River that runs through the length of the Valley.  HAZARD WARNING: DO NOT LEAVE THE TRAIL TO CLIMB THE ROCKS AT THE BASE OF THE WATERFALL!!

Yosemite Falls 2

Half Dome –

Half Dome is the granite dome located at the east end of Yosemite Valley, the summit rises 4,737 feet.  Much like El Capitan at the other end of the Valley, Half Dome was thought to be impossible to climb.  In 1875, George Anderson was able to climb to the summit by constructing a path by drilling and then placing iron bolts into the granite “back” or east side.  Today, visitors hike the 8.2 mile Mist Trail, past Vernal and Nevada Falls, to reach the base of Half Dome.  Then visitors climb the rounded east side via a set of steel cables to reach the summit, the cables are fixed with bolts on a series of metal poles leading from the base to the summit and are installed from late May to early October.  Permits need to be arranged in advance before entering the park, a ranger will check permits on the trail and hikers without the proper permit will not be allowed beyond the base.  Hikers caught bypassing the rangers will fined or receive possible jail time.

Half Dome  Half Dome - warning 2

Half Dome - cables


Native American Legend:  The Ahwahneechee Native Americans called Half Dome by another name, “Tis-sa-ack”.  The legend goes that Tissaack, a Native American woman and her husband Nangas lived far away from Yosemite on the Great Plains of America.  The couple traveled to Yosemite over the rugged terrain of the Sierra Mountains until finally arriving a few days later in Yosemite Valley.  But when they arrived, Nangas was feeling thirsty, hungry and short tempered, and he unexpectedly struck Tissaack and she became frightened and ran eastward back through the Valley to get away from him.  The gods were looking down on the couple that was disturbing the peace of the Valley and intended for them to stop; as a result the gods changed Nangas into the rock formation known today as Washington Column and Tissaack into Half Dome.  It is said the dark streaks on the face of Half Dome are the tears of Tissaack but they are in fact patches of brown lichens that has formed in the dark vertical grooves of the rock formation.

Half Dome 1

Vernal Fall / Nevada Fall –

The Mist Trail which travels along a path that takes visitors past two waterfalls, Vernal and Nevada Falls.  The trail can sometimes be a strenuous climb to the top and sections of the trail can be closes during late fall and winter depending on snow and icy conditions.  The first section of the trail starts at the Happy Isle parking lot and is paved to the Vernal Fall footbridge.  The trail can get very crowded in the summer months, keep to the right climbing up and the left climbing down.  From the footbridge visitors will have a good view of Vernal Fall, then proceed up a steep 600 step granite stairway, but be careful because the pathway can be wet and slippery from the spray of the waterfall.  At the top of Vernal Fall, visitors can look straight down the length of the 317 foot waterfall.

Just past Vernal Fall is Emerald Pool, please keep in mind that it is dangerous to swim in the pool due to the extremely hazardous current as the water moves down from Nevada Fall and continues down to Vernal Fall.  As the Mist Trail continues the steep and rocky switchbacks that climb another 1.5 miles up to Nevada Fall.  There is a footbridge at the top that crosses Nevada Fall as it thunders down 594 feet.  There are several options that can be accessed from this part of the trail.  Visitors can return down the same route in which they climb up (2.5 miles) or they can join the John Muir Trail for an alternate route back to Yosemite Valley (4 miles).


Curry Village –

Curry Village has a very long history in the Yosemite Valley; it was originally founded in 1899 by David and Jennie Curry.  When the couple, who were two schoolteachers from Indiana, decided to visit the park they found that they could barely afford the transportation and the park lodgings.  So, as a result of their dilemma they established Camp Curry in 1899 which started as several canvas tents and a communal dining room for their guests.  Not only was Camp Curry the most affordable accommodation within the Yosemite Valley but the Curry’s thought that entertainment was also a key to their success.  So, throughout the years Camp Curry has featured a dance hall, nightly movies, a soda fountain, a swimming pool during the spring and summer months and an ice skating rink in the winter but the most famous nightly entertainment was the Yosemite FireFall.  The dozen tents expanded into over a hundred and additional wooden cabins were also built and later the dance hall was converted into the Stoneman House lodge with 18 rooms.  For more information about the Camp Curry facility and activities or to book a reservation for a stay in Yosemite Valley, please click on the link to their website at

Camp Curry Curry Village - tents

Historical Note: The Yosemite Firefall was a nightly summer time event that began in 1872 and for almost one hundred years, interrupted only during the World War II, until the event continued until 1968.  From the top of Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, the owner of the Glacier Point Hotel would start the event on the signal “Let the fire fall” from David Curry, the owner of Curry Village that was located 3,000 below in Yosemite Valley.  Hot embers from a huge bonfire at Glacier Point would be pushed off the edge giving the appearance of a glowing waterfall in the night as the “Indian Love Call” song was played creating a very dramatic mood; the spectacle would conclude the evening program at Camp Curry.  In the mid-1960s, the National Park Service was in the midst of changing their policy to eliminate unnatural activities from the parks and the order was given to stop the nightly Yosemite Firefall.  Not only was it a potentially dangerous activity but the surrounding meadows near Camp Curry would be trampled every night with visitors gathering to catch a glimpse of the event.  A year after the last Firefall in January 1968, the Glacier Point Hotel was standing vacant due to sustained damage from an unusually heavy snowfall that winter and an electrical fire in July 1969 burned down the hotel and it was never rebuilt.

Curry Camp - Firefall 2

Yosemite Lodge at the Falls –

Formerly known as the Yosemite Lodge, the name was changed in the mid 2000s to reflect the hotel’s close proximity to Yosemite Falls located just 0.5 miles away.  “The Lodge” is a moderately priced hotel with a total of 249 rooms spread out across the property in 15 separate buildings which are named after various flowers and trees that can be found in Yosemite National Park.  The hotel was once a larger complex but the devastating flood of the Merced River in January 1997 destroyed over half of the pre-existing rooms and cabins.  (Travel Tip: Book hotel reservations as far in advance as possible especially if a visit is planned during the busy summer months)  To book a room at the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, please click on the link to their website at

Yosemite Lodge - entrance

Ahwanhee Hotel –

The Ahwanhee Hotel is the premiere grand hotel in Yosemite National Park; it is the highest priced accommodations in the park with 123 beautifully decorated rooms in the hotel and 24 luxury cabins.  To book a room at the Ahwanhee, please click on the link to their website at  (For more information regarding the history of the Ahwanhee Hotel and the annual Bracebridge which is held at the hotel every Christmas season since 1927, please click on the link)

Ahwahnee Lodge 1

Tuolumne Grove –

Tuolumne Grove is a small group of sequoia trees(Sequoiadendron giganteum) located near Crane Flat on Tioga Road (CA HWY 120) in Yosemite National Park, about 16 miles west of the Yosemite Valley.  Although its location is closer to the Valley than Mariposa Grove in the southern part of the park, the Tuolumne Grove is definitely less crowded for a more quiet experience for visitors.

Tenaya Lake –

Tenaya Lake is an alpine lake in north-east part of Yosemite National Park and it is about 50 miles from Yosemite Valley; travel time on the mountainous Tioga Road can take almost an hour and a half.  Tenaya Lake is at an elevation of elevation of 8,150 feet and was initially formed many centuries ago by ancient glaciers moving through the region.  History notes that the lake was named for Chief Tenaya, the leader of the Ahwanhneechee Native Americans and it is on the shores of the lake that he met the Mariposa Brigade.

