When and where should Disney set its Marvel land?

September 18, 2018, 4:40 PM · Marvel dropped its first trailer for Captain Marvel this morning, so let's use that as an excuse to talk more about Disney's theme park plans for the brand.

Let's recap: Disney is building a new Marvel-themed land at Disney California Adventure, on the site of the former A Bug's Land. The company lacks the legal rights to use the Marvel name and core Avengers, X-Men, and Fantastic Four characters at Walt Disney World in Florida (since they are at Universal's Islands of Adventure), but Disney is building a one-off Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster in the old Universe of Energy pavilion at Epcot to get some Marvel presence at its largest resort. Hong Kong Disneyland has a Marvel land under development as a rebrand and expansion of its Tomorrowland, having already opened a Star Tours-like Iron Man ride. Disney is re-theming Rock n' Roller Coaster to the Avengers at Walt Disney Studios Paris. Everyone expects Disney to build a Marvel-themed land in Shanghai at some point. But the same Universal deal that keeps Marvel out of Disney World also restricts Disney's use of the franchise in Tokyo, due to the Spider-Man ride at Universal Studios Japan.

So, for now, the first chance that theme park fans will get to experience a fully-realized Marvel land at a Disney theme park will come at California Adventure in 2020. That gives us a couple years to imagine what that land might look like. (Or, at least a few months until firm plans start leaking.) Among the questions: where, and when, will the land be set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

The very best theme park lands transport visitors to a convincing and engaging time and place. They stand upon the world building of the artists who created the stories that inspire the land. The better the creator did in crafting a convincing and engaging setting for their stories, the better start the park will have in designing the land.

Here's my potentially unpopular opinion: Marvel has done a pretty sloppy job with its world building. And that, in turn, leaves Disney's Imagineers with a tougher job in creating an engaging Marvel land.

Granted, it's hard to maintain cohesive world building when your character universe is developed by a loose committee of artists developing separate characters — over decades — that only later will you retcon into existing in a common story space. If you want a truly robust world building, there needs to be someone in charge of that vision. Take, for example, the superhero universe that Brad Bird created for The Incredibles. Now that is a superhero universe I want to visit! (And no, Disney, the Incredicoaster doesn't satisfy that.)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe works in part because Kevin Feige oversees the character arcs among the many franchises playing within that universe. But for as well as Feige and his team has kept the MCU dominating on screen, the universe offers way too many diverse settings to wrangle into cohesive world building. With Marvel, setting usually flows from story. In franchises that lend themselves well to theme park lands, it's the other way around.

Harry Potter is not a superhero who drives the narrative in J.K. Rowling's books. The Wizarding World drives that story, and Harry's largely along for the ride. Lightning McQueen's story is driven by his time in Radiator Springs. Heck, even DC Comics does a better job with world building than Marvel. Batman is as much about Bruce Wayne's struggle with Gotham and the monsters it has created as it is anything Wayne is bringing to the table on his own.

All of this helps to make Hogsmeade, Radiator Springs, and Gotham places that fans of those franchises dream of visiting. For Marvel? Sure, fans want to meet and spend time with the imprint's characters, but where they do that really doesn't seem to matter all that much, does it? Beyond visiting Thor's Asgard and Black Panther's Wakanda (the latter especially would make an amazing theme park land), most of Marvel's action takes place in rather generic urban environments. But those boring cities are the places many of us leave to escape on vacation.

Hey, I would love if Disney laid the final blows to DCA's California theme and built us a Wakanda in the middle of that park. But given that Imagineers already have said that the neighboring Guardians of the Galaxy tower will be included in the land, it's pretty much a given that Wakanda is off the table.

But are Disneyland visitors to be left with the type of generic urban environment that Disney seems to be developing in Hong Kong? With Star Wars, Disney's Imagineers addressed the challenge of dealing with a sprawling universe of diverse settings by ignoring them all and creating a new world of their Star Wars lands — Black Spire Outpost at Galaxy's Edge.

Might they do something similar for Marvel? Granted, Disney can't even use the name "Marvel" for its "superhero-themed land." But that should not keep Disney from trying to create a physical space that is as engaging and compelling as the superheros who will inhabit it.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe did not exist when Universal's designers created Marvel Super Hero Island for Islands of Adventure in the late 1990s. Those characters existed primarily on comic book pages then, so Universal designed a land to evoke the two-dimensional look of those pages. Though the land set a high standard for the time, Marvel fans have a right to expect something better 20 years down the line.

Marvel is the biggest entertainment franchise in the world, with income surpassing Potter and Star Wars. It ought to have a theme park land equal to, if not better than, those franchises. But to do that, Disney's Imagineers will need to address one of the greatest creative challenges in their history — to imagine and develop a world as super as Marvel's heroes.

