In the word’s of one Steve Rogers, “Avengers…Assemble!” That’s what many Marvel and Disney fans hope to hear one day when they enter into their favorite Disney World park, but may never get the chance. Why? Well, that’s what we’ll be discussing today as we dive into the history of the Marvel - Disney relationship and why we may never be lucky enough to experience our favorite Marvel characters in Walt Disney World.
With the recent opening of Disney World’s very first major attraction themed to a Marvel property - Guardians of the Galaxy Cosmic Rewind (which we hope to be able to experience during out next trip at the end of this month ) we thought this an opportune time to dive into one of the biggest questions many people have when they visit Disney World…Where’s all the Marvel stuff? Aside from this one new attraction, a store in Disney Springs, and a sometimes available Guardians of the Galaxy music show in EPCOT, Marvel is easily the most glaring omission from our favorite theme park and it makes sense why so many people ask. If you’re lucky enough to visit Disneyland over in CA and get the chance to experience the new Avengers Campus (or like many of us only hear about it and see pics/videos), it makes it even harder to not have our own Avengers Campus on the east coast. But why would Disney only take advantage of one of its most popular properties on the west coast?
(WE. CAN. NOT. WAIT. To. RIDE. THIS! Photo cred: disney.go)
In the most simplistic answer, you can thank Universal. Before Disney purchased Marvel, the comic company had made previous deals with others for the use of its characters. In this instance that deal was made back in 1994 with a company called MCA Inc. which at the time of the deal also owned Universal Studios. That deal allowed Universal to build a Marvel themed area in the park's upcoming second-gate, Islands of Adventure and essentially have exclusive rights indefinitely. The deal also expressly discussed Universal's competitor down the road, basically stating that any character being used by Universal Studios was expressly forbidden to be used by Disney east of the Mississippi River - meaning Disney World in Florida. It even suppresses Disney World’s ability to use the word “Marvel!” Again, when this deal was signed it was signed indefinitely - meaning forever - unless Universal decided to close “Marvel Super Hero Island” or if they failed to keep making their royalty payments. Marvel also has an “escape clause” of sorts - stating Marvel can opt out of the deal if they think Universal’s use of their content is causing their brand to suffer.
Some might point to that last part saying then why doesn’t Disney (owner of Marvel) just say that the way Universal is using their Marvel content is causing the brand harm if by being available in Disney (either in addition to or instead of in Universal Studios) would most likely have bigger returns? To that all I can say is, good question? It’s mostly likely something to do with the exact wording of the deal and the fact that the MCU is still super successful even though it can’t be used in WDW theme parks. Even though personally we believe that Disney World would do a lot more with the Marvel property which might result in the brand being even more successful… imagine an even bigger version of Avengers Campus (or our bluesky vision of a 5th gate), Universal’s use of Marvel isn’t necessarily harming the brand.
That’s not to say that it couldn’t be better. If you’ve ever ventured over to the “other” park and visited the Islands of Adventure you’ve most likely run into some of Marvel’s most famous heroes including: Captain America, Wolverine, Spiderman and many others. Their deal therefore would make it impossible for Disney to also have these characters in WDW. However, every character you do encounter there will look much different than their current MCU versions as Universal Studios is confined to the versions of those characters from the time period in which the deal was made (e.g. their comic versions). So instead of seeing the Chris Evans version of Captain America, you’ll find Cap in his royal blue uniform complete with winged helmet. Now technically, Universal is allowed to offer different versions of these characters and are certainly allowed to update them…however, they would NOT be allowed to use exact versions from the MCU. This gets tricky though as Universal is not allowed to make changes to any Marvel character that could “harm” their image (e.g. this is why they can’t make an evil Spiderman or cross 2 different heroes powers, etc…).
("Old school" Marvel characters found at Islands of Adventure. Photo cred: inside the magic)
Now Disney doesn’t completely lose out on this deal. While it was made prior to Disney buying Marvel in 2009, as the new owner of Marvel, Universal is required to pay “Marvel” (read Disney) royalty payments and as long as they do, this deal remains. So they do get paid. AND Disney has been able to find some ways to bring certain Marvel experiences to WDW - Guardians of the Galaxy being the most recent. Also, Universal doesn’t get free reign to do whatever it wants either. It’s not allowed to build NEW attractions which is why they basically just revamp their existing ones. They also are not allowed to use versions of characters from the extremely popular MCU (you won’t see a Civil War attraction). Also, you might notice some other glaring omissions when it comes to actually meeting heroes …you won't find Iron Man or Hulk actually in the Universal Parks either even though they may be mentioned! So just who exactly can Disney use from the Marvel universe in WDW and who is confined to the Islands of Adventure at Universal Studios?
