Home » AVENGERS: CUSTODY WAR – How Disney & Universal Co-Parent Theme Park Heroes

AVENGERS: CUSTODY WAR – How Disney & Universal Co-Parent Theme Park Heroes

“Avengers… assemble?” Disney Imagineering fans wish it were that easy.

Forget Loki. Ultron. Thanos. When it comes to superheroes, one of the biggest battles of all time rages on with no end in sight… it’s the war between Disney and Universal, two powerhouse entertainment titans already engaged in a decades-long fight for Orlando, now embroiled in a custody battle over a teenager from Brooklyn… with web-slinging powers.

It’s one of the most unusual stories in theme park history – that Universal Orlando somehow acquired the rights to build attractions based on Marvel heroes, and that that pesky agreement remains in place even given Disney’s purchase of Marvel in 2009… But how, exactly, can Disney still not win back the theme park rights to their own $22 billion box office behemoth from their biggest competitors? What explains the slow drip of some Marvel heroes into Disney Parks, but not others? Will Walt Disney World ever open an immersive land dedicated to Wakanda, Asgard, or even an Avengers Campus?

Making Marvel

Technically, Marvel traces its roots back to 1939 when Martin Goodman created pulp-magazine publisher Timely Productions. Typically printed on cheap, wood pulp paper, the “pulps” (as opposed to the regal, shiny-paged “glossies”) were synonymous with low-quality, lurid, “spicy,” and sensational writing and recurring anthology characters like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon (whose pulpy sci-fi style would later shape Magic Kingdom’s New Tomorrowland 1994) and rugged adventurer Doc Savage (later called the forerunner to modern superheroes).

17-year old Stanley Leiber was indeed part of Timely Comics back in 1939… but he’d recall to the LA Times, “In those days [the artists] dipped the pen in ink, [so] I had to make sure the inkwells were filled. I went down and got them their lunch, I did proofreading, I erased the pencils from the finished pages for them.” All of that changed by 1961, when “Stan Lee” and iconic comic artist and innovator Jack Kirby co-created a superhero team called the Fantastic Four. The very next year, they co-created Marvel’s most well-known hero, Spider-Man. 

Together, the duo would go on to create Iron Man (1963), the X-Men and Magneto (1963), Dr. Strange (1963), Daredevil (1964), Hulk (1966), Black Panther (1966, the first Black comic book hero), and Thor (1967), all of whom occupied a somewhat intersecting, shared universe.

And unlike the comics that preceeded them, Lee imbued his heroes with adult problems; flaws; connections to pop culture and real world events. Though Jack Kirby would leave Marvel for rival DC Comics in 1970, Stan Lee would remain with Marvel, leading it from a small division of a national publisher into an entertainment media giant in its own right. 

Unfortunately, Marvel’s story wasn’t all wins. The 1990s were a particularly brutal time for comic books. After a steep rise in sales thanks to the emerging promise of collectability in 1990, Marvel was dealt a painful blow in 1992 when seven of its most prominent artists left en masse to form Image Comics. As the company’s finances sank through the ’90s, they sought out opportunities to leverage their catalogue of characters in new ways. Keep in mind, before the superhero boom to come, many of Marvel’s heroes were on the outskirts of pop culture, not dominating forces in media. 

So Marvel would famously enter into a host of licensing agreements, essentially renting out their backlog of characters to movie studios in (today, frustratingly) ironclad agreements in order to make some quick cash. It’s the reason for 1997’s Men in Black (through Universal), 1998’s Blade (via New Line), 1999’s X-Men (a Fox film), and 2002’s Spider-Man (a Sony Pictures release). But Marvel also saw an opportunity to increase its relevence and esteem by way of something big happening in Orlando…

A Marvelous opportunity

Marvel’s fall from grace couldn’t have happened at a better time for MCA Inc., then-long-time owners of Universal Studios. After the relative success of their Universal Studios Florida theme park in 1990, MCA was already hard at work developing ideas for a second park to be built on their Orlando property. And this time, MCA was eager to make in-roads toward Disney’s core audience with a new theme park concept they called Cartoon World.

