By Fowl Owlerson
In Summer of 2015, Universal Orlando’s official blog confirmed the temporary closure of The Incredible Hulk Coaster on Marvel Super Hero Island at Islands of Adventure for a renovation from Sept. 8, 2015 to an undisclosed date in Summer 2016. We knew this was a considerable amount of time for the refurbishment to be merely a new coat of paint, and indeed we’ve seen the extent of this process since the ride’s closure.
There were pictures on social media of the Hulk coaster trains in an undisclosed junkyard. The construction process changed the iconic skyline of Universal Orlando with the removal of the coaster’s track. The attraction adjacent to Hulk, Storm Force Acceleratron, was walled off and the coaster itself was reconstructed with brand new track.
There were rumors that The Incredible Hulk Coaster was being retooled with a new property, and Universal Orlando reaffirmed this was not the case. The new coaster track with the signature Hulk green further drove the point home: The Incredible Hulk Coaster will return this summer. This rebuild speaks volumes about Universal’s intentions not just for the attraction but for the entirety of Marvel Super Hero Island.
The landscape of entertainment was different when Universal acquired the rights to Marvel’s intellectual properties in the ’90s for Islands of Adventure theme park. Prior to this acquisition, Universal was nearing a deal with DC Comics to construct an entire island dedicated to Batman and Gotham City. The deal didn’t pan out and Universal was forced to rethink their second theme park. I’d venture to say the resort is happy with how things have turned out so far – complications due to Disney’s purchase of Marvel notwithstanding.
Disney’s acquisition of Marvel is still reverberating throughout the entertainment industry, with contracts being scrutinized and worked out between Disney and Marvel’s partners. I’d liken it to a parent coming in and examining the happenings of their children. Marvel was in dire financial straits when these contracts were negotiated and agreed upon, and the majority of these terms weren’t favorable to Marvel. Case in point, 20th Century Fox will control the “Fantastic Four” and “X-Men” properties in film for as long as the studio keeps making movies. This is why the seemingly unfinished cinematic dross “Fantastic Four” was released last year; Fox was on the verge of losing the license and the rights would have reverted back to Marvel had the movie not been made and released by 2015.
Universal Orlando Resort owns the license to the Marvel properties in Islands of Adventure in perpetuity. Unless Universal Orlando agrees to relinquish the properties back to Disney, Marvel Super Hero Island is “safe.” The characters employed at Islands of Adventure can’t be used at Walt Disney World, but they can appear at Disneyland Resort. We aren’t privy to the contract, but I’ve been told by a source that each property was explicitly detailed as to what manner they were to be used by Universal, and this doesn’t include every Marvel property in existence. For instance, the “Guardians of the Galaxy” aren’t present at Universal Orlando, but have been seen as costumed characters at Walt Disney World. It’s rumored that a Marvel Avengers attraction will open at Disney California Adventure at some point in the future with an accompanying Marvel Super Hero Land, which is acceptable per the contract — Universal’s exclusive rights is only east of the Mississippi river. This deal plus the Avatar and Star Wars expansions seem to have stalled Disney’s plans to implement Marvel into their North American parks, specifically Walt Disney World.
The overhaul of The Incredible Hulk Coaster will bring the coaster back as a formidable presence with brand new ride vehicles, new track and supports, an overhauled launch system and a new indoor queue. Those who have had to suffer the stifling, wet heat of a Florida summer in Hulk’s original queue know that this overhaul was needed. This doesn’t mean the coaster couldn’t be retooled. Another source disclosed that based on the contract, Universal Orlando can’t venture far from the current iteration of Marvel Super Hero Island because of what was agreed upon — and they most assuredly can’t use imagery from the Marvel Cinematic Universe — which is problematic as that’s what has become synonymous with the Marvel brand.
A unique problem with Marvel Super Hero Island is that the land’s aesthetic and characters are an encapsulation of the ’90s era of Marvel, as well as a representation of a themed land pre-Wizarding World and Skull Island. This doesn’t represent the modern phase of Marvel, which changed dramatically with “The Incredible Hulk,” “Iron Man,” and the subsequent waves of films that created a successful comprehensive universe. Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe has caused major changes to the company’s comic universe — as well as the film industry as a whole — but the relationship between Marvel’s comic and film divisions are symbiotic by nature. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was inspired by Ed Brubaker’s seminal run of Captain America and Bucky in the comics universe.
The contract with Marvel is rumored to be contingent upon the upkeep of the rides, which is likely one of the things that impelled Universal Orlando to renovate The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and now The Incredible Hulk Coaster, but this isn’t where the renovations are rumored to end. Multiple sources have informed me that Marvel Super Hero Island will see further revisions, including potentially “new” scenery to better reflect the modern permutation of Marvel. One source told me that the costumes used for Marvel Super Hero Island’s characters would likely be revised and certain characters may be removed from the roster. In my Top Rumors of 2016 column, I disclosed that several sources have told me that “non-Disney/Marvel” properties are rumored to be jettisoned from Marvel Super Hero Island, which includes Dr. Doom’s Fearfall, Fantastic Four Cafe and Storm Force Accelatron — as previously mentioned, 20th Century Fox owns the film rights to those properties. A new “E Ticket” attraction is rumored to emerge in their place, as this would offer considerable space for an expansion.
The E Ticket attraction is rumored to be a new 3D ride starring the Avengers, who must fight a threat with the help of guests in S.H.I.E.L.D. vehicles that would be similar to the ride vehicle technology used in Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. This is where things get hairy (or “feathery” to borrow from own parlance). I don’t know what Universal is permitted to use or if a brand new ride is possible with the current contract in place. The Avengers roster has gone through many permutations over the years and recently got a new team, but as mentioned the contracts explicitly list how each character is permitted to be used by the park (although I’d be curious to know if the contract for Namor explicitly states that he must appear near the restrooms/water fountains in the area).
