How Disney's New Guardians of the Galaxy Roller Coaster Uses Story To Make You Feel Like You're Floating In Space
It's all about combining story with technology.
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I'm not sure I can remember my first time riding Space Mountain. I was certainly young. Perhaps three years old, if I had to guess. And despite our family visits to Walt Disney World in the 1980s and 90s typically falling along the winter holiday stretch (a season as famous for its long lines as its Christmas decor), I willingly queued for hours for just a few minutes of sort of maybe feeling like I was shooting through space.
Looking back, it's clear that Space Mountain made me feel like I was flying through space in the same way playing the original 8-bit Legend of Zelda made me feel like I was actually traversing a fantasy kingdom. Space Mountain is a classic coaster from the 1970s, and a relatively low-fi experience (basically a twisting rollercoaster in the dark with strategic star projections). So as a simulation of interplanetary travel, it's an abstract one.
The real special effect is what occurs in the mind. The mixture of movement and suggestion conspire with childhood imagination to transport you to a galaxy far, far away. And for a generation raised on tiny low-resolution TVs and VHS tapes, that was enough—and kind of perfect.
Which brings us to the new Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind ride, which opens on May 27 at Disney's Epcot theme park. Like Space Mountain, Cosmic Rewind is an indoor rollercoaster in a darkened space that's designed to make you feel like you're shooting through space. But if Space Mountain is an 8-bit Zelda game, Cosmic Rewind is Breath of the Wild: A transportive and lived-in world that overwhelms the senses to the point of pure and gleeful immersion. There's no time (or need) to think to yourself, "I guess this kind of looks like space." Your rocket-shot body does the work for you. You simply feel it.
But this isn't Space Mountan redux. It's a novel, new, and wildly entertaining attraction that takes (and refines) some of the best tricks from the Imagineering toolbox, while doing things I've legitimately never seen before. It also uses a new type of coaster movement to create a novel feeling that—when mixed with its intensely themed environment—feels pretty darn close to floating through space (or at least what most of us imagine that would feel like).
Firstly, this is a Marvel ride, and it stars one of the greatest rags-to-riches success stories in comicbook filmdom. (Seriously: Had anybody ever heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy a decade year ago? Now look at them!) The actual starring actors appear in both pre-ride and on-ride footage, as well as the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel. Glenn Close and Terry Crews also have large roles on the ride.
And you don't call in this cast (plus director James Gunn, who directed the two prior Guardians movies, as well as the upcoming third one) if you're not trying to invest in story and immersion.
And the story really is the point here.
When it comes to theme park rides, story is the great multiplier. I've been to amusement parks with incredible roller coasters, but the extent of the story is literally a signpost out front that you're supposed to read before riding. There have been books written by people both smarter (and stupider) than myself about how engaging in stories amplifies and magnifies just about any experience. This is the essence of modern branding and marketing, and a key reason why people pay a premium to go to Disney theme parks when similar rides (from a pure track and mechanical perspective) might exist elsewhere.
Time was, the idea of telling a story with a ride was largely the domain of dark rides (things like the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean), where elaborate sets, Audio-Animatronics (what Disney calls its robots), and (more recently) screens did the work as you slowly rolled by. Telling a story in a high-speed roller coaster is just an innately challenging task. After all, how much of a scene can somebody possibly take in if they are zipping by at highway speeds?
The solution with this new ride is a technological one: The development of a novel roller-coaster car that swivels like a turntable, even as the full rollercoaster train shoots ahead. "What this means is that, in addition to the coaster traveling along the track, the vehicles can pivot and aim at whatever we want you to look it," says Tom Fitzgerald, Portfolio Creative Executive from Walt Disney Imagineering, and co-director of the new attraction.
These choreographed swivel movements serve two functions. First, as Fitzgerald points out, they allow the ride to orient viewers so as to face visual elements (like giant screens and scale-model planets) that help tell the story. And second, they create a very unique ride sensation that almost feels like you're being swung at a high speed and, at times, floating through space. The experience is incredibly smooth (your back and neck have nothing to worry about), and coaster fans will love it.
To be clear, the new ride is an amazing one. I haven't ridden every rollercoaster in the world, but I've never been on one that felt quite like this. That feeling is amplified through the use of story and music (the ride features a half dozen possible pop songs that riders luck into, some of which truly change the emotional tenor of the experience).
And the need for a solid story here (yes I'm being vague on the details there — you can read spoilers elsewhere) isn't just limited to the ride itself. The attraction is the crown jewel of a multiyear transformation of Epcot in general. If other Disney parks such as Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom lean into the fantastical and fairy tale, Epcot has always been rooted in the real world. Epcot is where you go to experience strange landscapes and future technologies—and to eat and drink fare from countless countries. Merely plopping a Guardians of the Galaxy thrill ride in the middle of this park would have felt out of place, to say the least.
The way to make this strange mixtape work is, once again, through story. Again: You can read spoilers elsewhere, but this is an attraction that knows it's in Epcot and — rather than feeling like a ride ripped from any other Disney park — finds a way to merge the sci-fi spectacle of its namesake Marvel franchise with the divergent history and goals of Epcot's past, present, and future.
Epcot is a park that badly needed a top-tier thrill ride. With Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, it finally has one.