A Salute to All Muppets (But Mostly Those in the Disney Parks)

life size muppets on green carpet at disney

June 13, 2024

Written by: Jim Smith

(A version of this article was shared with Pirates & Princesses and published on June 12, 2024.)

For decades, Jim Henson’s Muppets have been tucked in and around the Disney Parks. Sometimes they are front-and-center, like Muppet*Vision 3D. Other times they can be hard to track down, like the Muppet Mobile Lab. But one thing is for sure – they never fail to pull a chuckle out of the audience.

The documentary Jim Henson: Idea Man, recently released on Disney+, chronicles the life and career of the Muppets’ creative visionary. But Henson’s life ended way too young, at age 53, just before the first Muppets moved into Walt Disney World. In honor of Henson’s life and in celebration of his beloved creatures, let’s take a look through their Muppetational history in the Disney Parks.

A Giant Among Puppets

Disney Legend James Maury Henson was born in 1936 in Greenville, Mississippi. Though he spent the early part of his childhood down south, he moved north with his family to University Park, Maryland, where he spent his high school years. With the advent of television, Henson’s mind was blown. Exposed to media he would otherwise never have seen, Henson marveled at the performances of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, and early television puppets of Burr Tillstrom on Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

jim henson with muppets
Image: Everett Collection

Over the course of his 36-year career, Henson’s brilliance in television and film entertained audiences of kids and adults alike. Television characters from Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and Fraggle Rock all have that unmistakable Jim Henson look, personality, and magic. Uniquely impressive were some of Henson’s later film creations, such as The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986). With such a diverse cast of characters, it would only be a matter of time until Jim Henson’s Muppets ended up in a theme park.

Acquisition Talks

In 1989, Henson entered into negotiations with The Walt Disney Company to sell his company – Jim Henson Productions – and his characters, excluding those from Sesame Street. The cost at the time would have been about $150 million. By selling his company to Disney (and handing business matters to them as well), Henson was hoping to spend a lot more of his time on the creative side of things. But sales of this size take time, and often result in an unhealthy dose of stress.

michael eisner jim henson and muppets at disney mgm studios
Image: Disney

The negotiations with Disney lingered on for many months. By 1990, in anticipation of his partnership with Disney, Henson completed production on the television special The Muppets at Walt Disney World, and he was also involved in the production of Muppet*Vision 3D, scheduled to open soon at the fledgling Disney-MGM Studios theme park.

The wheels were in motion.

The Muppets at Walt Disney World

the muppets at walt disney world promo image
Image: Disney (via Daps Magic)

The Muppets at Walt Disney World – released on May 6, 1990 – was Disney’s way to introduce the public to the idea of the Muppets appearing in the Disney Parks. The television special featured a who’s who of favorite Muppet characters crashing Kermit’s family reunion in the swamps of Florida (once they realized his swampy home was located right near Walt Disney World).  Predictably – and deliciously – the Muppets run amok in Walt Disney World, being chased around Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and Disney-MGM Studios by security guard Quentin Fitzwaller (played by actor/comedian Charles Grodin). The special featured some high profile attractions and destinations, including Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Mad Tea Party, Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular!, Star Tours, The Great Movie Ride, EPCOT’s World Showcase, the Monorail, and even the famed utilidors.

After a day filled with theme park hijinx, the story ends with the Muppets having a friendly meeting at Mickey Mouse’s office, where Mickey and Kermit compare their company’s theme songs, “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “The Rainbow Connection” and the ideals behind them.

Watch out Disney – here come the Muppets!

The Passing of Jim Henson

jim henson and kermit the frog
Image: Everett Collection

Tragically, Jim Henson died on May 16, 1990 – 10 days after the release of The Muppets at Walt Disney World. He had contracted streptococcal pharyngitis (strep throat) and died just a few days later. Henson’s death proved to be a major blow to Disney’s acquisition of his company. The creative giant’s five children took over ownership of the company, and the discontinuity stalled the negotiations. An acrimonious period followed, filled with fraud, trademark infringement suits, and countersuits. Acquisition talks officially ended in December 1990. Without a sale in place, the Jim Henson Productions remained independent. However, the company did agree to a limited number of licensing agreements, allowing Disney to use characters in select media and park appearances.

