RUMOR: Is Disney Nearing a Deal with Universal for MARVEL Theme Park Rights?

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When Disney purchased MARVEL in 2009, the first question every theme park fan had was “What does this mean for MARVEL at Universal’s Islands of Adventure and can Disney build MARVEL attractions at Walt Disney World?”

In the 6 years since then, we have come to learn that the contract Universal and MARVEL etched out in the 1990’s was pretty iron clad and has prevented Walt Disney World from even thinking about the possibility anytime soon. In 2012, Universal spent a ton of money to upgrade the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man attraction, even though Disney owns the property. Just to host a movie preview of Guardians of the Galaxy in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney couldn’t use “Marvel” in any marketing materials or at the preview. Hell, they can’t even mention “Marvel” or “the Avengers” to promote a Vinylmation release at Walt Disney World this week…

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So, what are these? ;)

However, things seem to be changing. Rumors indicate that some of the MARVEL attractions at Islands of Adventure are closing or being re-themed. Before the end of the year, the Incredible Hulk coaster and Dr. Doom’s Fear-Fall are expected to close. Hulk is expected to get a huge renovation that includes a completely new theme, while Dr. Doom’s Fear-Fall is rumored to simply be removed.

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Is Fear-Fall coming down? What will replace it?

What’s interesting about removing the Fantastic 4 themed “Fear-Fall”l is the current war MARVEL is waging on FOX. FOX of course is re-booting the Fantastic Four despite the wishes of MARVEL Studios, and in return, Marvel is killing off the Fantastic Four in comic books in order to not offer any promotion for the film. So, does MARVEL want Fantastic Four gone from Islands of Adventure until FOX decides to work with them? It’s possible. While the Universal deal gives them the theme park rights, it also still includes rights that allow MARVEL some creative control to protect their characters and brands.

It’s no secret that MARVEL theme park attractions are in the works for Disneyland Resort down the road (As early as 2018), but the Iron Man Experience ride is already set to open in Hong Kong Disneyland next year. To avoid any “brand confusion”, one would assume Disney and Universal would like to reach some agreement before then, but Universal’s mindset on the property being in their parks is unclear.

While all speculation at this point, inside sources have told us that something is up over at Universal. Whether or not they will relinquish all rights or be changing themes to incorporate different MARVEL characters is unknown at this point, but one of these two scenarios seems likely. Either way, communication is definitely open between Disney and Universal and the option of reaching an agreement to bring MARVEL to Disney World is seeming more likely that it did several years ago.

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About the author

Tom Corless

Tom has been regularly visiting the Walt Disney World® Resort from the time he was 4 months old. While he has made countless visits in the last 28 years, he did not become a truly active member in the Disney fan community until the summer of 2007, when he decided to launch the WDW News Today website and podcast. Tom has since become an Orlando-local and is a published author on Walt Disney World.
Contact Tom at [email protected]

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  • Great article Tom. I’m a little less optimistic about a deal. The Marvel Universe is much too valuable and—by putting Quicksilver in Age of Ultron—Marvel has shown they aren’t super concerned about fan confusion. That being said, Disney is making small inroads on the Marvel-Universal agreement (i.e. Superhero Headquarters). It will certainly be exciting to see how it plays out.

    • Completely agree with this. Universal would be foolish to let go of these rights at a time when these characters are the hottest thing around. Perhaps in about 5 years or so, after the (Marvel) superhero phase dies down, maybe, but not while the movies are raking in billions.

  • Superhero headquarters is a store, not an attraction. I’m sure Universal hates paying Disney royalties. Something will change soon.

  • I have to imagine part of Marvel’s deal with Uni doesn’t allow them to shut down the theme park rides all together. I imagine it would more be which characters you can use, how you can use them, what they would look like. As far as park operations (shutting rides down, refurbs, etc.), that control would HAVE to rest with Universal, as Marvel (Disney) wouldn’t have a stake in it (their licensing fee is probably a flat fee), nor would they know the specific ins and outs of Uni’s park necessities, etc. So in no way do I think Marvel would even have the authority to ask them to take down a ride, let alone an interest in it. One semi-popular ride at one theme park is not going to make or break or have any effect at all on the box office of the FF movie, and the time and resources it would take to try and pull influence is simply not worth it for Marvel/Disney. Marvey?

