Since the Walt Disney Company closed on the Marvel Entertainment, LLC purchase, theme park fans have been intrigued about the possibility of Disney adding Marvel themed shows and attractions to it s theme parks. While the upcoming Disney Shanghai Resort has announced the building of a Marvel themed area, Walt Disney World officials have been silent.
There is a reason for this silence: the contract Marvel struck with Universal Studios Florida Prior to the Disney purchase. That contract prevents theme park use of Marvel characters in Florida.
There does, however, appear to be some movement. A number of factors suggest future possibilities.
- Disney recently placed Imagineer Joe Rohde, the Imagineer responsible for creating Disney’s Animal Kingdom (Full disclosure -This writer worked on the opening team of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and has met Mr. Rohde), in charge of the development of Marvel theme park attractions.
- Marvel recently cancelled its traveling Marvel Experience show
- Disney is planning to announce the development of its Florida Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
The Universal-Marvel contract is, however, a huge impediment to any Walt Disney World Marvel attractions plans.
Prior to its purchase by Disney, Marvel was a not-always-successful company looking for additional revenue. In the 1990s, they struck a deal with Universal Studios for the use of Marvel characters in Universal theme parks.
The contract is not available for public reading, but an SEC filing is. Among the elements of that filing are the following:
- Disney cannot abrogate the contract on its own.
- Disney cannot use the Marvel characters in any theme park in Florida.
- Universal cannot substantially change its Marvel offerings beyond what it currently has. Current offerings include Spider-Man, Dr. Doom, Hulk and Storm attractions and associated walk-around characters.
- Universal must maintain its current Marvel attractions to Marvel’s expectations or lose their license and must get Marvel approval for any additional or future use beyond thoseexisting attractions.
The contract is rumored to expire in 2050 (but this writer could not confirm that).
The stipulations listed above make for an uncomfortable situation in which Universal Marvel attractions are basically frozen in place and Disney is unable to use properties it owns. This can’t be comfortable for either of the companies. In fact, rumors have recently surfaced that Disney and Universal are talking to each other.
There are a number of ways Disney could break the stalemate.
- Buy the contract out. This option would be expensive, likely costing more than a billion dollars.
- Violate the contract . It’s been done before. Disney, back when Michael Eisner was CEO, broke a similar deal that prevented Disney from building convention facilitates on its Florida property.
- Kill off the characters Universal uses. Disney recently canceled Marvel’s Fantastic Four comic book series to make the success of Fox Studios fantastic Four reboot more difficult. Such hardball tactics could erode the sales appeal of Universal’s Marvel presence.
- Find something to complain about with Universal’s use of the Marvel properties. An aggressive stance on the maintenance of the Universal Marvel attractions would force Universal to either aggressively maintain its attractions of let them go.
- Facilitate an agreement between Universal and another company. If Disney could assist a deal between Universal and DC Comics, the use of Marvel at Universal could become irrelevant. Universal and Nintendo recently announced the addition of Nintendo characters to the Universal line up, so there could already be a replacement in place.
Whatever happens, the upcoming Disney’s Hollywood Studios makeover, the placement of Nintendo characters at Universal and whatever Joe Rohde has up his sleeve will keep the next few months very interesting.