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Eventually, in 2004, Disney and The Jim Henson Company reached a full acquisition deal, with Disney acquiring the Muppets intellectual property from Henson for $75 million. Disney then formed The Muppets Studio to manage the Muppets.

Here Come the Muppets

here come the muppets
Image: Disney

Nine days after Henson passed away, Disney introduced a new show at Disney-MGM Studios called Here Come the Muppets. The live show featured life-sized, walk-around versions of several Muppets singing and dancing on stage, including Kermit the Frog, Fozzy Bear, Gonzo, and Bean Bunny.

After some humorous pre-show complications, various combinations of the Muppets performed classic American songs, including “Make ‘Em Laugh” (originally from Singin’ in the Rain),

“Personality” (originally by Lloyd Price), “Bein’ Green” (originally by Kermit)

“Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll” (originally by Huey Lewis), and “Shout!” (originally by The Isley Brothers)

For fans of that classic Muppets puppetry and charm, these giant free-range characters were perhaps a tad frightening (not unlike a certain oversized pink and purple dragon currently greeting guests over at EPCOT).

Here Come the Muppets ran for about fifteen months, taking a final curtain call on September 2, 1991.

Muppet*Vision 3D

muppetvision 3d
Image: Disney

With a Muppet presence now established in Disney-MGM Studios, Walt Disney World’s newest park was primed for a brand new attraction based on this colorful cast. Muppet*Vision 3D debuted on May 16, 1991 – the one-year anniversary of Henson’s death.   The attraction holds the distinction of being the last Muppet project Jim Henson worked on before his death, with Henson having directed most of the film.

Muppet*Vision 3D is arguably the best 3D show in Walt Disney World, bringing guests on a tour of Muppet Studios. As host of the experience, Kermit gives guests a sneak peak into the “secret laboratory.” He introduces the audience to the Muppets’ newest 3D creation – Waldo C. Graphic, introduces Miss Piggy’s musical rendition of “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” and finally hosts a patriotic show which Sam Eagle importantly titles “A Salute to All Nations, But Mostly America.” The usual Muppet shenanigans sidetrack the tour on many occasions, with Waldo being the biggest cause for calamity.

Aside from the show itself, the queue area and pre-show room are loaded with Muppet gags and Easter Eggs. The gift shop attached to the attraction lovingly recreates the Happiness Hotel from The Great Muppet Caper. Outside, Muppet Courtyard offers guests the space to gather following their riotous tour through the Muppet Studios. Overall, Muppet*Vision 3D and the Muppet Courtyard have steadfastly stood the test of time, even while much of the Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) landscape has completely changed.

muppet courtyard
Image: Tripadvisor

Muppet*Vision 3D operated on America’s west coast as well, setting up shop in Disney California Adventure’s Hollywood Land area from February 8, 2001 to November 1, 2014. The show was never as successful in Disneyland as it was in Walt Disney World, but it did lead to renewed negotiations with Jim Henson Studios, with Disney finally acquiring the Muppets on February 17th, 2004.

Fun Fact: The Muppet area of Disney-MGM Studios was originally going to feature two attractions. In addition to Muppet*Vision 3D, the other attraction was a concept for “The Great Muppet Movie Ride” –  a parody of the now-extinct Great Movie Ride. The attraction would have featured Muppet characters reenacting scenes from famous films. However, following Henson’s death in 1990 and a cooling of relations between the Henson family and Disney, the scale of the Muppets area was reduced, leaving Muppet*Vision 3D as the only attraction in the land. How fun would that attraction have been???

Muppets On Location: Days of Swine and Roses

muppets on location days of swine and roses
Image: Disney

With Muppet*Vision 3D entertaining guests by the theaterful, Disney wanted to keep the Muppet fire burning brightly, and even expand their influence. Two weeks after the closure of Here Come the Muppets, Disney debuted a new Muppet-themed show on September 16, 1991, called Muppets On Location: Days of Swine and Roses.

This interactive show was performed in an outdoor space in the Muppet Courtyard, with a plot revolving around the Muppets filming a movie. Miss Piggy was the main star of the show, playing a flower store clerk who was – quite humorously – allergic to flowers. Plenty of music mixed in with the show scenes, with members of the Electric Mayhem band on-hand for their telltale fun vibes.

Those large walkaround Muppet characters introduced in Here Come the Muppets were front and center here again, with Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Bean Bunny, The Great Gonzo, and members of the Electric Mayhem all looming larger than life. At one point during the show the Muppet cast even took a break to sign autographs for their fans.

