The Weird and Wonderful History of Marvel Theme Park Rides
Marvel's theme park rides have often been out of left field for legal reasons, but Guardians of the Galaxy's success was a game-changer for Disney.
At the D23 Expo, we heard a lot of information about Marvel movies and TV shows. Among stuff like Werewolf by Night and Thunderbolts, there was also talk about a massive event where King Thanos (from a world where he was victorious) would face heroes from all over the multiverse. If this is your first time hearing about this and you’re wondering why there hasn’t been more media emphasis on such a story, the reason is because it isn’t a Marvel movie or TV show, but a ride taking place in Disneyland sometime in the next couple years.
It’s something Disneyland’s Avengers Campus has been in desperate need for: a third ride. While details are scarce on the King Thanos attraction, even what its official name will be, it acts as a new chapter in the bizarre history of Marvel theme parks. Much like their complicated movie rights, Marvel’s theme park history is a bit all over the place. So all over the place, in fact, that there are currently two different Spider-Man rides on two different coasts, run by rival theme park companies.
How did we get here?
Pre-Six Flags Great Adventure
Before the days of actual Marvel theme park rides, the closest you’d get is seeing some people in superhero costumes making the rounds and greeting children. While there were surely many instances of this in the early decades, one of note was Great Adventure in 1977. Only three heroes were used for this: Spider-Man, Captain America, and Ms. Marvel.
The partnership would not last, as Six Flags bought Great Adventure later that year and the contract with Marvel came to an end. Six Flags would go on to give us various rollercoasters named after DC heroes. This is rather ironic, considering the next chapter in the story.
Universal Islands of Adventure
Universal initially wanted to make a theme park area centered around DC Comics after the success of the Tim Burton Batman movies. The idea of building a second park to go with Universal Studios had been brewing for a long time and, starting in the early 1990s, the intended direction was to have it heavily feature the likes of Superman, Batman, and the rest of the Justice League. Discussions fell through and the DC superheroes ended up being locked up with the various Six Flags theme parks, leading to Universal dealing with Marvel.
Universal Islands of Adventure opened in May 1999 and Marvel Superhero Island was one of its crown jewels. Built with three rides and one more on the way, the place was colorful and filled with Easter eggs and displays of 90s Marvel art. Everywhere you looked, you would see gigantic images of Captain America, MODOK, Magneto, Iceman, Kingpin, Namor, and more.
As part of the agreement, Universal could do attractions based on characters from Spider-Man, X-Men, Avengers, and Fantastic Four. There were also references here and there to Daredevil and the Inhumans, so they seemed to have a net over just about everything Marvel.
For the rides, there was a strong variety. Storm Force Accelatron was a knockoff of Disney’s Mad Tea Party with an X-Men theme. Doctor Doom’s Fearfall had the Latverian ruler fire you into the sky for the sake of collecting your fear and weaponizing it against the Fantastic Four. The Incredible Hulk Coaster was depicted as an experiment to cure Bruce Banner that ended up going wrong riiiiiiight as you were being shot 60 mph out of a cannon. Years later, they would alter the story so it was General Ross’ attempt to turn the riders into gamma soldiers.
But those rides were nothing compared to The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. This 3D dark ride seamlessly mixed practical effects with 3D animation in a situation where J. Jonah Jameson sent you off in an experimental transport to go cover the story of the Sinister Syndicate (Doc Ock, Hobgoblin, Hydro Man, Electro, and Scream of all people) stealing the Statue of Liberty. Years later, Universal would clone the ride for the Universal Studios park and theme it to the Michael Bay Transformers movies. Still fun, even without the Stan Lee cameos.
Marvel Superhero Island featured many other fun bells and whistles, such as characters walking around in costume, an arcade run by Kingpin, and a Captain America diner. When you go into said diner, not only is there art all over the walls of very 90s-based Avengers members (lots of leather jackets), but the music is a loop of several songs with “hero” in the title. Those poor employees. Though it’s not as bad as the Blondie’s sandwich restaurant in the Toon Lagoon area where they literally play the 1938 Blondie movie theme on repeat.
