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The Muppety makeover of Disneyland that almost happened

Jim Hill

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The Muppety makeover of Disneyland that almost happened

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Can you picture a Kermit-green version of the Matterhorn? Or -- for that matter -- Miss Piggy standing in for that winkin' Cleopatra that you see as you float through "it's a small world" ? Or Animal filling in for one of those ne'er do-well cads who chases the wenches in "Pirates of the Caribbean" but never quite catches them?

If Jack Lindquist (i.e. the first president of Disneyland Park) had had his way, this is what Guests would have encountered in 1991 when the Muppets were supposed to have filled in as the hosts of The Happiest Place on Earth while Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy and Pluto were supposed to have gone on a year-long vacation.

Miss Piggy rides in the pumpkin coach as she fills in for Cinderella during the 1990 CBS
television special
which celebrated Disneyland's 35th anniversary.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

How close did this come to actually happening? Well, the way that I've always heard this story, the Imagineers were inside of the Main Street Opera House on a Friday afternoon in late December 1990, taking measurements for the "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" change-out (which was to have gotten underway during the first week of January 1991, right after Disneyland had wrapped up its annual Christmas celebration. So that the Opera could then become the home of the West Coast version of "Jim Henson's MuppetVision 3D") when a frantic call came in from 1401 Flower Street ...

To learn about what happened next: go to: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-hill/disney-muppets-henson_b_1141087.html

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  • The Muppets desecrate Disneyland, whoopee. What a great idea.  Seriously, the mind (and stomach) reels. And as for replacing Mr. Lincoln...well, plenty of folks screamed about that and that's why the idea was cancelled. I can imagine how guests would have reacted to seeing the frog's face in the flower garden instead of Mickey. Imagine being a tourist taking a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Disneyland to see the wonders that Walt built, and instead seeing a bunch of TV puppets everywhere and Mickey and pals nowhere around and the Matterhorn painted green. Good God. The mind boggles at what a PR disaster all of those plans would have created. It shouldn't have taken Jim Henson's tragic death to scuttle them all; it should have been someone in charge of Disney with a modicum of sense; but we got Michael Eisner instead.

    Well, fortunately, now that it's clear that the new Muppet movie is a fizzle, there's no chance such a travesty will ever again almost happen an any Disney park. What a relief.

  • I'm not sure Disney needed to do a whole makeover to Disneyland to make the public more conscious of the Muppets(though it would've been fun to see them pull it off), I do think they could've reran the original Muppet Show on the Disney Channel. Are Hannah Montana and Wizards of Waverly Place really that popular that Disney couldn't spare a couple hours of a decent time slot to reintroduce these characters for a new generation? I don't want to go too much into a rant about the poor quality of the modern-day Disney Channel, but airing content such as the old Muppet Show could've really helped this movie. Or how about showing the past Muppet movies on Disney Channel/ABC/ABC Family etc. Disney marketed this film very well, just not that characters, which is really what they should've done if they wanted, say, a $100 million hit at the box office.

  • Gigglesock --

    "The Muppets desecrate Disneyland" ? The definition of desecrate is "treat a sacred place or thing with violent disrespect, violate. To profane, to defile, to pollute."

    Now -- as someone who makes their living writing about The Walt Disney Company -- I readily admit that The Happiest Place on Earth holds a very special place in a lot of people's hearts. But that said, do I consider Disneyland to be a sacred place? No. It's a theme park.

    As for the public outcry in regards to Mr. Lincoln ... Yep, it happened. Here's a link to a Los Angeles Times article from August 24, 1990: "Abe Lincoln to Stay, Kermit Hops Away" (articles.latimes.com/.../me-1314_1_great-emancipator). Which says :


    Officials announced a week ago that the Lincoln exhibit would be closed Sunday for "refurbishing" the opera house. They said plans for the plush-seated auditorium near the park's entrance would be disclosed later.

