Disney has purchased comic-book creators Marvel, giving it ownership of characters on which some of rival Universal's most popular attractions are based.
The $4 billion acquisition, which has sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry, means that Disney now owns the rights to iconic characters such as Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk. Although primarily aimed at growing Disney's appeal with teenage boys, the deal also creates opportunities for Disney's theme park division to create new attractions based on Marvel characters.
This has led to widespread speculation over the future of Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park in Florida, which features an entire "island" dedicated to Marvel's superhero characters. The park's two flagship rides - The Incredible Hulk rollercoaster and The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman - are both based on characters that are now owned by Disney.
The details of Universal's licensing deal with Marvel are not public. However, it is understood from filings Universal made with the US Securities and Exchange Commission that it retains the exclusive rights to utilise the Marvel characters in areas east of the Mississippi river for as long as its attractions are in operation. This is supported by Disney CEO Bob Iger's comments:
"Marvel characters have already proven to be strong in terms of theme park attraction and we believe there are a lot of opportunities around the world, not in every one of our parks because there are some existing agreements that we obviously have to honor, but in a number of places for us to use the Marvel characters to basically help us grow our theme park business and better entertain people."
Regardless of any contracts that are in place, the deal with give Universal a headache. Having a major part of one of its parks themed around characters owned by its biggest rival is difficult situation for the company. It is also means that developing new attractions for the island, or utilising new Marvel characters, is extremely unlikely.
The situation also represents a dilemma for Disney, should the company decide to develop attractions or even whole parks based on the Marvel universe in future.
For its part, Universal has insisted that the Disney-Marvel deal will not impact on Islands of Adventure, at least in the near future. Spokesman Tom Schroder claimed: "Marvel Super Hero Island at Universal’s Islands of Adventure and the Marvel characters are an important part of the Universal Orlando experience. They will remain so. Our agreement with Marvel stands for as long as we follow the terms of our existing contract and for as long as we want there to be a Marvel Super Hero Island."
Regardless of the terms of the deal, guests are unlikely to see any significant changes in Disney or Universal parks as a result of the Marvel deal for some years. In addition to the time required for Disney to absorb such as a major acquisition, any legal negotiations around theme park rights are likely to be protracted and costly.
Hollywood insider Nikki Finke gives an overview of the upcoming battle between Disney and Universal here.