Why Guardians of the Galaxy Became the First Coaster at Disney World's Epcot

Disney Imagineers tell all about working with Kevin Feige and James Gunn on the Disney parks universe of Marvel heroes.

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Starblaster ship in front of Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, with EPCOT's Spaceship Earth in the background.
Image: Disney Parks

Opening this summer as part of Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary is Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind. Inspired by the James Gunn-helmed Guardians of the Galaxy movies—part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise—this new attraction is the first story-driven roller coaster inside of Epcot. And thankfully, it’s not a ride that’s so intense you can’t follow the story. It takes inspiration from the films, but it also riffs on Epcot concepts by touting itself as the first other world pavilion in the park.

With the Wonders of Xandar, Disney Imagineering has found a clever way to immerse guests in the MCU alongside some of their favorite heroes. Reprising their movie roles for the attraction are Glenn Close as Xandarian leader Nova Prime and Guardians members Chris Pratt (Star-Lord), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), and Dave Bautista (Drax), along with the voice talents of Vin Diesel as Groot and Bradley Cooper as Rocket. io9 was invited to preview the attraction before its opening on May 27 (check out our queue and gift shop gallery here), and got a chance to chat about the ride with Imagineers Zach Riddley and Scot Drake, both creative portfolio executives for the park and attraction respectively.

Why Did Epcot Need a New Guardians of the Galaxy Adventure?

As part of Epcot’s ongoing reimagining, finding IP that still fits in with the theme of Walt Disney’s vision for the future remains tantamount. That’s where the Guardians of the Galaxy comes in, namely through a connection Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) makes with his memories of Earth, “In our our story Peter Quill came to Epcot when he was a kid before he was taken off to the stars,” explained Riddley, who’s spearheading Epcot’s current transformation. “And so after the events of the film, Xandarians said, ‘We want to create a showcase on Earth that shows the relationship between our cultures, with this technology that links the formation of galaxies and the idea of jump points,’ which is what we get to experience. So Peter Quill said, ‘I have the perfect place!’ Epcot, because he remembered it when he was a kid.”

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As it exists now, the park’s World Showcase is a section where various countries’ foods and cultures are represented. Visitors can get a taste (or a sip, if they’re “drinking around the world”) of far-off places all in one spot. Wonders of Xandar, the setting of Cosmic Rewind, takes us even further in the park’s World Discovery area, which features other space travel-themed attractions. The queue for the ride is set up as if it’s the first other world showcase, immersing you in the sci-fi elements of the Guardians films through Xandarian culture and tech as they would be presented at Epcot. It opens on a planetarium presentation connecting their world to ours as coming from the same space dust.

The story expands on the glimpses of the planet we saw in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. I as an advanced society with sustainable living and circular city planning with models that are very reminiscent of Walt Disney’s Progress City. In fact, it’s written into the story that Xandarians affirm Disney was onto something, as a clever wink. Throughout the pavilion you can see the inspiration taken from the park’s past because Quill’s experience of it in the ‘80s informed it. “In the queue you will see he remembers it like it was when he was a kid. And there’s a lot of that [which has] changed,” Riddley shared. “So we got some great Easter eggs. Folks who knew Epcot will will appreciate it, but it’s a brand-new story set in motion, which is exciting.”

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As guests get deeper in the queue they find out more about the protectors and heroes of Xandar, basically a primer on the Nova Corps and Guardians’ team-up against Ronan the Accuser during the battle of Kree. There’s displays of the Corps ranking system and models of ships like the Milano from the first film, though they fly their second ship, the Benatar, on the ride. There’s even fun Good Morning Xandar news segments where Rocket, Star-Lord, Gamora, and Drax are interviewed—and you get that Gunn-style humorous banter to fill in guests on the story from the films.

Rocket and Groot stand in front of a cosmic display
Image: Disney Parks
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Why is Cosmic Rewind the first rollercoaster in Epcot at Walt Disney World?

When we reach the pre-show on a star charter above Earth before the ride, Nova Prime appears to do a technological cultural exchange with Xandar’s cosmic generator to help Terrans (people of Earth) advance their space travel through the network jump points used to move throughout the galaxy more quickly. You get the idea that this speed will come into play for the ride. For those who go to theme parks aiming to visit the worlds of fantasy within original or IP-based attractions, Cosmic Rewind does a better job at talking non-coaster folks (like me!) into leaving their comfort zones than, say, the drop tower of Mission Breakout (the West Coast Guardians ride). It’s a good gateway coaster for kids and adults who aren’t keen on that stomach-drop feeling, and was especially built with that in mind.

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“I have kids, and I’ve been through all those situations as well. So I have some great stories of overcoming that fear and graduating to the next coaster or the next,” said Drake, who leads creative development on major film IP attractions at the park. “And I think that’s what we love at at Disney is this kind of rite of passage of all of our rides. You know, you graduate to the next step, you graduate to the next step. I think what’s fun about the approach taken on this attraction is we wanted to make sure that every fan of all ages, as young as possible, could experience this. But we still had to deliver on the thrill and fun of Guardians that you would expect.”