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Replies (22)

September 18, 2018 at 6:18 PM

One speculative report I read stated something like "California science campus where new discoveries and technology are demonstrated and utilized". Sounded like they wanted to create an excuse for high end casual restaurant and a bar/grill hangout. I don't have high hopes right now. The attractions will be the focus and the land, well, it could be anywhere.

September 18, 2018 at 7:33 PM

There’s potential if the narrative can be threaded with the different Marvel characters. Thor’s Asgard, Ant-Man and Dr Strange in San Francisco, Tony Stark’s Malibu Mansion, Avengers HQ in New York, Vision and Scarlet Witch in Eastern Europe, Black Widow in Russia, Captain America in Washington. I just don’t know if this is necessary. What’s tying everything together is Thanos and this narrative might be over in the sequel. Harry Potter is a complete story. Marvel isn’t. So maybe the fallback is Iron Man or Captain America or Spider-Man. Yeah, Spiderman had to be the glue as it’s most popular character. See the underbelly of the criminals in the big city. Maybe the time is past to say Journalists, the Police, and the Government are exemplary public servants. The superheroes are unpaid mercenaries.

September 18, 2018 at 8:15 PM

I'm not sure what Disney has up their sleeves, but given the relatively short time frame for this, I'm not expecting anything Earth shattering. I think they should keep the time frame in the story nebulous, but sometime around Infinity Wars (when all the characters are together). I think they should basically set it in a New Avengers facility (or SHIELD outpost) that feels sleek and modern, but also have some nice green spaces (to evoke the look of the upstate New York base shown in the movies). Kind of like a mashup of Future World and Tomorrowland. I think what would really make it special is if they had some fun interactive gimmick (like the Harry Potter wands) that you could use to play a game around the area. I bought my son (who's 4) the Avengers Playmation set with the Iron Man repulsors and it would be amazing to see that scaled up and implemented into a theme park.

While I think themed lands are great, I really hope that the future of Disney and Universal isn't nothing but IP driven lands. The hype surrounding them is unreal. I feel like what is happening to theme parks is sort of what is happening with the video game industry. For $60, you rarely get the full game anymore. Everything is fed to you piecemeal in the form of DLC. By the time you've seen it all, it's nowhere near that original sticker price (For example, Injustice 2 was $100 after all the character packs).

Universal is the king of this practice. Hogsmeade should have been completely new instead of rehashing Dragon's Challenge and the Flying Unicorn. Volcano Bay should have been built to a sufficient size to handle the demand/virtual queue. Jurassic Park is another clear example of an incomplete land that got the budget axe.

Look, I love new stuff just as much as the next guy...but I'm just not in a rush to see it....especially now that I expect that they're going to add something new later on and leave me waiting in hours long lines for an incomplete experience.

September 18, 2018 at 9:14 PM

Enough, enough of the superhero movies! And dont Six Flags and Universal have superhero ride and lands. When I think of super heros at theme parks it conjurs up memories of steel coasters and other nausiating rides, cheap and discombobulated themeing, and charcters I probably never heard of. Very dissapointing to learn want Disney is building more Marvel themeing and rides.

September 19, 2018 at 3:19 AM

Honesty I see no problem for Disney parks and Marvel land...Universal Studios Islands of Adventure already shows it can be done and exactly how to do it...Disney just needs to do the same but bigger and better...All Disney needs to worry about is making sure all these MCU tv series,films,etc stay entertaining and money making over the next 20 or more so years...Now for the love of God bring me a Ghost Rider themed rollercoaster!!!

September 19, 2018 at 6:52 AM

The MCU is set in our real world. The other franchises you mentioned take place in fictional worlds (DC Comics; Star Wars) or vast fictional places hidden in our real world (Wizarding World). The creative world building opportunities in the MCU have been the hidden fictional ones like Wakanda and Asgard, which you mentioned. I wouldn’t say Marvel has done a sloppy job with world building, it’s just that the much of the stories take place in our world versus a fictional world. In some cases, it makes the stories feel more relatable and realistic. For example, I live in Brooklyn where Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) grew up. There is a large bronze statue of him downtown and every time I see it, I feel like it’s “real”.

I’d love to see an immersive Wakanda themed land in Animal Kingdom centered around fictional, nature-inspired technology.

A Stark Expo could be great in one area of EPCOTs Future World with commitment from real world brands to showcase their labs and innovative technology. Tesla, Apple, GE, Uber, etc., assuming they will keep it freshly updated at all times. Cool opportunity to have real companies immersed into the MCU since the MCU is based in our world.

After the X-Men are incorporated into the MCU and Disney solves the legal issues, I can imagine them creating a home at Hollywood Studios. Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters could be the facade and building for multiple interactive experiences along with an eticket in a nearby show building. Along the lines of the Animation building in California Adventure, with the addition of an eticket attraction connected via indoor queue/tunnel.

