Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Muppet Movie Ride - one of the greatest attractions never built!

From Jim Hill

While the topic of The Muppets is fresh in people's minds, it's time to bring up a push for The Muppet Studios to be built in a Disney Park! And that one of the greatest attractions ever dreamed up by Imagineering is waiting to open, The Muppet Movie Ride!

This is the proposed attraction that the Imagineers who worked in the 1990s talk about the most.

So what was supposed to so special about this Muppet Movie Ride thingy?

This was going to be *THE* ride for Disney/MGM. The one that -- barring all others -- you *HAD TO* see during your day at the theme park. A "Pirates of the Caribbean" for the 1990s. An epic attraction that would have featured elaborate set pieces, amazing special effects as well as dozens upon dozens of audio-animatronic Muppets. 

I hear you Tower of Terror fans mumbling out there. "Better than Twilight Zone Tower of Terror?," you say. "No way." Yes way, guys. The Muppet Movie Ride was going to be just as technically advanced as TZTOT. Only -- instead of thrilling -- this Disney/MGM attraction was going to be funny. 

Lord, was the Muppet Movie Ride going to be funny! Not just "fall-down funny" or "pee-in-your-pants funny," but "I'm- going- to- have- to- ride- this- thing- a- dozen- or- more- times- to- make- sure- I-get- all- the- gags" funny.

Why was the Muppet Movie Ride going to be so much fun? Because it was going to have the Muppets do what they did so well so many times on "The Muppet Show" : send up great old movies as well as reveal all the behind-the-scenes chaos that went on whenever the Muppets tried to put on a show. 

Personally, I think that one of the funnier aspects of Disney/MGM's proposed "Muppet Movie Ride" ride is that this attraction was clearly a parody of another ride at that same theme park: The Great Movie Ride. Just like at the show that was being presented just up the street inside the Chinese Theater, guests would slowly glide through the enormous show building aboard giant theater cars past these highly detailed recreations of great moments from famous Hollywood films. 

Only in the Muppet version, something just off-screen would go wrong ... and then the fun would begin.

Take -- for instance -- the tribute to Hollywood's classic horror films that the Imagineers & Henson wanted to do as part of the ride. This sequence's set was deliberately designed to ape the art direction of James Whale's 1931 version of "Frankenstein." So picture a secret laboratory hidden away in a cobweb-filled dungeon of a huge stone castle. Bizarre electric equipment flickers and sparks in the dark, as the mad scientist makes ready to bring his evil creature to life. 

Only in this version of the movie, it's Miss Piggy & Kermit who are the heroes who have just discovered the fiend's lair. As they stand on the stone staircase -- agape with horror -- looking down into the lab, the frog & the pig realize that they're too late. The mad scientist makes ready to throw the switch ... 

So who's the mad scientist? Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, of course. Which means that the monster laid out on the slab is -- you guessed it -- Beaker. Only a 10 foot tall version of Beaker with bolts sticking out of his neck. 

Okay, that already sounds funny, doesn't it? But just wait 'til you see what's going on behind-the-scenes as this particular sequence in the "Muppet Movie Ride" attraction is being filmed. Our director (Indeed, the host of the entire attraction) is the Great Gonzo. Dressed in a beret and jodhpurs (with his trusty script girl -- Carmella the Chicken -- at his side), Gonzo shouts stage directions to his cast through a megaphone. Rizzo is sitting behind the camera, while Scooter works the boom mic. 

This sequence's truly brilliant touch? Fozzie Bear is in charge of the sequence's special effects. But -- in true Fozzie fashion -- things aren't quite going according to plan. Fozzie holds the power cord from the studio's generator (which is evidently powered by two rats running inside an exercise wheel) in one paw and the extension cord that leads to all the electrical equipment in Bunsen's lab in the other. But every time the Bear tries to plug one cable into the other, someone on set accidentally throws the switch. 

The consequences were supposed to be as dazzling as they were comical. Fozzie's eyes light up, his bow-tie spins around wildly and his fur stands on end as the electricity surges through his body. With smoke pouring out of his wiggling ears, the world's worst comic shouts "Wacka-wacka-wacka!" And our theater car rolls on into the next sequence for the ride ... 

You get the idea here? Dozens of audio-animatronic Muppets looking just like they did on the TV shows or in the films. Only in three dimension -- cavorting just a few feet away from our theater car. 

The idea of working with audio-animatronics really excited Jim Henson. To be honest, it was one of the main reasons that Jim decided to try & merge with Disney: The possibility of telling new stories with the Muppets that would make full use of all the snazzy theme park technologies that Walt Disney Imagineering had cooked up over the years. 

Henson -- who'd always been a heavy-duty technology nut (Remember Waldo, the "Spirit of 3D" who's featured so prominently in "Jim Henson's MuppetVision 3D"? That computer generated character -- who's full name is Waldo C. Graphic, by the way -- was originally created for 1989's "The Jim Henson Hour." Jim pushed for the development of Waldo because he became fascinated with the entertainment possibilities that grew out of CGI characters interacting in real time with the traditional Muppet family) -- thought that using AA with the Muppets could move the fun to a whole new level.

