Walt Disney World Chronicles: The Muppet Studios
by Jim Korkis
This article appeared in the February 14, 2012 Issue #647 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
In the late '80s, legendary puppeteer Jim Henson had tired of having so much of his time devoted to business matters. He was in final negotiations with The Walt Disney Company to sell the rights to his famous Muppet characters and become a creative consultant.
Negotiations went reasonably smoothly, although there were still some issues to be resolved. It looked so much like a completed deal that Henson was already at work on a variety of projects for Disney — from a children's live-action television series based on The Little Mermaid to theme park attractions featuring the Muppets.
The Disney Imagineers had big plans for a section at the back of the newly opened Disney-MGM Studios for a new "land" to be called Muppet Studios (and at one point, Muppet Movieland). The area would have essentially parodied in classic Muppet style the movie-making traditions celebrated elsewhere in the theme park.
Phase One of the project was to officially open in 1991 with a new 3-D attraction, supported by a parade and some live stage shows like "Meet the Muppets" (performed in the theater that now houses The Voyage of the Little Mermaid show) and "Muppets on Location: Days of Swine and Roses" (performed outside on a stage at the exit of the Muppet*Vision 3-D attraction).
Characters such as Kermit and Miss Piggy would walk around the park, meeting and greeting guests. Signage soon appeared throughout the theme park announcing the new area.
Phase Two would have included an interactive restaurant, "The Great Gonzo's Pandemonium Pizza Parlor," and another major attraction, "The Great Muppet Movie Ride", among many other delights.
"Jim Henson was very involved with the project," said former Imagineer Mark Eades when I interviewed him. "He was genuinely interested in doing theme park attractions. His natural curiosity and openness and receptiveness to new ideas made him a perfect fit to work with at Imagineering. He was always a pleasant, fun fellow to be around.
"The room always lit up when he was around. It was a two year process from concept to finished production (for Muppet*Vision 3-D). I think Jim liked that it would be something people could see for a long time in an environment like a Disney theme park. I think he also liked doing something new, unique and groundbreaking."
With the unexpected and tragic passing of Henson in May 1990, the contract was still unsigned and challenges arose. As a result, Disney abandoned further development of Muppet Studios. However, one major project was almost complete, and arrangements were made for it to open as planned as a tribute to Jim Henson.
"Jim Henson's Muppet*Vision 3-D" was one of the very last projects personally supervised by the talented Henson before his untimely death. It was actually finished by his friend, puppeteer Frank Oz, who coordinated a small group of other creative personnel from both Henson and Disney. This popular attraction opened at Disney-MGM Studios in May 1991.
The first proposal for Muppet*Vision 3-D would have essentially been an introduction to Bean Bunny with all the other better-known Muppets just having cameos. Bean Bunny first appeared in 1986 as the star of the TV special, "The Tale of the Bunny Picnic."
In 1989, Bean joined the cast of The Jim Henson Hour, appearing in both the control room and "televised" portions of the "MuppeTelevision" segments. Henson was later convinced that the attraction would be more entertaining for guests if it focused on the more familiar characters, but it helps explains why Bean Bunny is still so prominent in the current show.
A merchandise store, Stage One Company Store — designed so its interior looked like a stage set of the Happiness Hotel from the movie The Great Muppet Caper — also opened near the exit of the attraction, but all other related projects were cancelled.
In particular, there would have been a restaurant inspired by the famous memorabilia-filled eateries like Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe. Called "The Great Gonzo's Pizza Pandemonium Parlor," the restaurant would have been operated by Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat. Things would constantly be going horribly (and amusingly) wrong, both offstage and in the dining area itself.
Gonzo and Rizzo would have hired the Swedish Chef to run the kitchen. Guests could watch him making their meals "live" on little overhead television monitors that would also show clips of the Muppets from their television shows and movies. Guests would have seen the food fighting back unexpectedly against the Swedish Chef on the monitor as he tried to prepare meals. Armed lobsters would take over the kitchen to prevent being boiled or an animated lump of pizza dough would spring to life and attack the befuddled chef.
