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the entrance for Universal Studios’ Spider-Man ride Photo: Petrana Radulovic

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Marvel Super Hero Island offers a theme-park window into a pre-MCU world

We review the OTHER Spider-Man ride, and travel back to 1999 Marvel

Avengers Campus opened on June 4 in Disney’s California Adventure, one of the parks in Anaheim’s Disneyland Resort. With all the pomp and circumstance around the new installation, it might not register that Avengers Campus isn’t the first Marvel-themed amusement park, or the only one out there. That title belongs to Marvel Super Hero Island, in Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure in Florida. Established 22 years ago — well before the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off, and redefined how the world sees Marvel characters — it’s a strange time capsule of a pre-MCU world. While the rest of the word lined up for the new-fangled 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 ride from 1999 any good? Thanks to my recent trip to Universal Studios and a general knowledge of the weirdness that is Islands of Adventure, I have those answers.

a cut out of MODOK being hit by captain america’s shield Photo: Petrana Radulovic

Why are there two Marvel parks? Is that allowed?

A little background 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 because a lot of the theme-park attractions in Islands of Adventure and Universal Orlando alike are licensed properties from other studios. That’s why those parks feature the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Back when Islands of Adventure opened in 1999, Marvel Super Hero Island was one of the first themed lands in the park. (Fun detail — it was originally supposed to be a DC Land, before Time Warner acquired Six Flags and planned its own DC integration there.)

Islands of Adventure is a hodgepodge of different properties, each on its own “island” in the park. There’s a Jurassic Park-themed Island, the Harry Potter one, a Doctor Seuss world, a comic-strip land, a King Kong-inspired Skull Island, and the Lost Continent, a vaguely Medieval-Greco-Roman-Arabian themed place that used to have a few miscellaneous attractions that didn’t belong anywhere else, though these days, it only hosts a stunt show and an interactive fountain. And then there’s Marvel Super Hero Island.

I first visited the park in 2007, and coming back to it in 2021, I wasn’t too surprised to learn that not much has changed. Because of various rights issues, everything on Marvel Island comes specifically from comics before 2009, the year Disney acquired Marvel. The actual contract language is very specific: Disney cannot use the “Marvel” name in theme parks in the U.S. or Japan (which explains the name of Avengers Campus), and cannot have a Marvel-themed simulator ride within designated legal distances of Universal theme parks (it’s 60 miles for “mini-theme parks” and 300 miles for actual theme parks.) Disneyland is exempt from those rules because it’s west of the Mississippi River, which is why Disney squeezed Avengers Campus into the comparatively tiny Disneyland, instead of placing it in the more sprawling Walt Disney World.

the human torch swooping in front of a diner Photo: Petrana Radulovic

What’s Marvel Super Hero Island about, if not the MCU?

Marvel Super Hero Island clearly emphasizes that it’s representing Marvel comics, not Marvel movies. That actually kinda works out. Instead of replicating movie sets from the MCU, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, or Venom, the decor of the Marvel island is full of giant comic-style images of characters, and the buildings are stylized with big, bold bright colors to emulate that feel.

It does help that some of the most eye-catching art on Marvel Island is of characters who haven’t shown up in the MCU yet. The main eatery boasts large cut-outs of the Fantastic Four. You can take pics with an immense image of Wolverine baring his claws. There’s art of Captain America and Iron Man plastered on the sides of buildings, but they’re very clearly the comic book characters, not movie stars. The retro vibe could be jarring, but because those specific characters only make up a small portion of Marvel Super Hero Island, it’s easy to look past them.

Visitors who don’t know the weirdly specific Marvel theme park legal restrictions might be expecting to see the MCU counterparts in the park. But for the most part, the attractions — Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, The Incredible Hulk Coaster, and Storm Force Accelatron (a spinning teacup ride themed around X-Men’s Storm) — touch on characters who aren’t in the MCU, or don’t have a presence in the Disneyland park yet. It also does help that Marvel Island is a hop-skip away from Toon Lagoon, the area of Islands of Adventure dedicated to comic strips and old-timey cartoon characters like Popeye and Dudley Do-Right, so visitors can seamlessly transition from one pen-and-ink world into another. For the most part, Marvel Super Hero Island feels like a little pocket universe, totally separate from the MCU juggernaut we know and love today.

Except for the Spider-Man ride.

