A Theme Park University reader recently wrote in to ask, “Hey Josh, when does the Marvel contract expire for Islands of Adventure so Disney World can start building its own Avengers attractions?” To answer your question quite bluntly: probably never.
Very few people have access to the real contract between Marvel and Universal (formerly MCA when they first inked the deal in 1994). However, if the SEC filing, which is public record, is any indication, the deal between Marvel and Universal doesn’t have an end date as long as Islands of Adventure remains in business.
According to what is available online, Islands of Adventure is the only place where Marvel characters and attractions can exist within a theme park east of the Mississippi River. This agreement was signed before Disney owned Marvel and was also when Universal Studios Florida was controlled by its parent company MCA.
This helps explain a couple of things that have recently happened in the theme park world once Disney acquired Marvel. Nearly every time a Marvel movie hits theaters, Disneyland has a meet and greet with either Thor, Captain America or an Iron Man exhibit installed at Innoventions in Tomorrowland. Per the contract, Walt Disney World isn’t allowed to have Marvel characters inside the parks at all, or else it would violate Island of Adventure’s original agreement.
It also helps explain the Iron Man and Avengers-themed monorails that glided around the Magic Kingdom express and resort monorail lines in the past few years. Those particular shrink-wrapped beauties weren’t allowed to jump over to the Epcot monorail line because that beam travels within the park’s gate. While technically the monorail doesn’t count as an “attraction”, why cause a legal battle between Disney and Universal if you don’t need to?
Keep in mind the deal is also only exclusive to the United States. This allows Disney to have carte blanche with the characters overseas. So that new Iron Man attraction that Hong Kong Disneyland is getting, will unfortunately never make its way to Orlando. Also, when the full roster of attractions are finally revealed for Shanghai Disneyland, don’t be surprised to see a few dedicated to the Marvel Universe.
Does that mean now that Disney, Universal’s direct theme park competitor in Orlando, owns the Marvel Universe that they can now just tell Universal to rip out or re-theme Marvel Superhero Island? No. Let’s say another company bought Marvel instead of Disney. For argument sake, Trojan Condoms. If Trojan bought Marvel, it has no more leverage than Disney to breach the original contract that was inked long before Bob Iger had his eye on the comic book powerhouse.
Theme park fan boys often miss this important part of the story: a contract is a contract. If Universal decided to misrepresent the characters in any way or take away the original amount of retail space dedicated to Marvel merchandise (10,000 square feet if the SEC filing is correct), then Disney could have some muscle to try and pry Marvel away. However, that isn’t in either company’s best interest.
The reason why I say Walt Disney World will “probably” never see a Marvel attraction or characters? Money talks. However, we are talking a serious chunk of cash in order to do this. Universal Orlando holds the trump card in this scenario. If Disney wants the exclusive rights to use Marvel characters in Orlando, that means Marvel Superhero Island will most likely need to be re-themed, if not have certain rides ripped out and replaced entirely.
If you were in Universal’s shoes and Disney (or Trojan condoms) were to come in and offer you a bucket of cash to revamp a very lucrative section of your park, wouldn’t you ask them to pay for it? Of course you would, and a huge loss of revenue fee as well as money to cover expenses for another intellectual property to come in and replace Marvel.
Still hanging on to that dream? Disney has money to spend, they just bought out Lucas, so why not? OK, let’s say the mouse plunks down $XXX million on not only acquiring the rights to Marvel in Orlando for Walt Disney World, but pays for the retrofit and intellectual property rights for Islands of Adventure’s new inhabitant.
Forget the fact that, in this scenario, Disney has just paid its competitor to have a brand new land that it can market for the next few years, but it also hasn’t spent a dime on building Marvel attractions, restaurants or gift shops in Walt Disney World. So after spending an extra $XXX million, then you have to wait to see a ROI (Return on Investment), which would take an extremely long time, if ever.
Then there is that other option. To use Disney’s vast catalog of growing intellectual properties and build attractions, restaurants and gift shops using what they already have. Otherwise, you’re spending a lot of cash on an expansion that may never see a financial return. As a Disney stock holder, I would personally rather see the parks continue to rake in the dough than fulfill some fan boys wet dream.