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The Muppets… And Walt Disney World!

The Muppets have been everywhere lately due to a mercifully concerted and well-orchestrated advertising campaign for their new film, The Muppets, which opened yesterday. It’s been twelve years since our felt friends last graced theaters in 1999, and the time in between has been a period of great uncertainty for the characters. At times, it seemed uncertain if they would ever make the big return that fans had long been promised.

It’s been a long road since Disney’s first close-call with Muppet ownership, right before Muppet impresario Jim Henson’s tragic and untimely death in 1990. The Disney deal fell apart in the wake of Henson’s death, and the property began a period of bouncing around among different owners and production partners – none of whom were able to properly develop new Muppet projects. Although the Henson company and Disney were able to eventually reconcile, and the Mouse finally purchased the Frog in 2004, it remained to be see what – if anything – Disney would do with the Muppets beyond licensing.

In 2009 Disney finally announced that they were moving forward with a new Muppet film, and now that it has finally reached theaters I can mercifully – and with a great deal of relief – report that it is, in fact, a whole lot of fun. I’ll save the detailed review for later – I don’t want to delve into spoilers, after all – but while it’s very different from previous Muppet adventures its still full of laughs and sentiment and manages to be “meta” without being ironic.

I even liked the attached Toy Story short, which is perhaps the single most surprising thing that’s happened to me in the last five years at least.

So congrats to the Muppet Studio and Disney for finally making it happen, and delivering a Muppet film that feels fresh and old-school at the same time. I sincerely hope it does blockbuster business and results in new films and shows, and here I would like to remind every Disney executive, park official, and Imagineer that there are plans for a Muppet Movie ride already drawn up. And there is a Studios park in Orlando that has a big, gaping hole intended for that ride, and the desperate need for something new. So, you know, that.

I encourage you all to check it out ASAP. Prove to Disney the message that the film itself espouses in hilarious fashion, and which fans have been saying for years – Muppets are still awesome, and the only reason they’re not “relevant” is because they’re being withheld from us. Hopefully this is the beginning of big, furry things.

But that’s the future – let’s look at the past for a moment.

One of my favorite Muppet things came in 1990, just as Disney and the Muppets were preparing to finalize their merger. To promote this union, NBC aired a primetime television special, The Muppets at Walt Disney World. At the time, given my youthful love of both the Muppets and Walt Disney World, this was possibly the coolest thing that could ever happen. I must have watched this dozens of times.

And what’s best is that it’s actually good. It’s the same old-fashioned Muppet mayhem and music, just set in Walt Disney World. The same old anarchic Muppet humor from the Henson era is there – the show aired just ten short days before Henson’s death in May of 1990.

Thankfully, the special can be found online. You can watch below, followed by some other Muppety Disney tidbits. First, the special:

And now… outtakes!

Attendant to the planned Disney purchase of the Muppets, there were plans to bring the characters into the parks. An entire “Muppet Studios” was to be set up at the Disney-MGM Studios in Florida; the first attraction based on this deal was a show, Here Come the Muppets, which opened at the Studios soon after this special aired. A live stage show, it ran until September of 1991. After its closure, its theater was used for the still-running Voyage of the Little Mermaid show.

Muppet*Vision 3-D opened at the Studios on May 16th, 1991 – one year to the day after Henson’s death. On September 16th, 1991, three weeks after Here Come the Muppets closed, another stage show called Muppets on Location opened on a stage near the Muppet*Vision 3-D theater. It ran until 1994. The shows didn’t feature the familiar Muppet puppets, but rather human-sized walkaround versions of the characters. In an innovation for the time, the characters’ mouths moved to synch with the show’s vocals, which made them seem at least slightly more Muppetesque. Some (rather cynical) cast members captured the final performance of this show on video; it can be seen below.

And that was the last new bit of Muppet mayhem to reach the Disney parks before their alliance went south. They haven’t returned since, although Muppet*Vision 3-D was eventually cloned in other parks. Hopefully, if the fun new film is a hit, maybe we’ll get those attractions after all. Better later than never – even if it’s 25 years late!

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