Last updated: 05:00 AM ET, Wed September 28 2016

Which Theme Parks Have the Rights To Which Superheroes?

Features & Advice | Erik Yates | September 28, 2016

Which Theme Parks Have the Rights To Which Superheroes?

Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort.

My 4-year-old nephew recently went nuts over the release of the motion picture “Captain America: Civil War.” In case you haven’t seen it, it has Spider-Man in it. Imagine his surprise when we went to Universal Orlando and saw Captain America, AND Spider-Man walking down the streets of Marvel Superhero Island. His first question? “Where’s Iron Man? Are you still mad at each other?”

Apparently it’s a question they get a lot, because they had an answer about him off saving the day. But it was a good question. Where IS Iron Man? For that matter where’s Hulk, Daredevil... and Batman and Superman for that matter? It’s become a great habit to see the movies on the big screen, then turn around and ride them at your local theme park. With superheroes, however, it gets a little convoluted, as many of your favorite theme parks have split up the superheroes, thanks to contracts, sales and new movie deals. We’ll break down just where you can expect to see some heroes, and why you won’t see others.

Way back in the ’90s a little theme park called Universal Orlando was trying to plan a huge new land. The company signed a deal with a comic book company named Marvel, and Marvel Superhero Island was born. Flash forward several years (and billions of dollars in movies) later, and Disney is now the proud owner of all that Marvel has created. It’s a match made in heaven, because you just know they’re going to line up their theme parks with Marvel rides and characters.  Well, almost.

According to the contract that Universal and Marvel had, theme parks East of the Mississippi River are not allowed to use Marvel for anything. That includes rides, characters and character breakfasts. This contract is good pretty much forever, or until Universal and Disney come to terms. While you may see Disney build entire lands at Disneyland in California, they are not allowed to build anything at Walt Disney World in Florida. However, there are loopholes, which we’ll get to later.

READ MORE: 6 Attractions For Superhero Fans

At the same time, Universal cannot build new attractions based on Marvel properties. Instead, you will see them revamp some of the existing rides. It happened with the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, where the ride film was completely reshot in digital. It’s also the main reason why Incredible Hulk was just refitted with a new storyline, a new track, and new trains. The park cannot build new rides, but you can bet they can change old rides to fit in with the stories that do not match the movie timelines. It’s why now, instead of seeing Bruce Banner turn into the Hulk, you see General Ross trying to make new Hulk creatures.

It essentially appears to boil down to whatever is already at Universal is off limits to Disney. Also, whatever came before the Disney deal (such as the movies) is also off limits. While you might love the idea of Civil War in the parks, like my nephew did, you won’t see them unless Universal and Disney pull a huge deal like Disney struck with Sony that allowed Spider-Man to appear in Civil War.

In the movie world, Sony owns the rights to Spider-Man. Disney and Sony worked a deal to bring Marvel writers on the new Spider-Man films for a cut of Spider-Man profits. Disney already gets that with Universal, but there is rumored to be a deal that would allow both Disney and Universal to profit further. Rumors suggest that Disney and Universal are talking to mend the fences between the movie properties and the theme park properties. As it stands now, Universal still holds the film rights to Hulk, as well as the theme park rights. Disney is allegedly looking at making a deal that will allow them to use Hulk in movies outside of the Avengers, but not as a character or ride in Walt Disney World. They will be allowed to use characters that are not at Marvel SuperHero Island in the parks, they just won’t be able to use the Marvel name. That’s why rumors like Guardians of the Galaxy taking over Epcot are so strong.

READ MORE: Rumor Alert: Will Success of 'Civil War' Help Launch West Coast Marvel Park?

Then there’s the X-Men, and that universe of characters. Disney doesn’t own the rights to those, Fox does. In theory, Disney could grant Universal permission to create attractions based on the comic versions of those characters, while Fox retains the movie rights. That would end the entire ban on new attractions at Universal’s Super Hero Island, and would give both parks the right to grow their audiences.

DC comics are a little less complicated. Their rights are owned by Six Flags. The comic versions of those characters can be used all over the world. The movie versions, however, cannot. Those versions of the characters are owned by Warner Brothers. You have seen versions of some of the characters before, such as the Dark Knight coaster, but that was before the big movie renaissance that happened.

However, here’s a loophole that could prove interesting down the line. Since Six Flags owns the rights to the comic versions of the characters, they are open to have those versions of the characters in the parks. What about the movies? Universal and Warner Brothers have an amazing relationship, especially since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was so huge for both. It’s possible that we could see a partnership between Universal and DC Comics in the future for DC themed attractions in the Universal parks around the world, including Hollywood, Japan and Singapore. Keep in mind this is just speculation on our part, but anything is possible!


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