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Muppet Studios: The Whacky Tale of Disney World's Most Muppetational Never-Built Land

Movin' Right Along

In 2007, the Muppet Mobile Lab – part of Disney’s Living Character Initiative – began touring around Epcot. The self-contained, self-balancing animatronic encounter has Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker traveling aboard a free-roving rocket ship, interacting with guests.

In 2010, Disney’s annual promotion – “Give a Day, Get a Disney Day” placed the Muppets front and center as ambassadors for the volunteer-based program.

Most notably, in 2016, the cast began to star in a brand new show in Magic Kingdom’s Liberty Square called The Muppets Present… Great Moments in American History. While the inclusion of most characters in Liberty Square would’ve enraged the Disney Parks fan community, the affable and delightful Muppets got a deserved pass as people love their slightly-irreverent retellings of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, performed via live Muppeteering on the second story of Liberty Square’s Heritage House.

Image: Disney

Meanwhile, 2011’s reboot live action film The Muppets was a triumph among critics, fans, and the box office, followed up by 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted. 2015’s “The Muppets” TV show didn’t fare as well, and was cancelled after one season, but critics were quick to point out how the show was fundamentally flawed with its adult-oriented, single-camera setup based on NBC’s The Office and Parks and Rec.

But when it came to the Muppets’ place in Disney Parks, it seemed that still, the 1991 Muppet*Vision 3D would be the only permanent place dedicated to Kermit and company… Until…

Land ho!

In January 2008, an expiring licensing deal with MGM saw Disney World’s third park renamed to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Three years later, Muppet*Vision celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Image: Disney

But for Muppet fans, the real celebration would take place soon after.

In 2015, Disney began in earnest a massive redesign effort at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. We discussed in-depth why the “studio” motif aged poorly and why the idea of seeing behind-the-scenes lost its appeal in our in-depth entry, Disaster Files: Walt Disney Studios Paris. But in short, audiences of the 21st century had been spoiled by new, immersive parks (like Animal Kingdom and Islands of Adventure) and lands (spearheaded by the Wizarding World of Harry Potter), which made a park packed with big, tan soundstages serving as a catch-all for any and all intellectual properties look like a cop-out.

Image: Disney / LucasFilm

Disney’s Hollywood Studios was due for a foundational shift away from its “studio” origins. In 2015, Disney CEO Bob Iger announced massive, immersive themed lands dedicated to Star Wars and Toy Story were on the way to the park, which would also receive a new name (no doubt further downplaying the “studio” aspect).

On April 2, 2016, the Streets of America closed and went behind construction walls to make way for the new themed lands, due for a 2019 debut. In the meantime, Disney’s Hollywood Studios would be a park with very little to see or do. The closure of the Streets of America also left Muppet*Vision alone and isolated in the corner of the park with one way in and one way out…

Certainly fans expected the 3D film – now 25 years old – to simply be bulldozed to make way for a Star Wars land. Instead, beginning April 2, 2016, the area was designated with a new name on the park map.

Muppets Courtyard

Image: Disney

So what was the Muppets Courtyard really made of? To be sure, the miniscule little “land” was still anchored by Muppet*Vision 3D. The only real change was that a bathroom was given a grand marquee announcing it as Gonzo's Royal Flush and the Toy Story Pizza Planet restaurant (which had always been odd – a quick service pizza place with nothing in common whatsoever with its movie counterpart… a sort of Pizza-Planet-in-name-only) closed. In its place would rise PizzeRizzo, a clever pizzeria seemingly owned by the Muppets’ Rizzo the Rat.

Image: Disney

The new family restaurant’s fare isn’t much better than Pizza Planet’s, and there’s not too much Muppet fanfare within (and certainly no Animatronic rats or kitchen explosions), but the restaurant is now plausibly “real” and fits into the New York motif of the area while also incorporating the standard Muppet Mess™ adorning walls and ceiling that’s packed full of references, puns, and fun.

And even if the one-two punch of Muppet*Vision and PizzeRizzo is no where near the mayhem and wonder that a Muppet Studios would’ve wrought, we can’t help but be giddy when the neon sign reigning over Rizzo’s flickers out to light a secret message before our very eyes...

Muppets Courtyard was at least a symbol that Disney has not given up on the unique brand that is the Muppets. Even if they’re not ready to invest E-Ticket money into a Great Muppet Movie Ride, they seem to acknowledge that the Muppets are a brand that can be constantly reinvented for a new generation, so long as they don’t lose the whimsy, the bad puns, and the feel-good music that they’re known for...

Of course, after less than a year, Muppets Courtyard, too, disappeared off the map. While the little mini-area still exists, it's been wrapped into a larger new land for the park called Grand Ave., representing modern Los Angeles (nevermind that the Muppet area, now called Grand Park, is a recreation of New York?).

Rainbow Connection

Here’s the takeaway: even today, the Muppets are wonderful. Sure, Disney’s rebooted 2011 big screen film The Muppets fared better than the short-lived 2015 primetime ABC sitcom, but the indisputable, undeniable fact remains that Kermit, Piggy, Gonzo, Rizzo, Rowlf, Beaker, Bunson Honeydew, Statler and Waldorf, Swedish Chef, Sam Eagle, Pepe, and Bobo are as timeless as Disney’s best.

Image: Disney / Jim Henson Productions

Maybe that’s why the idea of Muppet Studios still resonates. Even 30 years after the initial concept was dreamed up, it still feels like the kind of theme park land we’d like to visit and spend time in. We’d still want to ride the Great Muppet Movie Ride, and we’d still check into Gonzo’s Pizza Pandemonium. Sure, kids today may not know Fozzie like they know Olaf, but wouldn’t a theme park land be the perfect place to meet him via a comedy show / meet-and-greet with a real Muppet?

In an alternate reality, carving a "Muppet Studios" into Disney California Adventure's tired Hollywood Land studio section would've continued the park's thoughtful Californian story-centered trajectory while also giving new life and purpose to a neglected section of the park. (Instead, Marvel super heroes are on the way to overtake Hollywood Land entirely, cancelling out the California stories and settings in favor of "irreverent" comic book characters and modern pop music the park just paid $1.2 billion to get rid of...)

Despite their earlier misgivings, even the Henson children seem to agree that The Muppets are right at home among Disney’s canon, and Jim Henson’s legacy lives on there. And even as Disney tests and adjusts the use of these comic characters and how they fit into Disney’s movies, television interests, and theme parks, one thing is certain: this property is evergreen. And if Muppet Studios opened today at Walt Disney World, millions of guests would be delighted to visit. Now that’s star power.

As for what do you get when you put chocolate pudding in your mother’s shoes?

Image: Disney / Jim Henson Productions

...A spanking. Wocka wocka!

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There is 1 comment.

Lovely report! Very well detailed, we learned a lot and we would have never spotted the new neon signs hidden message! :-)


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