Why? Well, listen to the explanation that Jim gave to "Disney News" back in the spring of 1990 as part of an interview with Disney publicist John McClintock. In particular, pay attention to how excited Henson sounds: 

"This is a form of technology I've never been into before, and it's as if these characters were designed to be audio-animatronics," (Jim) now says enthusiastically. "When we try to do a live person or a cartoon character as an Audio-Animatronic figure, we're changing medium. We're trying to turn a person or a cartoon character into something plastic or fabric. But when we take puppets into Audio-Animatronics, we're staying in the same medium. These characters were created in these three-dimensional forms, so we should be able to use them in park attractions in a way that will still look very authentic."

After you read this, that's when you realize that "Jim Henson's MuppetVision" -- with its 20 or so Muppets that make appearances in the show through the magic of Audio-Animatronics -- was really just a test. A dry run, if you will, for all the fun stuff that Henson wanted to try & do on the Muppet Movie Ride. When Jim could create room after room full of Audio-Animatronic pigs, frogs and bears who were ready to do his zany bidding. 

Speaking of which, let's get back to that description of sequences from the Muppet Movie Ride, shall we? After all, the sci-fi scene was sure to be a big hit with all you Miss Piggy fans out there.
Why for? Because that sequence in the proposed Disney / MGM attraction was going to take you on the soundstage where a big screen version of "Pigs in Space" TV show was being filmed. And our theater car was going to roll right through the middle of the set where the intrepid crew of U.S.S. Swinetrek was locked in mortal combat with a scurvy bunch of space pirates.
Sorry. Excuse me. I mis-spoke myself there. The above sentence has a teeny tiny typo. I didn't really mean to write "space pirates." I meant to type "space pie-rats." 

Rats. As in Rizzo and all his relatives. 

So picture -- on one side of the soundstage -- a full-sized version of the U.S.S. Swinetrek. Link Hogthrob, Dr. Julius Strangepork and Piggy -- all dressed in spacesuits & wearing clear plastic helmets -- stand on the exterior of their spaceship, laser pistols blazing away. On the other side of the soundstage ... Well, picture a space-going Spanish Galleon. Covered with rats who are dressed as -- well -- space pirates. Striped bandanas tied around their heads, cutlasses in their teeth. Also with laser pistols a-blazing. 

Our theater car goes right through the thick of the battle. With laser blasts flying all over the place, rats swinging on ropes -- just out of reach over our heads -- as the rodents try to board the Swinetrek. It's a wild, wild scene. 

And maybe even a little dangerous. For -- as we 'round the corner and head off to the next soundstage -- we see Statler & Waldorf in their golf cart. (These two elderly hecklers were supposed to have been a running gag for the Muppet Movie Ride. Literally. At various moments in the attraction, Statler & Waldorf were supposed to have rolled up next to our theater car, offered a few caustic comments, then zoomed off into the darkness again.) It seems that a stray shot from one of those laser pistol has sliced the curmudgeons' golf cart right down the middle. The only things that's now keeping the vehicle from falling apart is that Statler & Waldorf are now holding hands. 

Funny, right? It gets better. 

How could the Muppets possibly top a scene that puts you right in the middle of an epic space battle? How about a scene where Kermit & Co. make fun of the Mouse? 

Picture -- if you will -- that your theater car now rolls on to a soundstage where the nursery set from Disney's 1953 animated classic, "Peter Pan," has been lovingly recreated down to the last detail. As we arrive, Peter has just taught the Darling children that when "you think of the happiest things, it's the same as having wings." 

Only these aren't exactly the characters as we remember seeing them in Disney's animated classic. Sure, the costumes look the same. Only ... Since when is Peter Pan played by Kermit the Frog? Wendy by Janice (the girl singer from the Muppet's house band, Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem)? The be-spectacled and top-hatted John is played by Scooter. And -- dressed in footie pajamas and clutching a teddy bear -- Fozzie Bear plays Michael. 

Each of these Muppet characters hang from painfully obvious flying rigs, wires which are secured to elaborate pulley rigs which dangle down from the ceiling of the soundstage. Rat technicians high above tend to these rigs, which allow Kermit, Janice, Scooter & Fozzie to gently bob up and down in the air. 

But wait! Didn't Tinker Bell play an important part in the "You Can Fly" number in Disney's version of "Peter Pan"? Sure she did. Which is why the Muppet's grand dame -- Miss Piggy -- has strapped on a pair of wings & squeezed herself into a tiny spangly green gown to try & play the flying fairy. 