    • @B Edwards
      Disney doesn’t get a licency fee from Universal for the use of the ip. They pay Marvel for merchendising that is sold.
      They only thing Disney now has the right to is to oversee the use of the ip but as long as that is up to what is in the original deal with Marvel they can’t do a lot.

      In the end Universal portrays the look of the comics, not the movies. I can see Universal allowing Disney to use the movie side of the Marvel universe by paying them an hefty license for that honner and they get to do the same thing Disney is doing with them, looking over their shoulder en beeing informed on anything Marvel they are doing in their WDW parks.

  • This past weekend I was on the Backstage Magic Tour and in the Costume Dept. building they were mass producing Spider Man Costumes! Even our tour guide was like “You weren’t suppose to see that!” Maybe this is a sign of what’s to come? I don’t know!

  • I wish people would get the whole Fantastic Four situation right. Marvel isn’t killing any of the FF characters off and the book’s “cancellation” coincides with numerous other book cancellations in time for this summer’s Secret Wars and then restarted post-event.

  • I feel the thrill rides need to stay at Universal because that is Universal’s niche – thrill rides. Anyone who has been to both Disney parks and Universal – there is a different feel at both and that should stay that way.

    Disney doesn’t have to actually have Marvel rides at Disney World. Marvel is already all over the Disney Parks and Disney Store with various products / accessories, on its various Disney Cruise Line ships, and movies.

    TONS of renovations/revamps/new additions have occurred all over Disney World in the last several years and more are coming. I know Hollywood Studios is going to an identity change (another name change was mentioned by Igar and announced and unannounced rides being revamped/changes) will make HS better.

    Fantastic Four characters is not being cancelled or killed off. Marvel, Disney, and Universal just are working to make more money not harm each other.

  • 5th Park would be the only way I see them doing something for Marvel, but it’s hard to imagine they would invest that much in a single franchise/IP that would be a permanent park. I feel like if they tried to add Marvel into HS it would be a let down because they don’t have the room to really put enough attractions/etc. I also would rather see more Pixar at HS over Marvel or StarWars, but that’s just me.

  • My friend, you are well off the mark on this one. Spirit and crew have been clowning you pretty hard….err, harder than usual. Fanbois unite!

  • While I would like to see Marvel go home to Disney, it would suck to loose the Spider-Man ride from Universal, sadly the remaining parts of that land can go, they are off the shelf rides with little theming and what is worse is that the entire section of the park seems out of place when the rest of them are really well themed, well outside of toon lagoon

  • I think it will be leaving Universal. I Think they may keep the rights to Spider-man.(for a period of time)But Disney/Marvell got a cut of the increased Harry Potter profits for the last few years .I think Comcast/Universal would like to keep those in the future with the current expansions going on(Kong,Jurassic Park,Volcano Bay,New hotels,3rd Gate, Ect. )

    That said even if they don’t Disney should let Universal expand into movie realm for updates it will pull more people to Orlando A rising tide lifts all boats (especially if Disney gets a cut of Gate with no expenditure like the current deal).

  • No way it leaves Universal. More likely Islands of Adventure will expand and upgrade (away from mid 90s) Marvel Superhero Island with Disney getting something in return, but rights to use them in the parks is probably not one of them.

  • Any full change in the Marvel theme park rights would require a massive payment to Universal to the tune of about a billion dollars. Disney also wants the distribution rights to a Hulk film. Universal also holds that in perpetuity. That was part of a deal that Marvel cut before Disney bought them so they could make The Incredible Hulk as the second film in their MCU as they built towards Avengers. Universal made the first Hulk movie and was displeased with the box office, but they had ten years to make another. Marvel wanted to use the character and Universal was leery to just let him go, so they traded film rights for distribution rights that last over 20 years and can be extended beyond that. This doesn’t apply to team up movies, but it does apply to solo Hulk films.

