What is the 'Endgame' for Marvel and theme parks?

April 29, 2019, 2:35 PM · It's Marvel's world, and we're all just living it. With an estimated $1.2 billion in global ticket sales this weekend, Avengers: Endgame has taken a strong first step toward becoming the most popular film of all time. It's already cemented Marvel's status as the world's most popular entertainment franchise.

So of course we are going to talk about Marvel and theme parks now, aren't we?

This story might not involve as many plot twists and battles as the third act of Endgame, but it's a helluva tale, nevertheless. While the details might be familiar to some long-time Theme Park Insider readers, it never hurts to bring everyone up to speed on who owns the rights to do what with Marvel in theme parks around the world.

This story starts back in the 1990s, when Marvel Entertainment signed a deal with MCA for that company, which owned Universal Studios, to open Marvel-themed attractions at its parks. (Here is that contract, from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's website.) "The Marvel Universe" would become part of Universal's properties in Orlando and Hollywood, with Japan added to the deal later. So Marvel Super Hero Island become one of the Islands of Adventure when Universal Orlando's second gate opened in 1999. Its The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride quickly laid claim as the world's best theme park attraction, leading Universal to duplicate the ride at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka in 2004.

But Universal, which was owned by French water company Vivendi until 2003 and then co-owned with General Electric until 2009, never invested to bring the Spider-Man ride to Hollywood. Universal let its rights to the characters west of the Mississippi lapse, and Marvel characters left Universal Studios Hollywood in 2007.

In 2009, Disney bought Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in cash and stock, but it did not obtain all the licensing rights that Marvel had signed away before then. That's why X-Men remained a Fox movie property and Spider-Man the property of Sony. And that's also why Disney did not get the rights to use the Marvel name and characters at Walt Disney World. Universal's rights deal in the Orlando market remains in effect in perpetuity — so long as Universal keeps cutting royalty checks to Marvel's owner, which is now Disney.

By buying Fox's movie studio this year, Disney now has brought X-Men back into its Marvel Cinematic Universe. And Disney made a deal with Sony to allow Spider-Man's use in Disney's Avengers films while Sony continues to distribute the Spider-Man movies, though they are now part of the MCU's storylines. (Well, at least the live-action ones are now part of the MCU... though the idea of the MCU hooking up with Sony's Academy Award-winning animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse would make me indescribably giddy.)

Disney and Universal also reportedly have come to a legal understanding that allows Disney to use characters not currently referenced inside Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure to be used in Walt Disney World attractions. That's why Disney is building a Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster in the old Universe of Energy pavilion at Epcot. But Disney still can't use the brand name "Marvel" in promoting its theme park attractions at Walt Disney World... or at Disneyland, for that matter.

Disney can use its Marvel characters on the west coast, which allows Disneyland to open a new "Super Hero-themed" land at Disney California Adventure next year. That new land will get a Spider-Man-themed ride, which Disney is billing as an "immersive, interactive experience" that will feature "a brand-new, cutting-edge interface as part of this fun, interactive attraction."

In addition to the new land at Disney California Adventure, Disney is introducing Marvel-themed lands at Hong Kong Disneyland and Walt Disney Studios Parks in Paris, where Disney has no restrictions on the use of the Marvel name or characters. The three lands will be themed as Stark Industries facilities providing local headquarters for The Avengers.

"Through partnerships with S.H.I.E.L.D., Pym Technologies, Masters of the Mystic Arts and the new Worldwide Engineering Brigade, The Avengers and their allies will forge new global campuses to champion the next generation of heroes," Disney said in its press release describing the new lands. Hong Kong has already opened a "Star Tours"-like Iron Man Experience ride and a re-build of its old Buzz Lightyear ride into Ant-Man and the Wasp: Nano Battle. Paris is retheming its Rock 'n' Roller Coaster to The Avengers, in addition to those new Spider-Man rides coming to California and Paris.

In the Middle East, where neither Disney nor Universal have theme parks, Disney has licensed the use of Marvel characters to IMG Worlds of Adventure, which features the Spider-Man Doc Ock's Revenge spinning coaster, Thor Thunder Spin top spin, Flight of the Quinjets spinner ride, Hulk Epsilon Base 3D movie, and Avengers Battle of Ultron dark ride.

So there ya go. That's the past, present, and future of Marvel in theme parks around the world, as is known right now. Might Disney have future plans for even more Marvel adventures around the world? Surely it at least has some as-yet-unseen additional concepts somewhere inside Walt Disney Imagineering's headquarters in Glendale, California. But until Disney writes a check big enough to entice Universal to surrender its claim on the world's most popular entertainment franchise, Disney will have to deal the restrictions imposed upon it by a contract it wasn't even a party to back when it was signed more than 20 years ago.

Replies (11)

April 29, 2019 at 3:19 PM

The Disney-Sony deal was only for five movies so it’ll hopefully be renegotiated after Far From Home. Venom , Spiderverse and the upcoming Morbius are not produced by Marvel Studios. Also Universal still has the right of first refusal for any Hulk movies so that’s why he’s been a supporting character since The Incredible Hulk.