Even from its earliest concepts, Cartoon World would be an unusual, new kind of theme park in that it would rely almost entirely on intellectual properties, and most of those IPs would be licensed by Universal, not owned. In fact, MCA was in negotiations with other studios and publishers in hopes of assembling an all-star catalogue of cartoon characters around which this new kind of park would take shape. In particular, early drafts of Cartoon World called for the park to feature themed lands dedicated to the works of Dr. Seuss and Jay Ward Productions (Rocky & Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right, George of the Jungle, and more).

But a unique agreement with Warner Bros. would also allow two lands based on DC Comics (a Superman-themed Metropolis and a Batman-themed Gotham City) and another based on the beloved Looney Tunes.

A few disagreements between MCA and Warner Bros. ultimately dashed the relationship (which is why both DC Comics and Looney Tunes made their way to Six Flags). Luckily for Universal, DC’s exit aligned with Marvel’s decline. Just as they happily licensed their catalogue of characters out to movie studios for film adaptations, Marvel executives were happy to license out their backlog of characters to replace DC’s in Universal’s second Orlando park. On March 22, 1994, a deal was struck. Universal would gain the rights to use Marvel’s catalogue in their new Floridian second gate. What were the rules governing their use of the characters? This is where things get interesting.

The Agreement

What did it take to secure the exclusive rights to use Marvel superheroes at Universal? Thanks to the U.S. S.E.C., we can find out. The actual agreement between MCA and Marvel is relatively brief, and surprisingly airtight. It reads:

As part of THE SECOND GATE, within a separate environment designated under the banner of THE MARVEL UNIVERSE (or similar designation approved by Marvel) MCA will construct a complex of attractions, stores and food venues heavily themed around the Marvel properties. Marvel hereby grants MCA a license to use Marvel’s characters for the purposes, on the terms and to the extent set forth herein.

Among the stipulations put forth by the agreement:

  • This Marvel-themed complex would be designed in coordination with Marvel, adhere to the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and Marvel Style Guide, and all major elements and themes would be subject to Marvel’s reasonable approval;

  • That Marvel would be a “significant focus” of marketing the new park, including “at least $100 million of fair value of advertising, publicity, brochures, joint promotions, or other marketing exposure relating to the second gate” for the first two years of operation; 20% of the value of marketing exposure in the subsequent five years; and a redacted annual dollar value of marketing thereafter;

  • That MCA would advertise their Marvel-themed land on the back page of various Marvel Comics.

Naturally, the agreement also includes a one-time payout from MCA to Marvel in exchange for the exclusive relationship as well as an ongoing, named annual fee for licensing, a minimum square footage of Marvel retail space (including at LAX and MCO), and annual guaranteed merchandise advance followed by a percentage cut of any Marvel products or any retail or dining products sold at premium pricing “from Marvel themed facilities or which carry Marvel logos or proprietary elements.”

What would MCA receive in exchange? This is where the spiderweb gets sticky… Read on… 

The Agreement (cont’d)

For relatively little, MCA (now Universal) had secured a major coup – the rights to include Marvel Comics characters in the new second gate it was developing for its expanding Florida property. What, exactly, was Universal granted? Pay especially careful attention here:

MCA […] shall have an option to utilize the Marvel characters in THE SECOND GATE of the Universal Theme Park (Orlando) and an exclusive world-wide option to utilize the Marvel characters in additional THE MARVEL UNIVERSES in any other Universal Theme Parks, which initial option must be exercised during the two year period beginning on the date of the opening of THE MARVEL UNIVERSE in the Universal Theme Park (Orlando).

Catching on? Beginning on the day that the first Marvel-themed land debuted (May 28, 1999), Universal had a two year option to construct further Marvel-themed attractions. Following that two year period’s expiration, Universal’s exclusive rights would change via either  “shrinkage” or “expansion” based on their behavior within the two year period.

