Marvel Super Hero Island offers a theme-park window into a pre-MCU world
Avengers Campus opened on June 4 in Disney’s California Adventure, one of the parks at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. With all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the new facility, it might not mean that Avengers Campus isn’t the first Marvel-themed theme park, nor the only one. This title belongs to Marvel Super Hero Island, in the Adventure Islands of Universal Orlando, Florida. Established 22 years ago – long before the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and redefined the way the world sees Marvel characters – it’s a weird time capsule of a pre-MCU world. As the rest of the word lined up for the new WEB Slingers Spider-Man ride in Avengers Campus, I revisited The Amazing Spider-Man ride in Islands of Adventure out of morbid curiosity.
Why are there two Marvel-themed lands in completely separate parks, owned by totally different companies? Is that old 1999 merry-go-round good? Thanks to my recent trip to Universal Studios and a general knowledge of the weirdness of Adventure Islands, I have these answers.
A little insight for those unfamiliar with the complicated world of Marvel theme parks: The reason a Marvel Super Hero Island exists in Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure is that many of the Island’s theme park attractions. Adventure and Universal Orlando are licensed. properties of other studios. This is why these parks present the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Back when Islands of Adventure opened in 1999, Marvel Super Hero Island was one of the park’s first theme lands. (Fun fact – it was originally supposed to be a DC Land, before Time Warner acquired Six Flags and planned their own DC integration there.)
Islands of Adventure is a mishmash of different properties, each on its own “island” in the park. There’s a Jurassic Park themed island, Harry Potter’s, a Doctor Seuss world, a comic book country, a King Kong-inspired skull island and the Lost Continent, a vaguely medieval-themed location – Greco-Roman-Arabic that used to have a few diverse attractions that didn’t belong anywhere else, although these days it only hosts a waterfall show and an interactive fountain. And then there’s Marvel Super Hero Island.
I first visited the park in 2007, and coming back in 2021, I wasn’t too surprised to learn that not much has changed. Due to various rights issues, everything on Marvel Island specifically originated from the comics prior to 2009, the year Disney acquired Marvel. The language of the contract is very specific: Disney cannot use the name “Marvel” in theme parks in the United States or Japan (which explains the name of Avengers Campus) and cannot run a simulator on the Marvel theme within the designated legal distances from the universal theme. parks (that’s 60 miles for “mini-theme parks” and 300 miles for actual theme parks.) Disneyland is exempt from these rules because it is west of the Mississippi River, which is why Disney has squeezed Avengers Campus into the relatively small Disneyland, instead placing it in the more sprawling Walt Disney World.
What is Marvel Super Hero Island all about if not the MCU?
Marvel Super Hero Island makes it clear that it represents Marvel comics, not Marvel movies. It actually works quite a bit. Instead of replicating sets from MCU movies, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies or Venom, Marvel Island’s backdrop is packed with giant images of comic book-style characters, and the buildings are styled with big, bold, bright colors to mimic that feel.
It helps that some of the most eye-catching art on Marvel Island is characters that haven’t yet shown up in the MCU. The main restaurant has large cutouts of the Fantastic Four. You can take photos with a huge image of Wolverine baring his claws. There’s Captain America and Iron Man art on the sides of the buildings, but it’s very clearly the comic book characters, not movie stars. The retro vibe can be shocking, but since these specific characters are only a small part of Marvel Super Hero Island, it’s easy to get past them.
Visitors unfamiliar with the weirdly specific Marvel theme park legal restrictions might expect to see MCU counterparts in the park. But for the most part, the attractions – Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, The Incredible Hulk Coaster, and Storm Force Accelatron (an X-Men’s Storm-themed spinning teacup trick) – touch on characters that aren’t in the MCU, or not yet have a presence in Disneyland. It also helps that Marvel Island is a short walk from Toon Lagoon, the Adventure Islands area dedicated to comics and old-fashioned cartoon characters like Popeye and Dudley Do-Right, so that visitors can pass seamlessly from a pen. and-ink the world in another. For the most part, Marvel Super Hero Island feels like a small, pocket-sized universe, totally separate from the MCU juggernaut we know and love today.
Except for the Spider-Man ride.
It’s pretty fun that Marvel Super Hero Island and Avengers Campus opened their doors with Spider-Man – The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man rides at Islands of Adventure and WEB Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure at Disneyland. Both feature Spider-Man, naturally, but they also feature a mix of physical movement sets and virtual screen environments. Spider-Man’s rights continue to be the odd legal gray area when it comes to Marvel properties. Kind Tom Holland reportedly saved the big Sony-Marvel deal in 2019, but the film rights for the hero still belong to Sony.