    Most are now unaware about why Universal went with Marvel in the first place. Nor are they aware of what kind of dire straits Marvel was in as Islands of Adventure developed. Universal’s original plan called for a Gotham City island with fully fleshed out Batman theming. It was more elaborate than the current look of the Marvel Island. As Universal was busy designing their new park, Marvel Entertainment had to file for bankruptcy. This occurred at the end of 1996.

    Marvel was in terrible shape and needed to find every revenue source they could – and they did this even before the bankruptcy filing. They had heard about Universal’s Gotham design and negotiations with WB over acquiring Florida rights for Batman and possibly the rest of the DC characters. Marvel already was struggling and the prospect of DC having characters at a theme park that would be quite popular (coupled with the DC characters in Six Flags parks) promised to set Marvel behind in terms of public perception.

    So Marvel went to Universal and offered them full theme park rights for a song with a perpetual license. The fees would increase every ten years, but they would never become all that large. Marvel would get an increased share of Marvel merchandise sold on the Marvel Island. And they would get a couple of extra million a year to add to their bottom line.

    The SEC filing is around for reading and it outlines the agreement.

    Marvel has some creative input when a ride is designed. They get final approval, but they cannot force current rides to shut down unless the ride has had a major change. Spiderman’s 4K upgrade was an acceptable change. Altering the story on the ride is probably not an acceptable change.

    Universal’s issue is that any replacement will cost a lot of money to construct AND a lot of money to license. Universal has a contingency plan involving an expansion of the area (to go along with a complete re-do of Toon Lagoon) and a complete makeover to reflect the DC Universe. Due to their work with WB on Harry Potter, they also have the framework of an agreement in place for licensing the DC characters.

    But Universal has long held that the Marvel deal is cheap and a replacement in expensive. They have the theme park rights stretching out to 2050 and beyond. So if Disney wants them, Disney is going to pay for their DC licensing and also for them to rebuild a large part of IOA.

    I’ve heard that Universal will give up the theme park rights and Hulk rights for $1.5 Billion and Disney will have to give them a two year window for conversion of the Island. I think Disney will eventually relent and I believe Universal is waiting to get Kong up and running before anything would happen. It should be noted that they are renovating the Sinbad show too right now. They could temporarily retheme the Hulk just to keep it open during construction.

    Maybe this is happening. If it is, the timing is good for Universal. They have liked doing rapid construction as of late and they could have a DC themed island ready in the midst of all the films WB is launching for the DC film universe, beginning with Batman V Superman next year with Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, and Justice League following.

    I could see Disney increasingly wanting Marvel for WDW. But they are going to have to pay a lot of money to get it to happen. They are also going to have to provide major help to one of their big competitors.

  • marvel does not belong anywhere in DW except MAYBE at the hollywood studios!! DW is going in a direction that many people are not happy with. the “guest experience” is gone for the most part. the latest free dining debacle is a clear sign they only care about the bottom line now. adding Marvel attractions at DW would look like a sad attempt to be more like UNiversal. KEEP MARVEL OUT OF DW, IT DOES NOT BELONG.

    • Not likely unless Disney gives Universal a lot of money. Universal holds complete theme park rights for all Marvel characters. Disney got in trouble when Avengers came out for advertizing on the monorails and got contacted by Universal’s legal. Universal eventually gave them permission to advertize on monorails that never physically entered a park – so you never saw Marvel ads on an Epcot monorail. Disney had to pay a couple of million to Universal just for the right to advertize their own film on their own property. Universal takes their Marvel rights very seriously and are ready to sue Disney for stepping even a centimeter over the line.

      That tendency is magnified now since Comcast is quite interested in sticking it to Disney as much as possible – and they have deeper pockets that Disney does. A lot of it stems to Disney’s treatment of Comcast and other cable operators in regards to Disney Channel and ESPN. Comcast sees the Marvel properties as a way to payback Disney for all the years of grief and inflated channel fees they’ve paid.