In the event that Universal took no action to build further Marvel areas by May 2001, the “shrinkage” of its exclusivity would kick in. And of course, Universal did not build another Marvel area before the expiration of the two year window. That’s why, beginning in 2001 (and continuing today), Marvel is able to extend new licensing agreements with other theme parks… but is famously reigned in by these geographic provisions:

  1. East of The Mississippi River: Any other theme park is limited to using characters not currently being used by MCA at the time such other license is granted. […] A character is “being used by MCA” if it or another character of the same “family” (e.g., any member of THE FANTASTIC FOUR, THE AVENGERS or villains associated with a hero being used) is more than an incidental element of an attraction, is presented as a costumed character, or is more than an incidental element of the theming of a retail store or food facility […]

  2. West of the Mississippi River: Any other theme park may use any Marvel characters whether or not used by MCA.

  3. East or West of The Mississippi River (anywhere in the continental U.S.): Permitted uses shall be limited to the use of specific Marvel characters and Marvel may not permit a licensee to use the name “Marvel” as part of the attraction name or marketing.

Importantly, the agreement also grants MCA (now Universal) a number of essential exclusivity rights, including guarantees that another “Marvel Action Universe will not be within 60 miles of [Universal’s Islands of Adventure],” and no Marvel Action Universe “shall be in or marketed in conjunction with any themed entertainment areas owned, operated or marketed by Disney, Time-Warner, Six Flags, Sony, Paramount or [SeaWorld].”

How long would this licensing agreement last? Fortunately for Universal, the agreement spells that out very clearly:

Once THE MARVEL UNIVERSE opens […], the term of this agreement shall continue for so long as a THE MARVEL UNIVERSE shall remain open (and [operated and maintained in a first class manner consistent with the highest standards of the theme park industry]) at any Universal Theme Park.

On March 22, 1994, both MCA Chairman Ron Bension and Marvel CEO William Bevins signed on the dotted line. The deal granted Universal the rights described in perpetuity – that is, forever – so long as the land’s quality, marketing, retail, and licensing requirements were met. 

And that would cause a big problem for Disney… 

Marvel Super Hero Island

As we know, Universal opened just one “Marvel Action Universe” land – Marvel Super Hero Island at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, officially debuting in May 1999. Pre-dating the “superhero movie” craze (started in earnest by 2000’s X-Men), Super Hero Island brought Marvel to life from a now-blissfully-simple perspective: the comic books that inspired it all. In fact, the park’s urban “island” is designed to resemble an action-packed city… think “POW!” and “BAM!” 

Simple, 2-D representations of New York City skyscrapers are painted in color-changing, oversaturated hues; streetscapes are designed in exaggerated perspective; shops are labeled with simple signage like “SHOP,” “DINER,” and “ARCADE.”

As promised in MCA’s agreement with Marvel, the new park’s hero-themed land was marketed as one of the anchors of Islands of Adventure and even of the expanded Universal resort. That wasn’t at all difficult since it contained three of the park’s most celebrated attractions. 

First, the towering, roaring Incredible Hulk Coaster. A dominating, looping B&M centerpiece attraction beginning with a 150-foot long launch tunnel immediately twisting riders into a zero-G roll 110 feet over the island. After splashing through the park’s Great Sea, the coaster then races through its iconic cobra roll and vertical loop before disappearing behind the city skyline for a convoluted coaster ride.

Down a villanous “dark alley” stood Doctor Doom’s Fearfall.

But the land’s signature attraction – and perhaps the entire park’s – must have been the Modern Marvel: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. Utilizing a never-before-seen ride system (retroactively adopting its in-universe name, SCOOP), that dark ride alone put Universal Orlando on the map. In fact, Spider-Man transformed the second gate into a must-visit destination for industry fans, and single-handedly launched the 21st century era of increasingly-elaborate multimedia dark rides.

Even a decade after its opening, Spider-Man was widely regarded as the best modern dark ride on Earth. Which is why fans flew into a frenzy when, in one industry-changing announcement, it seemed as if Spider-Man might be squashed… or at least, swing his way down the street to Universal’s competition…

Marvel and the Mouse

By 2005 – spurred by the success of the X-Men film franchise – executives at Marvel Entertainment were beginning to regret their many licensing agreements of the ‘90s that had split up core characters like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four (to Sony), X-Men and Daredevil (to Fox), and Hulk (to Universal). To have better control of their own catalogue, then-head of film Avi Arad (and his second in command, Kevin Feige) created Marvel Studios. Feige quickly realized that Marvel still retained the rights to nearly all of the heroes who made up the core team of the Avengers…

In 2007, Kevin Feige was named the studio’s chief, bringing with him an ambitious plan… Feige aspired to create a “shared universe” of stories (common in comics; less so in film) where each member of the Avengers would feature in his own standalone film before uniting in a crossover mega-movie. After the success of 2008’s Iron Man, Paramount signed a deal that included worldwide distribution of Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Marvel’s The Avengers.