Other than sprucing up some of the rides, nothing much had happened with Marvel Superhero Island over the decades, but back in 2002 the area was used for Halloween Horror Nights, where the idea was that Carnage and a bunch of supervillains (including a mind-controlled Punisher) had massacred all the Marvel heroes and used their corpses as decorations in a horror maze. Little footage exists of the event, and supposedly Marvel was displeased with it enough that they shut down any attempt to bring it back in the following years.
One of the rules involved in the Marvel/Universal contract – one which would become VERY important in 2009 – was that Universal had exclusive theme park rights to their vast collection of Marvel characters when it came to the east coast of the United States. If it was in the US and it was to the right of the Mississippi River, they couldn’t touch Spider-Man, X-Men, etc.
Marvel was able to work around that to make a couple more bucks over the years. For instance, Australia’s Wonderland theme park had just lost the rights to use Hanna Barbera characters in 2002. Luckily, they were able to reach a deal with Marvel in the aftermath. They didn’t create any attractions related to the heroes, but they did have Spider-Man, Green Goblin, Hulk, Daredevil, Elektra, Wolverine, Storm, and Captain America walking around in costume for meet-and-greets.
Wonderland closed less than two years later. The gigantic entry sign that featured large images of Spider-Man and the Hulk, now decorates a Londonderry junkyard.
Spider-Man’s Live Shows
While not nearly as disastrous as Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the webslinger did get a couple of live shows at theme parks that didn’t quite set the world on fire, both of which were created to capitalize on the popularity of the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie, and that were based on Spider-Man rescuing Mary Jane and fighting the Green Goblin.
From 2003 to 2004, England’s Thorpe Park had The Amazing Spider-Man Show. It was basically a live stunt spectacular show taking place outside with some music and dancing thrown in. It was goofy, but had some decent stunt work and effects worked in there, like Spider-Man climbing up the walls.
More cringeworthy was Spider-Man Rocks! at Universal Studios Hollywood. While there were no Marvel-based rides at the west coast’s Universal park, they did have this going on from 2002 to 2004. The 20-minute musical featured very little Spider-Man and even less Green Goblin, but once they did start fighting it out in the end, they did it to covers of “Another One Bites the Dust” and “War.” Mary Jane also distracted Green Goblin mid-fight with her own performance of “Lady Marmalade.” Oh, and she was attacked by muggers while they sang “She Bangs.” It was a strange time.
Marvel Adventure City
At Niagara Falls, from 2003 to 2008, there was an indoor theme park called Marvel Adventure City. As you entered the complex, you would be greeted by two bickering animatronics of Spider-Man and the Ultimate Green Goblin. The complex included a Daredevil-themed obstacle course, an “Avengers but they’re kids!” treehouse for children, X-Men bumper cars, and a haunted house type attraction that made it seem like the Hulk was stalking you. That one was later turned into a Hulk-themed miniature golf course.
The biggest attraction at Marvel Adventure City was Spider-Man: The Ultimate Ride. This blacklight dark ride had you shooting at targets in order to help Spider-Man take out the likes of Scorpion, Lizard, Electro, Ultimate Green Goblin, Doc Ock, and others, each depicted as a screen of CGI animation, an animatronic, or a cut-out. Once you reached the end of the ride, you would see all the various villains hanging from the ceiling, tangled in web.
Sadly, the Marvel license was too expensive, and it was dropped by 2008. The Spider-Man ride was then redesigned to be a generic superhero experience.
IMG Worlds of Adventure
You would think that by the time Disney had bought Marvel, they would step back from selling the license to other theme parks. That’s not the case, as in 2015, Dubai’s IMG Worlds of Adventure indoor park scooped up said license and dedicated plenty of their real estate to Marvel. While the park piggybacked onto the success of the MCU – including having a restaurant called Downtown Shawarma – the designs were explicitly based on the classic comic book versions.
Worlds of Adventure came with five Marvel rides and they’re mostly bangers. Avengers: Flight of the Quinjets is a flashier take on the Disney Dumbo ride. Thor Thunder Spin is a top spin ride where you’re suspended in the air and flipped around a bunch of times. Spider-Man: Doc Ock’s Revenge is a very brief rollercoaster that goes both inside and outside and features both a spinning seat and gigantic skyscraper cutouts complete with images of Spider-Man and Doc Ock duking it out.