    On Thursday, park operators said Lincoln will live--at least for now.

    Disneyland spokesman Paul Goldman said that park planners are looking at several other sites for the Muppets, including an area near the "It's a Small World" attraction. "It's a matter of shoehorning things in," he said.

    Goldman said officials were surprised by the outcry over Lincoln.

    "If you'd asked a few days ago, I'd have said that being a 25-year-old attraction, its popularity has passed. But there seems to be a lot of sentiment for Lincoln."


    Which seems pretty black & white about what was happening back then. But the truth is a bit more complicated.

    Long story short: While the Imagineers did consider an alternative construction site for the MuppetVision 3D theater (Where exactly? I've got concept art that shows that -- for a time, anyway -- WDI toyed with building this theater in the downtown portion of Mickey's Toontown. Mind you, this version of the site plan for that proposed Disneyland addition also shows a "Little Mermaid" dark ride being built in this part of the Park as well. Anyway ... ), they still wanted to get Lincoln out of the Main Street Opera House.

    Why For? Because they had 25 years of historical data that showed that "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" wasn't really all that popular with Disneyland visitors. Especially since 1982 (which was when the Park began phasing out its A - E ticket system in favor of passports), attendance levels had fallen straight through the floor for this patriotic Audio-Animatronic pageant. Though the Opera House seats 500, on average, only 25 - 30 Guests would attend a showing. Which meant that this facility was being woefully under-used. And given the Opera House's primo location (right by the entrance / exit to the park), the Imagineers wanted to make much better use of this valuable piece of real estate.

    Which is why -- in the Fall of 1990 -- the Imagineers began exploring the idea of moving "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" to Frontierland. Placing the robotic version of our 16th president in a new setting, the Golden Horseshoe. Where -- it was hoped -- in a newer venue where Abe's oratory was actually more in sync with the Frontierland timeline and setting (rather than Main Street U.S.A.'s turn-of-the-century setting), Disneyland Guests might then give this show another chance.

    And the best part of this version of the plan was -- at least from a PR point-of-view -- was that Disneyland wasn't actually getting rid of "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln." They were just moving this show to a more appropriate venue, one that was far more historically accurate. Given what America was actually like back when Abraham Lincoln was president.

    More to the point, by sliding Abe over to Frontierland, that then freed up the Main Street Opera House for the Muppets. Which is why the Imagineers were in there taking measurements in late December of 1990 when the word came down from 1401 Flower Street to pull the plug. Negotiations with the Henson family had suddenly fallen through. Which is why it then looked like "MuppetVision 3D" was never going to be screened for Disneyland Guests.

    Of course, 10 years later, "MuppetVision 3D" wound up being one of the opening day attractions at Disney California Adventure. But obviously a lot can happen behind-the-scenes over a lengthy period of time like that.

    A final note here: When you write a story like today's article for HuffPo, you'll often come across pieces that don't quite fit your narrative. Take -- for example -- Jack Lindquist's own version of the Muppets-take-over-Disneyland story. In some instances, I've heard Jack describe this as a Summer-only event (meaning that this makeover / takeover would have only run for three months). While other times, Lindquist has insisted that this PR stunt as something that was to have run throughout the entire year of 1991.

    And then there's Mike Cozart's memory of a very different color scheme for the Matterhorn. Which suggests that -- at least for a while -- Disneyland's PR department toyed with painting this theme park icon Miss Piggy pink, rather than Kermit-the-Frog green.

    In short, it's always a mistake -- at least when it comes to Disney Company -- to speak in extremes and absolutes. There are always -- ALWAYS -- alternative ideas being considered, other projects that almost make it off the drawing board. Why is why it always makes me a little queasy when people like Gigglesock suggest (perhaps inadvertently) that Disneyland is a sacred space.