Tenaya Lake

Tuolumne Meadows –

Tuolumne Meadows in located in the north-east part of Yosemite National Park and it is about 54 miles from Yosemite Valley; travel time on Tioga Road is about an hour and a half.  Tuolumne Meadow is a large alpine meadow which located at an elevation of 8,619 feet and is surrounded by the Cathedral Range to the north and Lembert Dome to the north.  In the winter the snowmelt sometimes floods the meadow turning the area into a temporary lake and in the late spring this brings a profusion of wildflowers with the Tuolumne River winding through the meadow.

  Tuolemne Meadows 1

Tuolumne Meadows offers visitors an alternative to the sometimes crowded Yosemite Valley during the months from May to October with numerous opportunities for easy day hikes and rock climbing.  In the winter Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Road can be closed in the winter due to snow.  Travel Advisory: For visitors traveling in late fall and winter should check in advance for road closures.

Tioga Pass –

Tioga Pass is located in the north-east part of Yosemite National Park; it is the highest California State Highway (120) that passes through the Sierra Nevada Mountains at an elevation of 9,943 feet.  The Tioga Pass entrance to the park is subject to closures in late fall to winter due to heavy snowfall, visitors should check in advance if traveling in the area.

Tioga Road

Glacier Point –

Glacier Point is located in the south-central part of Yosemite National Park with an elevation of 7,214 feet, it is 30 miles from Yosemite Valley and a one hour drive.  From Glacier Point visitors are able to look down into Yosemite Valley, it is approximately 3,200 feet below to the Valley floor.  Curry Village can be seen directly below and there are spectacular views of Yosemite Fall and El Capitan to the left with Half Dome, Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall to the right.  Glacier Point can be reached by car or bus and the road is usually open from June to October.  Visitors can also climb the Four Mile Trail from the Yosemite Valley up to Glacier Point, the trail is considered strenuous.  In the winter the Glacier Point Road is closed and the Four Mile Trail can be extremely hazardous when covered with snow and ice. 

Glacier Point - left

Wawona Hotel –

The Wawona Hotel is located in the southern part of Yosemite National Park; it is about 26 miles from Yosemite Valley and an hour and fifteen minute drive.  The Wawona Hotel is also located 4 miles from the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park that is accessed via California State Highway 41 from Fresno.  The Wawona Hotel was built in 1876 in a Victorian style with a veranda wrapping around the first and second floors.   The hotel was originally built to accommodate visitors to the Mariposa Grove and later an addition was built in 1916 as tourism increased.  The hotel has 104 guest rooms which have no telephones or televisions, what a novel idea!  To book a room at the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, please click on the link to their website at

Wawona Lodge 1

Within walking distance to the Wawona Hotel are several trails that are used in the spring to fall seasons, cross-country skiing and snowshoe paths are available in the winter.  Located across the highway from the hotel is a golf course which has been operating since 1918, it is one of the few golf courses within any National Park.  The golf course is open from spring to fall.

Pioneer Yosemite History Center –

The Pioneer Yosemite History Center is located a short distance from the Wawona Hotel.  The Center is a collection of several historic buildings that were move there from previous locations in Yosemite National Park, such as the Wawona Covered Bridge and the Hodgdon Homestead Cabin.  The Center is a wonderful place for visitors to explore and the buildings are usually open Wednesday to Sunday during the summer, it is an outdoor museum with interpretive signs and a self-guide brochures.  Also in the summer there are living history demonstrations and stagecoach rides on the weekends.

Pioneer History Center

Mariposa Grove –

Mariposa Grove is a group of several giant sequoia trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum) located near the south entrance to Yosemite National Park, almost 30 miles from Yosemite Valley.  Both the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley were first protected by the Yosemite Grant, which was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in June 1864.

Here is a list of some of the sequoia trees found in the Mariposa Grove:

  • The Grizzly Giant – The Grizzly Giant tree is the oldest tree in the Mariposa grove, it is between 1900-2400 years old.  The Grizzly Giant is 210 feet tall with a diameter of 30 feet at the base.

Mariposa Grove - Grizzly Giant

  • The Wawona Tunnel Tree – The 227 feet tall Wawona Tunnel Tree was the first tree in the Mariposa grove to have a tunnel carved through its trunk in 1881, unfortunately the tree fell over during a snowstorm in 1969.  This eventually led to the resurgence in the National Park Service preservation program and also a greater awareness and need for public education as to the sensitivity of ecosystems.  As shown in the photos below, the tree was a major tourist attraction in the earliest days of the park and it was considered a novelty for visitors to ride through the tunnel in carriages and later automobiles.

Mariposa grove - Fallen Wawona Tunnel tree

  • The Fallen Monarch – The Fallen Monarch fell to the ground more than three hundred years ago and it serves as an example of how a giant sequoia is resistant to decay and can survive in a “preserved state” for a very long period of time when undisturbed.

Mariposa Grove - Fallen Monarch1

  • The California Tunnel Tree – The California Tunnel Tree had a tunnel carved through its trunk in 1895, it is still standing in the Mariposa Grove and in the past visitors could ride a carriage or drive a car through but today visitors are only allowed to walk through it.

Mariposa Grove - California Tunnel tree

For more information about posts related to Yosemite National Park, please click on the links to:

  • John Muir post about the man that helped to establish Yosemite as a National Park as well as the first president of the Sierra Club,
  • The Bracebridge Dinner post which is about the popular annual Christmas event held at the Ahwanhee Hotel in Yosemite and
  • Sequoia National Park travel post with detailed information about one of the other nearby national parks in California.

Travel – Yosemite National Park (Part One)

Yosemite - vintage postcard

One of the things about moving from California to the Midwest that we miss most is the easy access to some of the great National Parks located in the Western States and one of our family favorites is Yosemite National Park.  We have spent many fun-filled vacations over the last 30 years exploring and hiking areas such as Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point, and Tuolumne Meadows and we have also stayed at a variety of campgrounds, cabins and luxury hotels within the park.

Yosemite National Park is located in the state of California on the western portion of the Sierra Nevada Mountains ranging in elevation from 2,127 to 13,114 feet.  The park covers almost 1190 square miles although the over 3.5 million annual visitors spend the majority of their time in the seven square miles of Yosemite Valley.  Visitors to Yosemite National Park can see the majestic El Capitan and Half Dome granite formations and the multitude of waterfalls, such as Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Falls, to the beautiful open space of Tuolumne Meadows and the massive giant sequoia trees of the Mariposa Grove.

In Part One, of the two part series on Yosemite National Park, I will discuss the history of the park throughout the years.  In Part Two, I will discuss Yosemite visitor information and a list of suggested places to see and things to see and do, please click on the link to Yosemite National Park (Part Two)

A brief history of Yosemite National Park

Four hundred million years ago sediments accumulated on the floor of an ancient sea and were compressed and then formed layers of rock that were thousands of feet deep.  Later now extinct volcanoes erupted and then the molten rock cooled to form granite mixed with the sedimentary rock.  Between 25 and 15 million years the rock formations were uplifted by the tectonic plates, slowly tilted to form a range of mountains that would evenly become the Sierra Nevada. Two million years ago during what became known as the Ice Age the area became covered with ice and glaciers slowly moved down the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range carving the granite into dramatic domes and severe cliffs, such as Half Dome and El Capitan, and creating deep U-shaped valleys, most notably the Yosemite and Hetchy Hetchy Valleys.  As the ice and glaciers melted leaving thousands of lakes and numerous waterfalls scattered across the area.  Over time, some of these lakes filled with sediment to form forested flat lands or meadows that are seasonally covered with colorful spring flowers.

