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Is Thor going to Disney World? (*Updated)

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Published: March 9, 2014 at 10:28 PM

We've heard that Disney has posted an audition notice for a theme park entertainment role playing the character Thor.

Thor at Disneyland
Thor at Disneyland in California. Photo courtesy Disney

At Disney's Hollywood Studios. That's right. In Florida.

[*Update: Now others are saying that while the audition was posted for DHS, the actual location of the character would be on the cruise line, where Disney does have the rights to use Marvel characters. Potentially interesting discussion and analysis follows, regardless.]

If you've been following Theme Park Insider for awhile, you might remember that Universal Orlando holds a perpetual license to the Florida theme park rights for the Marvel characters it features at Universal's Islands of Adventure. Universal made this deal with Marvel years before Disney bought the comic book company, and Disney's coveted those theme park rights ever since making that deal.

The Universal Orlando deal is why Disney's "Avengerail" monorail skin promoting the Avengers movie could not run on the Epcot line at the Walt Disney World Resort. That graphic included characters for which Universal holds the exclusive regional theme park rights, so it couldn't be shown inside any non-Universal theme park in the area. Since the Epcot line of the Disney monorail goes into that park, the Avengers graphic had to stay on the Seven Seas Lagoon monorail lines, instead.

So why would Disney be posting an audition notice to bring Thor to Disney's Hollywood Studios?

Disney's already featured Thor in a meet-and-greet in the Innoventions pavilion at Disneyland (see photo above), where Disney's also been promoting other Marvel characters. Universal let its deal for the Southern California theme park rights to Marvel characters expire before Disney bought the company, so Disney's clear to use the Marvel characters in its parks in Anaheim.

Maybe the Florida notice is just a mistake. Or, if not, here's a theory. It's been well-established that Universal retains the theme park rights to the Marvel characters it has been featuring in Islands of Adventure. However, Universal cannot add additional Marvel characters to that land without permission from Marvel — which means permission from Disney, which, one can reasonably presume, is not forthcoming.

That leaves the Marvel characters not featured in Islands of Adventure, including Thor, in a bit of limbo. Does Universal's contract prohibit their inclusion in any other area theme park? Or can Disney go ahead and use those characters at Walt Disney World without infringing Universal's deal? We haven't heard a straight answer from sources inside both Disney and Universal about that.

Perhaps that question remains in dispute. If Disney wanted to push that issue, a character meet-and-greet would be the least costly way to do that. Let's play game theory and look at the possible outcomes.

If Disney brings Thor to Hollywood Studios and Universal does not object, Disney's presumably free to bring other non-Universal Marvel characters to Disney World. If Universal does object, and the matter ends up in court, Disney could be liable for a financial judgment in Universal's favor, but that would be the only expense. Disney wouldn't also lose the expenses of developing and building a theme park attraction. The cost of duping a Disneyland Thor costume and paying a few cast members in entertainment to portray him are next to nothing on Disney's bottom line. But if a judge or jury rules in Disney's favor, again, it's free and clear to start bringing those non-Universal Marvel characters to Disney World.

Maybe Disney's decided to take that risk. Maybe Disney and Universal have an understanding on which company owns which theme park rights. Or maybe the whole thing's a mistake that soon will disappear. But we've heard that the audition notice was posted. And that would suggest that things are about to become quite interesting regarding the Marvel characters in Florida theme parks.