The story takes a turn when Eson the Searcher, a type of celestial referenced in the first film as having a penchant to “mow down entire civilizations,” crashes the tour and steals the cosmic generator. Hellbent on ensuring humanity never exists, Eson time-jumps back to the Big Bang in the vastness of space; the Guardians follow suit and (gulp) decide to bring us along for the ride. “Whereas some coasters may try to get thrill through inversions or top speeds, we went to story and looked at something that can put you right in the middle of the action: being chased by a villain that’s larger than a planet and right alongside the Guardians, you know, trying to reset time,” Drake explained.

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The idea is that Rocket reprograms the star blaster escape shuttles—the ride vehicles which run on the park’s first omni-coaster track—and we join a chase through the jump point to keep track of Eson until the Guardians can grab the cosmic generator. The story plays out on massive screen projections; think Space Mountain: Ghost Galaxy but with cinematic action set pieces starring Rocket and friends. It’s pure spectacle that you see as the ride vehicle rotates on a smooth, thrilling track but never drops. The function is key to the experience, Drake explained. “I think that just adds to the anticipation, the thrill, the story, the fun, and puts you in the middle of it without having to be as physically hard on the body. It was an ambitious project from the very beginning, and that got taken through every part of our design. Our format asks that we deliver stories a different way. And for us the guest becomes a central figure in that story. So that’s a new paradigm.”

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How involved were Disney Studios and the filmmakers behind the MCU?

The theme park cinematic universe is vast and can get tricky on the East Coast, but Marvel’s Kevin Feige and company were definitely involved in guiding Cosmic Rewind’s story. Drake revealed, “We have an incredible relationship and collaboration with the studios. Kevin Feige is a huge fan of the parks. Epcot is one of his favorites, if not his favorite park. So getting to work on this with him and recognizing that excitement, and putting everything that they’ve done to date in this amazing legacy of how they’ve built the Guardians franchise... to tell the next chapter of that story and getting to expand the universe is awesome.”

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From queue to the end of the ride you know you’re in the universe from the mind of director James Gunn, and that’s because Disney Imagineers were on the set of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 to film with the cast for this new attraction. “We try to go after what is, you know, essential to each one of these characters and what they stand for and how we would all react in any of these situations. And so that kind of is our driving force: what [do] these characters stand for and and how do we interact with them?” Drake said of gathering the 75 minutes of original content you’ll see throughout the attraction. Composer Tyler Bates scored over two hours worth of original music, too.

Fans will recognize not only some well-placed Easter eggs but also the crossover of big movie moments, like the Nova Corps star blasters linking in the same energy barrier net formation as they did when attempting to stop Ronan the Accuser’s Dark Aster warship during his Kree invasion. Now that you’re a part of the story, it’s to more successful results—and you disembark the experience with the crew naming you an honorary Guardian of the Galaxy. So while the ride doesn’t necessarily bridge into the expanding phases of the films, it brings you into your own adventure, as imagineers like Drake intended. “What is great about these stories is they happen in our world. So as soon as you step foot into this attraction, it’s unfolding today. So there’s there’s no timeline. We’re not putting you in a time and place. It’s here and now. And you’re right in the middle of the story.”

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And no, they didn’t forget one big component of a Guardians adventure.

What songs are on the Cosmic Rewind Awesome Mix?

You gotta have an Awesome Mix and rides on Cosmic Rewind feature one of six songs from its exclusive mixtape. “​Obviously what what James Gunn did for the films and the music choices that he brought to the franchise have been key drivers to everything that we’ve done, and set a tone for expectations about what the Guardians stand for and the music they listen to,” Drake said. He shared that while Gunn was heavily involved, there was no moment where Imagineering may have picked up a song from a future film. They had hundreds of songs to pick from because narrowing down a mixtape came down to ride-ability. “We have a very specific use for music in our attraction and it needs to tell the story and the journey that we’re on. [We] rode hundreds of songs, literally, to find that Awesome Mix for our park experience. So what you’re experiencing and the flexibility of every time you ride is all the outcome of that.”

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The randomized selection—you won’t know what you’ll hear until the Guardians hit play—includes “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire; “Disco Inferno” by the Trammps; “Conga” by Gloria Estefan; “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears; “I Ran” by A Flock of Seagulls; and “One Way or Another” by Blondie. They’re all songs that best fit various motion profiles on the ride vehicle that change per song (alas the story does not), and gives it enough distinction to make fans come back to ride each version. Imagineers hope they will, at least. “Touching anything in Epcot means that you need to come back with something incredible—[we] needed it to make an all-new innovative coaster and then delivering on the Guardians,” Drake said of aspects Disney hopes to build on from Cosmic Rewind for more future attractions. “And I think this was Imagineering at its best, delivering on all cylinders against those challenges.”

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And they do because I for one want to go back and get all the songs. I’m two out of six!

Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind opens May 27 in Epcot at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.

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