This space recreates the Archives “reading” or research room — where people come to study the historic materials and files maintained by the Walt Disney Archives. Here, too, visitors to the studio lot see changing exhibits celebrating key moments in Disney’s history.

Next to the Reading Room is a “back” room containing our most frequently used collections–an area we sometimes call “the stacks” due to the presence of rolling shelves where archival materials are “stacked” for easy access. These two rooms surround us with Disney history in the form of historical documents, artwork, photographs, and reference files.

Having these research materials at our fingertips allows us to quickly answer incoming questions. Our goal is to ensure that historical materials are easy to access, and can be safely made available for research. As new items are added to the collection, we assess their research value and condition, and determine the best place to keep them. We rehouse collections using archival materials, and describe them thoroughly in a computer database so that we can easily know what we have and where to find it.

The Archives staff supports a wide variety of projects within The Walt Disney Company, providing reference and research services for new productions, films and television shows, exhibitions such as this one, and book projects. The Archives research team finds answers to questions about Disney history: from animation and live-action feature films to theme park attractions and Disney Legends. We review the content of new Disney-history related materials to make sure they are accurate.

For Disney fans and scholars around the globe, our research and artifact collections represent the dreams, inspirations, and teaching tools that have helped generations of people enjoy the world around them.

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The Walt Disney Archives Reading Room features changing exhibits representing different aspects of Disney’s history, from personal effects belonging to Walt and Roy Disney to displays presenting props and artifacts from beloved films and Disney Park attractions of days gone by. These exhibits delight and educate Disney employees and special guests who travel to the Archives from all over the world.

When the artists moved into the new Animation Building in Burbank in 1940, they found specially-designed desks and cabinets waiting for them. Walt Disney commissioned industrial designer Kem Weber to help craft the look and feel of the studio lot and offices. Working with Walt and his team, Weber designed custom furniture that met the needs of each artist, creating a comfortable, efficient workspace.

This exhibit presents an original Disney animation desk, chair, and bookcase from the 1940s. Dressed to represent an animation artist working on Fantasia (1940), it is set as though the artist has just stepped away for lunch. Artists personalized their environment with cartoons, reference photos, and dimensional models of the characters they were working on, like the maquette of Ben Ali Gator seen here.



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Kevin Kern
Manager, Research

To me, Fantasia is a perfect film. Unlike anything that had come before it— or perhaps since—Walt Disney’s musical masterpiece was equal parts technical experimentation and artistic statement. As he himself said at the time of the film’s premiere in 1940: “In a profession that has been an unending voyage of discovery in the realms of color, sound and motion, Fantasia represents our most exciting adventure.” The blending of abstract and complex visual concepts with the bubbly Disney “house style” of the late 1930s and early 1940s presents fantastical creations representing light and dark, soft and sharp, muted and vibrant – all at the same time. Each segment of Fantasia feels like a fresh, novel, and transcendent experience.

This exhibit features extraordinary Fantasia concept art from the Archives’ collections. Looking at examples from different points in the film’s development, you might find that each is rendered in a wholly unique style, tone, and medium. I’ve always found it particularly fascinating how Disney Studio Artists are able to emote feelings through conceptual works. Take for example the piece displayed here featuring Mickey Mouse and the Sorcerer, Yen Sid, by background artist Edgar Starr.

Through a swirling mixture of chalk, graphite, ink, and watercolors, areas of both dark and light work perfectly together to convey a mysterious mood. Through this frame we not only see Mickey toiling away, but Yen Sid preparing some wondrous creation – a concept that would heavily influence the visual style and action seen in the opening sequence of the segment. Examples such as this highlight a true mastery of visual storytelling – something that, thankfully, the Archives helps preserve and highlight for students of Disney history of all ages, and will for decades to come.

Early Archival Collections

A large portion of the Archives collection centers on the lives of Walt and his brother Roy O. Disney, who together founded The Walt Disney Company in 1923. (In fact, the Company was first known as the Disney Bros. Cartoon Studio.) Among the most important—and most used—elements of the collection are thousands of pages of Walt’s correspondence, from early handwritten notes and letters to his family, to copies of letters typed by his secretaries. There are books, speeches, interviews, and more than 8,500 photos depicting the business life of these two legendary men. Through these materials, Walt and Roy continue to “speak” to us today.

Other collections within the Archives include production files for live-action and animated films, television shows, and development files for the Disney theme parks and resorts. There are even story meeting notes for abandoned projects, some of which could come back to life one day. Publicity files date back to the 1920s; and there is a valuable collection of merchandise items from the 1930s to the present, which has been useful to designers working on new products today.

Visitors to the Walt Disney Archives—including new employees who sometimes come by for “orientation”—see exhibits featuring materials from these collections in the Reading Room. Some exhibits change depending on the season, or for an important anniversary of a character, film, or theme park attraction.

The story of Walt and Roy is told in one showcase, with rare items from both their personal and professional lives, and we are delighted to share some of these with you here. One unique item is a copy of the Disney Family Genealogy. Early on, Roy O. asked Dave Smith to see what he could find about the history of the Disney family itself. Dave was able to date the family’s roots back to a small village in France, d’Isigny sur Mer on the Normandy coast, from which in the 12th century Hugh d’Isigny and his son moved to England and changed their name to “Disney.” Dave even managed to discover the Disney family’s coat of arms!

Other showcases present the history of The Walt Disney Studios lot, from a pass allowing visitors through the studio gates to menus from the restaurants where they could enjoy a bowl of one of Walt’s favorite foods, chili! Even the history of the Archives itself is presented in a display one might call “Archiving the Archives.” Here you’ll find the Archives-produced “All Pictures Book”, which was the original in-house version of the best-selling Disney A to Z: The Official Disney Encyclopedia by Dave Smith. Dave’s book is now in its 5th edition!


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