Readers' Opinions

From Json Son on March 9, 2014 at 11:36 PM
perhaps a marvel/Thor meet and greet in a resort/ downtown disney area. Is that possible?
From Kenny Vee on March 10, 2014 at 12:53 AM
They could technically have a meet & greet just outside the gates of the park, couldn't they? As big as Walt Disney World is, they would still probably get mostly paying guests in line for it, and it wouldn't technically be *inside* the park. Maybe they could have an AvengerBus instead of an Avengerail with a meet & greet on board.
From O T on March 10, 2014 at 1:51 AM
I think Disney just gave up on Disney Hollywood Studios. It only had 2 worthwhile rides (ToT and Rn'R) so that part will get a booth and will be a mini park for 25 bucks. The rest will have "theatres" with separate admission tickets (like Cirque at DWS) and restaurants and shops so technically it won't be a park anymore.
From Tom Rigg on March 10, 2014 at 3:36 AM
Thor is, in fact, present in IOA. Albeit in a limited way. There is a life size statue of Thor, the Chris Hemsworth version, in one of the stores there. While this obviously isn't an attraction, it makes me wonder how use for merchandising and use for attractions is divided up under the license agreement.
From Brian Bauer on March 10, 2014 at 7:12 AM
I don't see how they could hold a meet and greet in the parks. It's been said time and again that Universal holds the rights to all featured characters and their character families. Hulk and Thor are both part of the Avengers. Since Universal has a Hulk ride, it would make all Avengers characters off limits.
From Brian Emery on March 10, 2014 at 7:57 AM
All Disney has to do is have the Meet and greet with the name spelled differently. Just have Thore not Thor – Just like McDowell’s and McDonalds. (Coming to America Movie). “They have the golden arches, we have the golden arks…”

From Anon Mouse on March 10, 2014 at 8:12 AM
Perhaps this is a chess game like you said. Maybe they wanted Universal to sue. Universal risked getting their license restricted to only the characters featured in the rides. Or if they do nothing, Disney will be allowed greater latitude to add Marvel into their parks. Rights can only be asserted when the parties are willing to fight for it. Universal and Disney have big pockets, but they don't have unlimited budgets and time. At some point, they will just settle. Universal should counter with a Meet and Greet of the Thor character just to see if Disney will react. A good offense is a good defense.
From Tim Odom on March 10, 2014 at 8:49 AM
The understanding I got from the contract was that every character Universal uses and their respective families are off limits to Disney. Therefore, with Universal using Hulk (for the ride) and Captain America (character), the entire Avengers "family" is Universal's. Now, that is kinda a grey area, I don't think they really define what the term "family" means. If it means that because Universal uses the Hulk, that every single Avenger (and enemy of the Avengers) is owned by Universal, that pretty much rules out the Marvel Universe with 1 roller coaster.

So, I see a few scenarios:

1 - The "family" thing is just for the individual character (aka, since they use Hulk, Universal has the rights to every directly connected to him, like Betsy Ross and the like, but not the entire Avengers.) That might have had to been defined by lawyers and the like.

2 - There is some sort of deal that allows Disney to use the characters Universal cannot use (due to the limitations of the deal, any character they did not use by a certain date they cannot use, but they might have the rights for.) If the term "family" does mean every single character connected to the characters they use, then a deal on the side to allow DIsney to use a character Universal has the rights to would be needed. This could be for anything from additional money, to some sort of agreement about the merchandise, to even a small trade of properties.

It is interesting they went after Thor first and not Iron Man. Make me wonder if, as part of any sort of deal between Universal and Disney, if Universal did not get permission to add to Marvel Super-Hero Island (which they cannot do under the original terms of the deal) and add in a Iron Man attraction or something.

Regardless, this is interesting.

From 107.0.149.226 on March 10, 2014 at 9:39 AM
The following is from the contract between Universal and Marvel.

[For purpose of this subsection and subsection iv, a character is “being used by MCA” if (x) 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; and, (y) in addition, if such character or another character from the same “family” is an element in any MCA marketing during the previous year. Any character who is only used as a costume character will not be considered to be “being used by MCA” unless it appears as more than an incidental element in MCA’s marketing.]

Now, I'm not a lawyer, but it seems the "Family" thing is pretty clearly defined. There are some elements of the contract where Universal could lose rights to the characters if not properly maintained or marketed in a couple of years, but I'm not sure I understand this entirely. But, it is possible that Disney could be trying to leverage that aspect as well.

From Annette Forrest on March 10, 2014 at 11:03 AM
This is a VERY provocative move by Disney.

My father used to own a grocery store/video store/pizza place kind of combination business in the 70s and 80s. He had a little bit of everything in that place. And he did well for himself. Every now and again, someone would try to open something up similar to what he had going on, to test the waters and kind of get into it with him. If my dad didn't push back when challenged, then people knew it was fair game to come in and do whatever they wanted. He was like junkyard dog with his turf though.

It feels like Disney wants a legal case and that the way things are in the status quo was no longer acceptable to them. They want Universal to either sue or just accept Marvel characters in the Disney parks. This is an opening salvo.