Avengers: Battle of Ultron is like a slightly weaker version of Universal’s The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man with a different story. This time, you’re a SHIELD trainee getting caught in the middle of a fight between the Avengers and Ultron in New York City. They use the initial movie line-up of the Avengers, though Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Nick Fury refrain from appearing on any of the screens. Quicker to get the ride finished when you only have to animate five characters!
Finally, there’s the very inventive Hulk: Epsilon Base 3D. In it, you sit in a round room that’s surrounded by a dome screen. You’re supposed to be watching a General Ross presentation of his new anti-Hulk military tech, only for the Leader to hack the machines. Next thing you know, the room is tilting around and you’re using your 3D glasses to watch the Hulk and Iron Man pop in and lay waste to all the military mechs and the Leader’s robotic avatar. Action is going on in all directions, so you have to have your head on a swivel.
Avengers: Age of Disney
Once Disney bought Marvel in 2009, that had people wondering about the future of Islands of Adventure. It was an awkward business relationship, but no way was Universal going to let go of all the money Marvel Superhero Island was going to net them over the years. That’s not to mention the cost of taking down that huge chunk of Islands of Adventure and gradually rebuilding it as something else. The two sides have been playing nice and can only drop Marvel Superhero Island if 1) Universal chooses to, 2) Universal stops making payments for the license, and 3) Disney is able to make an argument that Universal is misusing their property. As it is, the area is now permanently stuck in the 90s, like a time capsule.
Outside of Disney World, Disney could use Marvel properties in whichever theme park, as long as they did not use the term “Marvel” in a promotional sense. With Disney World, they were barred from using any of the characters who were part of Universal’s Marvel contract. At first glance, that appeared to be 99% of what Marvel had to offer and seemingly took any popular names off the table.
Then 2014 happened and Guardians of the Galaxy became a huge hit. Despite the comic originating in 1969, the Star-Lord incarnation of the Guardians did not exist until the mid-2000s, long after the Universal contract. While Captain America and Spider-Man could not walk around Disney World to sign autographs, Star-Lord and Gamora certainly could.
Disney had huge plans when it came to the Guardians. To start, in 2017, they took the wildly popular Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride in Disney California Adventure and rethemed it as Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! Replacing Tower of Terror was a serious “shoot at the king, you best not miss” moment, but they pulled off something special.
The plot of the ride is that the Collector has captured the Guardians, though Rocket escaped. Rocket would work with the theme park guests (a tour group for the Collector’s museum) to rescue his friends, leading to the malfunctioning ride vehicle bouncing up and down, accompanied by randomized vintage music and randomized clips of the Guardians fighting their way out of the complex.
There are so many fun Easter eggs with this one. The waiting queue lets you see plenty of the Collector’s collection, including an Ultron sentry, Beta Ray Bill’s hammer, and for some reason Figment the Dragon from Epcot. There’s a painting that shows the Grandmaster (of Thor: Ragnarok) angrily losing a board game to the Collector, the only time anything MCU-related has referenced their familial connection.
Then there’s the horror sequel. During the Halloween season, Mission: Breakout! would feature an overlay with the idea that the crew accidentally left Baby Groot behind. Rocket would have to search for him in the abandoned museum, all while running from Surtur’s dragon from Thor: Ragnarok. Seems that was part of the collection and it’s on the loose as well.
Disney would ride that wave by putting the Guardians of the Galaxy in Disney World, specifically Epcot. Opening in 2022, they replaced Ellen’s Energy Adventure with a spinning indoor rollercoaster called Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind. To fit with the edutainment theming of Epcot, they played it up that Xandar was opening a pavilion to educate people of Earth about their culture. Things would go off the rails once a Celestial appeared with intent on creating a new Big Bang, leading to the ride, where the guests would watch the Guardians and the Nova Corps take on the cosmic colossus. Again, all accompanied with a random vintage soundtrack.
While Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and Dave Bautista reprised their roles (including Drax wearing a shirt now for whatever reason), Rocket and Groot were recast. Glenn Close returned as Nova Prime with Terry Crews as a Nova Centurion. Also, it took place in its own continuity, as Groot was still his original self and not reborn as a baby or teen.
