The Vacation Kingdom of the World: The Muppets at Walt Disney Worldby Tom Richards, contributing writer
After a recent visit to Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World, my kids have taken a keen interest in all things Muppets. We enjoyed Muppet*Vision 3D this summer, reveling in the joyous foolishness of one of Jim Henson's most memorable efforts. From the amusing pre-show to the classic mayhem of the 3D film, the magic of the Muppets continues to impress and entertain new generations. When we returned home, we watched the 2011 Disney film release, The Muppets, the first Muppet theatrical release in over 12 years.
This got me thinking about a television special from the early 1990s starring the Muppets and their first visit to the Walt Disney World Resort. Like most Disneyphiles, I have an extensive collection of historical materials filed away for future reference: books, pamphlets, guidebooks, and even videotapes. I searched through my files of old VHS tapes and found just what I was looking for: a television special entitled The Muppets at Walt Disney World.
Produced in 1990 as a celebration of the historic merging of the Disney empire with the Muppet empire, this highly entertaining hour-long program was originally shown on the relaunch of The Wonderful World of Disney on ABC Television. Subsequently, it was shown commercial-free on The Disney Channel, back when The Disney Channel actually aired programming from and about its theme parks.
Watching this little production—the last to feature Jim Henson voicing his beloved characters—is like visiting an old friend after a long absence. While the overall effect is joyous nostalgia, there's no denying a pervasive melancholic feeling when the realization hits that change is not always a good thing, especially when it comes to Walt Disney World. Like the idea captured so memorably in the classic Beatles tune aptly states: "There are places I remember, all my life thought some have changed. Some forever, not for better, some have gone, and some remain."
Classic Muppet Fun
The Muppets, unlike so much of the current content aimed at children and families, manage to walk that tenuous tightrope known as "tone" with great success. Mixing a heart-tugging earnestness with a clever sense of pointed commentary and satire, the Muppets entertain children and adults in equal measure. Compare classic Muppet humor with the in-your-face sarcasm of too many of today's children's programs and the difference is glaring.
The Muppets at Walt Disney World is a perfect example of this successful ability to set the right tone. After all, Jim Henson was in the process of transferring ownership of his creations to the Walt Disney Company, and in this program, managed to assure Disney fans and Muppet fans alike that the Muppets would retain their particular point of view distinct from the classic tone of the Walt Disney Company's productions. This is illustrated in the very first scene, wherein Kermit drags the entire Muppet gang back to his home in the Florida swamps. He excitedly anticipates the mosquito roasting events scheduled for the evening, while the rest of the gang—particularly Miss Piggy—remains less enthusiastic. When the Muppets learn that Walt Disney World is located just beyond the trees, they immediately set off for the Vacation Kingdom of the World. The whole premise of locating a boggy, mosquito-infested, alligator swamp right next to Disney World is funny in and of itself, even more so when viewers know that the California-based arm of the Walt Disney Company often refers to the Florida property as "the swamp."
There's also a wonderfully realized satiric subplot involving Gonzo and Camilla, the chicken. They stumble upon several "attractions" not listed in the guidebooks, including a "realistic and detailed" used paper-cup exhibit and culminating in a tour of "Walt Disney's Laundryland" (aka the Walt Disney World Laundry). Gonzo's comments about "Disney's attention to detail" and "amazing realism" are hysterical, and his song "Love in a Laundromat" is a highlight (all of the music is wonderfully realized. This shouldn't be surprising as it was produced by the legendary Phil Ramone, who produced music for luminaries like Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Chicago, Tom Petty, and Karen Carpenter).
Scenes with Miss Piggy are also a comic highlight. She is in search of the Grauman's Chinese Theater at the Disney-MGM Studios, hoping to view the handprints of the stars located in the courtyard. The Muppet's janitor, Beauregard, promises to get Miss Piggy there via several "shortcuts" including Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, The Mad Tea Party, and the original Star Tours. Miss Piggy, not a fan of thrill rides, is less than amused (it's especially fun to see the Big Thunder Mountain area before the addition of Splash Mountain a few years later). Piggy and Kermit are reunited during an amusing presentation of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular.
