The story of the Muppets at Disney Parks is a complex one that has been told many times. At this point, the story has become almost more of a legend than a story, as it’s been passed on for nearly 25 years now. With the recent news that ABC is developing a Muppets pilot, I think it’s time I pass the legend on to a few new sets of eyes. I’m not doing this because I think I can tell the story better than others or because I have more information than others have, I don’t. I’m writing because stories are meant to be passed on, especially stories about topics people love. I for one love the Muppets and the Disney Parks. Thank you to Jim Korkis, Jim Hill, Lou Mongello and many others from which I’ve heard bits and pieces of the history of the Muppets and Disney Parks.
Before I really jump into the story, I do want to reiterate that I really love the Muppets. I have a different Muppet shirt for every day of the week. Some may find my love for them unhealthy. With that love can come biases. Thankfully, I really love Disney Parks too so things kind of even themselves out in that aspect. Without further ado, here is what I know!
In the late 1980’s Jim Henson (the Jim Henson Company) started to negotiate a deal in which the Muppets would be sold to the Disney company. Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney at the time, was looking to expand Disney’s reach by purchasing other franchises. Disney and the Muppets seemed like an easy match. Both had experienced incredible amounts of success at times in their history. Both had brought a lot of happiness to an incredible amount of people. Walt had Mickey and Jim had Kermit, both incredibly iconic. The Muppets have the kind of light-heartedness and joy that Disney would crave, so the match seemed right.
Jim Henson seemed to think so too. Henson was tired of the business of it all and wanted to get back to creating. The Muppets were in debt, like many franchises tend to be, and the sale would wipe that debt out. Lastly, although there were other smaller reasons, in the late 1980’s the Muppets weren’t as hot of a commodity as they were earlier in the decade. A sale to Disney may reinvigorate the franchise and boost the Muppets popularity. The deal moved forward but, as all big sales do, there were many different hurdles to surpass before it became official. While in negotiations, Henson and Disney combined to produce a 60-minute special called The Muppets at Walt Disney World.
He had also started work on the attraction that we now know as Muppet-Vision 3D. Disneyland appeared ready for a Muppets themed takeover to help celebrate their 35th anniversary in 1990. This seemed to be a sign of progress for the Muppets popularity and a precursor of what was supposed to come. But as there were negotiations over details like what constitutes a Muppet, who owns the rights to Jim Henson’s new creations, and what would become of the Muppets under Disney’s watch, a dark day creeped closer. Everything was close to done and the new deal was going to allow Disney the exclusive rights to anything Jim Henson produced over the next ten years. Still, a deal was never quite signed.
On May 16 of 1990, Jim Henson passed away. I’ve heard several people say that the Muppets were merely days away from being sold to Disney.
It was in this year that negotiations fell apart. Disney wanted to renegotiate the deal because they didn’t have access to one of the most imaginative creators of all time in Henson, therefore the Muppets weren’t as valuable. Of course, that’s sad. At this point in the story, it’s easy to forget that these two companies are businesses. What Disney did makes a great deal of sense business wise and was the right move financially. That doesn’t mean I can’t be annoyed by this aspect of the story, as a Muppet fan, but there are always two sides to a story and the Disney side is complicated. Of course, the Henson family felt disrespected because of this.
Another reason the negotiations may have been hurt is that nine days after Henson passed away, a new attraction called Here Come the Muppets debuted at Disney MGM Studios. The show premiered at where Voyage of the Little Mermaid currently resides. Here Come the Muppets was a stage show Henson had worked on. Here’s a summary of the show that lasted for about a year and a half. This attraction debuted Muppets that were able to walk around on their own feet (not a true Muppet, in that sense, but convenient for meet & greets). Since the show debuted so close to Jim Henson’s death, it is believed that some felt this was disrespectful and the show should have been put on hold. I don’t buy into that thought but it’s not really my place and emotions were running high, I’m sure.
Here Come the Muppets wasn’t the only Muppets presence at the park though. Kermit and Miss Piggy made a quick appearance in Hollywood’s Pretty Woman, a show that only lasted for about 2 months. As Jim Korkis recalls, this was to invoke the theme of the Muppets running lose in the Studios. It was supposed to be chaotic, crazy, and hilarious, just as the Muppets were in their shows and movies. They were going to pop up everywhere; in a ride, in a show, on the streets, the Muppets would be there! This is why Here Come the Muppets debuted Muppets that would be able to walk around. Just as the TV special, these shows were supposed to be a sign of what was to come.
