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Why Disney Can’t Use Spider-Man or the Avengers at Its Orlando Location—Even Though It Owns the Marvel Brand

Last month, Disney announced plans to create Super Hero-themed lands at its California Adventure attraction, as well as Paris and Hong Kong locations. Curiously missing, though, was any mention of its flagship Orlando parks.

While there are a few one-off rides tied to the Marvel universe in Orlando, such as the Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster coming to Epcot, the real heavy hitters of the Marvel universe, including Spider-Man, the Hulk and Iron Man will likely remain MIA for some time.

It all ties back to an old and complicated licensing agreement Disney inherited when it bought the Marvel brand. That deal prohibits Disney from using certain Marvel characters (as well as using the word Marvel in any theme park land) in any of its holdings east of the Mississippi River.

In 1994, Marvel Entertainment and MCA (which would go on to become part of NBCUniversal) signed a deal detailing how Marvel heroes could be used in theme parks. Specifically, Universal Studios had the rights to use the characters, but Universal had to exercise them. Further, a key part of the agreement used the Mississippi River to separate the country into two regions.

Universal utilizes certain characters at its Orlando resort, but none at its California park. Had it done so, Disney would be in a bind—as the contract’s terms would have severely restricted what it could do at its facilities there, as well.

Among the Marvel attractions at Universal Orlando are an Incredible Hulk roller coaster, a Spider-Man ride, and a free-fall thrill ride that ties in with Doctor Doom. Fans can also interact with actors dressed as Captain America, Wolverine, and more. That immediately rules all of those characters out at Disney World (or Disney Hollywood Studios, Epcot, or any other Orlando Disney park.)

Complicating things a bit further, there’s another clause of the agreement that states if a character is a part of a superhero family, no other park can use members of that family. So, since Captain America is an Avenger, that would rule out the use of many of the characters Marvel has popularized in its film series, including Iron Man.

California, though, is wide open. The only restriction is the word “Marvel” can’t be used as part of an attraction’s name or its marketing—a rule Universal must respect as well.

California guests will get to experience the Super Hero-themed land in 2020. Orlando tourists, at least, have the exclusive for now on Pandora: World of Avatar.

There are no such restrictions on Star Wars, though. And both parks plan to go big with their upcoming Star Wars-themed areas, which are expected to open next year.