Muppets on Location played for nearly three years, closing on January 23, 1994.

Hollywood’s Pretty Woman

hollywood's pretty woman disney

Continuing the trend of life-size Muppet characters, this stage show was intended to show the Muppets as dynamic residents of Disney-MGM Studios. This salute to the women of Hollywood lore, primarily featured Mickey, Minnie, and Roger Rabbit (as a world-famous producer from Maroon Studios). However, Kermit and Miss Piggy made a quick appearance in the show’s surprise finale.

As Disney historian Jim Korkis recalls – the “surprise” inclusion of Muppets at the end of this show was intended to invoke the idea that Muppets were running loose in the Studios.  It was supposed to be chaotic, crazy, and hilarious, just as the Muppets were in their shows and movies.  The master plan at the time was for the Muppets to pop up everywhere; on the streets, in shows, and even on rides.  This is the reason the previous show Here Come the Muppets portrayed some Muppets as walk-around characters – to give them the flexibility to go anywhere.  Much like The Muppets at Walt Disney World television special, these initial Muppet-based stage shows were supposed to be a sign of what was to come in the parks.

Hollywood’s Pretty Woman ran at the Theater of the Stars on Hollywood Boulevard on September 24, 1991 and lasted less than two months.

Muppet Mobile Lab

muppet mobile lab

While we are talking about Muppets running loose in a Disney park, the Muppet Mobile Lab takes the cake. Perhaps the most dynamic and technologically advanced Muppet project to touch the Disney parks, the Mobile Lab was developed by Walt Disney Imagineering as part of the “Living Characters Initiative” (i.e. characters walking around and meeting guests).

The roving show features an ingenious two-wheeled science-lab vehicle (Segway scooter) resembling a small rocket ship. Two fan-favorite Muppets – Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant, Beaker – were brought to life through the use of advanced audio-animatronic remote-control-puppeteering technology (try saying that five times fast). The scientifically-challenged duo pilot the vehicle through its surroundings, interacting with guests and using special effects such as foggers, flashing lights, moving signs, confetti cannons, and spray jets.

The Muppet Mobile Lab lives up to its name. It debuted in Disney California Adventure in 2007, moved to EPCOT later that year. It traveled the world throughout 2008, making stops in Hong Kong Disneyland, New York City (as part of the 2008 World Science Festival), and the Tokyo Disney Resort. Since 2008, the Mobile Lab has only made fleeting appearances. It appeared at Hong Kong Disneyland’s “Disney Dreamers Everywhere” event in May 2013. Back in America, Bunsen and Beaker briefly returned to EPCOT in 2018, in support of The Muppets Present… Great Moments in American History, which was playing at the time in Magic Kingdom.

The Muppets Present…Great Moments in American History

muppets present great moments in american history

Let’s take a plate of dense U.S. history and add a healthy dose of wacky Muppet storytelling. What could go wrong? The answer is…everything, and nothing! This live show was, in my opinion, the single most perfect piece of live Muppets magic to have visited any of the Disney Parks.

The Muppets Present…Great Moments in American History debuted in 2016 in Magic Kingdom’s Liberty Square, adding a much needed breath of life into the area that largely functioned as a waiting/resting area. The Muppet characters literally popped out of windows and doors within an otherwise very serious area of the park. 

Performed outside The Hall of Presidents, the show features Sam Eagle, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie Bear and Liberty Square town crier James Jefferson performing comedic reenactments of moments from Colonial American history. While most of the Muppets are always in a state of falling apart, Sam Eagle’s overly grave personality is a perfect counterpoint. 

Unfortunately, this brilliant piece of Muppet storytelling fell victim to the COVID pandemic. When all Walt Disney World parks closed in March 2020, the Muppets never returned to Liberty Square.

PizzeRizzo

pizzerizzo sign

Rizzo the Rat – an edgy counter character to the docile every-frog Kermit – joined the Muppets way back in the 1970s as a minor character. The rat from Brooklyn slowly made his way through the Muppet ranks, emerging as a major character in several Muppet films. He loves to eat and play tricks on people, and was a natural fit as host of his own New York-style pizza parlor.