Universal Orlando and Disney are rumored to be in talks to revise the agreement, which would give Universal more leeway on using Marvel’s properties and perhaps allow Disney to use the properties Universal owns. I’m incredulous of this deal because both Disney and Universal Orlando have transitioned into creating immersive lands, and Marvel Super Hero Island is a product of a different kind. Both companies benefit from the present situations – Universal is advertising properties Disney owns while generating revenue in their own park as they do so – but this can’t last. The Guardians of the Galaxy are now major characters in Marvel’s universe, and they weren’t prior to the excellent 2014 film by Marvel Studios, which leads to wasted potential on Universal and Disney’s part. Ant-Man is now in the spotlight and Black Panther will be soon. Characters such as Captain Marvel are still years away from debuting, but will likely be launched into pop culture when they do.
If negotiations between the two companies fall through, I could see Universal Orlando agreeing to sell the theme park rights of Marvel back to Disney if they can find the right brand to replace Marvel Super Hero Island with … Conversely Universal Orlando could bide their time with the current contract, as it’s in their favor, but you can be assured that alternative properties will be sought out by Universal as a contingency plan should they need to overhaul Marvel Super Hero Island in the future.
For the time being, Marvel Super Hero Land will remain at Universal Orlando, although its long-term viability is in question. The current state of Marvel’s properties in theme parks leaves me wistful, as characters such as Iron Man, Ant-Man and Captain America aren’t represented well at Islands of Adventure, and the land could eventually be “off brand” and irrelevant if Universal isn’t able to alter it beyond maintenance. I’d love to see Disney Imagineering take a crack at Marvel’s repertoire of characters, and indeed that will likely happen over in Disneyland some point after the Star Wars expansion. It’s possible if these rumors about Universal and Disney negotiating are true, we’ll learn more after The Incredible Hulk Coaster returns, which isn’t far from now.
UPDATE – May 10, 2016:
The original column was written under the assumption that the contract between Universal and Marvel wasn’t publicly available and I was wrong – the contract is publicly available. Attractions reader Becky shared the link to it which you can find here. Brian over at Orlando United perused the contract and wrote a good analysis of it, and I recommend you give it a read.
I related in the original column above that the contract explicitly specified the characters that were to be used by Universal Orlando and this is not the case; it’s more vague in this regard. Based on the contract, Universal Orlando could update the Island’s imagery to reflect the current modern aesthetic of Marvel’s comic universe, so long as Marvel approves of it, which they’re contractually obligated to do unless they can prove Universal is not properly representing their intellectual property, or is maintaining a poor upkeep of the rides. Universal Orlando could hypothetically make an Avengers ride and not violate their contract, but they’d need to involve Marvel in the process.
Marvel approved the revisions to The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and a source disclosed that The Incredible Hulk Coaster’s new story was created at the guidance of Marvel, who wanted a more “heroic” and “friendlier” interpretation of the character. From what was rumored, Universal Orlando wanted to use the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Hulk, but negotiations with Disney didn’t work out. The imagery of the character will be based on the comic. Contractually, Marvel is obligated to collaborate with Universal Orlando so long as the park isn’t misrepresenting their intellectual properties.
Walt Disney World can’t use Marvel’s branding for marketing purposes nor can they use the characters Universal Orlando currently has in their park, which is essentially most of Marvel’s bigger properties. Furthermore, Marvel rides can’t be located within 60 miles of Universal Orlando Resort, which is a clear restriction for Walt Disney World. An interesting stipulation in the contract forbids Disneyland from using the Marvel name as part of an attraction or marketing.
In the original column I said that Universal owns the rights in perpetuity. I am going to reiterate that Universal Orlando isn’t contractually obligated to forfeit the theme park rights to Marvel’s characters. If they do so (and that’s a big if), it’ll be of their own volition. It’d likely be to replace the space with a different property with a new immersive experience that’ll follow their current paradigm to design. The Marvel Super Hero Island Universal Orlando made doesn’t represent the immersive lands of the Wizarding World and Skull Island, but Universal can revise the Island to match the modern comics and add another attraction so long as it’s “reasonable.” One stipulation in the contract is that Universal Orlando can’t keep an attraction closed for a protracted period of time unless it’s due to “force majeure events” (things beyond the control of a company like an act of God, war, etc.) or for refurbishment/maintenance (but must be diligently pursued).
In the original column I stated that Universal Orlando was rumored to be in talks with Disney to use the Marvel Cinematic Universe imagery for a hypothetical Avengers ride. Attractions writer Seth Kubersky, in our comments section pointed out that the likeness of each actor must also be negotiated, which is true for any use of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from merchandise to films to theme parks. The contract states they must adhere to Marvel’s style guideline and example of this can be illustrated by looking at the full details for The Incredible Hulk’s relaunch this summer. That’s assuredly Hulk as we know him from the comics, but it’s not Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk seen in “Marvel’s Avengers” or “Avengers: Age of Ultron”.
Universal Orlando can bide their time for as long as they wish, however there may come a time when using the property is no longer beneficial for either company. I said in the original column Marvel Super Hero Island for now is “safe” and it is for the foreseeable future, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility for Universal Orlando to replace Marvel Super Hero Island with a new property at some point in the future.
• Fowl Owlerson has been attending theme parks since he was a little owlet. When he’s not filtering through the latest murmurings around the industry, he can be found writing, reading, and snacking on the occasional rodent. Follow him on Twitter @fowlowlerson for the latest rumors, and drop an anonymous letter to him at [email protected] or via Direct Message on Twitter.