Friday, November 26, 2010

Marvel at Disney World: A Brief Review

Hello folks. I know you've been in serious withdrawal since my last post, lo, these many weeks ago. But now I am finally back from vacation and have found a few moments of free time to provide a brief recap of what I saw at Walt Disney World. No, I don't mean the rides and the characters and the tens of thousands of out of shape tourists (and that was just in mirrors around the park); no, I'm specifically talking about the presence of Marvel Comics at the Disney World resort.

Or, more to the point, the lack of presence. granted, it has only been a year since Disney purchased Marvel, so no doubt many of the strategy meetings on how to best integrate the Marvel brand into the existing Disney world are still taking place. And the theme parks and their attendant resort areas are bound to be one of the trickier arenas to figure out, because frankly, the tone and style of the Marvel Universe isn't necessarily a great match for Disney World; I have a hard time, for instance, picturing am X-Men roller coaster sharing space with the Country Bear Jamboree, for instance.

Still, Disney bought Marvel for a reason, namely the fact that Marvel's superheroes are becoming the 21st century version of Disney's animated stable; in a real sense they are creating the pop mythology for this generation as Mickey, Donald and Goofy created the pop mythology for the Depression era. So there has to be a way to integrate the characters into Disney World in a way that both utilizes them properly and allows them to co-exist with current Disney favorites without affecting the successful atmosphere that has made Disney a family destination for decades.

Putting Marvel rides in the parks, however, is likely to be the last step that Disney undertakes simply because it takes years of planning to design a ride and then build it. With this in mind, then, it makes some sense that during my trip to Disney I saw only a very minimal Marvel presence -- but still a presence that could lead to bigger things.

The only signs of Marvel that I actually saw at a park was at Hollywood Studios (the most logical place for a Marvel presence, as I will get into later), this being a small side shop that used to be devoted to Disney-themed stationery but which now is basically a coffee shop with a few books in it. Among those books, however, there was a full shelf of hardcover Marvel collections for sale. Best of all, as part of the decorations there was a poster-sized reproduction of a pre-code Atlas romance cover.

I've also learned, thanks to the folks at Robot 6 (these photos also belong to them), that I missed a big display of Marvel comics at the Villains store at Hollywood Studios.

Beyond this, my only encounter with anything Marvel during my trip was a rack of Iron Man merchandise at the gift shop inside the Port Orleans resort area. I didn't have a chance to visit the shops in Downtown Disney, but my understanding from Robot 6 is that there is also a Marvel section in the World of Disney store there that sells TPBs, clothes and toys from across the Marvel line.

While this all still adds up to a pretty minor presence for Marvel at Walt Disney World, I think they are going about things the right way. After some thought, here is my three stage plan for integrating Marvel into the Disney World experience:

1) A Marvel Store at Downtown Disney Having a section in World of Disney is nice, but in order to really maximize and promote the Marvel brand -- and more importantly, begin to get tourists used the the idea that Marvel is part of Disney and the Disney World experience -- I think they need to build a whole Marvel-only store. Perhaps they could call it "World of Marvel" or something; whatever the case, having a Marvel-themed store filled with Marvel merchandize -- including, importantly, exclusive Walt Disney World Resort merchandise featuring Marvel characters -- would be a good first step towards leveraging the Marvel brand within Disney World.

2) A Marvel-themed Resort Area Disney World already has oodles of themed resorts, including stuff like All-Star Sports and the Pop Century resort. A Marvel resort area would fit right in with this. Logically it should service Hollywood Studios, but wherever located, it could become a destination resort for Marvel fans by allowing you to choose which Marvel headquarters you wanted to spend your week in, with hotel rooms inside replicas of Avengers Mansion, the X-Mansion, the Baxter Building, Stark Enterprises and the Daily Bugle. This is an experience that Universal, even with their Marvel rides at islands of Adventure, cannot offer.

3) Marvel Rides at Hollywood Studios Finally, once tourists are used to the idea of Marvel being a major part of their Disney vacation, rides should be introduced. This is the diciest part of the plan, as currently rival Universal Studios has a deal with Marvel for rides at their Islands of Adventure park. Whatever they need to do to get out of it, though, Disney should eventually plan to have Marvel rides at their Hollywood Studios, which is the only one of the four parks that thematically makes sense for Marvel rides. And frankly, Hollywood Studios is currently the weakest of the parks and could use a bit of a boost. My suggestion would be to put them at the opposite end of New York Street from the Muppet Theater; New York is a central character in the Marvel Universe and would be a good place for the Marvel heroes to hang out and sign autographs, and right now there's really nothing down at that end of the street anyway.

Lastly, an entire Marvel-themed park wouldn't be completely out of the question, but I'm not sure how viable it would be. It has been well over a decade since Disney's last new park, The Animal Kingdom, opened, so a fifth park at Disney World wouldn't be a surprise. Whether or not there would be enough interest in Marvel characters to anchor an entire theme park, well... hard to say. But in the meantime, the previous three steps I've outlined would be a good way to integrate Marvel into the Disney World experience over the period of five years or so, something that could only help Marvel in terms of expanding their brand visibility -- and help Disney begin to realize the ancillary profits they no doubt expected when they decided to buy up the stable of Marvel characters.

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They may have an issue with Universal Studios which has "Marvel Island" in their Islands of Adventure Theme Park. That is where the Marvel-themed rides are. Not sure if they will be able to work something out to move the rides into Disneyworld proper, or whether Universal now has to pay Disney in order to keep those rides going...