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.
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...