It is pretty funny that both Marvel Super Hero Island and Avengers Campus opened up with Spider-Man rides — The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Islands of Adventure, and WEB Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure at Disneyland. Both feature Spider-Man, naturally, but they also feature a blend of physical-motion sets and virtual screen environments. Spider-Man rights continue to be the weird legal grey area when it comes to Marvel properties. Nice guy Tom Holland allegedly saved the big ol’ Sony-Marvel deal back in 2019, but the hero’s film rights 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 mimics any movie featuring Holland, Tobey Maguire, or Andrew Garfield. For the past 22 years, the coaster has maintained that same look. It was briefly refurbished in 2012, but that just involved updating it to 4K and 3D, while adding in some Stan Lee cameos. When The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man was released, it was one of the most cutting-edge rides around, and it received top awards at industry events.

Does it hold up today?

Waiting in line for The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man takes me around the back of the Daily Bugle offices. In the lore of the ride, the Sinister Syndicate (composed here of Doctor Octopus, Scream, Electro, Hydro-Man, and Hobgoblin) has stolen the Statue of Liberty. An animated version of J. Jonah Jameson, voiced by Chris Edgerly, recruits me and the other guests to ride in a special fancy reporter car, in order to snap some pictures of Spider-Man (…also voiced by Chris Edgerly). The queue circles through the Daily Bugle offices. Outside, the bright buildings have bricks drawn intermittently, evoking that comic book feel. It isn’t as detailed as some of the other waiting areas in the park (the Hogwarts queue comes to mind), but little signs for the Daily Bugle cashier are a nice touch.

Inside, the queue circles around a newspaper office. Since this takes place in 1999, the Daily Bugle reporters use typewriters and rotary phones. Everything is also tinged with grey, which I guess is supposed to continue the comic book look and evoke newspaper comics, but it just looks a little washed-out. On televisions scattered through the queue, news reporters give “live updates” of the Sinister Syndicate’s plans. It’s all done in that same old 1994 Spider-Man animation style, which is pretty charming.

some grey fruit Photo: Petrana Radulovic
a desk with a typewriter Photo: Petrana Radulovic

J. Jonah’s intro video explains more about what awaits us, while showing off the “Scoop” vehicle. We grab some “night-vision goggles” (3D glasses), then load up into the vehicle, which whisks us off into a Manhattan back alley, portrayed in comic-book style.

The ride is a hybrid of setpieces and video screens, which show animated versions of the Spider-Man characters threatening the Scoop vehicle, then getting yanked away from us by Spider-Man’s webs. For the most part, these cartoon encounters don’t look terribly outdated, especially since they aren’t meant to look photorealistic. When the videos pan in for close-ups, the graphics look janky. But that doesn’t happen a lot, and most of the time when it does, the villains are masked. Elements like Scream’s flowing hair might look a little stiff, but when real fire blasts out of the walls and water splashes on the riders, that’s not really what you’re paying attention to.

The Scoop vehicle seamlessly transitions from sets to screen, in a way that Universal Rides do very well. The effect is similar in the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, but the Spider-Man ride is notable for doing it first, and still being just as much fun. In spite of the occasional stilted graphics, it’s still exciting, full of abrupt dangers and reversals every few seconds. The Scoop vehicle gets hit by Doc Ock’s anti-gravity beam, making the ups and downs all the more thrilling.

The fire and water — the “4D effects” — could be gimmicky, but they’re well-integrated into the (admittedly incredibly cheesy) storyline — and also, when a man made of water is taking a swipe at you, it’s okay to be a bit cheesy. Of course, Spider-Man swoops in to save the day, snatching the Scoop vehicle up with his web before it plummets to the ground. It’s corny fun, but that’s exactly what you want out of a brief theme park encounter with your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Because the story of the ride is all animated, and because it’s so self-contained in Spider-Man lore, without any references to other heroes or villains, it’s easy to forget the MCU version of Spider-Man and his whole interconnected universe. This is a different Spider-Man, one who’s never met Tony Stark, and hasn’t accidentally set loose the bots plaguing Avengers Campus. I thought I might be thinking of Tom Holland or even Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire throughout the ride, but instead, I was swept away into this animated universe.

I went to Marvel Super Hero Island expecting it to be kinda sad, an unchanging pocket of time stuck in the early 2000s. To be fair, there are still a lot of those fixed reference points, like the cardboard cutout of Captain America battling M.O.D.O.K., of all villains. But it also captures a brightly colored, off-kilter world that the MCU has yet to replicate. The Spider-Man ride is the perfect example of the superhero world’s pre-movie-franchise energy, a tribute to the comic books and animated shows that used to define superhero media. Somehow, after all these years, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man still holds up, even if it is trapped in a weird time limbo. Actually, maybe it holds up because it’s trapped in a weird time limbo, just as much of a period piece of Marvel lore as it is a fun ride.