- The Washington Times - Monday, September 7, 2009

Don’t expect the Incredible Hulk to smash Cinderella’s Castle, but Walt Disney Co.’s purchase of Marvel Entertainment Inc. and its comic villains and troubled heroes will shake up the theme-park world as much as it will the movie business.

Last week’s $4 billion deal opens the Magic Kingdom to Iron Man and Dr. Doom - which hold more appeal to teenage boys than Mickey and Minnie - and puts in doubt NBC Universal’s licensing agreement for Spider-Man, one of many enduring characters created for Marvel by comic-book legend Stan Lee.

Other changes are afoot in fantasy land - the revitalization of Six Flags as it exits bankruptcy, the expected sale of Busch Gardens and Sea World, and next year’s opening of a Harry Potter-themed island at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure.

Since the opening of Disneyland near Los Angeles in 1955, Walt Disney’s saccharine spawn has achieved world domination - it draws more visitors than nearly all other amusement-park chains combined, armed with little more than fairy-tale princesses and happy endings.

But now the Mouse that swallowed Pixar three years ago will have a virtual monopoly on every cartoon character from Buzz Lightyear to the X-Men, from Donald Duck to the Fantastic Four, many of which are powerful theme-park draws.

“If you look at Marvel’s catalog of 5,000 characters, there’s no stone left unturned in terms of what superpowers and what genre. They have Squirrel Girl. Anything that you can think of, they’ve got covered,” said analyst Jamie Rizzo of Fitch Ratings in New York.

“I don’t think Disney bought the catalog not to exploit it and all those characters,” he said.

Fellow Fitch Ratings analyst Mike Simonton agreed.

“Nobody in the media industry is as sophisticated at developing and leveraging intellectual property as Disney,” he said. “They’ll certainly be able to do a lot with Marvel.”

General Electric Co.’s NBC Universal, a Disney rival in both films and theme parks, will have fewer options for future character-themed rides. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, a log-flume ride that showcases hologram technology, is Universal Orlando’s top attraction and is considered one of the greatest rides ever conceived. Universal also has an Incredible Hulk Coaster at its Orlando, Fla., park.

Universal’s licensing agreement with Marvel will stay in effect indefinitely, Universal spokeswoman Cindy Gardner said last week. Universal has the rights to Marvel characters east of the Mississippi River.

But Mr. Rizzo and Nikki Finke, founder and editor of Web site Deadline Hollywood, don’t expect the Mouse to play nice. The agreement is written narrowly, giving Marvel a “big ol’ out,” Ms. Finke said.

“Trust me, there will be blood as pit-bull lawyers on all sides tear apart the language of each and every contract clause,” she wrote on her site.

Disney and Universal will have to make strategic decisions about “brand confusion”- having the same Marvel characters at rival parks, said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a Cincinnati consulting firm that specializes in theme park purchases.

He called Disney’s move “a grand slam.”

“It means that Universal’s going to be calling audibles at the line of scrimmage, no doubt about it. Marvel has been an important arrow in their quiver during the last 10 years or so,” he said.

Disney could open a Marvel-themed attraction in California within a few years, or the company could be satisfied for now with licensing revenues on the characters, paid for by Universal.

“Disney can take their California Adventure Park, which has been struggling since the beginning, and develop products and attractions about Marvel characters. That makes a lot of sense,” Mr. Speigel said.

“I don’t think you’re going to see an immediate introduction of Marvel characters in the parks in the next two or three years. They’re going to focus on movies and DVDs,” he said.

The licensing agreement “is going to give exposure of some of Universal’s confidential information to Disney, and typically those things are kept private,” he said. “It opens a lot of tributaries, which I would imagine not everyone has figured out, not Marvel, not Universal and not Disney.”

Six Flags, which opened its first park in Texas in 1961, has the rights to fading Time Warner characters such as Bugs Bunny, as well as those acquired in Warner Bros.’ 1969 purchase of DC Comics, such as Superman and Batman. Six Flags has done well with its new Dark Knight rides based on the updated Batman character.

The fourth most popular theme-park company in the world is poised to emerge from a bankruptcy that analysts attribute to poor management and overpriced park acquisitions before its 2005 proxy takeover by Red Zone LLC. Red Zone is an investment vehicle managed by Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.

The company, which operates Six Flags America in Largo, declined to comment for this article. Six Flags proposed last month that creditors led by JPMorgan Chase take a 92 percent stake in the company.

Operationally, analysts say, the company has already turned around under the helm of Chief Executive Officer Mark Shapiro, 38.

“Shapiro is one of the brightest guys in our industry,” Mr. Speigel said. “He has the parks healthy again on an individual basis.

“Hip and cool is very important to your female and male demographic that visits theme parks, and Shapiro has brought coolness back to the parks,” he said.

“He brought [roller coasters inspired by skateboarder] Tony Hawk in for the teenagers, and for children, Thomas the Tank Engine. He brought in ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ ” Mr. Speigel said.

The older Time Warner characters “have slipped somewhat,” he said. “They’re not as prominent as they once were. They don’t have the cachet and awareness that the Disney characters have.”

Six Flags also introduced last year seven Dark Knight roller coasters, which bring box office appeal to the parks the way Marvel’s Spider-Man and other characters do for Universal.

Sea World and Busch Gardens were acquired by Brazilian-Belgian brewer InBev last year when it bought Anheuser-Busch. The brewer of Stella Artois and Beck’s has put the theme parks on the market, but the weak economy has kept buyers at bay.

Disney is thought to be interested in the Sea World part of the Busch Gardens franchise, Mr. Speigel said. Both franchises could be bought together or they could be split up. But the future is not in doubt for the individual parks.

“All of the Anheuser-Busch parks are successful, and they will not be closed, no way,” he said.

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