"It’s time to play the music! It’s time to light the lights! It’s time to meet the Muppets at Walt Disney World tonight!" At least, it could’ve been…
Here at Theme Park Tourist, our Possibilityland series is here to breathe new life into the forgotten theme park concepts that could’ve been – never-built, would-be E-Tickets, lands, and even parks that simply got left on the cutting room floor. Together, we’ve toured the Tomorrowland 2055 that never was, stepped through an alternate reality Disneyland, explored the Beastly Kingdom that Animal Kingdom almost had, took a journey to Disneyland's most inventive lost land, Discovery Bay, and scaled ten unbelievable Never-Built "Mountains" that could've changed Disney Parks forever. You can find those stories and many more bundled in the Possibilityland section of our In-Depth Library.
Today, we turn our focus to the Disney-MGM Studios as it existed upon its opening in 1989 – underbuilt and not quite ready for show time – and the pet project of then-CEO Michael Eisner that would’ve plussed the park with an entire themed land around the timeless and evergreen cast of Jim Henson's inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational creations... In the early 1990s, Disney-MGM Studios was due to get its first large-scale expansion: Muppet Studios.
What happened to derail this incredible themed land? Where did its DNA turn up? What’s next for Disney’s most whacky intellectual property? What do you get when you put chocolate pudding in your mother’s shoes? All will be revealed as we dig into the lost concept that could’ve powered up Disney’s movie park.
The story of the never-built Muppet Studios shares an origin story with many of our Lost Legend, Disaster File, and Possibilityland entries: one man, Michael Eisner. When Eisner was brought on board as the new CEO of Walt Disney Productions in 1984, he was put at the helm of a sinking ship. If you can imagine, Disney had been largely directionless since Walt’s death in 1966, and the company had narrowly escaped a handful of buyout and takeover attempts.
Without Walt, the studios had withered – producing fewer and fewer hits, each subsequently tarnishing Disney's brand – and Walt's theme parks had stagnated and became stale. Though it may be hard to believe now, Disney’s brand was in such decline that the company’s future was unclear. Certainly it would’ve occurred to audiences of the 1970s and early ‘80s to wonder aloud, ‘What is Walt Disney Productions without Walt Disney?’
But Michael Eisner was a man with a vision. Having come to Disney from being the CEO of Paramount Pictures, Eisner's specialty was simple: movies. He was well-versed in the film industry and knew that if he could right Disney’s studios, the rest of the company would fall into place. And boy did he. Beginning in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, Disney's studio underwent what’s often called the Disney Renaissance, when he oversaw hit after hit after hit at the box office in an unstoppable streak of success.
Under Eisner's tenure, Disney also acquired Miramax Films, ABC, and ESPN and partnered with Pixar and Lucasfilm, diversifying and building the renamed Walt Disney Company into the international media conglomerate we know today.
And Eisner was determined to utilize those same strategies – movies, acquisitions, and partnerships – to save Disney’s aging theme parks. He would use movies to transform and grow the parks into destinations fit for the 21st century.
In a particularly distressing moment, the just-hired CEO had invited his son Breck to come tour Disneyland with him, only to have Breck rebuke that "that place is for babies, dad." Eisner was rightfully horrified and made it his personal mission to ensure that Disney Parks grew and expanded, becoming places where everywhere – even teenagers! – wanted to visit.
So from his first weeks with the company, Eisner was determined to embed himself in Imagineering – the part of the company he admitted to knowing the least about. Imagineers were stunned that the CEO himself would be dropping by to see their concepts, and quickly polished up old models that would now get a second chance at life.
But to Eisner's thinking, movies seemed to be the solution for the parks, too. Given that Disney wasn't making many movies worth seeing in the 1980s, if he wanted to supercharge the parks with the stories young people cared about, he'd need to look beyond Disney films. And Eisner began reaching out to old industry contacts...
Given that he’d been the one to personally green-light Raiders of the Lost Ark, Eisner was sure that famed filmmaker George Lucas might be interested in seeing his stories brought to life at Disney. The duo first teamed up with director Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Jackson to produce the legendary Captain EO. They followed it up with a Lost Legend: Star Tours at Disneyland (and would go on to create Indiana Jones Adventure and another Lost Legend: The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, too).
This was the proof needed to justify Eisner’s next coup: an entire theme park dedicated to movies, cinema, Hollywood, and seeing “behind the scenes.”
The Disney-MGM Studios opened May 1, 1989 as Walt Disney World’s third theme park. Miniscule by Disney’s standards, the tiny park had but two rides: first, the Great Movie Ride that whisked guests through a century of filmmaking aboard an epic 20-minute dark ride of EPCOT Center proportions, and the Studio Backlot Tour.
The latter purported to be a real behind-the-scenes tour of real working studio facilities… except that film production ceased pretty quickly when Eisner’s dream of turning Orlando into a “Hollywood East” flickered out. And that was the problem. Eisner had banked on the Studio Tour being the selling point for the miniature movie park. When its star began to dim (and quickly), it was clear that the studios would need to shift, re-emphasizing the under-built theme park.
And expectedly, exit surveys showed that visitors liked the Disney-MGM Studios, but one resounding comment repeated: it needed more to do.
Luckily, Eisner was on it. Famous for his laser-like focus and near obsession with projects he deemed his own, the CEO now set his sights on acquiring yet another outside intellectual property for his movie park…
Disneyland Park opened in 1955.
That very same year is credited as the birth of another American cultural institution: The Muppets.
A portmanteau of “marionette” and “puppet,” these colorful creatures were created by puppeteer, artist, voice actor, cartoonist, inventor, screenwriter, and director Jim Henson. Though it began with Kermit the Frog and Rowlf the Dog on Washington D.C.’s local cable channel, the Muppet family gained new life year after year after year, culminating in the 1976 debut of The Muppet Show (above) adding familiar faces like Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, and Animal in a unique sketch comedy hour that took the world by storm.
The 1980s followed with The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan further cementing the zany characters as American icons.
In 1989, just as the Disney-MGM Studios opened, Eisner began talks with Henson about Disney outright acquiring Jim Henson Productions for $150 million. Eisner wanted to own the Muppets outright, and to acquire Sesame Street as well.
According to insiders, Henson was agreeable on most terms and thought highly of stepping back from the business to instead let Disney handle the numbers while he remained on board as a lead creative consultant. However, as Henson himself only owned 50% of Sesame Street, any deal with Disney would be for the Muppets characters only.
While neither Henson nor Disney were ready to sign on the dotted line, the two entities decided to provisionally move forward with Muppets-themed projects for the new Disney-MGM Studios, in just the same way Disney had partnered with Lucas for Star Tours.
Jim Henson was even on-hand at the grand opening of the Disney-MGM Studios to represent the emerging partnership.
Already, work was underway on a cutting edge 3D extravaganza featuring Henson's Muppets, but it wouldn't be the last or even biggest Muppet presence in Disney's movie park. Even if it wasn't quite ready in time for the park's opening, their magnum opus together would be a new themed land to bring the Muppets to life as never before: their own Muppet Studios.
On the next page, we'll step into this exciting new land and see the animatronic rats, Frankenstein monsters, flying pigs, explosions, and mayhem that would've been waiting within...