But then… in December 2009, the Walt Disney Company made a surprising announcement: the media giant had purchased Marvel outright to the tune of $4 billion – one of the largest acquisitions in the company’s history. While wildly unexpected, the acquisition was aligned with the strategy of Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger, who has likewise marked his legacy at Disney with acquisitions of Pixar ($7.3 billion), Lucasfilm ($4 billion), and 20th Century Fox ($71 billion).

It also provided Disney with a merchandise-friendly intellectual property to cater to the highly sought-after “boy” market. Could Marvel be a rival the Disney Princess line?

Disney quickly purchased back the distribution rights for Iron Man 3 and The Avengers from Paramount – the first step in an ambitious effort to earn back distribution rights for all Marvel characters (a pursuit that continues today!). A decade later… well… it won’t surprise you that the first three “phases” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe netted $22.5 billion from 23 films (yes, an average nearing a billion dollars each), cementing Marvel’s heroes as among the most lucrative of Disney’s countless billion dollar brands and making Kevin Feige’s Marvel Cinematic Universe one of the most successful franchises ever created.

And just as Disney’s purchase of Star Wars populated Disney Parks with seasonal celebrations, character meet-and-greets, and eventually the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge lands at Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, you’d probably expect Marvel’s heroes to infiltrate Disney’s theme parks just as heavily… But they didn’t. At least, not at first. And for some Disney Parks, maybe not ever. On the next page, we’ll dissect how – and who! – Disney is allowed to incorporate Marvel heroes into their parks… And what it might mean for Universal’s Islands of Adventure going foward.

Whose heroes?

Though Disney literally owns Marvel, they also inherited all the contracts and agreements Marvel entered into before Disney’s purchase. And just as Disney won’t have exclusive rights to create or distribute films featuring Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four until Sony’s pre-existing licensing agreements end, they must also abide by the agreement between Marvel and Universal from back in 1994. 

That’s why Disney has been surprisingly cautious in bringing one of the biggest intellectual properties of all time to its U.S. theme parks… 

  • For Disneyland – West of the Mississippi for all you geography buffs – Disney is subject to provisions (2) and (3) of the geographic limitations cited on the last page. In other words, Disneyland is clear to use any Marvel heroes, so long as the word “Marvel” is not used in conjunction with the attractions or their marketing… A trend fans quickly picked up on even when the resort only showed “sneak peek” extended trailers for Disney’s upcoming hero films in the resort’s 4D theaters, but always exorcising the word Marvel. 
  • For Walt Disney World, the agreement’s much more strict “East of the Mississippi” provisions are in effect, meaning that Universal’s agreement with Marvel prohibits the use of any characters already spoken for within Islands of Adventure, forbids any Marvel-themed land within 60 miles of Islands of Adventure, and, for good measure, does not allow any Marvel-themed land marketed in conjunction with Disney. Yikes…

In other words, there’s no pretty way to paint this for Disney Parks fans: Universal’s agreement with Marvel is in place, ironclad, and in effect in perpetuity. In fact, Universal’s primary custody of the Avengers, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four in theme parks is all but assured. Beginning in 2009, Disney essentially had two options: to continue to collect an annual licensing fee and retail cut from Universal’s Marvel Super Hero Island (not a bad deal!)… or to offer Universal a buy-out. Though unconfirmed, insiders allege that Universal was initially open to negotiating, and may have even offered Disney the opportunity to buy-out the contract and gain control of Marvel in theme parks.

Their asking price? Allegedly, no less than $1.5 billion – nearly half of what it cost to purchase Marvel in its entirety, and more than California Adventure’s 5-year rebuild.

Obviously, if Universal did offer a buy-out, Disney didn’t bite. And whether or not any such offer might still be on the table is unknown. It certainly appears that Universal will indeed retain the “shrinkage” licensing package as noted in the original agreement for as long as they want to keep using it. Yet, looking at Imagineering’s roster of upcoming park projects, it’s clear that Marvel heroes are not banned from Disney Parks. So what’s the truth? How is Disney managing to build attractions around the globe – and in Florida – that appear to undermine Universal’s licensing?