I'm not a lawyer, but I've followed a lot of legal cases through the years. It doesn't seem like Disney could ever sue Universal to get access to the Thor and other characters so it looks like the only way this could go to court is if Disney did something to cause Universal to sue. The litigation would be like Disney buying a raffle ticket when it really can't lose whatever the outcome: (1) if it wins outright, then Disney gets to bring Thor and other Avengers characters like Captain America to WDW and Hollywood Studios gets to have a Superhero area; (2) if Disney loses, then at least it knows the parameters of the deal and maybe Universal starts thinking about the future in that it can't ever upgrade or build anything new in Superhero Island (so maybe it would want to have Disney buy that out at a huge cost); (3) a judge might rule that Disney can't build any new rides but it can have face characters or that it can build rides only for certain characters (which would mean that Guardians of the Galaxy and other lesser known Marvel properties might be in the cards for the future).

It's been a plot point in lots of different TV shows where someone wants to be sued because they don't like the status quo and a lawsuit would free up options. This just happened in the show I watch, where some big company in China wanted to be sued over currency rates or something complicated because if it got sued then the government would have to change some kind of interest rate or something, and that would end up in the long run being more beneficial to the company. So, it's like they were willing to take this minor hit today for a big pay day in a year or two.

I like when Disney gets provocative and shakes things up. This tells me that someone at the executive level wants to get aggressive...and Disney being aggressive is a wonderful thing.

It reminds me of all the subterfuge and tricky legal maneuvers that went into purchasing all the land to build WDW back in the 70s. Disney was so smart back then and was always five steps ahead of other people. I want THAT Disney back again.

From TH Creative on March 10, 2014 at 11:28 AM
Has anyone considered that Thor is a mythological character? Thus if the meet and greet has no theming or images that directly associate him with the Marvel version of Thor then the character would be considered public domain?

From Tim Odom on March 10, 2014 at 11:31 AM
If this is a legal gambit by Disney, then it might be a stupid one. If the contract is what everyone believes (aka, Universal owns the theme park rights to every character they use and every group/family/villain they are associated with), then Disney has no legal ground.

This could be a way to force the issue, make Universal come to the bargaining table when they have no reason to do so, but if Universal does sue, and does not want to settle, then this will just cost Disney money. It might be a way to bait Universal to bargain with them, but Universal still has no reason not to just see a court case all the way through. Why bargain, when you will just win in the end run?

From Ted Heumann on March 10, 2014 at 12:23 PM
First off. The argument that says "Hulk is a member of the Avengers, so therefore the Avengers are off limits" is SERIOUSLY flawed. The Avengers line up has varied WIDELY over the years. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Avengers_members
Also, WHICH Avengers are we talking about? The Next Avengers, the West Coast Avengers, Secret Avengers, etc, etc? Plus it looks like from 1963 to 2012, Hulk was NOT an Avenger. So this argument holds NO water. IF the contract includes "families" (which I seriously doubt), I would agree with an earlier post about those "families" being defined MUCH more narrowly.

Secondly, I disagree with Tim completely. Universal COULD pay the bad guy and not come to the negoting table, but I doubt that. It is in EVERYONE's best interest to come to some sort of agreement.

From TH Creative on March 10, 2014 at 12:54 PM
Um, hello? ... Thor ... Norse God from like a jillion years ago ... Public domain ... Anyone? ... Anyone? ... Bueller?
From Melanie Howe on March 10, 2014 at 12:59 PM
TH raises a very, very good point. Disney very well could use that fact as a justifiable answer to the "who has the rights to what" question.
From TH Creative on March 10, 2014 at 1:39 PM
I do have a point!

(Enter Rao in 5, 4, 3, 2 ...)