    I mean, given the number of changes that were made to this theme park while Walt was still alive ... Well, I'd kind of like the Company to actually embrace Walt's old "Disneyland is never be completed ... " mantra and keep plussing the place. Rather that do as some of the Disney diehards would like. Which is keep the place encased in amber, so this theme park will always be the Disneyland that they know from their childhood.

    Whereas I ... Well, I think that Disneyland -- as both a physical place as well as a creative concept -- is strong enough to handle continual change. More to the point, I think that most Disneyland fans feel as I do.

    I mean, would replacing the Mickey Mouse planter in front of the Main Street train station with a Kermit the Frog planter for a limited amount of time (i.e. three months to a year) really have amounted to desecrating the place? I seriously doubt that.

    But your mileage may vary.

  • Well, Jim, I guess it depends on what you and I define as "plussing". Having a bunch of characters not previously affiliated with the Walt Disney company take over Disneyland...well, how about if My Little Pony or the Smurfs were the ones chosen to "plus" the park that way? Or what if the Power Rangers, another wrong-headed acquisition in  my view, were given the run of the park for 3 months? Or hey, how about the Marvel characters? Imagine the Matterhorn painted HULK green instead of Kermit green?

    Yeah, it's a lousy idea no matter HOW you paint it.

    And FYI, a lot of people DO see Disneyland as a sacred place. Why do you think so many people yelled over the removal of Lincoln?  And there's a difference between plussing the parks, adding new attractions, and cheapening them with a dumb publicity stunt.  But let's say that the bean-counters are right. Let's say that the proven and the traditional must always make way for the company's latest acquisition. Or that the attractions that aren't delivering the goods have to be removed. Well, then, given the lackluster performance of the Muppet movie, maybe it's time Muppetvision 3D was removed from the parks. It's not very popular anymore, and the characters it's based on have proven to be not very profitable for the company. So - using the Lincoln logic - maybe, just maybe,  it's time for that attraction to go.

  • Gigglesock --

    How about this: Instead of creating straw man arguments like "What if it were the My Little Pony characters that had been chosen to take over the Parks?" , let's just stick with the story at hand: Which is that the Muppets were supposed to have have taken over Disneyland for a limited period of time (three months to a year) in 1991.

    Now please keep in mind that Jack Lindquist dreamed up this particular publicity stunt in early 1990. Not 2011.  More to the point, that Lindquist was a lifer when it came to Disneyland. He came on board in 1955 just before the place opened and loved that theme park with all his heart. So Jack would have never done anything to damage the creativity integrity of that place.

    But that said, as an old PR man, Lindquist understood the value of a properly staged publicity stunt. Something that would garner millions of dollars of free publicity for the Park. More importantly, get the Guests to come out in great number to see for themselves what happened when the Muppets took over Disneyland. So -- if this year-long / three-month-long event had actually gone forward -- it probably would have garnered tons of coverage as well as resulting in a significant attendance bump.

    The other aspect of this, Gigglesock, that you seem to be overlooking is ... Well, back in 1990, it had been almost 25 years since The Walt Disney Company had put a set of characters out there (i.e. Winnie the Pooh) that the public had really responded to. So it was crucial that Disney make the most of the Muppet acquisition, make their launch as a set of Disney characters as huge as it could possibly be. If only because Michael Eisner was then looking to recover the $150 million that he had agreed to pay Jim Henson for his company.

    Okay. I know.  "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" has been released to theaters in June of 1988 and "The Little Mermaid" in November of the following year. So the Company WAS starting to create characters again all on its own that would resonate with the public. But Eisner didn't know that -- 22 years later -- little girls would still be clamoring Ariel dolls. Whereas the Muppets were a proven commodity that already had a worldwide fan base. (And -- yes -- for this specific discussion, Gigglesock -- we're talking about how popular the Muppets were in the late 1980s / early 1990s, rather than right now). Which is why Eisner pounced on this asset when Henson let him know that it was up for sale.