But when it comes to the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride, none of the modern Spider-Man movies even existed. Like the rest of Marvel Super Hero Island, the ride was designed to evoke the comics, and it visually resembles the 1994 animated series more than it imitates any movie starring Holland, Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield. Over the past 22 years, the coaster has retained that same look. It was briefly renovated in 2012, but that just involved updating it to 4K and 3D, while adding a few Stan Lee cameos. When The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man came out, it was one of the most cutting-edge rides, and it received the best awards at events in the industry.
Does it hold today?
Waiting in line for The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man takes me around the back of the Daily Bugle offices. In the tradition of the merry-go-round, the Sinister Syndicate (made up here of Doctor Octopus, Scream, Electro, Hydro-Man and Hobgoblin) stole the Statue of Liberty. An animated version of J. Jonah Jameson, voiced by Chris Edgerly, recruits me and the other guests to get into a special fantasy reporter car, in order to take pictures of Spider-Man (… also voiced by Chris Edgerly ). The queue goes around the offices of the Daily Bugle. Outside, the bright buildings have intermittently drawn bricks, evoking that comic book feel. It’s not as detailed as some of the other waiting areas in the park (the Hogwarts queue comes to mind), but the little signs for the Daily Bugle cashier are a good idea.
Inside, the queue revolves around a press office. Since this took place in 1999, journalists at the Daily Bugle have been using typewriters and rotary telephones. Everything is also tinted in gray, which I guess is meant to continue the comic book look and evoke the newspaper comics, but it just looks a bit washed out. On televisions strewn in the queue, reporters give “live updates” of the Sinister Syndicate plans. Everything is done in that same old 1994 Spider Man animation style, which is quite charming.
J. Jonah’s intro video explains in more detail what lies ahead, while showing off the “Scoop” vehicle. We take “night vision goggles” (3D glasses), then load into the vehicle, which takes us down a Manhattan alley, depicted in comic book style.
The ride is a hybrid of sets and video screens, which show animated versions of Spider-Man characters threatening the Scoop vehicle, then being ripped from us by Spider-Man’s webs. For the most part, these cartoon encounters don’t look terribly outdated, especially since they’re not meant to look photorealistic. When the videos are in close-ups, the graphics look weird. But that doesn’t happen often, and most of the time when it does, the bad guys are masked. Items like Scream’s flowing hair can look a bit stiff, but when a real fire bursts through walls and water splashes on runners, that’s not really what you pay attention to.
The Scoop vehicle seamlessly switches between sets and screens, in a way Universal Rides does very well. The effect is similar in the Harry Potter Ride and the Forbidden Journey, but the Spider-Man Ride is notable for doing it first, and still just as fun. Despite the occasional stilted graphics, it’s still exciting, full of sudden dangers and knockdowns every few seconds. The Scoop vehicle is hit by Doc Ock’s anti-gravity beam, making the ups and downs all the more exciting.
Fire and water – the “4D effects” – might be whimsical, but they fit well into the storyline (admittedly incredibly cheesy) – and also, when a man made of water hits you, that’s fine. to be a little cheesy. Of course, Spider-Man rushes to save the day, ripping off the Scoop vehicle with its web before it crumbles to the ground. It’s fun, but that’s exactly what you want from a brief theme park encounter with your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
Because the Ride’s story is fully animated, and it’s so standalone in Spider-Man lore, without any reference to other heroes or villains, it’s easy to overlook the MCU version of Spider-Man and its whole interconnected universe. This is a different Spider-Man, one who never met Tony Stark and accidentally unleashed the robots that plague Avengers Campus. I thought I might think of Tom Holland or even Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire along the way, but instead I got swept away in this bustling universe.
I went to Marvel Super Hero Island expecting it to be a little sad, an unchanging pocket of time stuck in the early 2000s. To be fair, there are still a lot of those fixed benchmarks, like the cardboard cutout of Captain America fighter MODOK, from all villains. But it also captures a vibrantly colored quirky world that the MCU has yet to replicate. The Spider-Man Ride is the perfect example of the energy of the superhero world before the franchise, a tribute to the comics and animated shows that defined superhero media. Somehow, after all these years, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man is still holding up, even though he’s trapped in some weird time limbo. In fact, maybe it holds because he’s trapped in a weird time limbo, just as much a period piece of Marvel lore as a fun ride.
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