Yosemite Valley - glacier  Yosemite Valley - glacier melt

According to archaeological evidence, Yosemite Valley was first settled by the indigenous Native Americans known as the Ahwahneeshee.  The Ahwahneeshee survived on local vegetation with acorns being the main staple of their diet and they also fished for salmon and hunted deer as well as trading with other Native Americans in the region.

In the mid-19th century, during the time of the California Gold Rush, European- Americans came to the area and later established settlements within the region.  This new influx of people created conflicts with the Native Americans and in 1851 the Mariposa Wars were intended to resolve the problem.  The Mariposa Battalion, a United States Army regiment led by Major Savage, entered the Yosemite Valley in pursuit of 200 Ahwahneechee led by Chief Tenaya.  Chief Tenaya and the Ahwahneechee were eventually captured, their village destroyed and relocated to a reservation near Fresno, California. These Native American encounters were written about by the officers of the Mariposa Battalion and they also include the first documented reports of the beauty of Yosemite.  (Travel Note:  For visitors wanting to see an example of an Ahwahneechee Native American Village, one was built behind the Yosemite Museum located next to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center)

Yosemite - Miwok indiana circa 1925 Yosemite - Miwok indians 1

Between 1855 and 1860, businessman James Hutchings and artist Thomas Ayres are credited for writing several articles in magazines about Yosemite.  Ayres held an art exhibition of his Yosemite drawings in New York City and quickly the news spread across the nation about the beauty and grandeur of Yosemite and it soon became a popular tourist destination.  Galen Clark, an earlier settler in the Wawona area of Yosemite, built lodgings for tourists near the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia trees.  Visitors came to see the famous Wawona Tree, later called the Tunnel Tree.  In 1881, a hole had been cut through the tree and it was considered quite a novelty for horse-drawn carriages to carry visitors through the tree and stop to take photos.  (For more information on the Wawona Tunnel Tree, please check out the “Yosemite National Park Visitor Information” section later in this post)

Mariposa Grove - Wawona Tunnel Tree 1  Yosemite - carriage

In the late 19th century, the attitude of the people of the United States was changing toward the preservation of the land.  Galen Clark and Senator John Conness actively worked to support the protection of the Yosemite Valley and President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill on June 30, 1864 creating the Yosemite Grant.  A few years later, when Yellowstone was made the first national park in 1872, this inspired the further protection of the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove and the land was given to the State of California and it was made into a state park.  Eventually on October 1, 1890 President Benjamin Harrison signed the legislation to create Yosemite National Park, making it the third national park in the nation.  Yosemite National Park included over 1,500 square miles of land which included the Yosemite Valley, Mariposa Grove, Tuolumne Meadows and the Hetch Hetchy Valley.  Meanwhile the newly established Yosemite National Park was administered by the State of California and managed by the U.S. Army.

Mariposa Grove - Fallen Monarch

One of those early visitors to Yosemite was John Muir, a Scottish born American naturalist, author and staunch advocate for the preservation of the wilderness.  He wandered through most of Yosemite and was one of the first to theorize and prove with his scientific research that much of the area was created by large glaciers, which was contrary to the long held belief that the area was formed only by tectonic activity.  It was also through his efforts that Yosemite became a national park; Muir was very vocal about the overgrazing of the meadows by the sheep (ironically he briefly worked as a shepherd in the Valley), the logging of the giant sequoia (which proved to be poor building material) and the general commercialization of the park.

Yosemite - John Muir 1

Muir was now deeply involved in conservation efforts writing article for newspapers and books about his travel across the country, he was also the first president of the Sierra Club since May of 1892.  In May of 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt came to Yosemite National Park and together with a small group led by John Muir as their guide they toured the park for three days.  The group traveled throughout the Valley to Mariposa Grove and to Glacier Point for magnificent views of El Capitan, Half Dome, Vernal and Nevada Falls and the Yosemite Valley far below.  During the trip Muir advised Roosevelt to take control of Yosemite from California and transfer it to the federal government for long term protection; three years later Roosevelt signed the bill to do exactly that in 1906.  (Eventually when the National Park Service was formed in 1916, the administration and management of Yosemite (as well as the other national parks) was transferred to the new agency)

Yosemite - John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt  Yosemite - John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt  Mariposa grove

But Muir was not always successful in his conservation efforts.  There was one section in Yosemite National Park called the Hetch Hetchy Valley that rivaled Yosemite Valley with soaring granite monoliths, cascading waterfalls and beautiful meadows of flowers in spring.  In 1903, there was a proposal to dam the river to provide water and power for the growing metropolis of San Francisco thereby flooding the Hetch Hetchy and losing all the beautiful scenery.  After a failed attempt by the Sierra Club and other interests to block the project from moving forward, unfortunately the U.S. Congress authorized the O’Shaughnessy Dam in 1913.  Muir was devastated by the loss of one of the most beautiful places in Yosemite National Park.

Hetch Hetchy Valley before Hetch Hetchy Valley after

Throughout the years the tourism to the park had increased steadily first with the railroads built to reach the foothills of the Sierra Nevada later roads for stagecoaches and carriages were laid allowing easier transportation for visitors into the park.  In the late 19th century the National Park Service had been reluctant to allow organized commercial development within Yosemite but eventually they permitted a limited number of concessions.  In 1899 David and Jennie Curry started the Curry Company to provide concessions to park visitors and they later built s campground and cabins that would eventually become known as Curry Village.  Later another rival company, called the Yosemite National Park Company was established by John Degnan and they built hotels, stores and other park services.  In 1925 the two separate companies merged to form the Yosemite Park & Curry Company that later built the Ahwahnee Hotel in 1927.

Yosemite Lodge - vintage photo

Curry Village - vintage photo  Yosemite - camping

Throughout the years, in order to protect the land surrounding Yosemite from over development, Congress designated an additional 677,600 acres as a protected wilderness area.  The National Park Service, in order to preserve the park in its natural condition eliminated any activities that were artificially produced, such the popular nightly event known as the Firefall.  (For more information on this Yosemite tradition that was stopped in 1969, please click on the link to Yosemite National Park – Part Two)  As the visitor attendance to the park dramatically increased, especially in Yosemite Valley, traffic congestion became a big problem.  The solution that visitors were encouraged to park their cars at their hotels, campsites or visitor center while they were visiting the Yosemite Valley and take special buses that would reduce the amount of traffic on the park roads.  In September of 1995, the National Park Service started using electric buses that would be quieter and more importantly eliminate air pollution.