The walls would have been decorated with Muppet memorabilia (both real and created), just like a famous Hollywood restaurant. The place would also be interactive — at any moment the kitchen doors might explode open in a cloud of chicken feathers and rants from the chef. Rizzo and his friends (with the help of the serving staff) would deliver meals to the tables on a small model railroad train with flat cars that ran throughout the restaurant.
When the development of Muppet Studios was cancelled, this concept of an Italian restaurant in the heart of Hollywood was transformed into Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano.
The Backlot Theater that housed productions like the Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure show was originally intended as the location for the major attraction at the Muppet Studios, The Great Muppet Movie Ride, announced to open in Spring 1993.
Parodying the Disney-MGM Studios premiere attraction at the time, The Great Movie Ride, the ride would have been, as Jim Henson explained it, "a backstage ride explaining how movies were shot… and all the information is wrong."
Guests would have boarded ride vehicles similar to the ones at The Great Movie Ride and would have glided through several movies being made with gag-filled action happening on both sides. Audio-animatronics Muppets would find themselves in classic film scenes.
One scene was a take-off on the popular 1931 black-and-white horror film, Frankenstein. In this scene, director Gonzo and inept special-effects technician Fozzie Bear are overseeing a frightened Miss Piggy and Kermit who have stumbled into a mad doctor's lair in the dungeon of an old castle. The scientist is Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and on his operating table slab is a 10-foot-tall Beaker (with bolts sticking out of his neck), waiting to be brought to life.
The seriousness of the situation is constantly undercut by the effects going wrong, thanks to Fozzie, who is repeatedly electrocuted accidentally, causing his bow tie to spin, his eyes to light up, and his wiggling ears to produce puffs of smoke.
The next scene would have been a segment from a big screen version of "Pigs in Space," a popular segment of the Muppet television show. The crew of the interpid U.S.S. Swinetrek (Link Hogthrob, Dr. Julius Strangepork and Miss Piggy) are in the middle of a battle with space "pie-rats" (pirates who are Rizzo the rat and his relatives). Both groups are wildly blasting lasers as the rodents try to swing across on ropes to board the spaceship.
Yet another scene would have parodied Peter Pan, with Kermit (as Peter) teaching the Darling children to fly. The Darling children would have been Janice (the hippie singer with Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem) as Wendy, the ever-proper Scooter as the bespectacled John, and Fozzie Bear as Michael in footie pajamas and holding a teddy bear.
Rat technicians clearly operate the awkward and obvious pulley rigs and ropes to help these performers fly. However, they are having difficulty with one of the performers, the robust Miss Piggy dressed as Tinker Bell, who from the huge holes in some of the scenery has apparently had some mishaps, so the massive Sweetums has been brought in to try to help control her rope.
There would have been a multitude of gags, including the caustic Statler and Waldorf in a studio golf cart appearing by the side of the ride vehicle every now and then to offer their typically sarcastic commentary before disappearing backstage.
The area outside the attraction, including the storefronts, would have been themed to the Muppets. Fire Station No. 1 (the home of the fire truck that appears at the end of Muppet*Vision 3-D) still exists today. At one time, even the actual fire truck from the scene was on display nearby. Philo's Fish Co. next door was originally intended to be Lew Zealand's Boomerang Fish Market. Guests walking along the street would have heard the performer practicing. In the windows would have been fish packed in ice that would spin around or offer awful puns like being "hard of herring." All of this was only just the beginning of the fun to be discovered by eager guests.
One of the few remnants of the Muppet Studios that never was is in the pre-show area of Muppet*Vision 3-D, where crates are clearly addressed to be delivered to the same destination: Muppet Studios, not Muppet Labs. Perhaps with the recent success of a new movie devoted to Henson's clever and lovable creations, Muppet Studios may someday still become a reality.
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Muppets Debut on the Disney Fantasy:
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney Historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. He is the author of the popular recently published book The Vault of Walt, which contains nearly 40 chapters of untold Disney stories. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, his skills and historical knowledge were utilized by Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.
Read more about The Vault of Walt: http://astore.amazon.com/debsunoffiwaltdi/detail/0615402429
Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.