      If Marvel comes to WDW I fully expect Disney to be pulled through the wringer. Same for a Disney made Hulk film. Universal has no problem with Disney spending all the money upfront and them getting a guaranteed distributor fee. And Universal has no reason to play nice. They have the rights for things Disney wants. They made those deals before Disney bought Marvel and have since seen Disney pay big bucks to Paramount just to buy out their distribution deals for Marvel films as well as Indy films. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if Comcast is looking for $2 Billion since that’s about what Paramount got paid for distro rights. Theme park rights are worth more and then they’ve got Hulk distribution too.

      I don’t expect to see any changes soon unless Disney pays out. They might be able to get limited licensing back from Universal for $500M or so. But anything they spend will likely be reinvested in Universal Orlando – and they have got some big plans there in the next few years with hotels and possibly expansion and transport to nearby land for additional gates. Comcast is quite interested in challenging Disney on the theme park front.

      • I don’t see Disney paying. While yes Universal/Comcast does have theme park rights they still have to pay up to Marvel “Disney”. It’s sorta like free advertisement, and with all the changes they are doing they don’t need another project. Also I believe Universal can’t do much without Marvels approval like new rides and such so while not they are very popular there more than likely wont be anything new. On top of that Universal doesn’t have EVERY Marvel universe. Disney could technically do Guardians of the Galaxy since there isn’t any character from that universe in Universal. Disney has also been clever by putting those characters on their cruises and finding other ways to have it east of the Mississippi with out it actually being in the park. Honestly with Universal announcing Nintendo themes and attractions going to now have a home there I could see Universal just not wanting to deal with Disney (if thats what would be replacing it). Either way if I were Disney I wouldn’t try acquiring it, they probably make more with it being there right now than if they bought it.

  • NOT GONNA HAPPEN. For soooooooo many reasons. Universal isn’t going to use THEIR money to retheme a land that is making money for them. If they lose the rights, they will force Disney to pay for EVERYTHING, and Disney isn’t going to shell out $100M + for rights they have no immediate plans on even using. Where would they even put the Marvel characters right now? Star Wars is going into DHS and Avatar is going into Animal Kingdom. And NOTHING ever goes into Epcot. They could retheme Tomorrowland in MK, but what’s the point? They could close half the rides in that park and people would still show up. All Disney fans want anymore is character experiences, and I wouldn’t be surprised if being allowed to use characters is all Disney wants out of a deal. Disney could certainly retheme the Wonders of Life pavilion into a meet-and-greet and put in a clone of the Iron Man simulator, but even Disney knows that mediocre Marvel stuff isn’t going to drive attendance. Disney isn’t going to do anything Marvel in their parks until at least 2020, so why bother paying a huge price now? Especially considering the Guardians of the Galaxy could be put in WDW RIGHT NOW and they wouldn’t have to pay Universal a dime to do so.

    Beyond that, what’s in it for Universal? They get a take of all the Marvel merch they sell and Spider-Man is still one of the greatest rides in the world. Marvel also has great cachet in the young-boy market, something Disney has been ignoring lately with their princess and fairy obsessions. Even if Disney pays for a complete overhaul of the land, Universal would be willing to give away one of the hottest properties to their arch rival? What property could IOA replace it with that could even compare to Marvel right now? The Fast and the Furious is huge, but not Marvel huge! If, in fact, they are talking about retheming these rides – and just why are only two rides named? – it’s apparently going to be to OTHER Marvel characters. The Hulk – like Spider-Man and Fantastic Four – is licensed by someone other than Disney. He’s a Universal property! Disney is probably making a deal with Universal about the film rights, since Universal doesn’t have a ton of interest in making a Hulk film after the last two underwhelmed.

    The most realistic scenario I see? Marvel HATES not having control of everything in its Universe, at least film-wise, so they desperately want to see Fantastic Four fail. If it fails, Fox will finally be done with them, and Disney can buy them back. While Marvel being in IOA isn’t the greatest thing for the Disney parks, it’s a GREAT thing for Marvel as a company so they’ll be willing to deal with Universal and use them to hurt Fox: “Give us the Hulk for our movies, some characters for our parks, dump Dr Doom and get rid of all Fantastic Four merch and we’ll give you: a) money, b) future movie plots and characters to update your rides and/or c) other Marvel properties.” I don’t see Disney handing over a hot property like Guardians, but they could hand over characters from upcoming movies like Ant-Man or Doctor Strange, or – and this is what I’d do – give Universal the park rights to all shows Marvel produces for Netflix. Daredevil is big right now, and he’d never show up in a Disney park, so it’s pretty safe for Disney to give these shows away as long as they get something worthwhile in return.

