How the Muppets became a part of Disney

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“MuppetVision 3-D” in the Muppets Courtyard in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Photo courtesy of Theme Park Tourist on Flickr.

In the newly redesigned Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World, it’s no surprise that Disney is cashing in on “Star Wars” by building an entire Star Wars Land or that they are finally expanding their Toy Story Land from just “Toy Story Mania.” But what may come as a shock is that they have also decided to expand their Muppets Courtyard. After Streets of America was closed and scheduled for demolition to make way for “Star Wars,” it seemed like a done deal that the Muppets would go with it. After “Pizza Planet,” across from the Muppets show, was closed, it seemed like the whole area was most likely planned to go.

Instead, Disney announced that “Pizza Planet” would become “PizzeRizzo”, a tribute to Rizzo the rat who worked at a pizza place in “The Muppets Take Manhattan.” Disney might not actually be allowed to say that considering that the company didn’t own the Muppets at the time the movie was made in 1984. Disney even announced that the Muppets would not only stay in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, but also have a new show in Liberty Square in Magic Kingdom entitled “The Muppets Present Great Moments in American History.”

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Opening night of PizzeRizzo. Photo courtesy of elisfkc on Flickr.

The Muppets have been having a resurgence in the past few years that they might not have ever had after Jim Henson’s death if a company like Disney hadn’t swooped them up in 2004. Rumors were spreading all the way back at the time of Henson’s death in 1990 that the current Disney CEO, Michael Eisner was already putting out the word that he was planning to acquire the Muppets. Henson had long said that he admired Walt Disney and that he trusted the Disney company with his work more than any other company.

Unfortunately for Eisner, the rest of the Henson family did not agree. They bought back The Jim Henson Co. from EM.TV and Merchandising, a now-bankrupt German company, in 2003, when just months prior Eisner was claiming that Disney was finalizing a deal to buy the company.

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“Bear in the Big Blue House” in the Stars and Motorcars Parade from 2004. Photo courtesy of Haydn Blackey on Flickr.

It didn’t take long for Disney to rally back. By early 2004, Disney had bought the Muppets. For an undisclosed sum, the Henson family sold all of the major Muppets to Disney, as well as the “Bear and the Big Blue House” characters. They did not get the “Sesame Street” characters, which are owned by a different company, and they also did not get Jim Henson’s “Creature Shop,” which designed the puppets. They also did not acquire “Fraggle Rock,” “Farscape,” or any other media that is a bit lesser known by the Henson company. Mainly, Disney was interested in the characters that are most marketable to children and family ie. the Muppets. After the acquisition, Lisa Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter, released a press release saying that her father had been in talks with the Disney company for them to get the Muppets after his passing in 1990 and that the family trusted Disney to continue the work of her father.

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Kermit and Jason Segel at the Australian premiere of “Disney’s The Muppets” in 2011. Photo courtesy of Eva Rinaldi on Flickr.

If it seems like Disney got the best part of the deal here, you don’t know the half of it, because the Henson family may have actually saved Disney from becoming owned by another company themselves. At the time in 2004, Comcast was attempting to “merge” with Disney, in a similar way that they later “merged” with NBCUniversal and Dreamworks. Meaning it was less of a merge and more of a purchase. Eisner was under a lot of pressure to make a decision. When Disney got the Muppets, the company’s price immediately went up but Comcast refused to pay more. Eisner’s decision was made for him and he turned down the bitter Comcast, which seems to have gone on a buying spree ever since.  If it wasn’t for the Muppets, Disney could have been an extension of Comcast today.

Do you think that the Henson family made the right deal or should the Muppets have stayed separate? Let us know in the comments!

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One thought on “How the Muppets became a part of Disney

  1. Pingback: A brief look at some of Disney’s scrapped ideas | Reimagining the Imagineers

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