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Disney is bringing Marvel's 'Guardians of the Galaxy' to Disney World... wait, can it do that?

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Published: June 9, 2014 at 2:27 PM

Disney announced today that it will promote the upcoming Marvel "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies at Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios. A 3D preview short, cut from the film, will play in the Captain EO theater in Disneyland's Tomorrowland and at the ABC Sound Studio in Disney's Hollywood Studios, starting July 4.

Guardians of the Galaxy

"Wait a minute," you say as a sharp-eyed Theme Park Insider. "I thought Disney didn't have the rights to use Marvel characters inside its Florida parks, since Universal Orlando owns the east-coast theme park rights to Marvel characters."

You are correct, but as with all things legal, the story lies in the details of the contract. So let's take a look at the Marvel/Universal deal, conveniently filed for all to read on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's website. Keep in mind that at the time of the deal, Universal's owner was MCA, Inc., so that's why it is listed as the other party in the contract.

Let's take a look at Section IV.B.1.a.1:

exclusivity shall be limited as follows:

i. East of The Mississippi - any other theme park is limited to using characters not currently being used by MCA at the time such other license is granted. [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.]

The TL;DR? As long as "Guardians of the Galaxy" and all of its characters do not include any character used at Universal Orlando, or any character in the same Marvel character family as any character used at Universal Orlando, Disney's okay to use them at Walt Disney World. But that doesn't mean Disney's completely clear. Skip to (iii), a few lines down:

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.

You'll notice that Disney's blog post announcing the preview never uses the word "Marvel." (It says, "From the studio that brought you “The Avengers”...") There's why.

Finally, the blog post mentioned that the preview will include special in-theater 4D effects at Disneyland, but there's no mention of such effects in the theater at DHS in Florida. Skip to IV.B.4.a.iii:

Within the ADI market of the city containing a Universal Theme Park (even to the extent such ADI exceeds a 60 mile radius) there shall not be a Marvel themed simulator ride.

That means no moving seats in the Orlando metro area.

Now, what's potentially interesting here is that the previous lines mentioned a Universal theme park with a Marvel land, but this section does not, mentioning only a "Universal theme park." Since there is a "Universal theme park" in the Los Angeles market (even though it doesn't have Marvel characters), might this section be eligible to be invoked to prohibit a Marvel "simulator" ride at Disneyland? I am not a lawyer, so, of course, I will defer to others' judgment here.

Anyway, theme park geeks are invited to read the whole contract and enjoy a better understanding of the Marvel/Universal theme park deal.

Readers' Opinions

From Anthony Murphy on June 9, 2014 at 6:37 PM
So Disney World can't have anybody from the Avengers. I get it, but what about Iron Man and Thor? If I am not mistaken, they are not at IOA and I seriously doubt that Marvel Superhero Island is going to get anything new.
From 97.103.235.212 on June 9, 2014 at 7:40 PM
Iron Man and Thor are definitely used in the artwork of the area in Marvel Superhero Island, therefore negating them from usage in any Disney theme park as per the terms of the contract. They are on the facade of Captain America Diner facing the Toon Lagoon entrance. Sad, but true. :(
From Robert Niles on June 9, 2014 at 7:42 PM
The use of Hulk at IOA precludes the use of any members of the Avengers character family at any theme park east of the Mississippi, including Iron Man and Thor. Storm takes everyone in X-Men off the table. Fantastic Four are out, too, thanks to the restaurant and character parade. Basically, that leaves Guardians of the Galaxy as the *only* Marvel characters not restricted by IOA's current use of characters.
From 166.147.121.151 on June 9, 2014 at 8:03 PM
Sorry for my ignorance about this but until when is the contract for the rights in the east coast of Marvel to Universal?
From Robert Niles on June 9, 2014 at 9:07 PM
The contract remains in perpetuity, unless Universal ceases making its payments to Marvel or closes Marvel Super Hero Island.
From grant crawford on June 10, 2014 at 1:51 AM
I wouldn't say the Guardians of the Galaxy are the only Marvel characters not covered, Marvel has a huge list of characters. Punisher, Daredevil, Ghost Rider and Doctor Strange would all (probably) be fair game for Disney, and they have the cinematic rights to those characters as well. Admittedly these characters are not high profile, but I wouldn't have said Iron Man or Thor were either until their big screen debuts. There are many other characters, and probably some teams that would be possible.

I wonder if we'll ever see Universal relinquishing the rights to Disney. I doubt there's a dollar figure that would ever do it, but possibly the useage of some other IP would offer Universal enough incentive. At the moment though I think Disney has enough other underused IP they could develop in their parks without using Marvel.

