Disney vs. Universal over Marvel: The best theme park attraction you won’t see in the parks

Disney vs. Universal over Marvel: The best theme park attraction you won’t see in the parks

Guardians of the Galaxy, the tenth release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, hits theaters on Friday, August 1. Nearly a month before that, however, it’ll be stopping in at Anaheim’s Disneyland and Orlando’s Hollywood Studios for a special “sneak peek.”

Why does this matter? Beyond being a cogent attempt by Disney to actually start integrating the Marvel brand into its theme parks (you’d think that, after five years and $4 billion, the company would be doing something more than just temporary character meet-‘n-greets), it actually touches upon a giant, thorny, messy legal rivalry between Disney and Universal that greatly impacts both Floridian resorts.

 

The opening salvo: Universal and Marvel sitting in a tree…

When Universal made the decision in the mid-1990s to expand its one-park footprint in Orlando to a multi-park, multi-day resort, it desperately wanted some superheroes to help fill out all that new space. DC Comics – home of Batman, Superman, and the Justice League – was first on its list, but corporate owner Warner Bros. eventually opted to go with the company that is today known as Six Flags (not the most fortuitous of decisions in hindsight).

Next up was Marvel, whose ever-changing corporate owners were happy to sell the amusement/theme park rights to just about anybody (just as they had done with the company’s movie rights all throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, selling them for dirt-cheap and losing a bunch of money in the process).

Marvel Super Hero Island at Universal's Islands of Adventure.

Marvel Super Hero Island at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

As part of the fairly standard deal, Universal agreed to pay an annual royalty to Marvel Entertainment; in return, Marvel ceded exclusive themed attraction rights in three critical geographical locations: the western continental US, the eastern US (a 250-mile radius around Orlando, to be exact), and in Japan.

Why those three specific places? Because these were where Universal opted to deploy Marvel’s characters, in one form or another: Universal Studios Hollywood received the short-lived Marvel Mania restaurant (1998), which was supposed to be the first of an international chain, along with an even shorter-lived Ultimate Marvel stunt show (2003) and costumed characters that would walk the park; Islands of Adventure got one whole “island” dedicated to the superheroes (1999); and, finally, Universal Studios Japan picked just one of Marvel Super Hero Island’s rides, the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, to port over to its park (2004).

Marvel Mania restaurant at Univesral Studios Hollywood.

Yes, this was literally the best picture of Marvel Mania on the web, via TheStudioTour.

In early 2009, just six months before Disney would purchase Marvel Entertainment, USH opted to not extend its contract with Marvel, as the last of the superhero characters had left the park in 2007 – thereby paving the way for Disneyland to host its Avengers meet-‘n-greets. In Japan, meanwhile, Universal’s master licensing contract is good until sometime in the 2020s, giving USJ a roughly 20-year window of exclusivity.

And, finally, on the East Coast, where one entire land of Universal Orlando Resort is dedicated to Marvel’s intellectual property, the exclusivity rights are in perpetuity. That’s right – Universal has them forever, posing something of a problem for Walt Disney World Resort.

 

Disney strikes back – or, at least, tries to

But all problems have shortcuts around them, right?

As the May 2012 release of The Avengers neared, Disney was very keen on marketing what looked to be one of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters to the literally millions of guests that visit Disney World every summer. It also wanted to skirt the legal situation with Universal, so only a minor effort was instituted: decking out one of the resort’s monorails with a themed Avengers wrap.

The Avengers monorail at Walt Disney World Reosrt.

The Avengers’ monorail, near – but not in – Magic Kingdom, via WDWMagic.

Universal, however, wasn’t very happy with the proposal, as minor as it was, and a series of very “intense” phone calls between the two corporations’ legal departments ensued. Ultimately, a compromise was worked out: Disney would be allowed to advertise the Marvel movie only on those monorail lines that stayed completely outside of the theme parks. Thus, the Magic Kingdom loop – which hits several deluxe hotels before dropping passengers off at the park’s front door – would be admissible; the Epcot line, which (famously) cuts past Spaceship Earth before disgorging guests, would be strictly forbidden.

The Avengers train debuted just a little over a month before the film came out, and the wrap was retired nearly ten months later, in January 2013. The enterprise, no matter its legal dramas and limited usability, must’ve proven beneficial, as Disney repeated the same exact marketing exercise for Iron Man 3 during the summer of ’13. (And both must’ve worked wonders, as their respective films each grossed over $1 billion worldwide.)

The effort to market each summer’s Marvel blockbuster was now officially in full swing.

 

Can we get back to Guardians of the Galaxy already?

Slapping several Marvel characters onto a monorail is one thing – showing footage from the actual films is another entirely. How can Disney brazenly get away with such a blatant legal incursion?

Robert Niles from Theme Park Insider wanted to know himself, so he did some digging, going through the actual contract on the US Securities and Exchange Commission website. What he found are three amazingly specific legal loopholes that allow Disney to get away with its special sneak peek:

Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy.

They’re here to save the galaxy.

One character = one park

The first hurdle that Disney has to overcome? It can’t utilize any of the characters that are already in use over at Universal Orlando Resort.