    More to the point, (and I'm not sure if you're deliberately doing this or not), but you seem to be overlooking the inherent humor of this scenario. Think about it: Thee Muppets take over the day-to-day running of Disneyland. And because the Muppets are really bad at running things (witness the mayhem that goes on backstage during virtually every single Muppet Show episode), things would have obviously gone wrong every day at that theme Park. And hilarity would have ensued.

    My understanding is that the TV campaign for this Muppets-take-over-Disneyland event was going to focus on this exact element. That -- because the Muppets had temporarily taken over the Happiest Place on Earth -- things were now going wrong at Disneyland. Which is something that you really needed to come see before Crazy Harry (i.e. the Muppet that you always see with that dynamite plunger in his hand. Who -- according to the storyboard for a proposed Muppets-take-over-Disneyland TV commercial that I've seen -- was now going to be in charge of the nightly firework launch) blew the place up.

    And given that Disneyland is the world's most famous regional theme park (meaning that most of Disneyland's visitors come from within a hundred mile radius of the place. More to the point, that these folks typically visit this theme park twice every year), the Guests who'd have been driving out  to Anaheim to experience  the Muppets-take-over event would have most likely taken this publicity stunt for what it actually was: a temporary gag. A goof on the way things usually run at Disneyland. And given all of this stuff (with the exception of "Jim Henson's MuppetVision 3D") was all going to go away in 1992 anyway ... Well, no harm, no foul.

    So -- again -- disregarding your own obvious prejudice when it comes to the Muppets (And I don't mean that as a slam, Gigglesock. But anyone who's been reading the posts that you've made here in JHM's discussion section over the past six months knows that you're no fan of the felt frog) ... More importantly, taking into consideration that this was a promotional plan for the Summer of 1991 (back when the Muppets were still wildly popular), rather than 2011(which is when this set of characters obviously needed some help when it came to stepping back into the pop culture spotlight) ... Do you now see the value of this particular publicity stunt? At least in a historical context?

  • I do think that guests would've complained more over the absence of Mickey and Friends versus Lincoln being taken out (even if it was only for a few months). In that case, I can understand why the makeover did not happen despite how good the idea looks on paper.  Even with the likability of the new Muppet film I don't think this idea would not be a popular than it could've been had it been done 20 years ago like planned.  However I would like to see the Muppets have stronger representation in the parks whether it be through promotions, meet and greets, shows, parades, etc.

  • I love how people have such a knee-jerk reaction to ANYTHING being removed/replaced/rehabed at Disneyland.  There must be change for the park to continue.  Attractions must be retired.  New rides/shows MUST be put in place for the park to stay fresh.  I've been to see Lincoln and have been the ONLY person in the show.  Yet, if they talk of taking him out the fans cry out!  What hyprocisy.  There's a whole lot of "I may not go to the show but I want the option sometime in the next 20 years."  No fans cry foul like Disney fans.  I love the parks and feel like they make you a child again....but not the whining kind.

  • Gigglesock is an A$$ hole anyhow!

  • Frankly, Jim, I don't think the Muppets were all that popular at the time of the purchase. They were starting a downhill spiral because of audience fatigue. As evidence, I remember that the TV special "Muppets at Walt Disney World" bombed in the ratings. (I kept an eye on the Nielsen info I used to receive back then because I wanted to see just how this new "merger" was going to work out). And most people I know, including fellow Disney stockholders, were absolutely floored by the purchase. I remember that when when we spoke about it, we agreed more or less that the only reason Jim was selling the characters was because they were starting to fail. So, if that was indeed true,  why Michael Eisner wanted them was a mystery to us.

    I understand your argument, but I really don't think most tourists visiting the parks would understand the "humor" - especially about Dirty Harry threatening to blow them up. Tourists who visit the Disney parks want to see Disney characters. It was pretty expensive to visit Disneyland or Walt Disney World even back in the '90's, and spending big bucks only to find the park messed up with Muppets probably wouldn't have sat well with many people. Maybe the locals, who could visit the parks anytime they wanted, would have gotten a kick out of it. But I bet everyone else would have been disappointed, to say the least.

