This isn’t an article I anticipated writing anytime soon. Just three short years after its first performance (almost to the day), The Muppets Present Great Moments in American History will have its final performance at Magic Kingdom on October 5, 2019. This show was a one-of-a-kind gem that livened up a quiet corner of the park and was a case study in near-perfect character integration. Let’s take a look at its legacy.
The Muppets’ Magic Kingdom production debuted on October 2, 2016, just one day after the park celebrated its 45th anniversary and in the same year as a host of major changes in the park’s entertainment lineup. Several months prior, Mickey’s Royal Friendship Faire had replaced Dream Along with Mickey‘s 10-year run as the new castle stage show. The very next week after the Muppets’ debut, The Main Street Electrical Parade would have its final performance before being shipped off to Disneyland for retirement. A month later, the Celebrate the Magic projection show would bow to make way for Once Upon a Time, and just a few months after that, Wishes would end its 14-year tenure in anticipation of Happily Ever After as the park’s major fireworks spectacular. Magic Kingdom was in the middle of a top-to-bottom entertainment sweep, and the Muppets were part of the excitement, refreshingly introducing a new offering that wasn’t in replacing anything.
The premise of The Muppets Present Great Moments in American History was simple enough. In the windows above Liberty Square, the Muppets treat Guests to orations of some of the most prominent moments from the beginnings of the United States.
Great Moments from the get-go borrows title language from a Disney classic, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, which debuted at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair and continues performing daily at Disneyland. From the onset, this tells us the show is self-aware of its place within the Disney catalogue of timeless theme park attractions. But this being the Muppets, things are likely to go a little bit more offbeat than the emotional, serious nature of Honest Abe reading the Gettysburg Address.
Par for the course, the production goes haywire fast. Fozzie, dressed comically as Ben Franklin, forgets his lines. Gonzo insists a chicken choir accompany the story, much to the frustration of Sam Eagle, who pleas for historical accuracy. Miss Piggy demands a role in the proceedings, even if she has to abridge the story to include herself playing “Georgette” Washington. Poor Kermit and his new friend, human performer J.J. (the town crier of Liberty Square), struggle to keep everything going in a way that at least halfway resembles a narrative thread.
It’s wacky, it’s engaging, it’s glorious. It’s also a Muppet fan’s dream come true. The Muppets are performers. At their core, the thing they do best (worst?) is put on a show. Therefore, the ultimate nirvana of Muppet fandom is getting the opportunity to see them, live and in person, do just that. (Yes, there’s the inevitable geeking out of visiting Muppet*Vision 3D at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and actually inhabiting the famous theater from The Muppet Show. But somehow seeing live Muppets here in Magic Kingdom, as opposed to Muppets in a film during Muppet*Vision, elicits more giddiness.) This is a concept that fans might not think they’d ever get the chance to experience unless they somehow wound up on the set of a Muppet movie or in the studio audience of a talk show during which a Muppet made an appearance. Great Moments was the first regular, live chance to see Muppets in this way. The rarity of any prior similar opportunity paired with the thrill of decades’ worth of anticipation for something like this made Great Moments something special.
If its existence itself was inherently euphoric, Great Moments gained even greater street cred by being a wonderful show –– well, actually, two shows. Two completely separate versions of the production shared different moments in history: one is the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the other, the fabled midnight ride of Paul Revere.
The Muppets have a longstanding connection with Disney, dating back to Jim Henson being in negotiations for his characters to become part of the Disney fold just prior to his death in 1990. The idea ultimately came to fruition in 2004. The script for Great Moments seems to be aware of this heritage, particularly in its borrowing of lines and concepts from the pre-show content of Muppet*Vision‘s pre-show content, at one point having Miss Piggy even reprise “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” Even in contrast to the otherwise period-specific architecture of Liberty Square, the characters feel at home among the other heroes of Magic Kingdom attractions. They’re part of the family, and here was a rare outlet in which they were presented as equals, as the stars of their own show in the world’s most popular theme park.
When Great Moments first opened, I posited in a WDW Radio article how the show helped the broader concept of Liberty Square existing as a space to bridge the fantasy realms of Magic Kingdom with a real-life application on the part of the Guest. Today I’d take that even one step further to say that the presence of the Muppets in this specific location helped ease political biases literally on the front porch of The Hall of Presidents, an attraction which feels increasingly tense with each successive election, no matter which side of the voting polls you sway. Despite whatever feelings we may have inside The Hall of Presidents as to who is or isn’t represented as the past and present leaders of our nation, the Muppets were right there outside to remind us of the joy found in our similarities as a collective American people, rather than the opinions that may divide us if we let them become our driver.