Two characters who went on to feature prominently in Muppet*Vision 3D, Rizzo the Rat and Bean Bunny, are featured in this program as well. Rizzo acts as an informant, helping an inept security guard, winningly played by Charles Grodin, round up the Muppet gang who entered the Disney-MGM Studios without proper tickets. (In a running gag, Grodin lives in great fear that he will be demoted if he fails, spending the rest of his career "scraping used spearmint off the bottom of park benches.") Rizzo literally eats his way through the park, enjoying hot dogs, popcorn, and even a Mickey Premium Bar. Bean Bunny is introduced early on as a "new Muppet," who—according to Scooter—was hired by the Muppets to be "cute" because they were all tired of being the cute ones. This idea is echoed in the script for the Muppet*Vision 3D show as well.
Eventually, the Muppets are taken to meet Mickey Mouse himself. In a wonderful little scene, a fully animated Mickey interacts with Kermit and the whole Muppet gang. Mickey welcomes them to the Disney family, but not before he and Kermit "talk philosophy." Mickey reminds that Muppets that "when you wish upon a star, your dream comes true," while Kermit counters with "someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers and me."
Another enjoyable part of this program is the multiple shots of the "new" attractions and resorts that opened at Walt Disney World in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including the Grand Floridian Beach Resort, the Wonders of Life Pavilion at Epcot's Future World, and the entire Disney-MGM Studios theme park.
A Sentimental Journey
There is, however, a strain of sadness that permeates this wonderful program for most "grown-up" viewers. This was, after all, the last production in which the beloved Jim Henson participated. The hopefulness for the future union of Muppets and Disney presented here never truly came to fruition. After Henson's untimely death, plans to add an entire Muppet area at the Disney-MGM Studios were scrapped. "The Great Muppet Movie Ride," an elaborate audio-animatronic parody of "The Great Movie Ride," along with a themed restaurant, never saw the light of day (Mama Melrose's and a row of shops occupy the space originally intended for these attractions). It took decades for the Henson family and the Disney family to successfully merge, and this is sad.
For theme park aficionados, there are other reasons to feel sad. There is a large, vocal, and very articulate online presence that watches over Disneyland. This is natural, as the decades-old original Disney park has a devoted following. There is, however, a largely untapped group of Walt Disney World Resort fans who are every bit as passionate about the resort that they grew up with. Disneylanders are not the only fans who fondly remember the past.
And that's what is sad about The Muppets at Walt Disney World. So many of the vistas that once made Walt Disney World so grand and so impressive are gone now. Thankfully, they captured for posterity in this program: the glorious views of the serene fountain that was once located behind Spaceship Earth; the imposing original entrance to EPCOT Center before the addition of "Leave a Legacy," the authentic view down Hollywood Blvd. at the Disney-MGM Studios before the addition at that big hat; the large mature trees that once grew at the end of Main Street U.S.A.; and most of all, the greatly missed Hub, complete with benches shaded by those lovely trees that graced the Magic Kingdom for close to thirty years.
Hopefully, these gorgeous places we remember will return someday in the very near future.
Like most Muppet productions, The Muppets at Walt Disney World works on many levels. It celebrates the hopeful worldview that was shared by visionaries Jim Henson and Walt Disney, a philosophy reflected in the best work created in their names. The gentle satire and parody, hallmarks of the Muppets, are here as well. This highly entertaining program appeals to all age groups, just like the best work of Henson and Disney. For casual Disney fans, it's a highly entertaining romp through the Walt Disney World parks. For theme park buffs, it's a time capsule that captures Walt Disney World at the beginning of the "Disney Decade." And for those of us who pine for a simpler, less cluttered, less hectic Walt Disney World, it's a nostalgic reminder of long-ago visits to the Vacation Kingdom of the World.