April 29, 2019 at 8:50 PM

Disney should use Marvel's current devotion to time travel to go back a couple of decades and buy Marvel again, earlier, for less money, at any convenient point in history prior to Marvel's other licensing deals;)

April 29, 2019 at 10:13 PM

I would say another reason that we don't see standalone Hulk movies is that the box office returns have been weak. They keep including him because the merch (especially Hulk fists) are basically a license to print money.

April 29, 2019 at 10:33 PM

I don't know how much it would cost for Disney to get back the Marvel rights from Universal, but with each successful movie, I'm sure the value of those rights go up accordingly. Disney should just bite the bullet and get the rights back, it's kind of embarrassing to be restricted to not even be able to use the Marvel name in California.

April 30, 2019 at 2:00 AM

Bar the Spiderman attraction - i Personally don't think Universal have done enough with the Marvel characters they have at their disposal over at Orlando. They currently have at their disposal a bigger franchise than even Star Wars (although debatable).

I understand part of this strategy maybe because they don't want to overly promote a Disney product, but they have done similar worlds for other franchies they did not own - eg, Harry Potter (a Warner Bros / JK Rowling owned franchise).

It's a shame they've done very little with Marvel. Spiderman is cutting edge, but the rest are your bog standard six flags rides with a lick of paint.

If Universal went huge on a Marvel land over at Orlando - it would be huge.

April 30, 2019 at 6:26 AM

Universal can't build a huge Marvel Land. They are limited to IOA. They can't use any Marvel attraction in as my other park. In fact they will soon be known as the Park to visit HP, unless AT&T wises up and goes into the Themepark business. Then Universal will lose HP and only have Nintendo Dreamworks Animation and Illumination. WDW will have more Marvel rides and atrractions in 4 or more parks while Universal will only have a few in one park. Around yhe world in all Disney parks Marvel will have a huge presence.

April 30, 2019 at 9:38 AM

>>>Bar the Spiderman attraction - i Personally don't think Universal have done enough with the Marvel characters they have at their disposal over at Orlando. They currently have at their disposal a bigger franchise than even Star Wars (although debatable).

Whilst that may be true now, I think at the time IoA was built that certainly wasn't true. The park predates the MCU by about a decade, and the X-men series by about a year.

I agree that in the perspective that we have now as Marvel as a successful multi-media brand that the usage of the characters in the park is very poor. However given the state of the brand in 1999 as a purely comic player that this was probably justified at the time.

Marvel's purchase by Disney may dissuade Universal from upgrading the area to the level where it should be given the current state of the brand, and I think that is sad.

April 30, 2019 at 11:39 AM

@Chad H - I believe Universal is prohibited from making any significant changes to Marvel Super Hero Island because of the contract, which is why the Hulk renovation was more or less a carbon copy of the original experience. The bottom line is that until Disney buys out Universal's rights, X-Men Fantastic Four, and the core MCU are stuck in 1999.

April 30, 2019 at 4:58 PM

@ Jeffery. While it's true the previous Hulk box office results have been lower, that certainly wouldn't be the case now.

The Incredible Hulk was the second film in the MCU, when it was just starting out (and was released in between Iron Man & Dark Knight). The previous films only dealt with Banner being a loner, trying to find a cure, etc.

Once they gave Banner something to do & other objectives aside from "the cure" storyline, it retooled the character creatively & opened up multiple possibilities. Plus, with the later films featuring other Marvel characters (Winter Soldier & Ragnorok).....a solo Hulk movie with someone like Hawkeye or introducing She Hulk will greatly benefit from the goodwill of previous Marvel films & it would do very well at the box office.

The previous movies aren't 100% accurate in portraying the characters current popularity. A Hulk solo movie released now, while obviously not reaching Black Panther or Captain Marvel heights, would easily do Ant-Man / Thor numbers at the box office.

May 1, 2019 at 2:20 AM

Still no excuses for Universal not to do something more with the IP they have. I went to Warner Bros in Abhu Dhabi, and the theming for Gotham City and Metropolis for Superman was astonishing.

May 1, 2019 at 7:35 AM

@AndrewMciveR - What do you want them to do? They can't substantially change Marvel Super Hero Island or risk losing the rights they have. It would be great if UC had the freedom to refresh the land with a look consistent with the current MCU and recent X-Men/Fantastic 4 films. However, the contract does not allow them to do that. Universal owns the east coast theme park rights to the core Marvel properties, but the contract does not allow them to develop new attractions or drastically change the ones already in place. Disney knows that, which is why they're perfectly fine playing "chicken" with Universal until they decide that keeping the land grounded in 1999 styles and aesthetics is no longer profitable. Disney has already found workarounds to the contract with the Guardians coaster, which is shaping up to be one of the most ambitious attractions Disney has ever constructed, and seems more than happy to just wait it out until Universal decides to settle on a figure that returns the rights to Marvel/Disney at a cost that both sides can be satisfied with.

Until then, Marvel Super Hero Island isn't going anywhere, and won't change dramatically for the foreseeable future.

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