Naturally, it’s all about fine print baked into that initial 1994 agreement Marvel and Universal signed. 

It specifically notes that, even east of the Mississippi, Marvel can enter into other licensing agreements with theme parks as long as the end result is not a Marvel-themed land. And if the result is not a Marvel-themed land, the only limitation that comes into play is that the license cannot grant the use of characters already “being used by [Universal],” defined as:

[…] [That character] or another character of the same “family” (e.g., any member of THE FANTASTIC FOUR, THE AVENGERS or villains associated with a hero being used) is more than an incidental element of an attraction, is presented as a costumed character, or is more than an incidental element of the theming of a retail store or food facility.

So, the characters represented in Marvel Super Hero Island as “more than incidental” elements of attractions would be Spider-Man, Hulk, and Dr. Doom; of restaurants would be Captain America and Fantastic 4; of costumed characters would add Wolverine and Storm. But most damningly for Disney, the “families” associated with those characters would restrict Imagineering from using any heroes or villains of the Spider-Man mythos, any Avengers (Thor, Iron Man, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Black Panther), any member of the Fantastic Four, and any member of the X-Men…

So then… who?

Guardians of the Galaxy

Created by Stan Lee in the 1960s, the Guardians team has had an in-flux lineup since their initial appearance nearly sixty years ago, culminating in the modern roster set in 2008, including Gamora, Star Lord, Rocket Racoon, Drax the Destroyer, Groot, and Mantis. Still, the idea of turning the little-known ragtag hero team into a feature film seemed like Marvel’s biggest risk since Iron Man. Who could’ve foreseen that a group of relatively unknown characters would become a box office hit… again?

In July 2014 – just one month before the debut of Guardians of the Galaxy – the ABC Sound Studio at Disney’s Hollywood Studios began offering a 3D “sneak peek” of the film. While the “Marvel” logo was expunged from marketing and advertising, the mere existence of the extended movie trailer on Walt Disney World property seemed to denote that Disney had scoured Universal’s agreement and indeed determined that Guardians was not excluded from use in Walt Disney World. That was good news! But would Guardians be worth including in the parks?

When Guardians of the Galaxy premiered on August 1, 2014, the movie was about as much a “sleeper hit” as a big name Disney / Marvel production could be, surpassing expectations to earn over $770 million and enormous critical acclaim. 

Quite unlike the Marvel films that preceded it, the unique flavor of Guardians was largely a testament to the style of director James Gunn. Its soundtrack of ‘60s and ‘70s rock hits (Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling,” The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb,” The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” among others) and its uniquely self-referential humor went on to influence the music and mood of every Marvel movie since… 

Guardians of the Galaxy was instantly rocketed into the highest tiers of Marvel’s canon, becoming essential characters in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame as well as their own Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 and in-production Vol. 3. And that meant that suddenly, Disney had a Marvel property they could use in their parks without tip-toeing around existing agreements or an expensive buy-out of Universal; a way to incorporate characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe across Disney Parks… 

Disney’s California Avenger

Unsurprisingly, Disney acted fast to incorporate the irreverent musical hero team across the U.S. parks. What is somewhat surprising is the method they used to do it.

Given Disney World’s relative moratorium (or at least, much trickier rules) on incorporating Marvel, there was no question that Disneyland Resort would be the first U.S. home to a Marvel-themed ride. And of Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, fans sure hoped it would end up in the latter. Still, the $1.2 billion reconstruction effort meant to eject modern music and irreverent humor from Disney California Adventure seemed like a barrier. How would Disney fit modern, sci-fi superheroes into a park whose five-year reimagining that had carefully created new, beautiful, historic lands recalling California’s cities, boardwalks, forests, and wharfs?

The answer? Plow right through it.

Imagineers chose to topple the Lost Legend: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, eliminating one of the park’s few distinctly-Californian E-Tickets. (The other two, California Screamin’ and the Lost Legend: Soarin’ Over California would fall soon after.) Grafted with satelitte dishes and metallic spires, the art deco Hollywood Tower Hotel became the “warehouse prison power plant” of Taneleer Tivan, Benicio del Toro’s enigmatic “Collector” character briefly seen in the film.