So it was that on November 18, 2016, Rizzo was honored with his own restaurant in Disney’s Hollywood Studios – the aptly named PizzeRizzo. At a time when the Muppets were struggling with an identity crisis in Disney Parks, the opening of PizzeRizzo – replacing Toy Story Pizza Planet – was surprising news.

The two-story eatery introduces guests to Rizzo and his (very) extended family on the first floor. As the proud host of his restaurant, Rizzo invites guests to visit his Deluxe Supreme Banquet Hall on the second floor, where there’s a wild wedding reception already in progress!

But PizzeRizzo has performed admirably since 2016, and helped expand the Muppet Courtyard area as the first real Muppet growth in the Studios in years.

The Muppets Take on EPCOT

regal eagle smokehouse logo
Image: Disney

Prior to 2020, the only significant Muppet activity in EPCOT had been a couple short stays of the Muppet Mobile Lab. But in February 2020, that all changed. Sam Eagle – by far the most patriotic of all Muppets – opened his own restaurant in World Showcase’s American Adventure pavilion. Regal Eagle Smokehouse gives all the vibes of a barbecue competition at the 1876 Centennial Exposition. The event is billed as “Sam’s Centennial Cookoff – A Salute To All Cook-Offs, But Mostly Barbecue.” The Muppet theming in this restaurant is much less exotic (or should I say, chaotic?) than most other Muppet-flavored fare, and it fits just right in the center of EPCOT’s World Showcase.

muppets brew wing lab epcot bunsen and beaker

Over in Future World (I mean, World Celebration) Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker commandeered the Odyssey Pavilion to host the Brew-Wing station as part of EPCOT’s 2023 International Food and Wine Festival. The menu included “unnecessarily spicy, yet extremely tasty scotch bonnet pepper-curry wings” and of course, the infamous pickle milkshake. Will Bunsen and Beaker return to EPCOT in 2024? We can only hope!

The Rainbow Connection

epcot spaceship earth rainbow connection lights
Image: BlogMickey

If we had to pick one song that symbolizes the happy spirit of the Muppets and Jim Henson himself, it has to be “Rainbow Connection.” The anthem of optimism and love brings together Muppet fans of all ages, and in 2022, EPCOT knocked it out of the park with a light show on Spaceship Earth celebrating this wonderful melody. All the colors of the rainbow were well represented on EPCOT’s iconic sphere, for a three-minute light extravaganza. The sentimental favorite returned in 2024 as part of the EPCOT Festival of the Arts. Here’s hoping this display hangs around in EPCOT’s evening rotation.

Cameos, Parades, and Cavalcades

The Muppets have come and gone over the years in the Disney Parks. Sometimes they visit for a matter of weeks or months, and other times they seem to stay forever! Our celebration of the Muppets in Disney Parks wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging a few additional Muppet appearances in the parks. Most of these are small Muppet moments in larger Disney Parks events, while a couple saw very unique sea-based Muppet entertainment on Disney Cruise Line:

  • Disney’s Stars and Motor Cars Parade (Disney-MGM Studios: 2001-2008)
  • Disney’s Honorary VoluntEars Cavalcade (Disneyland and Walt Disney World: 2010)
  • EPCOT Muppet Scavenger Hunt (EPCOT: 2014)
  • EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival (EPCOT: multiple years since 1993)
  • The Muppet Experiment (Disneyland: 2008)
  • Mickey’s Costume Party Cavalcade (Disneyland: 2011)
  • Christmas Caroling Coach (Disneyland: 2021)
  • Muppets Ahoy! (Disney Cruise Line: 2006)
  • The Midship Detective Agency (Disney Cruise Line: 2012-current)

Muppetational Characters

jim henson and kermit the frog disney mgm studios handprints
Image: Disney

For well over thirty years, the Muppets have been lending their signature touch to the Disney Parks. With Disney periodically sprinkling new Muppet experiences throughout the parks, let’s hope we continue to see more of these lovable characters (and Jim Henson’s brilliant inspiration) for decades to come.

If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share it with friends. Also, please reach out with a comment on social media:  Instagram  Facebook  X

Sources referenced in writing this article include:

Disney Wiki: Muppet Attractions at Disney Parks

The Muppets at Disney Parks, Andrew Long, Wandering in Disney Blog, April 14, 2015

Jim Henson: Idea Man, Ron Howard, May 31, 2024

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