  Yosemite - old advertisement

For more information regarding Yosemite visitor information and a list of suggested places to see and things to see and do, please click on the link to Yosemite National Park (Part Two)

For more information about posts related to Yosemite National Park on this blog site, please click on the links to:

  • John Muir – a post about the man that helped to establish Yosemite as a National Park as well as the first president of the Sierra Club,
  • The Bracebridge Dinner – a post about the popular annual Christmas event held at the Ahwanhee Hotel in Yosemite and
  • Sequoia National Park – a travel post with detailed information about one of the other nearby national parks in California.

Travel – Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates - entrance at night

Our family has been enjoying Disneyland for almost sixty years and we have so many memories of spending wonderful times at the park.  One of the first things we do on a visit is head over to New Orleans Square to ride one of the most popular rides in the park … Pirates of the Caribbean.  We also enjoy eating at the Blue Bayou which is the restaurant located within the ride and is famous for its Monte Cristo Sandwich.  In this post I will discuss the history of the Disneyland attraction, the many changes to the ride over the years and some fun Pirates of the Caribbean trivia.

The history of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland

The idea for a pirate themed attraction dates back to the early 1950s, when Disneyland was being planned, and there was a ride concept for a walk-through wax museum featuring scenes with famous pirates for history, but that idea was put on hold and never built.  Instead, at the time that Disneyland opened Anaheim, CA in 1955, there was a Pirate themed attraction located in Fantasyland and it was Captain Hook’s Pirate Ship Restaurant sponsored by Chicken of the Sea and later in 1960 Skull Rock from the 1953 Disney animated movie “Peter Pan” was added.  Both attractions remained at Disneyland for several years until the 1982 refurbishment of the New Fantasyland, the Dumbo attraction now stands where the former Captain Hook’s Pirate Ship and Skull Rock where originally located.  (Currently, Captain Hook’s Pirate Ship Restaurant and Skull Rock can be seen again in Adventureland at Disneyland Paris in France)

By this time, the Disney Company had a separate division that was responsible for the creation and construction of the Disney theme park; it was originally known as WED which are the initials of Walter Elias Disney.  The staff of visual artists and engineers was collectively known as imagineers, a name meaning employees that combined imagination and engineering to design and build rides for the Disney theme park.  Several years later, when Walt was considering creating a new “land” called New Orleans Square at Disneyland he decided the time was right to finally create a pirate ride.

New Orleans Square - concept artwork

When the It’s a Small World attraction was created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair it featured a new ride technology using water propelled boats but more importantly it was very successful in moving a large number of guests through the attraction in a timely manner and this was exactly what Walt needed for the new pirate ride that he envisioned.  So, Walt and his imagineers decided to utilize the same boat ride system that would take guests through the ride to see various scenes featuring audio-animatronic pirates. The relatively new technology of audio-animatronics was basically a type of robotics that was able to make figures move in a realistic way, this was accomplished by means of pneumatic and hydraulic valves used inside the figures and controlled by sonic impulses with a vocal track recorded on a magnetic tape.  With these two new technologies as the basis for the new ride concept the imagineers quickly moved forward with ideas.

Herb Ryman, the famous Disney artist that created the original drawings for Disneyland, drew some preliminary sketches that would eventually determine the overall design of New Orleans Square, another Disney artist named Sam McKim also helped with creating the final designs.  The new pirate ride would be located in one of the buildings in New Orleans Square and this determined the amount of space allowed for the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.  Marc Davis, a former Disney animator, was now working as an imagineer for WED and he is responsible for the overall interior design of the ride and created numerous sketches, drawings and paintings depicting the various scenes of the pirates attacking, raiding and eventually setting fire to a village.  The next step in the process of creating the ride was for the imagineers to utilize storyboards to create a cohesive storyline as guests would move from one scene to another scene; this same technique of storyboards was used frequently by the Disney Studios when plotting out their animated movies.  The storyboards of the pirate ride were constantly being revised as scenes were added, changed or eliminated.  Once the storyboards were finalized, the next step was to create working small-scale models of the various scenes which would be used for the ride.  Using small inexpensive models was a better way to keep building costs down by making changes on the models instead on the more expensive full-sized structures.

Pirates - concept artwork    Marc Davis developing Pirates concept boards

Now that the Pirate of the Caribbean ride designs where finished it was time to build.  The new ride would be located in New Orleans Square which was designed with several antebellum-style buildings containing shops and restaurants.  The main building where the ride would be located is a multi-level structure with the majority of the ride located under the building and streets of New Orleans Square.  The first step in the ride construction was excavating a large area to accommodate the space for the ride’s various village scenes.   The next step was laying the guide rails for the pirate boats that would take guests through the ride, eventually the ride would use 750,000 gallons of water to propel the boats and also create the scenic areas of the ride.  Two 21-degree drops were required at the beginning of the ride to take guests underground and into the main show building located beyond the berm of the park.  At the end of the ride, the boat needed to get back to the ground level and this was achieved by the guests remaining in the boats as a chain pulley system, similar to the technique used to pull a roll coaster uphill, was used to return guests to the loading/unloading area of the ride.  (When the Pirates of the Caribbean ride was added to Walt Disney World in Florida, the boat path was revised so that guests unloaded before the ascent)

Please note that some of the photos of the New Orleans Square and Pirates of the Caribbean construction shown below were originally used on the website.

Pirates - exterior construction 2Pirates - exterior construction 1    Pirates - interior constuction 1

As the building process was going on, imagineer Blaine Gibson was heading up a team to create the pirate figures for the ride.  The look of the figures changed from fierce looking pirates to more whimsical ones to be used in some of the more humorous scenes of the ride.  Before the figures could be added, the various ride scenes needed to be constructed.  These scenes ranged from the quiet bayou scene located after the guest load area and before the two drops, to the dark and mysterious caverns after plunging down the waterfall, to the misty scene where the pirates attack the village, to the numerous scenes of the pirates pillaging the village just before the ride comes to a fiery end.

Then in 1966, as the ride was nearing completion, Walt Disney suddenly died.  Walt’s health had severely deteriorated after years of smoking.  Always concerned more for the good of his company then his personal health, Walt kept his condition as quite as possible telling only his family, a few close friends and co-workers that he need to be hospitalize to have one of his lungs removed.  The company’s employees and stockholders were told that he was receiving treatment for an old polo injury so as not to effect the daily and long term operation of the Disney Company.  Sadly, Walt died on December 15, 1966.  After a brief period of mourning the work on the Pirates attraction resumed and was eventually completed three months later with an official opening date of March 18, 1967.

Pirates - Captains quarters    Pirates - the loot

Pirates - the auction scene 1    Pirates - looting scene

Pirates - jail scene

The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction was a success from the day it opened and over the years it has become one of the most popular rides at Disneyland.  Later, other versions were built in the Disney theme parks using different facades but always with the interior ride being very similar to the original one.  The Magic Kingdom (Walt Disney World) Pirates of the Caribbean ride opened in 1973, Tokyo Disneyland in 1983, Disneyland Paris in 1992 and currently one is under construction at the Shanghai Disneyland with a projected opening date of December 2015.