The resulting Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! opened in 2017. It’s admittedly a stylistic and atmospheric outlier at the park (oddly looming over otherwise elegantly-themed, idealized Californian lands) even if the ride itself is a ton of fun. Fans will probably always debate the ride’s placement and arguably short-sighted shoehorning into California Adventure, but Disney’s argument was that it wouldn’t feel out of place for long. 

Three years after the ride’s opening, it was ret-conned into the new Avengers Campus land built near it. Utilizing Disney’s new favorite design aesthetic (adaptive re-use of warehouses), the land invites guests into a recruitment center made of reclaimed Stark manufacturing buildings where the next generation of heroes (that’s us) are invited to test out new technologies and hone our heroic skills. This first Marvel-themed land in the U.S. will (as per the Universal agreement!) never actually use the word Marvel. But it can use any of the Marvel heroes, even those currently in use at Islands of Adventure.

Radically different from Universal’s comic book metropolis, this more grounded land will, of course, be based on the Marvel Cinematic Universe versions of the characters rather than their cartoon counterparts. It’ll open with just one ride joining the Guardians of the Galaxy… Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure (a next-generation interactive dark ride). An anchoring E-Ticket Avengers ride has been announced to follow in a Phase II expansion, but will likely meet some resistance under new CEO Bob Chapek in light of the 2020 COVID-19 global pandemic and its breathtaking affect on the worldwide economy and tourism.

(An Avengers Campus is also taking shape at Disneyland Paris, as well as a “Stark Expo” corner of Hong Kong Disneyland’s Tomorrowland. Both are exempt from Universal’s licensing agreement due to the “shrinkage” clause, since Universal never built Marvel-themed lands in those countries.)

While Disneyland’s second gate may be Disney’s “California Avenger” – finally giving Disney free reign to incorporate Marvel characters however they want – it’s not alone. Despite the strict guidelines presented in Universal’s agreement with Marvel, superheroes are coming to Walt Disney World. 

Floridian foes

Just as Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! was making its debut in California, rumors began to swirl that a similar overlay may be destined for the original (and much more revered) version of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. (A proposition that seemed unthinkable, but of course, it had been at California Adventure, too.) The truth was, the heroes were en route to Disney World… but not at the Studio park. 

In July 2017, Disney officially announced the the Energy pavilion in Epcot’s Future World would fold, with the Lost Legend: Ellen’s Energy Adventure becoming Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind – a forward-backward story coaster carrying guests through time to the Big Bang… an appropriately “Epcot”-tinged experience, even if it’s likely to witness the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s fabled Infinity Stones than to actually learn about the origin of the universe.

How is it possible? Easy.

  • It’s not a Marvel-themed land or part of one;
  • it doesn’t use the word Marvel;
  • It doesn’t use any of the characters who are a “more than incidental” part of Islands of Adventure’s Super Hero Island or another character of the same “family.” 

So don’t expect an Avengers Campus, a Stark Expo, or a more ambitious land to make its way to Walt Disney World. EPCOT’s standalone Guardians experience will likely be the only Marvel attraction Walt Disney World offers… at least until Marvel’s next phase of films introduces another character that skirts Universal’s ownership.

So where does that leave us? On the last page, we’ll do some imagining about what the future could hold for Marvel Super Hero Island at Universal Orlando Resort… 

Back when the Disney and Marvel deal was struck, some Disney Parks fans gleefully imagined how Disney would quickly undo Marvel’s decades-old agreement with Universal, pull the blockbuster heroes into their own parks, and force Universal Orlando’s comic book metropolis to be replaced.

A decade later… Well… Piecing together the full story (and puzzling through the full Agreement signed back in 1994), we can come to the same conclusion that Universal and Disney seemingly have – that when it comes to Orlando, heroes like Spider-Man, Hulk, and Captain America have just one home: Universal’s Islands of Adventure

In other words, initial fears (or for Disney fans, fantasties) from 2009 of the heroes being dragged out of Universal Orlando by their capes turned out to be unfounded. The simple (and for Disney fans, unsatisfying) answer is that Universal Orlando can keep Spider-Man for as long as they like… And that seems likely to be a while. 