Once Here Come the Muppets had run its course, a new attraction called Muppets on Location: Days of Swine and Rose debuted and ran for nearly three years. The show’s plot revolved around the Muppets filming a movie and acting that out over a course of the show as park guests looked on. A very meta idea but that’s how the Muppets usually go about their business.
All of these attractions were supposed to lead to an even bigger Muppet presence in the studio. The Muppet Motorcade was supposed to join the action, which was a large Muppet themed parade. Shortly, an entire Muppet Studios (for lack of a better name) was in development. Disney had created a large amount of content for the Muppets at MGM Studios because there was every indication that the contract was nearing completion under Jim Henson’s watch. Unfortunately, Henson passed away.
So, what was this Muppet Studios supposed to be? Again as our friend Jim Korkis recalls, this land was supposed to be the place where the Muppet’s lived and worked. The area would be anchored by the Muppet-Vision 3D, which did come to fruition, of course. The other item that came to be was a fountain in Muppet’s Courtyard that is hilariously detailed. The area we currently have in Disney’s Hollywood Studios is still a lot of fun. Classic Muppet songs play throughout the area and there are several sight gags as well as a store themed after the Happiness Hotel. What didn’t come to be is even more interesting to me.
Lew Zealand was supposed to have his own fish market in this Muppet Studios where guests could hear cuts of Lew Zealand yelling from up above. That is not nearly as big of a loss as Great Gonzo’s Pizza Parlor, which would have sat where Mama Melrose’s currently sits. Gonzo had decided to open an Italian restaurant. Said to have taken its theme from Planet Hollywood, this restaurant was supposed to have TV monitors everywhere showing Gonzo telling guests that everything is fine, as things have gone off the handle in the background. Gonzo’s Pizza Parlor would be full of sight gags and word play with appearances by characters, as well. Swedish Chef had signed up to be the cook. This restaurant never opened although it was supposedly all ready to go.
Another attraction that the Muppets were supposed to star in was the Muppet Movie Ride. Parodying The Great Movie Ride, which is in the front of the park at the Studios, the Muppets would take classic movies and add a Muppet twist to them. This attraction never happened but it’s easily my favorite attraction of all-time (I’m only halfway kidding). In usual Muppet fashion, the attraction would have gotten out of hand and chaotic. The Muppet Movie Ride would have been a significant addition to the park and especially to the Muppets presence within the park. While I will always be one to harp on the value of slowing down at a theme park and not just doing attractions, there is no underestimating how important actual attractions are. The current state of Hollywood Studios shows us that.
All of what I have mentioned was planned. These attractions, restaurants, shows and gimmicks weren’t just rumored. There was concept art revealed, there were budgets approved, and there was progress being made on the attractions. The Muppets were coming, it was just a matter of how soon they would be there. Then, Jim Henson passed away and everything was put on hold.
Still, this area was still supposed to be coming as the Jim Henson Company and Disney worked together to work on attractions. As I mentioned and you probably know, in 1991 Muppet-Vision 3D premiered as well as the courtyard in front of it. It premiered on the one-year anniversary of Jim Henson’s death. Jim Henson directed most of the film.
Muppet-Vision 3D and Muppets on Locations: Days of Swine and Pig were phase 1 of the Muppet takeover, phase 2 was everything else I’ve talked about. Phase 2 never happened. In fact, according to Jim Hill, phase 1 barely happened. As he said on the Disney Dish Podcast, the Henson family was treated very poorly by Disney lawyers in a meeting in November 1990 which led them to backing out of a deal with Disney. Frank Oz had to convince Brian Henson to let them show Muppet-Vision 3D in Disney World, even though it was already completed. Brian relented but not without some strange restrictions. He would not allow Disney to show the 3D movie west of the Mississippi (sounds a little similar to a Marvel contract that happened a few years ago). This is the reason why Disney’s Hollywood Studios opened Muppet-Vision 3D but none of the phase 2.
The Muppets in Disneyland
The story of the Muppets in the Disneyland essentially coincides with what I just wrote. They would have had an increased presence in Disneyland if the Jim Henson deal went through. This was evidenced by Disneyland’s 35th Anniversary Special shared on CBS (check out this clip around the 4:30 mark).
Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, Muppet-Vision 3D wasn’t allowed to be put in California when it opened in Disney World. For a time before Jim Henson died, Muppet-Vision was rumored to take the place of Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln. The Muppet takeover of Disneyland’s 35th anniversary didn’t happen either.
With the opening of Disney’s California Adventure in the early 2000’s, Disney was looking for more attractions to put in the park. They approached the Jim Henson Company about putting Muppet-Vision 3D into Disney’s California Adventure and eventually struck a deal. The attraction opened with the park on February 8, 2001. This led to more negotiations and Disney eventually, and finally, bought the Muppets (who had been sold a few years earlier and then bought back by the Jim Henson Company) on February 17th, 2004. It’s unclear if the negotiating to get the Muppets to California Adventure reopened the door for Disney to buy the Muppets, but the timeline would lead me to believe that it did.
In the years leading up to the acquisition, the Muppets had floundered and lost their popularity. Disney helped co-produce Muppet Treasure Island and The Muppet Christmas Carol in the 90’s which, in my opinion, were both fine films but nothing more. In 1999, Muppets From Space was released and failed. It was a bad movie that didn’t stay true to the Muppets, although some love it because of how weird it is. Columbia Pictures produced this film. This film has its own crazy story behind but there is way too much going on in this blog post already!
At the time of the Disney acquisition, the Muppets were a sinking ship. Being bought by Disney should have been a life raft but the acquisition took place a few months before Michael Eisner left the CEO position and the new CEO, Bob Iger, didn’t have as much interest in the franchise. So, the Muppets sat. In the contract there was a five-year period where Disney had to get the Jim Henson Company’s approval on anything they created involving the Muppet’s. Maybe they wanted complete creative control, maybe not, but Disney waited about five years before starting to make a Muppet movie.
Meanwhile Muppet Mobile Lab was created for the Disney Theme Parks. It was an audio-animatronic that interacted with guests. It debuted in California Adventure in 2007 and has hopped around the world ever since.
In 2011, The Muppets came out in theaters. After a smart, useful marketing campaign that utilized Youtube and the easy appeal of the Muppets, the film did well in the theaters and drew mostly good reviews. It was a nostalgic film that was meant to push the franchise forward. In 2014, Muppets Most Wanted came out to theaters and while the reviews were mostly favorable, the film didn’t do very well in the box office.
Muppet-Vision 3D closed in Disney’s California Adventure in early 2015 and it is not clear at the moment if it will return. The film was never as successful in the Disneyland Resort as it was in Disney World.
The Future of the Muppets
With Muppets Most Wanted failing at the box office, the Muppets sit in limbo. While it would be easy for Disney to stash them away for a while and then pull out a nostalgic film every 15 years, the company seems to be more pro-active than that, thankfully. As I mentioned, ABC is developing a pilot episode for a show based around the Muppets. TV may be the best format for the Muppets as they have really only had two great box office successes out of their six original pictures.
For the Muppets at the theme parks, it’s hard to imagine that things will get better before they get worse. Having attractions based off of franchises that aren’t as popular with kids is a dangerous way to go and, frankly, not a way that Disney will probably pursue. Muppet-Vision 3D in Disney’s Hollywood Studios is still open but most attractions at the Studios could be on the chopping block as an overhaul of the park appears to be right around the corner. Maybe the attraction survives, but if it does it could really use an update to the film or a new film entirely. Maybe the Muppets will reappear in Disneyland but thinking that Disney will keep trotting out an old attraction when they could have an increased Marvel presence in the park is hard to buy into.
The Muppet franchise has a big few years ahead of them. Hopefully, success on a TV show will help them gain attention from all generations and that will lead to an increase of Muppets in the theme parks. That’s the best case scenario. If the TV show fails, it’s easy to see the Muppets disappearing for a while.
While thinking about the future of the Muppets it’s easy to let the mind wander back to all of the attractions that were about to come to Disney’s MGM Studios in the early 90’s. As successful attractions have shown us, they can keep the popularity of a franchise high even when their isn’t original material being produced (Pirates of the Caribbean is a somewhat different but good example of this). If kids could have gotten their laughs at Gonzo’s restaurant, they would have been more apt to enjoy the greatest plumber of them all in the movies. If kids would have been able to meet a walking around Kermit, they would have understood the most personable franchise icon since Mickey Mouse.
Through a complicated set of circumstances, these attractions didn’t happen. Now Muppet fans, are left to wander what might have been and hope that these ideas someday, and somehow, come to fruition.