Pirates - Walt Disney World    Pirates - Disneyland Paris

Pirates of the Caribbean ride trivia

  • The Pirates of the Caribbean ride was the last Disneyland attraction that was personally supervised by Walt Disney from ride concept and design through to construction, he died three months before the official opening.
  • The Pirates of the Caribbean ride cost approximately $8 million dollars to build in Disneyland which is almost equal to the amount paid to France when the United States negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 which included the city of New Orleans.
  • The Disneyland Pirates of the Caribbean ride is contained in two large show buildings covering a total of 112,826 feet.  located beyond the berm of the park. 
  • The ride uses 750,000 gallons of water which flows through the 1,838 feet length of the ride’s canals.   
  • There are approximately 122 audio animatronic characters (68 pirates and villagers and 54 animals) used on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride
  • The façade of the main building to the attraction is said to have been inspired by the architecture of the Cabildo building located in Jackson Square in New Orleans, the building was the site where the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803.
  • Atop the tall tower of the main building of the Pirates attraction a 31 star United States flag can be seen, this corresponding to the 1850s which is the time period that New Orleans Square is supposed to be set.
  • The Laffite Landing sign which hangs over the Pirates of the Caribbean boat load/unload area is for the famous pirate, Jean Lafitte, who fought with the U.S. Army during the War of 1812 at the Battle of New Orleans.  (The name is spelled as the pirate originally used it and not the later English version which is how it is written in the history books)
  • The Pirate of the Caribbean ride features the memorable song, “Yo-Ho, a Pirates Life for Me”.  The music is by George Bruns and the lyrics are by Francis Xavier Atencio.  Bruns is best known as the co-writer of another Disney classic, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”.  Atencio wrote the theme song for the Haunted Mansion attraction, “Grim Grinning Ghosts”.  Atencio voice can also be heard on the Pirates ride as the Jolly Roger skull and crossbones just before the boat plunges down the first waterfall.
  • In the battle scene of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride cannonballs seem to be flying over the guests as they ride through, but it is only a Disney illusion using recorded sounds and flashes of light are used to create the effect that cannon are firing from the pirate ship and also on land from the village fortress.  A splash of water gives the effect that the cannonballs are missing their targets and landing in the water, recently puffs of air have been added to create the addition effect of the cannonballs flying past.
  • In the village pillaging scenes, the original version of the ride featured several pirates chasing giggling ladies, on was even seen chasing after a pirate!  When guests complained about the “sexual implication” of the scene it was altered to reflect a more “chaise” behavior.  The ladies now carrying cakes, pastries and other food items that the starving pirates want.  An interesting observation is that the bride auction scene remains unchanged.
  • Toward the end of the ride, the pirates set fire to the village.  The fire effect created by the Disney imagineers was so realistic that prior the attraction’s grand opening the Anaheim Fire Chief almost shut down the ride until he realized that it was only an illusion. (The fire is basically created by pieces of fabric, lights and fans!) The Anaheim Fire Department did request that the ride should be altered so that in the event of a real fire the simulated fire effect would automatically shut off.
  • On the upper level of the building of Pirates of the Carribbean building was originally planned for a private apartment for the personal use of the Disney family.  Located at the front of the building, slightly to the right side, is where the front veranda for the Disney apartment would have been and there is a wrought iron railing which incorporates the intertwined initials of Walt Disney (WD) and Roy Disney (RD).  The Disney apartment which was never fully completed was eventually converted into the Disney Gallery which was a retail store and showroom featuring Disney artwork and collectible items.  In 2007, the space was refurbished and reopened as the Disneyland Dream Suite which is the only overnight guest accommodations located within Disneyland.
  • In 2003, Disney released the “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” movie which was inspired by the original Disneyland ride.  Some scenes in the movie featured iconic ride scenes, such as the jail scene with the pirates trying to get the keys from the mouth of the dog.  Even the famous “Yo-Ho, A Pirates Life For Me” song was used in the movie.  The film’s world premiere was held at Disneyland and featured the longest red carpet in history; it went from Main Street to New Orleans Square.  The movie proved to be very successful and additional sequels have been filmed, in fact the fifth installation of the Pirates of the Caribbean series is currently being filmed.
  • Following the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, several characters from the movies have been added to the ride.  The character of Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp, appears several times in various village scenes and Captain Barbossa, played by Geoffrey Rush, can be seen on the pirate ship as it attacks the village.  Additionally, one of the most impressive effects of adding the movie’s character into the ride is when the faces of Davy Jones (from “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End”) and Blackbeard (from “On Stranger Tides”) were projected onto the mist before the second waterfall drop.  Recently mermaids from “On Stranger Tides” have also been added to the ride.

Pirates - Johnny Depp 2

Travel – Catalina Island, CA

Catalina Island postcard

Years ago, when I was a child growing up in Southern California, I remember taking a special summer day trip to Catalina Island.  Part of the adventure was traveling by boat to the island and seeing the flying fish as we crossed the Pacific Ocean from the port of Long Beach to the tiny city of Avalon located on the island.  It was such an exciting sea adventure!  Then, once we arrived at Catalina we took a ride on a glass bottom boat to see the underwater sea creatures hidden in the kelp forests, toured the Wrigley Mansion with its beautiful gardens which were at the top of the hill overlooking the city and also the Catalina Casino located on the other side of Avalon Bay.  We had so much fun that day and I have so many wonderful memories!!

A brief history of Catalina Island (Santa Catalina Island)

Catalina Island is part of the Channel Islands archipelago and is located just 22 miles from the coast of California.  The island measures 22 miles long and 8 miles across at its widest point.  Archeologists have found evidence that the first settlers to the island, dating back to 7000 BC, were a group of Native Americans known as the Pimugnans or Pimuvit.  Other archaeological findings indicate that the Pimugnans settled near the present day city of Avalon and that they mined soapstone on the island and traded with other Native American tribes along the coast of California.

Documentation indicates that the first European to visit the island was a Portuguese explorer named Juan Cabrillo.  He arrived on October 7, 1542 claiming the island for Spain and naming it San Salvador.  The island remained unsettled by the Europeans for almost 60 years until another Spanish explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino rediscovered the island and renamed it Santa Catalina.

By the 1830s, a series of catastrophic events caused the island’s entire native population to be eliminated from the island.  With the Spanish colonization on the island, the Pimugnans population significantly declined due deaths caused by the introduction of diseases to which the Native Americans had no natural immunity.  Also the Pimugnans trade system was severely disrupted by the presence of the Spanish on the island and along the coast of California with the establishment of the chain of Missions by the Franciscan friars.  The remaining Pimugnans migrated from the island to find work at the Missions or on the vast rancheros owned by the Spanish settlers.

Over the centuries, the island has been used by distant Aleutian hunters from Russia and eventually local American hunters using it as a basecamp for the lucrative sea otter and seal pelt industry.  An abundance of these animals in the waters around Catalina, the nearby Channel Islands and along the coast of California provided a seemingly unlimited supply of these pelts which were in demanded at very high prices to foreign markets.  Later the island was used by frequently by pirates because of the numerous coves which provided the perfect hiding places which were within easy travel distance from the coast.  (Catalina Trivia: China Point, which is located on the southwest end of Catalina, received its name because that area of the island was once used by smugglers to hide illegal Chinese immigrants)

Over the following years, the ownership of the island changed hands numerous times.  In 1846, the Mexican Governor awarded the island in a large land grant to a local sea captain named Thomas Robbins.  Then, in 1850 it was sold to Jose Covarrubias who sold it to Albert Packard in 1853 who sold to James Lick in 1864 and maintained control of the entire island for the next 25 years.  Catalina Island was eventually developed as a vacation destination due to its close location to the growing metropolis of Los Angeles on the mainland of California.  In 1887, the Michigan real estate developer, George Shatto, built the island’s first hotel located at the site of the new city of Avalon.

