It’s no secret that the biggest competitors in the theme park industry are Disney and Universal. They’re both backed by major corporations with deep pockets, and both have multiple destination resorts around the world. The competition can often get intense, which is why it’s so fascinating that there are numerous Disney-owned properties featured in Universal parks.
It’s nothing new to have intellectual properties owned by different studios in the parks. When Universal Studios Florida opened, the park featured a “Ghostbusters” attraction, which is a Sony/Columbia picture. The theme park even featured an entire section dedicated to Nickelodeon Studios, which was in no other way associated with Universal. The same could be said for Disney-MGM Studios, where basically every major studio’s properties were featured except for Universal Pictures, for obvious reasons.
In a world where it has become the norm for major studios to buy franchises, and even other studios, it’s no surprise that previously-negotiated contracts can get messy and cause problems. Perhaps the most famous case is the use of Marvel in the theme parks.
Universal’s Islands of Adventure has featured Marvel Super Hero Island since the park first opened in 1999. It is a full land dedicated to the now extremely popular (but then floundering) Marvel comic properties. Rides there include Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, Storm Force Accelatron, The Incredible Hulk Coaster, and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, among other characters being featured in the land. Of course, this was no secret when Disney purchased Marvel in 2009, but I often wonder if they realized how many headaches it would cause for the theme parks.
The Walt Disney Company has made Marvel bigger than it’s ever been through tentpole films and Disney+ series. It’s slightly ironic that a hit for them is essentially a hit for Islands of Adventure as well. With the Marvel characters and properties being massively popular, Disney surely wants to get them into their theme parks, but it’s not that simple. To put it simply, Universal’s contract essentially states that the characters found in their park can’t be featured in other theme parks east of the Mississippi River. That, of course, would include Walt Disney World. This is taken so seriously that Walt Disney World was legally required to remove a Marvel-themed monorail wrap because it drove through Epcot. It was decided that this ride-thru made it an attraction in the park even though it didn’t load or unload inside of Epcot.
With stipulations that tight, it clearly means that rides and shows featuring some of the most iconic Marvel characters aren’t legally allowed at Walt Disney World. Luckily for Disney, “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a huge hit for them and isn’t featured in the Universal parks. So, there are certainly some workarounds that Disney is taking full advantage of, with one example being the upcoming roller coaster, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, coming to Epcot.
Even though it’s a lot easier for Disneyland Resort to feature Marvel in its parks, it’s still not an entire breeze. Part of the contract also requires that the name “Marvel” cannot be used in any parks outside of Universal. That’s why Disney uses titles like Avengers Campus and Super Heroes Half Marathon.
As if that wasn’t enough, another entire land at both Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood features the now-Disney-owned series,“The Simpsons.” When Disney acquired 21st Century Fox in 2019, “The Simpsons” was included as part of the acquisition. These Universal parks not only feature The Simpsons Ride, but also an entire Springfield neighborhood with iconic locations and characters from the show.
At first, I assumed that this probably wasn’t as big a concern for The Walt Disney Company, but I must admit that I’ve been truly surprised at how much Disney has embraced “The Simpsons” and welcomed them into the family. Pretty soon after the acquisition, “The Simpsons” could be found at the D23 Expo and were even featured heavily in the marketing for the Disney+ launch. At one point, I would have thought you’d never find Simpsons characters in a Disney park, but based on past use of the franchise by Disney, I would no longer be surprised. Are you ready for The Simpsons World Showcase Adventure? I jest of course.
Marvel and “The Simpsons” in Universal’s parks are year-round examples of Disney-owned properties in the competitor’s park, but it can also cause a bit of problems for seasonal events. Part of that 21st Century Fox acquisition included the television network FX. If you’re a fan of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal, you may recall past FX and Fox properties being featured like “American Horror Story,” “Alien vs. Predator,” and more.
Overall, it’s odd to have your biggest competitors’ properties featured in your theme parks. But it’s a reality between the two biggest theme park companies in the world. Do you find it to be strange or annoying, or do you not even think about it when you’re enjoying your favorite rides? Let me know in the comments.
If you have any theme park topics you would like to hear my opinion on, let me know in the comments. You might just see it pop up in a future DePaoli on DeParks.
Jeff DePaoli is a producer and voiceover artist living in Los Angeles. He can be heard as the voice of Disney Trivia on Alexa as well as the host of “Dizney Coast to Coast,” the ultimate, unofficial Disney fan podcast. Hear more about this particular subject matter on a past podcast episode.