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The Agreement (cont’d)

Image: Marvel / Universal

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.

Image: Marvel / Universal

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

Image: Orlando Informer

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."

Image: Orlando Informer

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.

Image: Universal / Marvel

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.

Image: Universal / Marvel

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

Image: Marvel

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...

Image: Marvel

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).

Image: Marvel / Disney

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.

Image: Marvel / Disney

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.

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