Then in 1891 the Banning bothers bought the island from Lick, formed the Santa Catalina Island Company, and immediately started developing it as a vacation resort.  The main focus was the small island town of Avalon where more tourist accommodations were built but additional improvements were made around the entire island with dirt roads into the interior were paved, hunting lodges were constructed and stagecoach tours around the island were soon started.

In 1919, the island came under the ownership of William Wrigley Jr., the chewing gum company owner, when he purchased a controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Company.  Wrigley invested millions to further develop the island and constructed the Catalina Casino which opened in May 1929 attracting tourists from the mainland of California.  (Catalina Trivia: Wrigley also owned the Chicago Cubs baseball team and starting in 1921 their spring training facility was located on Catalina from 1921 until 1951)

Avalon before the Catalina Casino built    Catalina Casino being constructed

Chicago Cubs training camp, Catalina Island 1    Chicago Cubs training camp, Catalina Island 2

After the death of Wrigley in 1932, the control of the Santa Catalina Island Company sent to his son, Philip Wrigley, who continued with his father’s master plan to develop and improve the island.  The island was closed to tourists during World War II and used as a military training facility.  Upon his death in 1975, Philip Wrigley deeded 90 percent of the original Santa Catalina Island Company, approximately 42,135 acres; to the newly formed Catalina Island Conservancy (which he helped to establish in 1971) while the remaining 10 percent was retained and control of a majority of the resort properties and tourist operations on the island.  The Conservancy, a private nonprofit organization, has made it their mission to protect and preserve the natural and cultural heritage of Catalina.

Travel information for Catalina Island

Catalina can be reached by passenger ferries that depart from Long Beach and San Pedroas well as Newport Beach.  The island can also be reached by helicopter service from either Long Beach or San Pedro.  Please see the following website,, for more specific information on traveling to Catalina and to view available dates, times and prices.  (Travel Note: Back in the 1990s the Royal Caribbean, Princess and Carnival cruise lines starting making Catalina a regular stop on their Baja cruise itineraries.  The ships usually anchor approximately 100 feet outside of Avalon Harbor and passengers are ferried by small boats onto the island)

Catalina is unique because motor vehicles are restricted on most areas of the island with the exception of the city of Avalon.  Most residents use golf carts but bicycles are also a popular alternative and there are several rental shops available for tourists to rent either types of transportation.  The Catalina Island Conservancy offers bus and jeep tours into the interior of the island and they also issue hiking and mountain biking permits that can be obtained through the Conservancy office.  (Travel Note: Hiking permits are free but there is an annual fee for mountain bike permits with additional helmet and tire requirements)  For more information regarding transportation on the island of Catalina, please see the website

Things to see and do on Catalina

Once visitors are on Catalina there are numerous sites to see and a variety of activities to enjoy.  Here is a list of just a few of the things to see and do on the island:

  • Glass Bottom Boat Tours – This popular tour takes visitors on a trip in a glass bottom boat to the Lover’s Cove Marine Preserve to view the abundant sea life in the kelp forests located just off shore.  Advance reservations are required and highly recommended.  For further information regarding the tours offered by the Santa Catalina Island Company please call 310-510-8687 or view their website at  (Catalina Trivia: The 1966 movie, “The Glass Bottom Boat starring Doris Day and Rod Taylor was based on the original Catalina tours and portions of the movie were filmed on the island)

Glass Bottom Boat vintage postcard

  • Flying Fish Tours – Another popular boat tour for visitors to take while on the island is the Flying Fish Tour.  The famed flying fish can be seen seasonally off the coast of Catalina from late May to September every year.  These amazing fish propel themselves out of the water sometimes reaching heights as high at 30 feet above the water.  For more information regarding these tours offered by the Santa Catalina Island Company please call 310-510-8687 or view their website at

Flying fish vintage postcard

    • Other water activities – snorkeling, scuba diving, para sailing, kayaking and paddle boarding.  (Travel Note: Please be advised to check your preferred Catalina Island vendors to inquire about reservation, availability and price information prior to your trip to Catalina and it is always a good idea to also ask about cancellation policies just in case of scheduling problems)
    • Catalina Casino Tour – The iconic landmark of Avalon is the Catalina Casino circular 12-story high building which was built in 1929 by William Wrigley, Jr.  The building’s art deco style interior features the Catalina Island Museum and a movie theater on the first floor and a large ballroom on the top floor.  Guided tours of the Catalina Casino are available and visitors can learn the history of Catalina Island and in the museum there are displays showing the distinctive Catalina tiles and pottery that was once made locally on the island.  For further information regarding the tours offered by the Santa Catalina Island Company, please call 310-510-8687 or view their website at (Catalina Trivia: Most visitors will assume that the Catalina Casino was a place for gambling but, like most things on the island that have been inspired or influenced by a Mediterranean style, the name is derived from the Italian word casino which means a “gathering place”)

Catalina Casino    Catalina Casino entrance - the Lady of the Casino tilework

  • The Wrigley Memorial and Gardens – High on the hill on the opposite side of Avalon Bay and the Catalina Casino is the Wrigley Memorial and Gardens, from this vantage point on the island there are spectacular views of Avalon Harbor. The Memorial, which honors William Wrigley Jr, is the centerpiece of the 38 acre Botanical Gardens which features a variety of desert plants that were originally planted at the direction of Wrigley’s wife, Ada.  The Memorial was built in 1933-34 using Catalina stone quarried on the island and the red roof tile and beautiful handmade tile where produced locally by the Catalina Pottery plant which operated on the island from 1927 to 1937.  The Memorial and the Gardens are operated by the Catalina Island Conservancy, please see for more information regarding hours of operation and tour prices.  (Catalina Trivia:  William Wrigley Jr. was originally buried in the sarcophagus located in Wrigley Memorial.  The Memorial is located near the former Wrigley home on Catalina; unfortunately the house is not open to public tours but currently provides deluxe accommodations for island visitors as the Inn at Mt. Ada.  In 1947, Wrigley’s remains were moved to the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, CA)

Wrigley Memorial    Wrigley Memorial Gradens

Travel – The Walt Disney Family Museum

Walt Disney Family Museum 5

As many readers known from my previous posts, I grew up in Southern California about a one hour drive from Disneyland in Anaheim.CA.  Our family went often over the years we enjoyed seeing the attractions, riding the rides and the watching the parades at the theme park.  So, as a result of my interest in all things Disney, I have read many books on the fascinating history of Disneyland and the Walt Disney Company.  This year, on a recent road trip to California, we took a side trip to see the Walt Disney Family Museum located on the grounds of the historic Presidio in San Francisco.

A brief history of the Walt Disney Family Museum

The Walt Disney Family Museum is located on grounds of the Presidio which was a former U.S. military facility located in San Francisco.  The Presidio was closed as a US government Army post in 1989 and the administration of the property was transferred to the National Park Service.  The museum, which opened in 2009, is funded by the Walt Disney Family Foundation which was started by Diane Disney Miller, Walt’s daughter, and was built as a lasting memorial to Walt Disney’s work in animated films, television and other aspects of the entertainment industry including his beloved theme parks.  The museum occupies three brick buildings and the two main buildings were formerly Army barracks which were originally built in the 1890s and additional special exhibits are displayed in the adjacent Diane Disney Miller Exhibition Hall which was formerly the Presidio gymnasium which was built in 1904.