Choosing to really embrace the MCU franchise, Disney opened its first Marvel-themed area in 2016 at Hong Kong Disneyland. The first Avengers Campus featured two rides that are not available in the United States.
First is Iron Man Experience, a 3D motion simulator ride (much like Star Tours) where you are a guest at the Stark Expo in Hong Kong. As you are flown around in a ship piloted by JARVIS’ AI, you realize that the Expo is under siege by robots controlled by Arnim Zola. Iron Man comes to continually save you as you help him take out all the various robots, including Zola’s Death Star-like final form.
Later, this ride was accompanied by Ant-Man and the Wasp: Nano Battle!, which was a retheme of Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. Again, Zola is on the attack, this time in miniature form, and you have to join Ant-Man and the Wasp in a dark ride target shooting game. It’s not the most action-packed Marvel ride, but it does feature plenty of charming Paul Rudd footage to make it worthwhile.
Walt Disney Studios Park (otherwise known as Disneyland Paris or Euro Disney) has their own Avengers Campus. One of their rides is a retheme of the Aerosmith Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster called Avengers Assemble: Flight Force. The story behind this one is that Iron Man and Captain Marvel have to intercept some Kree missiles from hitting Earth. The blacklight road signs from the Aerosmith ride are replaced with screens that show the two heroes flying around, shooting lasers, and being snarky at each other.
Funny part of this is the pre-show, where there’s an Iron Man animatronic talking to us in French. Next to him is a screen showing Captain Marvel flying through space, talking to us in English. They’re very much conveying the same basic information, like Captain Marvel going, “Yes, Tony! That’s right! We DO only have one shot at stopping these missiles!”
It does make perfect sense that Carol Danvers would understand Stark’s French dialogue. She is Brie, after all.
There’s also a special Marvel dinner show on the Disney Wish cruise ship in Orlando. Apparently, doing a cruise ship showcase is different enough that it doesn’t encroach on the Universal situation. Avengers: Quantum Encounter has Captain America (Sam Wilson), Ant-Man, Wasp, and Ms. Marvel team up against Ultron. Captain Marvel appears briefly to help out before remarking that she has a date with some Kree missiles. What a lovely bit of continuity! Speaking of continuity, Ant-Man does start to discuss why THAT PLAN against Thanos would not have worked, only to be interrupted.
At California Adventure, Disney set up their Avengers Campus in 2021, grandfathering in the Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! ride. Later they included Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure. This one is another dark ride target game with 3D screens, making it similar to Disney’s Toy Story Midway Mania. Peter Parker accidentally unleashes a bunch of self-replicated spider bots onto Avengers Campus and the riders try to get a high score by making thwip hand motions at the screen. You can also purchase physical webslinger and repulsor cannon accessories that enhance the game and give you the “pay to win” advantage. This idea did not go over well!
Compared to the Universal counterpart, this Spider-Man ride is far from a popular one. At least the pre-show does give us the first appearances of MCU takes on Squirrel Girl and Moon Girl, so that’s neat.
As Disney’s able to have Marvel characters wander around California all they want, they go all-in on it. Practically everyone gets to wander the area, from Dr. Strange to Prisoner Loki to Time-Travel Hulk to Agatha Harkness to Zombie Captain America. Most impressive is a robot dressed as Spider-Man, programmed to swing around and do flips from building to building. Granted, there have been a few instances where this Spider-Man didn’t quite pull off a smooth landing and went full-on George of the Jungle, but surely the kids who watched it happen will be fine with only a few years of therapy.
Now we await the next Marvel theme park ride. We’re left wondering: what will the King Thanos ride consist of? My own guess is that it’s going to be a Marvel take on the current version of Star Tours. I figure a 3D motion simulator ride that randomizes what part of the multiverse you end up in. Maybe you start off flying in a version of Wakanda, only to then visit the animated What If? world of Captain Carter, followed by soaring through Sakaar, where Thanos is finally taken down. Different possibilities of locations for every time you ride it.
Either way, the promotional art shows Man-Thing is involved and that’s already an advantage over every single other Marvel ride to exist so far.