From Brian Bauer on March 10, 2014 at 1:40 PM
Someone on Disboards just posted that they saw a listing for Thor auditions taking place at DHS, but the actual job is for the cruise line.
From TH Creative on March 10, 2014 at 1:57 PM
Bauer kills it!
From Robert Niles on March 10, 2014 at 2:03 PM
TH brings up a VERY good point, though, one that also illustrates why Universal, etc. on occasion does films based on Snow White and other characters that are typically associated with Disney but remain in public domain.
From 173.209.207.219 on March 10, 2014 at 2:16 PM
What about Daredevil? I don't recall him being part of any family of characters. They could do Daredevil/Elektra/Kingpin to start.
From Brian Bauer on March 10, 2014 at 2:43 PM
This would explain why it takes so long for WDW to build/fix things. They're not allowed to have hammers in the park...[crickets chirping]
.
From TH Creative on March 10, 2014 at 3:01 PM
Bauer doesn't kill it.
From Anthony Murphy on March 10, 2014 at 4:16 PM
I don't know why Iron Man and Thor can't be at Disney World. They are never going to be at Universal.
From James Rao on March 10, 2014 at 7:45 PM
Sorry, TH, I've got nothing. I like the idea of Universal giving free advertising to Disney. It's like Burger King selling McDonald's fries. The current situation is so rich it should be a dessert.

Most importantly, I love IOA's Spider-Man attraction and I don't ever want to see it changed or removed.

From 24.114.64.91 on March 11, 2014 at 1:34 PM
There may be another hint... I have seen photos of DC comic's items at the Men in Black gift shop. Strange as Men in Black was published by Marvel and others, but not DC as far as I know. Is Universal getting ready to re-theme with Batman, Justice League and Superman? Not scientific, but curious.
From 76.21.214.135 on March 11, 2014 at 7:02 PM
No one has brought this up yet... I remember reading when this deal forest went through that marvel had the right in their contract to review admission records, and financial data, amd planning, that the general public wouldn't be able to see as part of the license. This was brought up when Disney bought marvel, and disney said that even though that exists they wouldn't exercise it. Then came Harry Potter...to my knowledge disney has never envoked that access because of the promise, but think about it. Comcast declares war on Disney, Disney made a promise and doesn't want to be the bad guy, so instead they sneak in Thor. Comcast/Universal says hold on mouse, we're going to court. Disney says bring it, Universal wins a small settlement. Disney then says oh by the way, we want to know what we're really up against...show us the books and plans...Universal says hell no! Disney says then the Avengers come home, and Universal is forces to put plans on hold while they scramble to retheme IOA...at the same time Disney announces what ever it is they have in store for The Studios. What better way to trip up the competition then to force them to slow down whole you catch up!
From Tim Odom on March 12, 2014 at 12:36 PM
About the Thor is a norse god idea: Of course he is, but Marvel's version of Thor is, well, specific. DC Comics has a version of Thor (along with Odin and Loki), so of course Disney could come up with another Thor design. Now, would it have the same commercial impact as Marvel's Thor? Probably not.

About Daredevil: Interesting one there, really. He can be somewhat associated with the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the Avengers, but it would be a stretch to put him with any of them in particular. And, Disney has the movie rights to Daredevil if I remember right, so this might be something to keep an eye on. But, and here is the issue, Daredevil is an extremely dark character when done right (like heroin addiction dark, really really dark stuff.) So, if Disney can do a good Daredevil film, and keep him relatively family friendly, he might be an option for an attraction at a Disney park. I would, however, bet against it.

About the Hulk being an Avenger: He was a founding Avenger, not just from the movie but from the comics. He very much *is* considered part of the Avenger 'family' (so much so that when the movie came out, he was there.) And, even if Disney could (somehow) successfully argue the Hulk should not be considered a member of the Avenger family, they also have a Captain America character in the park. Since the way the contract was written also extends to such characters, the Avengers are still off limits (even though, unlike Hulk, Captain America was not an original Avenger.)

This does highlight the problem with the idea of character 'families', as the Avengers pretty much encompass every Marvel character. By saying 'we own the Avengers', Universal can claim ownership over everyone from Captain America to Storm to Squirrel Girl. Seriously, membership in the Avengers has not been that exclusive. And, when you add in all of their villains...

If this does become a court case, I don't think Universal would be motivated to settle at the onset. If they have the law on their side, and have 2 outcomes here (either settle and gain some money, or win and gain a lot more money), I think it is clear where they would go. Universal is not hurting for cash, they could very well be willing to see a court case through till the end, especially if they believe they will win. I am not saying there is no deal that could be made to resolve this, on the contrary, I believe there are a number of things Disney could offer to Universal in exchange for characters Universal is not using. The question is, will Disney be willing to offer them, and if so, will that be enough for Universal?

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