September 19, 2018 at 7:43 AM

They started out with a bang with the unique, high quality Iron Man ride. Followed with a make-over of an amazing ride that now looks more stunningly like drainpipe city and an amazing show in Epcot that is worth the entrance fee and then some. I can't wait for the coaster in the box ride and I'm sure we have a template for the quality that is to come.

September 19, 2018 at 12:09 PM

Yeah, I've been scratching my head about the wisdom in this Marvel land for a while, though I never found the themeing of Universal Orlandos very compelling either. Like M M said, most of these Marvel stories are supposed to take place in our actual world, making the environments uncompelling. I have no interest in visiting Tony Stark's home, I've visited people's expensive homes before, nor do I have any interest in visiting Peter Parker's home in NYC. And on top of that I have no interest in visiting the Avenger's tower... yay, a sterile office environment, how exciting! These stories are about the heros and characters doing extraordinary things in a non extraordinary world. I think the fact that the premise of the Guardians ride in DCA is that the collector brought his collection to DCA says it all.

September 19, 2018 at 2:07 PM

I think New York is anything but architecturally bland. There are so many amazing buildings there it would take years to see them all.

Anyone who thinks New York is bland has never lifted their eyes from their phones and looked around.

And yes, I think New York is the obvious choice for a Marvel land.

September 19, 2018 at 2:34 PM

The obvious point in time would be to set Marvel Land when the MCU was at its most successful: a week before James Gunn’s firing.

September 19, 2018 at 3:51 PM

An MCU land is still do-able but as mentioned before the only interesting location that would be cool to see would in my opinion be Wakanda or Asgard. Those places could actually form an interesting and immersive environment much like the Harry Potter lands. As AngryDuck mentioned I have little interest in seeing a mansion (yawn) or an office building with the Avengers logo on it. That's fine for a queue of a ride but not a "land".

September 19, 2018 at 4:29 PM

Like those above, I'd agree that the appeal of Marvel is built around the fantastic intruding on the every day - as if to say to readers, "this could be you!" - and that's largely reflected in the choice of environments. It's part of the brand DNA.

So I too suspect we'll see some kind of training facility narrative (that obviously goes terribly wrong) a la Men In Black. Not only does it give them flexibility if they want to swap out the current Avengers crop with their successors, but it can also be made to keep vaguely to the "California Adventure" parameters. I wonder in fact if explicitly setting the land in the theme park is the most logical extension of this.

(And I guess in that scenario, Mission Breakout maybe narratively works like Hester & Chester's Dinorama? The Collector has seen a passing superhero tourist trade to get in on and set up a sideshow of sorts.)

Ultimately, it'll come down to the Butterbeer Principle: "what environment can we create that'll make people wanna buy stuff?" But I don't see that there's anything in the MCU that would drive that kind of spending other than giving people the opportunity to feel like a superhero. Can they significantly achieve that in such a tight turnaround?

September 19, 2018 at 5:24 PM

Marvel Land will not succeed or fail based on the physical environment, but rather based on the atmosphere of the area. Unlike other IPs that have been made into full lands recently (Avatar, Cars, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Toy Story), Marvel is all about the characters and very little about where events take place. The land could be Wakanda, or it could be a generic city, and either way it could wind up being anything from spectacular to mediocre. The key is that it needs to feel like a world populated by superheroes, with enough references to the MCU that guests realize where they are. Ideally, there should be characters from the films out and about at all times, and at least a couple significant landmarks from the films (or similar structures to them) should appear within the land. The rest of it is fairly inconsequential.

As for when, the best option there is to make the timing ambiguous, but approximately the same timeframe as the films. Supposedly every Marvel element in the parks is supposed to be canon within the MCU, so they need a land that is adaptable to film events yet doesn't neglect the popularity of what came before. It's going to be interesting to see what Disney comes up with.

September 19, 2018 at 5:59 PM

I just want to say that the end of "Ant Man" SERIOUSLY gave me "Adventures through Inner Space" flashbacks and hopes--shrinking, shrinking, shrinking. . .

How cool would an updated (and Ant-Man-ified) version of Inner Space be? It could even be a roller coaster.

September 19, 2018 at 10:42 PM

This is kinda exciting isn't it?
When has two opposing theme parks, built lands based on the same property?
I'm really excited to see what Disney does in comparison to Universal.

September 20, 2018 at 4:26 AM

Now that they've created this massive Guardians building, the only way this will kinda work is if they turn this into Marvelcot. There's actually two ways they can do this:

1) Just build some New York streets and line them with the famous buildings needed: The Daily Bugle for Spider-Man, The Avengers Tower, the Sanctum Sanctorum, etc. Characters that don't have established New York homes can be put into buildings that work for them, like the UN Headquarters could be for Black Panther. The theming would be inside the pavilions. The Avengers could be like The Land pavilion and be multilevel and hide several attractions behind it. It also wouldn't hurt to get people indoors in this SHADE-FREE park!

