Why Doesn’t Walt Disney World Have Avengers Rides?
On June 4th, Avengers Campus finally opened at Disney California Adventure after a prolonged delay.
Fans promptly mobbed the place, causing massive lines everywhere, even the restaurants.
Disney already knew its Marvel characters would prove popular at theme parks, as some anchored attractions overseas.
However, Disney faces limitations about what it can and can’t do. So why isn’t Walt Disney World getting an Avengers Campus?
Here’s the strange circumstance that currently prevents Disney fans from getting what they want…and a few thoughts on why this may change.
The Problem with Marvel
In 2009, The Walt Disney Company wrote a check for $4 billion to buy Marvel Comics. It’s one of the best purchases of the 21st century.
Unfortunately, a corporate acquisition doesn’t rewrite existing contracts. Instead, the new owner must honor those prior arrangements.
So, Disney hasn’t built a Marvel themed land in Orlando, Florida. Oddly, one exists, though, only not at Walt Disney World. How is this possible?
During the 1990s, Marvel Entertainment Company famously struggled with its finances. As a result, the company declared bankruptcy in 1995 as a desperation move.
Long before that, Marvel had recklessly negotiated deals that didn’t help them enough. These contracts heavily favored the other parties.
To wit, Sony purchased the licensing rights to Spider-Man during the 1990s, a move that has frustrated Spidey’s new owner, Disney, for more than a decade now.
Disney has bought and operates Marvel Comics, which means Spider-Man plays on the same team as Mickey Mouse.
Unfortunately, Sony maintains the rights to Spider-Man movies. Thankfully, Disney and Sony have worked amicably – with one notable exception – on the character.
Still, Sony is currently working to create its own MCU clone, the Sony Pictures Universe of Marvel Characters.
All the superheroes and villains in these stories belong to Disney, yet Sony owns the film rights. That’s madness, right?
A similar situation played out with theme parks. In 1994, just before Marvel’s total financial collapse, it entered into a contract with Universal Studios.
The agreement provided Universal Studios with licensing rights to specific Marvel characters. You can actually read the entire document online.
Here’s the eye-opening text in the agreement with applicable comments:
“MCA is developing a complete destination resort on approximately 800 acres owned by it and a partner in Orlando, Florida, on which Universal Studios Florida is located and attracted approximately 7 million visitors in 1992.”
–Back in 1992, Universal Studios Florida had just opened two years earlier and plotted how to heighten demand. It’s MCA in this contract.
“Marvel hereby grants MCA a license to use Marvel’s characters for the purposes, on the terms and to the extent set forth herein.”
–This is the licensing acknowledgment.
“Concurrently, MCA will commence designing THE MARVEL UNIVERSE, and will work diligently (including meeting the requirements set forth in subsection II(B) below) to complete its design and construction as part of its overall plans for the initial opening content of THE SECOND GATE.”
–Even though it wouldn’t open until 1999, this references Universal’s Islands of Adventure.
“Universal Theme Park (Orlando) and an exclusive world-wide option to utilize the Marvel characters in additional THE MARVEL UNIVERSES in any other Universal Theme Parks, which initial option must be exercised during the two year period beginning on the date of the opening of THE MARVEL UNIVERSE in the Universal Theme Park (Orlando).”
–This contract provides Universal with exclusive licensing rights for two years. After that, another clause factors in something called “shrinkage.”
Marvel and the Mississippi River
What’s shrinkage? No, it’s not a Seinfeld reference. Instead, the contract defines it as:
“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.”
–These are explicit instructions on how licensing rights work, giving Universal an airtight grip on exclusives.
Thanks to shrinkage, everything West of the Mississippi is in play.
“West of The Mississippi – any other theme park may use any Marvel characters whether or not used by MCA.”
That last clause explains a lot. You may know that international Disney parks offer Iron Man Experience and Ant-Man & The Wasp: Nano Battle.
However, the precise wording of the agreement authorized Disney to add Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure.
After all, that park is west of the Mississippi. So, Disney honored Marvel’s contract with Universal.
Unfortunately, the company cannot do the same at Walt Disney World. It’s East of the Mississippi.
In truth, Universal’s attorneys worded the contract so precisely for this reason. Universal didn’t want local Marvel competition coming from Disney.
Shame and Greed
Opportunity cost represents one of the most challenging financial concepts to understand.
I often use an example about how my wife and I discussed purchasing $100 in Bitcoin in 2010. We saved $100 but lost 1,250 in Bitcoin. We…try not to think about it much.
Our opportunity cost is *ahem* $50 million. Disney’s in the same boat with a Marvel themed land at Walt Disney World.
Technically, the company hasn’t spent any money developing Marvel attractions. However, the company has lost billions from their absence.
You can glance at the crowds at Disney California Adventure to verify this fact. Fans possess an insatiable appetite for Marvel superheroes.
Disney would love to build a themed land and rides with these characters. I mean, look at what Avatar and Star Wars did for their respective parks.
Imagine an Avengers attraction at Hollywood Studios! People would lose their minds! In fact, let’s expand this notion a bit.
What would a Disney park themed to the MCU do for overall theme park revenue?
Sadly, this cannot happen, right? Well, by that thought process, Spider-Man can never appear in the MCU. After all, he’s a Sony movie character.
As you know, Spider-Man IS in the MCU, though! And that sort of corporate unity could play a factor here, too.
Disney could feasibly cut a check to Universal to buy a way out of the current theme park agreement.
Many insiders believe that we’re trending in this direction anyway. Most of Universal’s rides at Super Hero Island aren’t very good.
Only the ones starring The Hulk and Spider-Man stand out. Meanwhile, Disney just created its own Spider-Man attraction that feels much more modern.
Disney is currently utilizing an interesting combination of shame and greed to make inroads with Marvel theme park characters.
What Does the Future Hold?
Universal Orlando Resort faces two iterations of the same problem. Its theme parks include fully licensed lands for Marvel and…The Simpsons.
Yup, Disney owns The Simpsons now, too. That Fox deal might have cost $71.3 billion, but it’s caused some odd ripple effects.
Universal only maintains the rights to the residents of Springfield through 2028.
Seven years may seem like a long time, but it’s the blink of an eye for theme park strategists.
As such, Universal is currently evaluating how best to proceed with Springfield. Theoretically, Disney would rather do its own version.
I could make an argument that The Simpsons is as valuable an IP as Harry Potter.
Look at the difference in how Universal’s theme parks use the properties, though.
The same thought process applies to Marvel, where Universal’s themed land looks lackluster and even somewhat outdated.
We may be nearing a time when Universal cedes Springfield to Disney and then accepts payment to get out of the superhero business.
The only other option for Universal involves investing more resources in bringing Super Hero Island up to snuff.
Given Universal’s financial commitment to its upcoming theme park, Epic Universe, that seems wildly unlikely.
As such, I maintain hope that Walt Disney World can and will get Marvel characters. It’s gonna require a lot of money and some more heated negotiations, though.
Feature Image: Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG