“We’re really gonna be able to jack up our prices if we’re two-time galaxy savers.”
— Rocket, “Guardians of the Galaxy 2”
“Drop your socks and grab your crocs, we’re about to get wet on this ride.”
— Tony Stark, “Iron Man 2”
Earlier this month I spent several days in Orlando, Florida, at the summer educational conference of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. The three-day conference offers more than 60 educational sessions on topics across the family law spectrum. This is the third year I’ve attended on behalf of Delaware County, and each year I bring back dozens of new programming ideas, helpful resources, and knowledge that I can share throughout the juvenile justice system in Delaware County.
It happened that the conference was in Orlando this year, and being huge Harry Potter nerds at our house, we went down a couple of days early and visited Universal’s Orlando theme parks. The parks include the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, as well as rides based of off other Universal movies, including “Men in Black,” “Jurassic Park,” “Transformers,” the Fast & Furious series, and “Shrek.”
But I was shocked to see that the park includes an entire section devoted to characters from the Marvel superhero series. I wasn’t surprised that they’d be in a theme park — they form the highest grossing movie franchise of all time — but I was startled to find that they were at a theme park owned by Universal Studios when Walt Disney World is just a few miles down the road.
Ten years ago this month, Disney paid the incredible sum of $4.24 billion to purchase Marvel entertainment and the movie rights to the Marvel characters. In the decade since, no fewer than eight Disney released Marvel movies have made more than a billion dollars at the international box office, including “Avengers: Endgame,” which recently became the top-grossing movie of all time. Given the fact that Disney owns the rights to this cash cow, and they have theme parks in Florida and California, how is it that Black Panther, Captain America, Spiderman and Wolverine are at Universal? Confusing the picture even more, how is it that those same characters are at Disneyland in California, while Disney World in Florida is currently building a Guardians of the Galaxy ride?
The answer lies in a dark period for Marvel and a shrewd deal struck by Universal’s lawyers. The year was 1994, and the Marvel movie juggernaut was still a dream. Marvel was short on cash and trying to stay afloat. Universal was trying to build up their park and compete on a more even footing with Disney. A licensing agreement between Marvel and Universal seemed a perfect marriage. In retrospect, the contract is a dream for Universal, and a disaster for Disney, but it could have been even worse for the mouse house.
The deal, which is indefinite in length, divided the nation into two halves along the Mississippi River. It provided that any Marvel character being used by Universal at their parks could not be used by any other theme park in that half of the country. It also gave sole and exclusive use of the name “Marvel” for theme park purposes to Universal and Universal alone. The good news for Disney is that Marvel only used Spiderman, Wolverine, Jean Grey, Beast, Captain America, Black Panther, Hulk and Storm. The better news is that Universal declined the option for their California Park.
The bad news for Disney is that they can’t use the name “Marvel” at Disney World at all, and that Black Panther, Spiderman, Hulk and Captain America have all been huge movie hits. Despite spending more than $4 billion on those characters, Disney cannot use them east of the mighty Mississippi.
Because of the contract, Marvel is a divided house when it comes to theme parks. In California, they are the exclusive property of Disney, but in Florida, the Marvel name and those specific characters belong to Universal, while the balance of the characters, minus the family name, can appear at Walt’s place. And because of the unlimited nature of the deal, that situation isn’t going to change any time soon.
If you want to take in Star Wars’ Galaxy’s Edge, Disney is the place for you. If you need a ride on Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure (a ride I wholeheartedly recommend, by the way), then you’ll need to go to Universal. But if you’re a Marvel fan, you can get a little bit of MCU in either park thanks to a contract signed 25 years ago.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has been known to wear a Ravenclaw tie and R2D2 socks on the same day.