A clause in the 25-year-old contract granting Universal theme park rights to Marvel characters east of the Mississippi River means Disney Springs can’t host the new Avengers-themed virtual reality experience. 

Marvel Studios and The VOID — the chain of virtual reality entertainment centers that counts Disney among its investors — announced Avengers: Damage Control on Thursday. The story places guests into the role of test pilots for a new suit combining Iron Man and Wakanda technology made by Shuri, the sister of the Black Panther. 

“We’re always looking for new stories and corners of the universe for our characters to explore. Now, after more than a decade of amazing support, we are excited to give fans the same opportunity: to be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said in a statement. “Expanding how people can experience the MCU is something we’re always trying to do, and in Avengers: Damage Control, we wanted to give fans the chance to suit up alongside some of their favorite heroes for the first time ever.”

The list of VOID locations hosting Avengers: Damage Control does not include Disney Springs. The reason why is a contract with Universal that long predates Disney’s purchase of Marvel. 

Diehard park fans are well-versed in the history here, but here’s a quick refresher: in 1994, Universal’s then-parent company, MCA, signed a deal with Marvel Entertainment securing the rights to open Marvel-themed attractions at its theme parks. This led to Marvel Super Hero Island opening with Islands of Adventure in 1999, long before Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in 2009. 

This was a much different Marvel. At the time the deal was signed, Marvel was two years away from declaring bankruptcy. In contrast to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the only theatrical release starring a Marvel character up until that point had been the 1986 box office bomb “Howard the Duck.” 

The contract — which is publicly available from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission — essentially granted Universal the theme park rights to many Marvel characters east of the Mississippi River forever, so long as Universal properly maintained its Marvel rides and paid royalties. 

That’s why you won’t see the likes of Captain America and Iron Man inside Disney World parks (the Guardians of the Galaxy are one of the few exceptions, having never been utilized by Universal). Even in California, there are hoops Disney has to jump through thanks to the contract; for one, no Marvel-themed land can include “Marvel” in its name, which explains the Avengers Campus currently being constructed at Disney California Adventure. 

But what about Disney Springs, which isn’t a theme park? Can Marvel characters be featured in some separate attraction there? 

The answer is still no, thanks to clauses in the deal covering a never-built Marvel retail chain called“The Marvel Action Universe.” The contract specifies that while Universal couldn’t prohibit Marvel from developing the concept, the locations couldn’t be near a Universal park that featured Marvel characters:

a. Restrictions as to the geographic location of The Marvel Action Universe in areas where MCA has exclusive rights hereunder.
i. The Marvel Action Universe will not be within 60 miles of any Universal Theme Park with a THE MARVEL UNIVERSE
ii. Mini-theme parks, recreation centers, game centers and the like designated with the Marvel name or the name of any Marvel characters or any major entertainment component of a Marvel Action Universe such as a motion based film ride shall not be within 60 miles of any Universal Theme Park with a THE MARVEL UNIVERSE. 

While nothing ever came of the “Marvel Action Universe,” this is why Disney cannot bring something like Avengers: Damage Control to Central Florida, according to sources familiar with the Universal contract that spoke to Orlando Rising who asked not to be named in the story. 

Disney is even mentioned by name at one point in this clause. If a “Marvel Action Universe” had been built, additional restrictions specified that it couldn’t be located inside any theme parks “owned, operated or marketed by Disney, Time-Warner, Six Flags, Sony, Paramount or Busch” —  which no longer applies since no “Marvel Action Universe” was ever opened. 

The VOID did not return a request for comment from Orlando Rising. For now, the Disney Springs VOID location continues to offer two other VR experiences: one based off “Wreck-It Ralph” and another based on Star Wars.

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One Response

  1. JM

    I would honestly like to see Disney do it anyway. In situations like these, a prior contract exists, but the ultimate owner of the actual character rights is an entity that did not own those rights when this contract was signed.

    Disney now owns the characters that Universal is using. Are they getting any royalties from them? Universal is ALSO now owned by a different parent company. In this case, BOTH parties to this contract have changed hands. That ought to be enough to get Disney to pressure a judge to push for a new contract. My guess is Disney doesn’t want to fight a big legal battle presently. They can wait out their competition.

    In the meantime, it is likely in Universal’s best interest to begin looking into other characters to anchor Marvel Superheroes Island. It’s going to get even more hairy moving forward.

    The final point is that this contract was made before Marvel declared bankruptcy. The bankruptcy (which was the strangest and most drama-filled bankruptcy in US history) succeeded in getting movie rights to characters to revert to Marvel. That means the “status quo” of characters changed due to this bankruptcy. If Disney were smart, they would have lawyers look over the Universal contract to see if bankruptcy could change the state of things. There may be a caveat in there that could upend this entire apple cart.

    Reply

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