Essentially, any comic “family” that was used by Universal Studios at the time they made this agreement is off limits to Disney in Florida. This includes most of their big-name characters. Anyone considered part of “Avengers,” “X-men,” “Spider-man,” or “Fantastic-Four” families will only be found in Universal. Certain other characters such as Captain Marvel are also off-limits due to the use of the word Marvel being in her name. A number of other characters that some might believe don’t belong to those “families” (e.g. Black Panther), but having close ties to them are also a no-go. The two biggest characters (or families) that WDW can use are the aforementioned Guardians of the Galaxy (e.g. Star-lord, Gammora, Drax, Groot, Rocket, etc…) AND Dr. Strange (although in the recent MCU he has definitely helped out the Avengers a lot, his comic stories are actually more of a stand-alone nature). There are also a few others that might be able to be used in WDW such as: Deadpool, Shang-Shi, and the Eternals, but there could be other things keeping that from happening ranging from popularity to content.
(The short lived Dr. Strange meet and greet at HS...we'd love to see something like this come back soon...or better yet, a full on attraction! Photo cred: The DIS)
There are a few other loopholes that do allow Disney World to have some other Marvel related offerings. Most noticeable being the Marvel themed store in Disney Springs that most certainly sells merchandise based on all of our favorite Marvel characters. This is essentially because Disney Springs is not considered a theme park and therefore not held to the same terms. However, you will notice that the use of the word “Marvel” is still missing here as the deal is even more restrictive in that area. That’s why the Disney Springs store is called Super Hero Headquarters. Perhaps we’ll see Disney take advantage of this loophole a little more?
(Super Hero Headquarters is the only place in WDW you can find merch for your favorite Marvel characters!
Photo cred: dadsguidetowdw)
It’s a very confusing situation and one that has very loud supporters on each side. What it all comes down to basically though is, while you will see some Marvel characters in WDW, the majority (and most popular ones) will be missing. Universal Studios Orlando has exclusive theme park rights to use those characters and short of Universal and Disney striking a deal that’s just how it’s going to be in Florida. However, Universal is also limited in that they are confined to only being allowed to use Marvel properties from BEFORE Disney purchased it, so all this wonderful new MCU content is off-limits. Now, the other Disney parks are a completely different story as this deal only pertains to east of the Mississippi. Disneyland and the other parks around the world can and will (if they have not already) most definitely be capitalizing on the MCU’s popularity by creating attractions and whole lands like Avengers Campus.
Overall, it’s obvious that there is a very strong desire for Disney to figure out some way to get the rights to use Marvel characters in the Disney World parks, but it’s also understandable from a business perspective why Universal Studios wouldn't want to give up their exclusive rights to them. In the end, the side that really loses are all of us fans. Personally, I’d love to see Disney figure out a deal to get those rights back. Whether that be an outright buy-out, a trade of some sort (I’m looking at you Simpsoms), or a deal to share the characters - (Why can’t Universal have exclusive rights to the retro versions of characters which is all they use right now, and Disney only be allowed to offer versions from their MCU?) bringing Marvel to Walt Disney World would greatly enhance the parks. I actually think that last option might be pretty awesome being able to experience different takes on such beloved properties! However, this debate seems to be an ongoing one and one with no real clear end in sight…
That’s gonna do it (for now), and we want to thank all of YOU as always for taking the time to read along. We’d love to hear what YOU think about the Disney - Universal Marvel conundrum so we invite you to head on over to our FB page to continue the conversation!
See Ya Real Soon,
Matt and Krystle (and Lincoln)
It wouldn't be a real Marvel post without an "after-credits scene" so for your dedication and waiting until the very end...I present you IRON MAN!
(Lincoln loves Marvel, but his absolute FAVORITE is Iron Man! I can't tell you how many Iron Man toys he has. So when we decided to all go with a Marvel theme for last years Bo0 Bash, of course he had to be Tony!)