From Jaiden Cohen on June 10, 2014 at 4:32 AM
Will this play before captain eo? I really hope so.
From 38.97.98.194 on June 10, 2014 at 5:21 AM
Big Hero 6 characters should be at WDW in the fall. Though they originated as characters in a Marvel comic book, posters and teaser trailers have had a curious lack of Marvel branding. I'm wondering if that is to allow for a clean move into Disney's East of the Mississippi resort.
From Rob Pastor on June 10, 2014 at 6:32 AM
A lot of those characters posters are discussing were Avengers at one time or another. The Avengers line up has changed often & drastically since their inception in the 60's.
From Brian Bauer on June 10, 2014 at 7:05 AM
@Rob, there have been a LOT of members of the Avengers over the years. However, I think there is a specific list of characters that fall under each family. For instance, Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman and the Thing have all been Avengers but would most likely NOT be listed as such under any sort of contract like this. They would be part of the Fantastic Four family.
From Rob Pastor on June 10, 2014 at 7:49 AM
Brian: To expand, basically, my point was that most of the major, and many minor, characters in the Marvel Universe were members of one of those teams at one time or another and therefore cannot be used by Disney east of the Miss. since all three team's have a member represented somewhere on Marvel Island. I think we're really thinking the same on this subject.
From 71.201.21.20 on June 10, 2014 at 7:59 AM
Matt Murdoch's name may be posted on an office door or window at Islands of Adventure. Would such a simple mention preclude Daredevil from being used?
From Brian Bauer on June 10, 2014 at 8:11 AM
@Rob, but if there was no Fantastic Four presence at IOA, would the 3 characters I mentioned still be off limits? Some people seem to think "yes" because they were Avengers at one point. I think they would NOT be off limits because they are not categorizes as part of the Avengers family.
From Anon Mouse on June 10, 2014 at 8:17 AM
What I wonder is whether Universal can install additional Marvel characters, thus take them out of Disney's reach. Could it take Guardians of the Galaxy and turn into an attraction?

What if they removed the Toon section in IOA and expanded the Marvel section. It should be a easy fix to convert the existing rides to a Marvel theme. They have a stage that can host a Marvel show.

Disney is skirting on the edge of the licensing deal. It is quite a feat to not be in violation. Perhaps Universal should send a cease and desist letter and state that the compromise should be a screening at IOA at no cost to Disney.

From robert morris on June 10, 2014 at 8:35 AM
Disclaimer: I have an eight year old son who watches the Avengers on Disney XD

The Avengers on Disney XD did just do an episode involving the Guardians of the Galaxy both fighting Galactus...who also happens to be a villain in the Fantastic Four (also present at Marvel Island)

Does that open Disney up to violate the contract?

From Robert Niles on June 10, 2014 at 9:32 AM
That is a *great* question.
From Brian Bauer on June 10, 2014 at 9:42 AM
Up until recently, Iron Man was a member of the Guardians in the comic series. If that doesn't make the Guardians off limits, I don't think a guest appearance on the cartoon will.
From 74.62.206.129 on June 10, 2014 at 11:57 AM
On the mention of individual characters, the way I read the contract, Universal has to already be using the character, otherwise Marvel can license the use of that character to someone else, at which point nothing Universal does can revoke that contract (ie if Marvel/Disney licenses itself to use Guardians of the Galaxy in a Disney theme park, assuming not already restricted by the Universal agreement, then as long as that license is valid nothing Universal does would effect that). If Universal did add it at some point, it would prevent future new licensing of those character, but wouldn't effect the existing license.

One interesting note - while it does appear Disney is free to create attractions based on Marvel characters at will west of the Mississippi, Disney will not be able to use the word Marvel is association with any of those attractions as long as this agreement is in force (and if you look at the Disneyland website for Innoventions, you don't see the word Marvel used even once in the listed Marvel character associated items). Also, they would not be able to create a 'Marvel' land, at least not with the word Marvel in the name. This does not apply outside the US from what I can tell (ie assuming the worldwide provisions of the contract have expired, they can do anything including the use of the word Marvel at the International parks, just not in any of the US parks).

On the note of the simulator ride in the article, I don't believe that matters for the purpose of Disney doing the Guardians of the Galaxy preview within Disney World, as that applies specifically to the section of the contract specifying the use/non-use of characters/rides in a potential retail concept that Marvel was apparently considering called The Marvel Action Universe (or similar), and would have necessarily (by the definition of the contract) be a separate entity from another theme park. That entire section of the contract (4) wouldn't apply to what may or may not happen within Disneyland, as it is specific to this retail concept.

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