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A World of Their Own

Muppets in Disney Park Won't Mix With Mickey

October 23, 1998|E. SCOTT RECKARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When a Muppets 3-D movie invades Walt Disney Co.'s Anaheim theme park turf in 2001, don't expect Miss Piggy and Gonzo to hang out much with Mickey and his familiar gang.

Proprietary characters from Barney the dinosaur to Woody Woodpecker are guarded jealously by their owners. And in the case of Muppets owner Jim Henson Co., the conditions for their use can be extraordinary.

Does the idea of Kermit the Frog appearing with Snow White seem innocuous? To most people, perhaps, but not to the Henson company, Henson President Charlie Rifkin said in an interview Thursday.

"Each of our characters has a distinct personality and a separate story," Rifkin said. "In Kermit's universe, he's never met Snow White, so it would be out of character for their paths to cross in a theme park."

Muppet Vision 3D, which combines gags like flying cream pies with the "audio-animatronic" characters Disney pioneered, was the last project Jim Henson worked on before his unexpected death in 1990. It will become part of Disney's California Adventure, a new park opening in 2001.

For Henson, it continues an alliance with Disney that has been a happy one of late. The 3-D Muppet attraction has been at a Disney Florida park since 1991, the pair have teamed up on Disney Channel ventures, and Rifkin said he hopes they'll continue to work together.

Despite that strong relationship, Henson has carefully limited how its fellow purveyor of family fare can use its characters.

For starters, there is the placement of the 3-D attraction not in Disneyland but in the adjacent new park. With more adult-oriented themes, the new park will make far less use of traditional Disney characters, and therefore provide less chance for them to distract from Kermit and friends.

Muppet merchandise will be sold in the new park--but there will be few occasions with costumed Muppets characters on view, Rifkin said. The company shies away from having such characters appear even at events that are entirely its own, preferring to bring out actual puppets for the occasions.

And while Disney can advertise the Muppets attraction, it won't be able to use the characters independently to promote its parks, Disneyland President Paul Pressler said.

Restricting the Muppets to the new park also promises to add yet another dimension to the "nag factor" that contributes so much to Disney's success and is so well-known to parents at its parks. Youngsters can visit Mickey and Minnie's houses at Disneyland and have their picture taken there with Tigger. But to see the Muppets, families will have to cross the esplanade stretching between the parks and pay a separate admission to Disney's California Adventure.

Muppet Vision 3D has been a consistent favorite at Walt Disney World, Pressler said Thursday at a press briefing on the Muppet attraction. He said Disney considers it an "E ticket"--the cleverest and most expensive attractions back in the days when guests had to buy coupons for nearly every ride and attraction in Disneyland.

Barry Braverman, a senior Disney designer, said that as soon as the new park got the go-ahead, he knew the Muppets were one of the "jewel attractions" he wanted to import. That was particularly true, he said, because the Muppets' edgy, irreverent personas fit perfectly with the satiric, hipper tone Disney is attempting at Disney's California Adventure.

The companies have a long and mixed relationship. Disney had agreed to buy the Henson company before founder Jim Henson died unexpectedly in 1990. The deal collapsed in acrimony between Disney and Henson's heirs, but the 3-D movie wound up at the Disney-MGM Studios in Florida under a deal licensing the characters to Disney parks east of the Mississippi River.

When that deal ran out in 1996, Disney Chairman Michael Eisner not only wanted it extended but enthusiastically proposed to extend it to Southern California. As it now stands, Disney has licensed the Muppets indefinitely in the Southern California and Orlando, Fla., areas--the nation's top theme park markets--but not elsewhere.

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