Only -- in poor Miss Piggy's case -- there have obviously been some problems with her flying rig. As the hog sized holes in the scenery can attest to, the crew seems to have had trouble controlling this over-sized sprite once she gets up in the air. As our theater car goes 'round the corner, we see that there's about a half dozen rats along with Sweetums -- straining to hang on to Miss Piggy's control rope as she swoops through the air. 

With Miss Piggy screaming at Gonzo to get her down, our theater car moves on ...
You see? The Muppet Movie Ride would have been a comic triumph. A real break-through for the Disney theme parks. An attraction that was just as ambitious as "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "The Haunted Mansion." But funny. 

But -- after clearing a huge parcel of land right next door to Disney / MGM's New York Street for the massive show building -- the Muppet Movie Ride project stalled during the summer of 1990. Why? Same reason as before. Jim's untimely death in May of 1990 had thrown a monkey wrench into the whole Henson / Disney plan. So -- just to play it safe -- Disney Company officials temporarily (or so they thought) put a hold on construction of the Muppet Movie Ride. 

So -- even though site prep for the Disney / MGM attraction had actually been completed -- Disney's construction crews didn't go forward with pouring the concrete footings for the show building. Had they stuck to the project's original construction schedule, WDW guests would have been able to start enjoying the Muppet Movie Ride in the Spring of 1993.
Depressing to think about, isn't it? Wait. It gets worse. 

Of course, with two great Muppet-themed attractions within 100 feet of one another, it stands to reason that Muppet Studios deserved a great Muppet-themed restaurant. Well, the building that was supposed to have housed this particular eatery actually did get built. It was thrown up -- along with the "Stage 1 Company Store" and the "It's a Wonderful Store" retail areas -- while construction was being completed on the main "Jim Henson's MuppetVision 3D" theater complex. 

These days, the restaurant is known as Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano. The cobbled-together interior suggests that this building was once a warehouse that some enterprising soul tried to turn into an Italian restaurant. (And a pretty good one at that. My friends and I usually make a point of dining at Mama Melrose whenever we're visiting Disney / MGM. You just can't beat its mix of quirky atmosphere and great cuisine.) 

That said, I still miss the restaurant that was originally supposed to be installed in this building. For this is the place that Muppet fans would have killed to be able to eat at: The Great Gonzo's Pandemonium Pizza Parlor. 

The backstory for this eatery was simple: Just like Arnold, Bruce & Sly did in the early 1990s, Gonzo & Rizzo decided to go into the celebrity restaurant business. They hired the Swedish Chef to run the kitchen for them. And the rest ... Well, while it wasn't exactly history. But it was still going to be great fun. 

The walls of this restaurant -- just like the interior lobby area of "Jim Henson's MuppetVision 3D" -- would have been covered with recreations of props from various Muppet movies. TV monitors would hang down from the support beams of the restaurant. Just like in Planet Hollywood, diners would get to watch clips from various Muppet movies and TV shows. Every so often, there'd be a live broadcast from the kitchen -- where Gonzo & Rizzo would assure that things were going great and that our food would be out shortly. 

Only -- based on what was going on in the background of these scenes that were supposed shot in the kitchen -- things were clearly *NOT* going great. We'd watch as lobster banditos escaped from their pots and held the wait staff hostage, or observe as the Swedish Chef was suddenly attacked by a very large -- and very lively -- mound of pizza dough. Better yet, we'd watch as Carmella was suddenly sucked up into the exhaust fan over the stove, then watch as Gonzo climbed in after her. Then -- out in the main room of the restaurant -- we'd laugh because we could hear Gonzo & Carmella in the air conditioning ducts right over our heads, stumbling around in the dark, trying to find one another. 

You see? The Great Gonzo's Pandemonium Pizza Parlor -- with its kitchen doors that would occasionally belch open, sending great clouds of smoke and chicken feathers into the dining room -- was going to be a great place to eat while visiting the Muppet Studios section of Disney / MGM. 

Even the throw-away details on this side of the park were going to be fun for Muppet fans. That fake fish market that's currently located right next door to "It's a Wonderful Store"? That was supposed to be Lew Zealand's Boomerang Fish Market. If you listened very carefully as you walked on by, you were supposed to be able to hear Lew practicing behind closed doors. And -- every so often -- the Muppet-tized fish in the window were supposed to spin around in the ice and/or say awful fish-based puns to one another. 

You see what I'm talking about here, folks? Muppet Studios would have been *THE* place to go if you were a Muppet fan. With two great Muppet-themed attractions, a Muppet-themed restaurant plus two shops offering tons of Muppet merchandise. 

But unfortunately, Jim died. And -- when he died -- all these grandiose plans died with him.
But couldn't they just dust off these plans and build the Muppet Movie Ride and the Great Gonzo's Pandemonium Pizza Parlor as they'd been originally designed? One can only hope! Maybe in time for The Muppets sequel!

That said, I'd still kill to see Miss Piggy -- dressed up as Tinker Bell -- careening around a soundstage.

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