New Disney100 Exhibit at the Franklin Institute Celebrates a Century of Iconic Animation

From Mickey Mouse to Marvel, the Franklin Institute’s new exhibit traces Disney’s history through artifacts, art, interactivity and more.


Disney100 celebrates 100 years of Disney animation at the Franklin Institute. / Photograph by Laura Swartz

It’s hard to picture a global behemoth like Disney having humble beginnings, started by two brothers from the Midwest on October 16, 1923. But that’s when Walt Disney and his brother Roy began what was then called the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in Hollywood, California. To commemorate a century of fairy tales, theme parks, innovative animation, songs that burrow into your subconscious, and dreams coming true, Disney is launching an exhibit that will envelop visitors in the stories and history of its entertainment empire — and it’s debuting right here in Philly.

Disney100: The Exhibition makes its world premiere at the Franklin Institute this weekend, on February 18th, and runs through August 27th. The exhibit includes more than 250 of Walt Disney Archives’ “Crown Jewels,” like original artworks and artifacts, costumes and props, and other memorabilia.

The “Spirit of Adventure and Discovery” gallery at Disney100 / Photograph courtesy of the Franklin Institute

Your first question might be: Fairy tales in a science museum? Is there a scientific explanation for a talking snowman or a mermaid trading her voice to a witch for legs? Why here?

Museum CEO Larry Dubinski explains, “Bringing stories of innovation and discovery to the public in an immersive and interactive way is at the heart of what the Franklin Institute has done for the past 200 years.”

Disney100 / Photograph by Laura Swartz

From its early days through today, Disney has pushed technology past its limits to accomplish its storytelling — making a feature-length animated musical seemed impossible in the 1930s, but that’s what Snow White did; making lifelike animatronics to bring stories to life, Disney Parks’ “Imagineers” meld art and robotics; even depicting hair in a visually believable way required developing new software for Pixar’s Brave. 

Olaf, from stage to screen / Photograph by Laura Swartz

So Disney100 is not just a celebration of our collective nostalgia for beloved characters and songs, but also a study in storytelling and innovation evolving together.

The exhibit consists of 10 galleries over 15,000 square feet of the Franklin Institute’s special-exhibit space. The “Where It All Began” gallery introduces Walt Disney, including his creation of Mickey Mouse in 1928’s Steamboat Willie. You’ll also find original sketches, including those of Mickey’s predecessor, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

“Where it All Began” / Photograph by Laura Swartz

The galleries that follow show the intricacies of storytelling, from “Where Do the Stories Come From?” to “Sources of Inspiration,” which explores Disney’s literary influences, from fairy tales to cultural legends. This may just be my professional bias, but these galleries breaking down things like storyboarding, character development, and adapting age-old stories to new media were the most interesting.

Cinderella’s glass slipper / Photograph by Laura Swartz

It doesn’t hurt that these are also the spaces that highlight Disney’s most iconic creations, with artifacts from its animated films and live-action adaptations. Items include costumes like Cinderella’s glass slipper and Cruella’s gown (from the 2021 film), props like the snow globe from Mary Poppins and storybooks from Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, as well as production sketches, storyboards and maquette statues that allowed animators to envision the characters from all angles.

Animators’ maquette statues / Photograph courtesy of the Franklin Institute

Understandably, these objects are hands-off. So, to make the exhibit more interactive, you’ll find more info in listening stations, photo ops and large tables made of screens with dials that allow you to learn more about things like individual characters and parks. Another interactive moment: a recreation of the “magic book” that begins 1959’s Sleeping Beauty — when you turn the giant pages, they also change on a big screen above, with animation and sound effects. But know going in: There is not a lot to “do,” especially for antsy little kids.

The “magic book” / Photograph by Laura Swartz

A Disney Parks section highlights the theme parks around the world, depicting the development and fun of Disneyland and subsequent parks, real ride vehicles, and a scale model of Disney World’s Cinderella castle that changes from day to night, complete with fireworks.

The Disney Parks gallery at Disney100 / Photograph courtesy of the Franklin Institute

Vehicle from “Peter Pan’s Flight” ride / Photograph by Laura Swartz

Disney movies are memorable in large part to their music, so there’s also a gallery devoted to that, including listening stations that allow you to experience inescapable hits like “Let it Go” and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” in languages from around the world. There’s also a jukebox-like wall where you can listen to all kinds of Disney songs, and a nod to Disney’s Broadway musical adaptations.

Costume from the Broadway adaptation of The Lion King / Photograph by Laura Swartz

The “Innoventions” section feels the most science-y, showing the technological wizardry that created everything from Disney animation (multi-plane cameras brought depth and dimension to animated cinematography) to their development of audio-animatronic technology to accomplish park attractions like the Hall of Presidents.

Animation console / Photograph by Laura Swartz

Of course, Disney did not end with Walt’s passing, so the exhibit goes on to “The Spirit of Adventure and Discovery” which incorporates Disney acquisitions Star Wars and Marvel with props and infographics. Items include a life-size BB-8 and a light saber hilt for the former, Captain America’s shield and T’Challa’s Black Panther costume for the latter.

BB-8 at Disney100 / Photograph by Laura Swartz

In case this exhaustive list of intellectual property hasn’t made abundantly clear, Disney100 highlights the many entry points and personal associations people have with the Disney universe. When speaking on developing the exhibit with Semmel Exhibitions, executive producer and director Christoph Scholz described growing up in East Germany and being exposed to Disney through Donald Duck comic books “smuggled” in for him by relatives visiting from the West. “Humans all over the world have their Disney origin story,” he explained. The Disney100 exhibit grabs you, whether you’re a little kid who loves Elsa or an adult who loves the Avengers, whether you’re in it for the Fairy Godmother sparkle of it all or some in-the-weeds technical talk.

Disney100: The Exhibition runs at the Franklin Institute (222 North 20th Street) from February 18th through August 27th. Timed tickets are now available online, and are $41 for kids and $45 for adults (with discounts for museum members). If you’re looking to save some money, there are also evening tickets for $25, which only include admission to the Disney100 exhibit from 5 p.m. to close.