[Vegas on my mind]

Gaming companies IGT and WMS: Collateral damage in Disney’s war on gambling

FREEZE! Disney’s saying a big no to slots using Marvel characters.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Sunday’s New York Times carried a bombshell tucked quietly inside an otherwise pedestrian piece about Disney ramping up political efforts to thwart the further expansion of casinos in Florida.

It seems that for the sake of ideological purity, Disney has decided to halt the use of Star Wars and Marvel characters or themes on slot machines by whatever legal method is available. The Mouse House now owns Marvel and Lucasfilm, so they can obviously do whatever they wish. Reportedly, this shift is already underway.

“Marvel discontinued plans to initiate or renew slot machine licensing arrangements as part of its integration with Disney,” a Marvel spokeswoman told the Times. “The handful of remaining license agreements have expiration dates within the next few years.”

This would seem to be shocking news to slot manufacturer WMS Gaming, which proudly trumpeted a brand-new game based on Marvel’s Iron Man just six weeks ago at the Global Gaming Expo in Vegas. The company was giddy about following its recent slot success with Marvel’s Spider-Man. Did the casinos considering buying or leasing these machines know that they’ll need to be replaced “within the next few years”?

WMS has also noted its association with Marvel in various press releases throughout the past year, touting the company’s pending sale for $1.5 billion to Scientific Games. That sale closed on October 18.

So that’s awkward. Even more awkward, though, is that Disney has owned Marvel since 2009. Surely someone could’ve warned WMS that the end was nigh at some point in the past four years? (Disney just bought Lucasfilm last year, so nixing Star Wars slots is less rude, although it’s hard to see where a franchise that put Carrie Fisher in that infamously skimpy “dress” gets off pretending it’s too modest for a casino.)

Disney’s apparent logic behind the decision to pull the plug—get it?—on its slot relationships is the stuff, appropriately, of fantasy. According to the Times, Disney has been fighting to keep casinos out of Florida outside tribal lands for years because casino gambling “tarnishes Florida’s coveted family-friendly brand.”

Say what?

Florida? The state that brought us wet T-shirt contests for spring break? Gay Days at Disney World? The most nude beaches in the nation? Wesley Snipes and Mickey Rourke? (I want to go on record as saying I object to none of these. But still.)

It’s a crazy line of thought any way it’s sliced. Disney is Florida’s biggest tourism draw, but it’s ... threatened by casinos? Really? Gondola rides at Venetian Tampa are going to diminish Space Mountain’s draw? There’s data on this? These are the same customers? Why isn’t Disney equally unnerved by the casinos all over California, not to mention the legal pot and the ever-prospering porn industry? Doesn’t Disney own a few theme parks in that state, too?

Never mind that casinos are already all over Florida, albeit only on tribal lands, and that thousands of Americans head to Fort Lauderdale each year to board cruise ships that, once in international waters, break out the green felt and roulette wheels so folks can play while being amused by Second City and American Idol runners-up. And how about greyhound racing, that horrific piece of gambling business and animal cruelty that the Sunshine State has so long been the leader in? I don’t recall Disney kvetching about those pooches being screwed.

It’s absurd. Disney also owns ESPN, the station that airs the World Series of Poker annually, and on which announcers routinely cite Vegas betting odds on all manner of sporting events. It didn’t have any issue with pimping out The Lion King for a few profitable years at Mandalay Bay which, last I checked, is a casino. And Disney long since gave up its mantle of being an exclusively “family-friendly” purveyor of fictional entertainment, too, having had a hand in cannibal classic Alive, the clergy sexual molestation thriller Priest and that serialized adultery festival known as Desperate Housewives.

So, Disney’s not pure. But when it’s convenient and makes some twisted—if elusive and perplexing—business sense, they trot out this line. It’s hard to see who buys it these days, but evidently Florida legislators do.

Meanwhile, gaming companies WMS and IGT are left in a pickle. Maybe they can just alter their themed slots in small, imperceptible but appropriate ways and hold on under some equally twisted Fair Use exemption.

Irony Man, anyone?

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek and USA Today, among many other outlets.
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