  • No Mark Ruffalo and the current design team, you don’t have “our Hulk”. Universal knows they couldn’t trick all of America into a highly grossing Hulk movie today. The last two failed, he movie going audience now follows the MARVEL name.

    Your first paragraph is rather correct, other than acting like the “iron man simulator” isn’t a unopened attraction. You made it feel like it was aging without grace, unlike Epcot.

    • No, I was acting like the Iron Man simulator is just yet another simulator and will not excite people like a REAL ride. Just look how quickly people got over Star Tours II: Electric Boogaloo. And the other exciting Marvel ride on the drawing board? A DCA retheming of Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. Marvel is better off being in a Universal park.

  • In the end Disney will get the Marvel theme park rides.
    They bought Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from Universal back and hardly used is anywhere in a significant way (except for a videogame) so it’s a question of time that they do the math and come up with a figure about how much they can squize out of their theme parks guests having the ip in WDW.

    Universal on the other hand is not in a hurry to sell the ip that hardly (or close to nothing) costs them and is widely popular and also houses the best dark ride for 10 executive years (Spiderman). The land is very popular and only second to Potter so Disney has to pay an obsene amount of cash to get the rights.
    Comcast will eventually sell if they have a huge ip (middle earth?) in their wallet and the money for the Marvel ip is right. Untill then they’ll remind Disney whenever they try to push the bounderies.

    What I’m wondering is what if Disney got the rights and their first ride is not close to the high standards of a Spiderman ride? What if it’s a Star Tours clone or a lame omnimover ride?
    To be honest it Always baffeld me why Disney wanted a comic library where every story is about a kid got something done to him or her and the rest of their life is answering in violance. It’s boring, predictable and not a good lesson for kids.

    • Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was actually a trade for Al Michaels. NBC Wanted him for Sunday Night Football so Disney got the rights back from Universal.

  • The idea that Nintendo and Universal are talking about making a Nintendo land is pretty awesome! But Rumor has it that there could be a possibility that Marvel could be replaced for Nintendo. I feel Disney World blands there entertainment. Disneyland seems to be more fun though. But I personally feel that Universal would be indestructable with having both Marvel and Nintendo.

  • They just announced that Universal bought Nintendo and plans 2 open Nintendo based rides in their parks. I say if Super Hero Island does get replaced in the future, it will b replaced by Nintendo based rides and characters. I think this would b the only way, Universal would benefit by giving up Marvel.

  • just imagine a disney theme park including some areas like asgard, helicarrier, universe, X-island, etc… with the unparalelled hi tech on asows, animatronics and imagineering… will be TONS of fun and look tah universal can´t beat and the fans diserved

    • If you think that Disney’s high tech beats Universal’s, you obviously haven’t been to Universal Orlando. Disney’s stuff is dated and boring.

  • I think this may be a matter of time anyway. I don’t agree that Universal is benefiting from their Marvel rides. Universal is cashing in on WWOHP not Marvel. I for one, would like to see Marvel attractions that weren’t just roller coasters or simulator rides. It’s the same old ride with a different character. I would love to see something different as not everyone likes or can do those type of rides. Something more creative would be welcome. Still dreaming of a Disney Heroes and Villains Theme Park or even a huge addition to Disney Hollywood Studios (soon to be renamed). The MCU would fit in nicely there and Disney has plenty of land for it.

  • People seem to forget, or completely are clueless that Universal only has the theme park rights east of the Mississippi. Disney can do anything they want in Disneyland, or any other one of their parks world wide. This would definitely be a blow to Universal’s branding. Personally I hope Disney gets the rights back for Disney World too since they obviously would do a better job at creating an experience and not just rides slapped with marvel images, (spider man excluded from that last group)

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