In this framework, the Muppets in this venue became the poster child of excellent use of intellectual property in an otherwise franchise-less area of a theme park. The inclusion of characters into existing park attractions or areas can be a controversial topic, though there is little arguing that the Muppets pulled it off here with flying colors. They aided the story already being told within Liberty Square rather than distracting from it. They celebrated the narrative already in progress rather than belittling it, all the while still completely staying true to who they were. They proved it was possible to maintain a franchise’s identity while still keeping the integrity of an existing space intact. (Take notes, World Showcase.)
In a strange twist of fate, Great Moments will forever have a somber anecdotal fact attached to it. In summer 2017, Disney dismissed Steve Whitmire, longtime performer of Kermit. While a Cast Member puppeteer operated Kermit day-to-day in Liberty Square, Whitmire still provided Kermit’s prerecorded voice track for the project, making this his final act as the iconic character that he performed for nearly 30 years. Bizarrely coincidental, the final performance of Jim Henson as Kermit also was for a Walt Disney World attraction. Henson performed Kermit for Muppet*Vision 3D, which opened in 1991, just a year after Henson’s death. It marked the last time Henson appeared on film as his alter ego frog. Walt Disney World inadvertently became a passing of the torch for Kermit performers, something that obviously wasn’t intentional, but peculiar to observe nonetheless.
Looking ahead, I choose to be optimistic about the Muppets’ future because theirs is one of the few franchises for which failure is never final. (Great Moments was certainly no failure –– it was superb atmospheric entertainment, though unfortunately its smaller-geared charm was also the very quality that probably made it “easy” to justify removing in a budget evaluation.) Even when the Muppets step away from one project, they just as quickly move on to the next. I mean, heck, Great Moments premiered less than a year after the explosive primetime failure of The Muppets, the self-titled ABC show that crashed on an openly public scale. And yet, Disney picked the characters right back up from the ground and greenlit this Liberty Square production almost immediately. That’s not typical Hollywood protocol for characters who have just burned so gloriously. The Muppets’ withstanding legacy and universal appeal seem to protect it from being lost in the shadows, and that’s worth pointing out.
The closure of Great Moments is undeniably sad –– I’d consider myself a diehard fan of the show, and I’m heartbroken. But its closure is not an indication of a dead franchise. It’s true that Disney may place more investment into some of its other acquired brands, like Marvel or Lucasfilm, but I don’t think that’s quite a fair barometer of success. Since the Muppet acquisition in 2004, there has seldom been a pause in production of Muppet content, spanning nearly every medium of Disney’s vast corporate conglomerate, from film to television to theme parks to cruise ships to digital platforms. The placement of a proper medium to next use the Muppets is a constant challenge, though the keyword here isn’t “challenge,” it’s “constant.” The Muppets are an evergreen presence, even if it’s not in a blockbuster function like its Disney franchise siblings.
Critics are quick to point out that Disney just canceled the in-development Muppets Live Another Day series created by Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, and Josh Gad for Disney+ (a project that was never even officially announced by the studio). Less celebrated is the fact that that the short-form, unscripted Disney+ series Muppets Now is very much still happening, or that the revival of Muppet Babies is thriving in its second season on Disney Junior, or that last year the Muppets hosted a live Muppet Show concert to sold-out crowds at the Hollywood Bowl. What’s more, by some miracle Muppet*Vision 3D survived the major expansion of Disney’s Hollywood Studios despite the fact that it now rests sandwiched between two Star Wars areas, a placement that surely would’ve been easy to point to as a case for its closure in an effort to make one larger Star Wars property. Would I hope that Disney would dream as big as possible for Kermit, Miss Piggy, and friends? Absolutely. But I’m also not going to concede to the popular opinion that Disney ignores the franchise, because that’s simply not true.
David Lightbody, former Disney Parks Live Entertainment Senior Vice President, was recently installed as Muppets Studios Vice President. The experience that his previous Disney role gives him could certainly be promising for future projects, coming from a stance of knowing the context of entertainment in theme parks. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility to think it might even lead to more Muppets in the parks in some capacity.
For all of these reasons and, if nothing else, because of the sheer joy that the Muppets exist to embody, I choose to believe we’ll see them again. I have to. They’ll always be here for us –– it’s who they are. Until then, I’ll enjoy the content we’ll undoubtedly continue to see them starring in, whether viewed on a small a screen like my phone or in a grand a showcase as a movie theater. As the Muppets step away from Liberty Square, and as we as an audience move on (sob uncontrollably), we remember this small show put on by frogs, pigs, bears, chickens, and whatevers, this master class in atmospheric entertainment that cemented itself as a great moment in Disney history.
To learn more about Blake and read his other posts on the WDW Radio Blog, visit his author page.
(All images from the personal collection of Blake Taylor.)