And while this may seem rather straightforward enough, there’s a corollary here that’s a bit trickier: any of the characters that Disney wants to use can’t even be in the same family of characters – which means that if Disney wanted to parade Chamber (a favorite of mine as a wee lad), originally from the X-Men spinoff comic Generation X before eventually graduating to the X-Men proper, it wouldn’t be able to, since he’s on the same team as Storm, Rogue, Wolverine, and other characters currently in use at Islands of Adventure.

(Best of all, even if Disney could find characters who clear these hurdles, it still wouldn’t be able to use them if Universal had featured them in advertising during the previous year. Talk about restrictions!)

Marvelously absent

Disney can’t ever use the name Marvel in its attractions or, even, in its advertising of its in-park experiences. This is why, as Robert points out, Disney’s recent blog post says “From the studio that brought you The Avengers” instead of simply saying “From Marvel.”

No competition with Spidey

The contract between Marvel and Universal specifically states that, for those geographical areas that contain an Universal theme park, no “Marvel-themed simulator rides” will be permitted – presumably because of the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man attraction at both Orlando and Osaka. This once again explains some of the details from the Disney announcement, which notes that the Disneyland preview of Guardians will feature 4D effects (think Shrek 4D‘s vibrating seats, enhanced lighting effects, and water spritzers) to accompany its 3D film footage, but the Hollywood Studios version will not.

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal's Islands of Adventure.

Don’t tread on me, bro.

The Guardians of the Galaxy sneak preview begins July 4 at Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios. It will only be available for a limited time.

To read more about Universal or Disney, please see our OI Blog archive. Or you can chat about the two companies with like-minded theme park enthusiasts in the OI Community Forums.

 

About the author

Marc N. Kleinhenz’s first dream in life was to be an astronaut. His second was an Imagineer. While neither completely worked out, he now writes books, flash fiction, and articles for 26 sites and counting (including IGN, The Escapist, and The Huffington Post). He’s co-created two podcasts and has even taught English in Japan. Imagineering school won’t be too far behind.
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16 comments
Chuck G
Chuck G

Great article...this answered so many questions I had regarding the future of Marvel in IOA.

LegalBeagle
LegalBeagle

Actually, both Disney and Universal are really happy about the current situation with the Marvel rights.

Disney gets 100% of the profits from Marvel merchandise sold at Universal, plus a portion of ticket sales. That's where the really money is. It's Universal's responsibility to maintain the park, which is a huge operating expense that Disney doesn't have to deal with.

Universal, on the other hand, gets free advertising for characters in their park with every movie Disney releases.

Having Marvel rights wouldn't bring much more people to Disney than they already do, because most who come to Universal from out of state go to Disney as well, but not much who come to Disney go to Universal.

Also, Disney has taken an interest in keeping their brand looking good - Did you know that Disney costuming are the ones who designed the newer Marvel costumes at Universal? Or that Walt Disney Animation did character models for the new ride video for the Spider-Man ride?

I don't expect that situation to change for a long time.

Shmoo
Shmoo

Great article. However, one thing I never see addressed: can UNIVERSAL make Marvel attractions and, if so, why have they not gone nuts exploiting this? As in, double the size of the island or develop a third gate dedicated to Marvel?

Let Disney pitch the movies, get people excited and then come to Universal.

Jorge X. Arnoldson
Jorge X. Arnoldson

The only things Disney can successfully pull off with Marvel are movies. In the theme park world, Universal does it best. Disney shouldn't have bought Marvel in the first place!

Emma Evans
Emma Evans

I do think Disney need to stay away from Marvel its not the same, you just don't connect the two. Universal does an amazing job, the Marvel area is one of my favorites and actually feels like you are in a comic! Disney just couldn't pull that off.

Angel Nicole
Angel Nicole

Honestly, I always saw Marvel paired better with Universal. Just saying. Disney shouldn't have the rights to everything. It just becomes a monopoly.

Rachel Mulieri
Rachel Mulieri

I am glad Universal has the MArvel characters.It already sticks in my craw to see Darth Vader Goofy and jedi mickey

Jon Mose Lewis
Jon Mose Lewis

And they'd just sit on the property and probably do nothing with it. I saw the Thor M&G at Disneyland and it was kind of neat, but they have so much potential to do more.

AndreaBoren
AndreaBoren

This really is an awesome article. I'm glad IOA has kept the rights for Marvel Super Hero Island.. I would hate to see it changed or removed.

Stuart Nielsen
Stuart Nielsen

Excellent article Marc. It explains a lot that I didn't previously know. Give yourself three cowbells.

OrlandoInformer.com
OrlandoInformer.com

Ryan Cook - They could if they wanted to pay enough to buy Universal out of the current contact. I wouldn't really call it bull, I'd call it more like contract law.

Landon Tombstone Taylor
Landon Tombstone Taylor

One of the reasons why Universal is my favorite park is because they have the Marvel Theme. Don't know how, if ever, this will be resolved. But I would prefer for Universal to keep that license.

TheNameIsCasie
TheNameIsCasie

What a GREAT article, Marc!  I've always wondered exactly how this all works.

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