No matter who you are or where you're from, you know about The Muppets.
How could you not?
Since the premiere of The Muppet Show in 1974, these characters have become instantly recognizable, and beloved by those of all ages. So when Disney was looking for a new attraction to build in Disney-MGM Studios in the late 1980s, it was only logical that they would turn to yet another well-known brand to integrate into their Park.
Enter Muppet*Vision 3-D, an attraction conceived, developed, and then opened in Disney-MGM Studios on May 16, 1991.
End of story, right? Wrong!
Despite its insanely popular characters, and despite its immense appeal to guests, the road to Muppet*Vision 3-D was not only rocky but boulder-strewn.
When Disney approached Jim Henson about bringing The Muppets into the Parks, it wasn't just for one attraction - it was, in fact, for an entire Muppets Land. While the 3-D show WAS on the boards, so were a restaurant, a live action stage show, and The Great Muppet Movie Ride (think of The Muppets invading The Great Movie Ride, and you'll have the right idea).
Unfortunately, with Jim Henson's untimely death on May 16, 1990, and with negotiations breaking down between Disney and Henson's heirs, most of these plans went down the drain. Except, thankfully, for Muppet*Vision 3-D.
When Disney announced the deal to buy the Muppets, the first project mentioned was the 3-D show. Henson was to direct the film, which would showcase the latest 3-D and 4-D technology.
It was decided early on to continue using a theme that The Muppets had being using for years: breaking down the 4th wall. There have been numerous times, both in the original TV show and in the later films, that someone in the Muppet cast would directly address the audience. These little tongue-in-cheek asides always made the show more 'real,' at least to me, and showed that The Muppets were also in on the joke.
Taking the joke even further, the Imagineers thought that the Muppets not only broke down the 4th wall, they blew it up. What a bit of foreshadowing that turned out to be!
In the original draft of the film, little-known Bean Bunny was the star, with the other famous Muppets relegated to cameos. Imagineers convinced Henson to rework the show, featuring the main characters more prominently, and keeping Bean Bunny to a smaller role. As the show began to take shape, Henson became more intrigued with the idea of some of the characters interacting with the audience.
The film was shot entirely in California, and almost entirely on Stage 3 at the Disney Studios. They filmed the Miss Piggy sequence first, making use of the water tank originally used in the filming of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, then moved to the opposite end of the studio to film the Muppet Labs and Hallway sequences of the film, while the Miss Piggy set was dismantled for the filming of the patriotic finale number. Other portions of the film, such as Kermit on the fire truck, were shot outside, using pieces of the old set for Something Wicked This Way Comes.
At the screening, everyone thought the film needed some tweaks, and so the crew decided to meet again (after some much-needed time-off) to make those tweaks and then wrap the film.
But then Jim Henson passed away before he had a chance to sign the contract with Disney for the sale of The Muppets. With Henson's death, the deal went cold. Since the film was nearly done, however, Disney decided to complete it despite the circumstances.
Disney's Imagineers worked with keys members of Henson's creative team, including Frank Oz and Bill Prady, to storyboard a few new sequences and to re-shoot some scenes from the film, with Oz directing. Before the work could be completed, the Henson family requested that their creative team walk away from the project due to the breakdown in negotiations between them and Disney over contract terms.
Disney was left with an unfinished film and an unsigned contract. They had all the footage for the film, and all the dialogue, and needed only to wrap up the Waldo CGI. Rather than walk away themselves, the Disney team did the CGI.
Now Disney had a finished film but still no signed contract with the Hensons.
Disney test-screened the Muppet film to guests for several days. Audiences loved it. But, even though negotiations had resumed with the Hensons, Disney chose to close the Muppet show until those negotiations resulted in a contract.
The turning point occurred when Jim Henson's son Brian and Disney CEO Michael Eisner watched the show together. Brian thought the show was great, and he realized it would be a shame for his father's final project to be abandoned. He convinced his family to sign off on the show and, finally, Muppet*Vision 3-D opened in Disney-MGM Studios.
Muppet fans today love the attraction for many reasons. The Imagineers remained true to the spirit of the original Muppet TV show, stacking the pre-show area with props and decor that reference past Muppet acts. Almost every square inch of the room has some sort of visual or verbal pun waiting for guests to discover. It would take two or three pre-shows to fully experience all of the gags in that room.
The theater itself is meant to remind people of the one used in the Muppet TV show. It looks almost exactly the same, including all the original sets.
Muppet*Vision 3-D is a 17 minute mixture of 3-D film and live action gags. There are audio-animatronic characters that pop up as well, including everyone's favorite hecklers, Statler & Waldorf, Bean Bunny, a penguin orchestra, and even the Swedish Chef. A (large) live performer dressed as Sweetums (my favorite Muppet!) stalks in at one point. The explosive finale of the show makes full use of the special Pani effects projectors, making it seem as if the walls are literally blown apart by the penguins!
However, despite all these great things that make the film an interactive experience, it's in need of a refurbishment. Things have been building up over the past few years that show that this attraction isn't running up to par. For months, the penguin orchestra didn't work (and actually flat out refused to disappear into their "down position" during the show), Statler's mouth no longer moves, and some of the "blown apart" walls no longer work. Disney really needs to get in there and address some of these issues to get this wonderful show back to its former glory.
While Muppet Land itself probably never will be built, it's great to see the Muppets in the Park. Their show is a testament to The Muppet's lasting appeal.
With both of the recently released Vinylmation Muppet series being so popular, and a new Muppet movie making lots of money at the box office, I expect to see more of The Muppets at Disney World very soon!
Muppet*Vision 3D Fast Facts
- One of my favorite visual gags in the queue area is located by the entrance where a sign on the box office reads: "Back In 5 Minutes, Key Is Under Mat." If you check the welcome mat below the sign, you actually WILL find a key there!
- In the pre-show area, hanging high above your head, is a net filled with large pieces of jello. This is a reference to Disney Legend Annette Funicello (if you don't get it, say her name veeeery slowly!).
- Audio-animatronic Statler & Waldorf have two sets of arms: one regular, one holding the white flags they wave at the end of the show. "We surrender, we surrender!"
- Dr. Bunsen Honeydew's Muppet*Vision machine has a pair of the old Magic Eye Theater 3-D glasses on its conveyor belt. Keep an eye out for them!
- This is the only 3-D attraction at Disney World where the 3-D glasses are called 3-D glasses. Other attractions refer to them as Bug Eyes or Safety Goggles (can you guess what two attractions those are?) or some other euphemism.
- At the end of the film, after the brick wall blows up, you'll see double...literally! Sweetums appears both on screen AND live in the theater as well!
- If you are coming from Star Tours, look for the row of planters outside the attraction. All of them are filled with flowers, except for two: one of those is filled with an ice cream sundae, and the other WAS also filled with an ice cream sundae, but it melted!
- When filming the sequence where the cannon blows up the brick wall, one of the bricks came right at the 3-D camera and broke the special glass mirror used for filming! Since the mirrors are so expensive, and they only had two left, they decided to use that shot in the show. It adds a bit more realism to the 3-D effect, but the camera fades out before you can actually see the glass break.
- Muppet*Vision 3-D opened on May 16, 1991, exactly one year after Jim Henson's death on May 16, 1990.
by Jeff Heimbuch
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