The 40,000 square feet space of the main portion of the museum features an interior designed with state of the art exhibits and interactive displays in 10 themed galleries that the visitors can move through in chronological order viewing the highlights of Walt Disney’s personal and professional life.  There is also a movie theater located in the lower level of the museum which shows limited engagements of past classic Disney movies and the theater’s interior design was inspired by the scene of Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from the 1940 movie “Fantasia” which coincidentally was the first film to shown in the theater after the museum opened.

Disney Museum Theater

One of the most interesting elements of the museum, aside from the fact that visitors can view a wonderful collection Disney historical artifacts and memorabilia, is being able to hear Walt’s narration of the various stages of his life played throughout the various sections of the museum.  These voice tracks came from 19 hours of tapes that Diane, Walt’s daughter, had made during the 1950s which were to be used later as source for a biography about her father.

A tour of the Walt Disney Family Museum

Lobby - Disney's Academy Awards display caseIn the lobby of the museum are several display cases with the 248 awards that Walt received during his long career in the entertainment industry.  Some of those awards include the twenty-six Academy Awards that he received throughout his career including his first two Academy Awards received in 1932 for the Best Short Subject Film (“Flowers and Trees” cartoon) and an Honorary Academy Award for the creation of Mickey Mouse. In 1939, Walt was presented with another Honorary Academy Award for the achievement of the first feature length animated film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (Be sure to take a look at the award as it was cleverly presented in the form of one full sized Oscar statue and seven additional miniature ones presented on stepped base) Also shown in the lobby display cases are Disney’s seven Emmy Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom which was presented to Walt in 1964 by President Johnson, and several honorary degrees from such prestigious colleges as Harvard, Yale, the University of Southern Californian and UCLA.

Lobby 1    Lobby 2

As previously mentioned, the ten permanent galleries in the museum are arranged in chronological order.  The first gallery is “Beginnings: Walt Disney’s Early.  As visitors enter this section, one wall shows photographs of the Disney family, including Walt’s grandparents and his parents. (Be sure to look for the charming photo of baby Walt and also a copy of his birth certificate) The displays in this section tell Walt’s story which begins in 1901 when he was born Chicago, IL and follows the family as they moved to a small farm in Marceline, MO to Kansas City, MO and then back to Chicago in 1917 where Walt attended McKinley High School and also took night classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.  (Be sure to look for a copy of the Voice Yearbook from McKinley High which featured illustrations drawn by Walt)  After graduating, Walt joined the American Ambulance Corps stationed in France for the duration of World War I. (Visitors will see a replica of one of the ambulance vehicles that Walt drove on display in this section of the museum) When Walt returned to the states in 1920, he chose to go back to Kansas City to work for an advertisement company.  By this time in his life Walt had discovered the art of animation and he became fascinated by this relatively new form of entertainment.  Eventually, Walt started the Laugh-O-Gram Films which produced animated short films but unfortunately the company soon went bankrupt and Walt moved to California. (Be sure to look for Walt’s Laugh-O-Gram business card and the company’s first stock certificate that was issued to Walt’s parents, Elias and Flora Disney)

Gallery 1 - Disney Family photos    Gallery 1 - American Ambulance Corps vehicle

The second gallery of the Museum is “Hollywood” tells Walt’s story of when he arrived in California in 1923 hoping to find employment working in Hollywood as a movie director.  Walt and his brother, Roy, formed the Disney Bros. Studio company and hired several former employees of Laugh-O-Gram to come to Hollywood to work on the series of live action/animated short films based upon the Alice in Wonderland books.  Around this time, a girl named Lilian Bounds came to work at the Disney Studio in the “Paint and Ink” department.  Walt fell in love with the petite fun-loving Lillian and after a brief courtship they were married on July 25, 1925. (Be sure to look for a copy of Walt and Lillian’s marriage certificate)  Now, with the limited success of the Alice Comedies, the Disney Studio received a contract from Universal Pictures to create a series of animated shorts starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  Walt had now started to focus more on story development, film direction and he was no longer working as an animator.  Then in 1928, despite film distribution problems with Universal, Walt went to New York City to negotiate higher fees and ended up losing not only the contract but also the rights to the character of Oswald, the situation taught Walt an important lesson about retaining financial and creative control in the entertainment industry.  Walt was very discouraged about the business setback but Lillian encouraged him to keep trying and on the train ride back to California Walt started to sketch ideas for a new mouse character which Lillian named Mickey Mouse.  (Be sure to look for the display featuring Walt’s first sketches of Mickey Mouse)  The character of Mickey Mouse went on to become a national sensation, especially after he was featured in the first animated film with synchronized sound. (Visitors should check out the large display of the Mickey Mouse merchandise that was available in those early years of the company)

Gallery 2

The third gallery of the museum is “New Horizons”.  With the financial success of Mickey Mouse, the Disney Bros. Studio now had the funds to move into much larger facilities.  The newly renamed Walt Disney Studios now concentrated on improving their animation techniques with better equipment that was used to create the first Technicolor cartoons.  Visually the quality of the Disney cartoons increased to another level with improved story lines, character development and better sound quality with music added to the finished cartoons.  As previously mentioned, in 1932 Walt won his first Academy Award for the Best Short Subject Film, “Flowers and Trees”, one of the animated cartoons in the “Silly Symphonies” series.  That same year, Walt received an Honorary Academy Award for the creation of Mickey Mouse.  (Visitors can see both these Academy Awards are in the display case in the lobby of the museum.  Also on display in this section are several Silly Symphonies animation cels and character merchandise) The Studio was now very successful and Walt had attained fame and celebrity status but there was another more personal reason that brought him happiness.  Walt and Lillian had been blessed with two daughters, Diane born in 1933 and Sharon born in 1936.  (Be sure to take the time to look at a few of the Disney family photos)

Gallery 3 - Mickey Mouse memorabilia    Disney Museum -first sketch of Mickey Mouse

The fourth gallery in the museum is “The Move to Features”.  This section features displays of the Disney Studios first full-length animated movie, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”.  The film took over four years to complete and premiered on December 21, 1937 at the Carthay Theater near downtown Los Angeles.  During the production process, the Disney Studios brought in live animals so that the animators would be able to study and draw the animals in a realistic style and not “cartoon” features.  The Studio developed a special Character Model Department where sculptures were created so that the animators could study the characters from all sides allowing them to draw better figures.  (Be sure to check out some of the very detailed three dimensional figures in this section.  Also displayed are several original artwork and character studies drawings used to create the Snow White film) After losing the rights to the Oswald character in the 1920s, Walt had learned an important lesson about marketing and numerous Snow White items were sold to promote the movie.  (Look for the Snow White Doll and charm bracelet in the display case in this section of the museum)