    I respect your opinion, Jim. That's why I come to your site and read your articles. They're very informative and entertaining. But we'll just have to agree to disagree about this Muppet promo story.

  • Gigglesock --

    Yeah, I have to admit that we probably stand on different sides of the fence here in regards to the Muppets acquisition. At least when it comes to the 1989 version.

    But in regards to your "The Muppets were already on a downward spiral" theory ... Let me offer an alternate scenario. That Jim Henson wasn't looking to sell his Company to Disney because he felt that these characters were falling out of favor with the public. But -- rather -- that Jim was tired of having to deal with all of the day-to-day aspects of running a film & television production business / licensing company. Which is why Henson wanted to turn all of those responsibilities over to Disney so that he could then get back to creating fulltime.

    That's the story that I've heard -- over & over again -- from Henson Company veterans. That in the wake of the failure of the "Jim Henson Hour" TV series on NBC (coupled with the still-lingering wounds from both the "Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth" failing to catch on with mass audiences during their initial theatrical releases) Jim was looking to make some pretty significant changes in his life. He didn't want to spend any more hours behind a desk, talking with accountants and lawyers about possible Kermit-the-Frog licensing deals. Jim wanted to be out expanding his horizons at this point in his life, not keep returning to the Muppets and then using these characters as sort of a safety net whenever some other more artistically ambitious / creatively satisfying project suddenly fell through.

    That -- in Henson's eyes -- was the beauty of the Disney deal. The Walt Disney Company would take over the day-to-day drudgery aspect of running a business like The Jim Henson Company. More to the point, the Mouse -- just like they did with Mickey & Snow White & Winnie the Pooh -- would, with Jim's help & guidance,  find fun new ways to keep the Henson characters in the public eye, make sure that the Muppets stayed evergreen.

    And because Michael Eisner was such a huge fan & supporter of Jim Henson personally (More to the point, because Jim had that 10 year-long exclusive-use-of-his-creative-services contract with Disney tucked in his back pocket), Henson was going to get the chance to create again. Only this time around, he'd have Disney's deep pockets and marketing might on his side. So he could have really done some things on an epic scale.

    From everything that I've heard, Jim was very excited about all the creative possibilities that were involved with the initial Muppet acquisition deal with The Walt Disney Company. Mind you, if what Joan Ganz Cooney has been saying is true, Henson was also very concerned about how predatory Disney's attorneys were being in regards to the Sesame Street Muppet characters. Whether or not that hands-off-the-Sesame-Street-Muppets-characters condition would have ultimately been a deal breaker here ... I guess we'll never know. Because that contract still hadn't been finalized when Jim passed in May of 1990.

    In short, I guess that I'm far more inclined that you are, Gigglesock, to see the first Muppet acquisition deal that fell through as this huge lost opportunity. Mostly because I'm pretty sure that -- if Jim Henson had lived ... Well, that would have meant that he'd have been working in tandem with Disney to make sure that the Muppets stayed true to their roots in new settings like the theme parks. More to the point, because Jim was also a huge fan of Disneyland, that he'd have never allowed the takeover gag to go too far / do anything that would have permanently damaged the reputation of the place.

    But again ... You seem pretty entrenched in your position (which -- let's be honest here -- has been somewhat validated given what's been going on with the box office for the initial domestic release of "The Muppets." Maybe the money that'll be made off of the international release of this James Bobin film will ultimately help turn this situation around. But the perception in Hollywood right now, at least as far as this particular Walt Disney Pictures release is concerned, is that the audience for "The Muppets" was far smaller than the Studio had initially thought it would be. So the challenge now is what -- if anything -- can be done to help grow that audience). So I guess we're just going to have to agree to disagree here.

  • Thank you for your civil reply, Jim. I appreciate it.

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