Disney faces challenge to its motives in fight against more Florida casinos

Entertainment giant's Marvel characters appear on slots as company fights gambling expansion

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 October, 2013, 4:47am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 October, 2013, 4:47am

Just around the corner from the poker room and within shouting distance of the greyhound track at the Mardi Gras Casino, the Amazing Spider-Man slot machine beckons gamblers with its spinning masked superhero and his nemesis, the Green Goblin.

At the touch of a button, this Spider-Man can pay out a small fortune or, more typically, deplete wallets.

But in the recently renewed battle over casino gambling in Florida this year, the popular Spider-Man poker machine delivers a different sort of jolt altogether.

Spider-Man is one of a stable of Marvel superheroes that Walt Disney acquired for US$4 billion in 2009 and that continue to appear on machines, internet poker machines and state lottery tickets. The lottery tickets have featured Iron Man and the Avengers.

Disney, a powerhouse in Florida because of its financial might and its sway over the tourism industry, has long led the fight against the expansion of casinos in the state, arguing that gambling tarnishes Florida's family friendly image.

This year is no exception. For the second time in two years, state legislators are preparing to decide whether Las Vegas-style resort casinos should be allowed to open in Florida, a move that Disney hopes to thwart again.

Asked whether Disney's ties to the gambling industry, through Marvel, undercut its position on casino gambling, a Marvel spokeswoman said that the company planned to shed its connection to poker machines when the licensing agreements expire.

She declined to comment on Marvel's links to lotteries, which were run by states and require separate licensing agreements.

Disney also faces a similar issue with its US$4 billion acquisition of Lucasfilm last year as Star Wars characters, which have been featured in Disney parks for years, are also widely used in poker machines.

On Thursday, a Disney spokeswoman said the decision not to renew Lucasfilm and Marvel licensing agreements once they expired had been made recently. It had not previously been made public.

In the years since Disney's acquisition of Marvel, gambling opponents and the company's critics, including those seeking to open Vegas-style casinos in Florida, have accused Disney of being unrealistic in its campaign against casinos.

"Hypocrisy is in the eye of the beholder," added Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University's Law Centre and an expert on gambling law. "If they were honest, they would just come out and say, 'it's business 101. We're trying to protect our turf, and we've always attempted to do that'."