Still, scenarios dreamed up in fear back in 2009 aren’t entirely unfounded. Luckily for us, we don’t just have to wonder what an Islands of Adventure without Marvel might look like. We can see it for ourselves… just not in the U.S. These two Univesal parks “replaced” Marvel in ways we can learn from…

1) Universal Studios Singapore

Universal Studios Singapore opened in 2010. The first Universal park built post-Islands, the Singapore studios park established a new precedent for Universal parks going forward: fusing the “Universal Studios” model (including the name, “studio” arch entry, and movie-set-style lands dedicated to Hollywood and New York) with the “Islands” model (of IP-based lands situated around a central lagoon).

Despite mashing together a “Studio” and “Islands” concept, Singapore is quite different from any Universal park to come before… That’s because the “islands” it features are not the timeless, evergreen, literary lands of Orlando’s park, but overtly movie-based lands. In fact, a clockwise walk around the park carries guests through Madagascar, Far Far Away (from Shrek), The Lost World (from Jurassic Park), Ancient Egypt (from The Mummy), and Sci-Fi City. 

It’s Sci-Fi City that’s clearly Marvel’s spiritual successor here, even combining a dueling, launched coaster that cobra rolls over the central lagoon (albeit, themed to Battlestar Galactica) with a dark ride using Spider-Man’s iconic SCOOP-based ride system: the debut of TRANSFORMERS: The Ride (based on the high-earning Michael Bay action film series).

And by the way, given that Singapore’s park opened in 2010 – just one year after Disney’s purchase of Marvel – rumors suggested that a sort of secondary goal for TRANSFORMERS: The Ride was to have an attraction waiting in the wings in case Islands of Adventure’s Spider-Man ended up needing replaced. Since the development of TRANSFORMERS: The Ride predates any rumblings of Marvel’s change-of-hands, it’s unlikely that’s true. Even if it was true, the fact that Transformers opened at Universal Studios Florida in 2013 reinforces our belief that Spider-Man is here to stay.

2) Universal Studios Beijing

But Transformers did stick around as a natural stand-in for superheroes. See the recently-revealed Universal Studios Beijing, which will open with a similar mash-up of “Studio” and “Island” concepts, with an even more overt lean toward flavor-of-the-week properties: lands themed to Despicable MeHarry Potter, Jurassic World, Kung-Fu Panda, and… Transformers.

In fact, the Chinese park’s TRANSFORMERS: Metro Base land will literally feature TRANSFORMERS: The Ride (as a stand-in for Spider-Man) alongside an exact clone of the Incredible Hulk Coaster (painted metallic gray, of course), perhaps giving us our clearest picture yet of what might’ve happened to Marvel Super Hero Island had the heroes been axed. Turning the technicolor comic book cityscape into a dull, industrial downtown and swapping Spider-Man for Optimus Prime probably would’ve done the trick… even if it would’ve ruined the park’s timeless, literary foundation.


As it turns out, the “Custody War” between Disney and Universal isn’t exactly a world-ending, cataclysmic battle. In fact, both entertainment giants are backed into a proverbial corner, with neither fully able to use the Marvel heroes in their theme parks the way they’d probably like…

Universal, it turns out, stumbled into its relationship with Marvel at just the right time – after its early ’90s apex, but before its billion-dollar revitalization at the hands of Disney. The result is that Universal’s Islands of Adventure gets to feature one of Disney’s starring intellectual properties for as long as they don’t mind paying an annual licensing fee and a cut of merchandising profits to their own competitors. Their evergreen park of literary IPs predating today’s movie madness offers the timeless, technicolor, retro-nostalgic comic book versions of the heroes that permeate pop culture.

Disney, meanwhile, has figured out ways to incorporate their box office blockbusters in a new generation of attractions… even in Orlando! And as a result, Disney Parks offer the grounded, cinematic, pop culture phenomenon characters of today; the movie versions of heroes.

A not-so-uneasy stalemate positions both Disney and Universal to co-parent the superheroes we know and love. And at least for now, that seems to benefit guests of both…