A Rare Look at the (Never Built) Great Muppet Movie Ride

Published: August 23, 2023
Categories: Feature, Fun Stuff

There’s nothing better than seeing new, epic Muppet productions. But a close second is learning about what almost made it into production. There really is something special about seeing untethered pitches and development ideas for projects that never were. While it may be a little frustrating to feel denied of Muppet history, it’s still so cool learning about what we may have gotten to see or experience in another world.

One of the most legendary unmade Muppet projects is The Great Muppet Movie Ride – a proposed theme park attraction that would’ve debuted alongside Muppet*Vision 3D at Walt Disney World in 1991. In classic Muppet fashion, the attraction would’ve been a spoof of another Disney Parks destination: The Great Movie Ride. But instead of just seeing classic films reenacted, the Muppets would’ve given parkgoers a peek behind the curtain, complete with the utter chaos of the Muppets struggling to keep everything together.

Sadly, all we have of this ride are the stories and a couple of images. But we recently got in touch with one of the designers – Marcelo Vignali – who provided more of his designs, which we’d never seen before.

Vignali is an artist and production designer, whose design work you’ve seen in films like Mulan, Lilo and Stitch, Hotel Transylvania, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. He’s also done a lot of design work for Disney’s theme park attractions, including Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin.

Below you’ll find Vignali’s original artwork and stories in his own words for two segments of The Great Muppet Movie Ride as well as two proposed Muppet-themed eateries. These are proof that Muppet magic begins at the earliest stages of development, and designers like Vignali have nothing but love and respect for Jim Henson’s creations.

In 1990 I was working at Walt Disney Imagineering as a show designer, and I had the unique opportunity to work on the Muppet Movie Ride with Jim Henson. When Jim passed away suddenly, the entire project (Muppet Land) was shut down. My office mate at the time, legendary Imagineer Eric Robison, really liked this drawing… so I gave it to him. All these many years later he kindly mailed it back to me. Thank you Eric!

This was for our Pigs in Space sequence. I drew the image and had it transferred to an oversized blueprint, and then used gouache to paint the lasers and chalk to create a glow.

Great Gonzo’s Pizza Pandemonium Parlor

When Disney had partnered with Jim Henson in 1990, I was working with Imagineering. I had the privilege of working on the Muppet Studios (AKA Muppet Movieland) idea. I worked on the Muppet Movie Ride, Great Gonzo’s Pizza Pandemonium Parlor, and the Hard Luck Cafe… a play on the Hard Rock Cafe. Only, instead of rock and roll memorabilia, this fast food eatery would have Muppet memorabilia on the walls.

Back in those days there was no 3D software or AI… I was it. The architects brought me their plans for the space, the interior decorators would bring me their binder of swatches and polaroids of furniture and fixtures, and the writer would present to me the concept.. in some cases in a very entertaining pitch. And, the rest was up to me. I would flesh out the space and show them what this might look like. This was pre-internet, so there was no way to research some of these objects — I just had to wing it.

And, again, in my own immutable way, I would try to find a way to create vignettes of characters and situations so that anyone that looked at the image might get lost in their own imagination and transport themselves into the space.

The Hard Luck Cafe

After seeing THIS drawing, one of the writers relayed to me that Jim Henson really enjoyed my work and I was given a Muppet watch with Kermit’s face (one of my prized possessions to this day). Jim loved the way I drew his characters.

Although the Muppet Studios project dissolved upon the untimely death of Jim Henson in 1990, Jim did make it to this restaurant. If you look closely you may be able to spot Jim Henson himself; smiling in the background… surrounded by his wonderful characters.

The two images above are not designs created by Marcelo Vignali, but it felt incomplete to be discussing The Great Muppet Movie Ride and not include these plans for what would’ve been ride segments spoofing Frankenstein and Peter Pan. According to Vignali, these were illustrated by his colleague Joe Lanzisero.

Many, many thanks to Marcelo Vignali for generously sharing his work with us! If we can’t visit The Great Muppet Movie Ride in real life, you’ve given us the experience of imagining what it could’ve been like through your art and ideas.

Click here to keep your arms inside the vehicle on the ToughPigs forum!

by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com

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Written by Joe Hennes

Co-owner and Editor-in-Chief.
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