Snow White Doll    Snow White charm bracelet

The fifth gallery of the museum is “New Success and Greater Ambitions”. With the critical success of Snow White, the Disney Studios had achieved the financial means to build a new state of the art facility in Burbank, CA. and went on make Pinocchio, Bambi and Fantasia over the next ten years.  The production process for each of these films took several years to complete starting with Walt’s famous storyboards which were used to determine the film’s final storyline that would inspire and guide a team of animators to create the final drawings that were sent to the paint and ink department to be colorized and then filmed using the unique multiplane camera which gave the illusion of depth to the two dimensional characters drawn by the animators.  (Be sure to take a close look at the multiplane camera on display in this section, visitors are able to view the camera from two different levels on the first and second floors)  Each of these films received great critical acclaim but brought the Studio only minimal financial success due to the onset of World War II causing a decrease in theater attendance in the United States and very limited international distribution.  (In this section of the museum, visitors will see rare production artwork, character models, drawings and animation cels for all three films and the unique animator desk which was specifically made for the Disney Studio)

Gallery 5    Multiplane camera - view from second floor

The sixth gallery is “The Late 1930s to Mid 1940s”. This period of time is the Walt’s life was plagued by a series of unfortunate circumstances and events.  On a personal note, both Walt’s parents died; first his mother, Flora, in 1939 and later his father, Elias, in 1940.  Then in May 1941 the Walt Disney Studios faced an employee strike which lasted several weeks severely damaging the company and Walt’s reputation.  (Be sure to take the time to look at the photos and union flyers from the strike)  During the time of the strike and before it had been settled, Walt was advised to remove himself the negotiation process and a special U.S. State Department “goodwill” trip to South America was quickly planned.  As a result of this trip, the Disney animated feature, Saludos Amigos, starring the Three Caballeros was later made.  Back at home, the Disney Studios production of Dumbo had been halted during the strike but it eventually premiered in October 1941 and received very limited success.  (In this section of the museum there are many drawings, character studies and animation cels from Dumbo)  Then with the start of World War II, the Disney Studios lost many of their employees as the men went to serve in the U.S. military during World War II.  Once again production stopped on many of their animation films and instead they did their patriotic duty by making training films for the military and other morale-boosting shorts films such as Der Fuehrer’s Face starring Donald Duck.  (Display in this section are various military regiment and squadron insignias created by the Studio featuring Disney characters)

Gallery 6

In the seventh gallery is the “Post War Rebuilding”.  This section of the museum covers the Disney years between the Mid 1940s to the early 1950s.  With the end of World War II, the Disney Studios produced several successful animated films; Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Lady & the Tramp.  During this time, Walt had decided to venture from animated films into live-action productions with the 1950 Treasure Island and 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  (In this section, visitors will see several concept and animation art from these animation and live-action films including the underwater camera used in the filming of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)  Before, proceeding into the next area of the museum, there is a wonderful display of some of the Disney personal possessions including Walt’s large collection of miniatures.  (Be sure to look for the unique charm bracelet that was a gift from Walt to his wife, Lillian, to acknowledge the important personal role that she played in his professional success.  The 18k gold bracelet features twenty miniature Oscar charms to represent those Academy Awards he received)

Gallery 7    Lillian Disney's Oscar charm bracelet

The eighth gallery of the museum is “Walt and the Natural World”.  Walt had always loved nature since he was a young boy growing up on the farm in Marceline, MO.  When the Disney Studios had ventured into making live-action films it naturally (no pun intended!) led to nature documentaries.  The first one, the 1949 Seal Island, featured a group of seals and their seasonal habits.  Since the Disney Museum is located in the Presidio, the large floor to ceiling windows in this section allows visitors some wonderful views of the Golden State Bridge.  (Be sure to stop and take a few minutes to enjoy the view and it is also a perfect opportunity to get a great photo of the Bridge!!)

Disney Museum exterior - rear    View of Bridge from Museum

The ninth gallery is “The 1950s and 1960s: The Big Screen and Beyond”.  This section is one on the largest areas in the museum because it encompasses a twenty year span that was one of the most productive times in the Disney Company.  For the first time, the Company was financially secure and Walt was able to build a beautiful home in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles.  (Walt was an amateur model railroader so be sure to see the Lilly Belle, a 7¼ scale model locomotive, that Walt built and used on the track installed in his backyard that is displayed in this section of the museum)  The Disney Studio had established a reputation for making quality animated and live-action films and during this time they also started making weekly television shows.  Some of the most successful were the Disneyland TV show which help to fund and market Walt’s new theme park and was later renamed the Wonderful World of Disney, The Mickey Mouse Club which featured a cast of young talented Mouseketters, Davy Crockett which featured a catchy theme song and started the national craze of coon-skinned hats and the adventure series, Zorro.

Gallery 9

The Disney Company had also expanded into other parts of the entertainment industry.  Walt had a big dream to create a theme park that would be filled with attractions and rides that families could enjoy.  Disneyland opened in July 1955 and proved to be successful with the public and very profitable for the Disney Company.  (This section of the museum has several displays of the theme park memorabilia but be sure to check out the large model of Disneyland, the details are amazing!)  Special note: If you are looking for more detailed information about Disneyland, I would like to recommend the five part series which features the history of Walt’s first theme park and the various attractions and rides of Disneyland.  Just click on the link, Part One – The history of Disneyland.

Lilly Belle model    Disneyland model

When Walt was planning and building his theme park, he created a separate department of the Disney Company.  This creative group of imagineers went on to work on several projects for the 1964-65 World’s Fair which as held in New York and later some of these attractions were added to Disneyland, such as It’s a Small World and the Carousel of Progress.  Walt was fascinated with the new technologies being developed at this time and incorporated many of these ideas into his latest project, EPCOT the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, which he was planning on building near Orlando, Florida.

The Disney Company continued to make movies and one of their most successful ones premiered in 1964.  The Mary Poppins movie was based on the books written by P.L. Travers and was an instant hit with both the critics and public.  Walt would receive the Best Picture Academy Award for Mary Poppins in 1965.  Special note:  For more information about this classic Disney movie, please click on the link Mary Poppins – the book, movie and play.

The tenth and final gallery of the museum is “Remembering Walt Disney”.   When Walt Disney died on December 5, 1966 the world mourned and this section displays the many letters, telegrams, newspaper and magazine articles that were written shortly after his death expressing not only the feeling of sorrow but also acknowledging appreciation for the quality entertainment that Walt provided to the millions of people around the world.  This section of the museum is a wonderful way to reminder visitors of the lasting legacy of Walt Disney.

Gallery 10

Travel note: When the Presidio closed in 1994, the National Park Service took over the administration of the property and several buildings were converted into business and corporate facilities.  Located near the Walt Disney Family Museum is George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic.  Just in case you were wondering, the Lucas campus is a working production facility and there are no public tours offered.  (Darn it!!)  Visitors are welcome to enjoy the 17 acres of the beautifully landscaped public property surrounding the buildings of ILM and if you decided to take a walk there be sure to look for the “Yoda” water fountain.  

If you are looking for more Disney experiences, we would highly recommend a visit to Marceline, Mo if you are planning a visit to the Midwest.  Last year, we took a road trip to the boyhood home of Walt Disney and enjoyed seeing the Disney family home, the Walt Disney Hometown Museum located in the old Santa Fe Railroad Train Station, the Walt Disney Elementary School and walking along the street in Marceline that is said to be the inspiration for the Main Street at Disneyland.  (If you are interested, please click on the link, Walt Disney’s Marceline, for additional details regarding a visit to this small Midwest town)