2) The more Disney-like solution (cheap, easy and one they could drag out for a couple decades) would be to recreate the Stark Expo, but this time it's about superheroes and not a placeholder for third-act chaos and destruction. This actually fits in with the plotline of Civil War; Stark could be resurrecting the Expo to show humans that the superheroes are forces for good, even though they make mistakes. This method would actually make the Guardians tower fit in better. And when the land eventually takes over Hollywoodland, it wouldn't require as many buildings as a New York theme would, and the weird layout would make more sense.

September 20, 2018 at 9:17 AM

I think AJ hit on an important point here. The MCU is a character driven IP with locations and "worlds" that are more coincidental than being critical to any story or character arc. I think what UC did with Marvel at IOA is what Disney probably should do with the IP. Certainly that might disappoint fans that are looking for an immersive world like PtWoA, WWoHP, or Galaxy's Edge, but nothing within the MCU really lends itself to that type of treatment. Perhaps that's why Disney has been content in building single attractions (Ironman, Guardians at DCA and EPCOT, and Stark Expo at DL) so far.

Clearly Wikanda has some of the best on-screen visuals to adapt to a theme park land, but can you really build an entire theme park land (with multiple attractions) around a single character that was more of a cult figure before Black Panther hit theaters? I don't think so. What probably makes the most sense is some type of generic cityscape where the Avengers assemble and have individual attractions, much in the way that IOA designed Marvel Super Hero Island. I think the only other iconic setting that would make sense in a theme park would be Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, but who knows what it would take for Disney to actually build that in California without infringing upon Universal's license.

September 20, 2018 at 10:27 AM

Disney approach to Galaxy's Edge isn't even based on actual Star Wars movie. It's a reimagining of what Star Wars might be like in a Disney theme park. It takes the most popular elements of Star Wars 4 and 7 and makes it into a blended cocktail. Speaking of cocktails, the Cantina is the only recognizable interior that most won't be able to visit since it will be packed with limited capacity.

MCU will continue Disney tradition of being a mismatch. Just look at Mission Breakout. Many people called it ugly. I'm just bewildered it couldn't be more recognizable as featured in Guardians 1.

September 20, 2018 at 2:36 PM

If its a single "where", then that where should be Knowwhere, the home of The Collector. The Guardians of the Galaxy ride at Disneyland is based upon The Collector, so that would be a seamless transition.

However, does it really need to be one place? Depending what happens in Avengers 2019, why couldn't the Space Stone be used to transport guests to any locale in the universe? Then you can have Knowwhere, New York, the aforementioned Wakanda, or anywhere else the imagineers can think of.

When is a more difficult question. The MCU has a very fast moving storyline, and what happens this year may be completely different next year. I don't think I'd want to set the events after what may happen in Avengers 4 as there are rumors of numerous main character departures and deaths, and who wants to visit a world based on the MCU without the main characters?

September 22, 2018 at 5:12 PM

"After the X-Men are incorporated into the MCU and Disney solves the legal issues, I can imagine them creating a home at Hollywood Studios. Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters could be the facade and building for multiple interactive experiences along with an eticket in a nearby show building."


I can't see Disney solving the legal issues if I'm honest. Universal presumably picked up the rights for a song as they weren't being used and they have them in perpetuity. Why would they hand them over to strengthen a competitor?
I'm surprised that Universal haven't updated IoA from the comic book versions to draw in more MCU fans, I assume there's other copyright issues at play that prevent them doing so? Or they'd need co-operation from the studio to bring in the actors? I suppose it's also possible that they think they can't do it justice so don't see the point.

I'd be interested in knowing what Disney could possibly offer Universal in exchange for handing over the rights and whether either party is actually interested in such a deal, creating a Marvel Land in Florida would presumably be at least 5/10 years away anyway due to the opening of Star Wars Land. I'd imagine that Universal would want an alternative IP to use for that area of the park and given the size of it, it's tough to see how they'd generate enough through the limited area to justify handing Disney the ability to create a crowd drawing world.

September 22, 2018 at 7:36 PM

Universal does not have the rights to MCU depictions of the Marvel characters used in IOA - only to the comic book characterizations from the time of the contract's signing.

September 24, 2018 at 11:15 AM

For some reason, Disney is not serious about doing anything "super" at their parks with the Marvel franchise. It's obviously all about Star Wars for them!I don't think Walt Disney would have embraced the disproportionate amount of funds, resources, and space (14 acres at a land locked Disneyland)being given to one IP. Definitely NOT Star Wars!!! Then again, Walt didn't make creative decisions for his "magical little park" based solely on how much money he might be able to make. He made decisions based on how much magic he could bring to the world [Disneyland] he created. When Walt Disney died, folks with the company would ask, "What would Walt do?" They should never have stopped asking . . .

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