On August 28, 1989, Jim Henson and one of his most famous creations, Kermit the Frog, were immortalized outside the Disney-MGM Studios version of the Chinese Theatre, pressing their hands into the wet cement as other celebrities had done a few months earlier when the park opened.
That same day, Henson and then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner announced The Jim Henson Company would be absorbed into the larger Disney.
“There are only a few characters in the world who have the kind of appeal [the Muppets have],” Eisner told The New York Times on that day.
It was a win-win scenario for both sides at the time. Henson was publicly optimistic about the future of the Muppets brand with the support of Disney’s deeper pockets and would receive a lucrative contract as a “creative designated hitter” for his new employers. For Disney, the deal would give them control of popular characters at a time the company desperately needed them — the release of “The Little Mermaid” marking the beginning of Disney’s animation Renaissance was still months away — and especially for theme park attractions.
The Disney-Henson deal fell through after Henson’s death in 1990, but the Muppet characters still made their way into Disney-MGM with attractions like MuppetVision 3D, which became one of the park’s major draws in its early years.
“We were all very excited. I still am,” said Duncan Dickson, the former director of casting for Walt Disney World who now teaches at the University of Central Florida. “But we grew up with the Muppets. The brand hasn’t been on TV for a long time.”
Disney would eventually succeed in buying The Muppets in 2004, but their recent history under Disney’s stewardship has produced less than stellar results. The success of 2011’s “The Muppets” was followed by 2014’s “Muppets Most Wanted,” which grossed less than half what its predecessor did at the box office, and then a short-lived, mockumentary-style TV series canceled after just 16 episodes.
The characters have drawn more attention recently with live shows, including a series of sold-out performances at the Hollywood Bowl in 2017.
The lack of exposure on film and TV may be hurting Kermit and the gang’s stock among theme park crowds. For Muppet fans trying to read the tea leaves, a few recent moves at Disney World spell trouble.
PizzeRizzo, the Muppets-themed restaurant at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, has been downgraded to seasonal operation — meaning it will only be open when large crowds are expected — despite opening just two years ago.
The park also reduced the hours MuppetVision 3D will be available. It is currently scheduled to be open from 10 a.m. (one hour after the park typically opens) to 6 p.m., even for busy days like Christmas.
Even the Stage 1 Company Store, located next to MuppetVision, looked to be mostly devoid of Muppets merchandise during a recent visit by popular Orlando vlogger The Tim Tracker. The area has also seen smaller changes, like the removal of the Kermit hot air balloon which once topped the MuppetVision theater.
Disney has said nothing official about the future of MuppetVision 3D. It already survived the great purge of older Disney’s Hollywood Studios attractions which created room for Toy Story Land and the highly-anticipated Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
Jarrod Fairclough, who runs the fan site The Muppet Mindset, told Orlando Rising that removing MuppetVision 3D would be divisive among Muppets fans, as the show was one of the last Muppets productions to feature Henson’s direct involvement. But he thinks after 27 years, Disney has decided the time has come to shut it down.
“I think the nostalgia aspect is a huge factor for the fans who are screaming for its continued operation, but I can’t imagine at this point many people are going to Disney World and saying ‘Gee, I’d love to go see that Muppet 3D film,’” Fairclough said.
Further hurting MuppetVision’s chances for survival is its 3D film technology. Once a novelty widely exploited by theme parks, 3D movies can regularly be seen in most movie theaters — so why make it a priority during your limited time in a Disney theme park?
Rather than continuing to rely on dated technology and dedicated Muppets fans, Fairclough would welcome something new.
“On one hand you’d have the purists saying that MuppetVision is Jim’s last work and needs to be kept exactly as it is, and on the other hand you’d have people welcoming new content, and being excited that Disney believed in the characters enough to create something new with these characters,” he said.
Dickson doubts Disney will invest in 3D films like MuppetVision, even if newer technologies, like virtual reality, haven’t lived up to the hype in theme park settings. Unlike Fairclough, he believes the smart decision is to keep it around for a time when the characters may enjoy a resurgence in popularity.
“I don’t think removing it would be in their best interest, it isn’t that costly to operate and maintain,” Dickson said. “I would say tweak it to make it more current. It all becomes stronger if there is another Muppet Movie or Kermit and Piggy get married.”
A brighter future may not be far away. The Hollywood Reporter said in February that Disney plans to bring The Muppets back to TV in 2019, this time with a series on the company’s new streaming service which aims to compete with Netflix and Hulu.