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Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind puts an exclamation point on Walt Disney World’s reinvention of Epcot

Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind is an indoor, reverse launch roller coaster at Walt Disney World's Epcot
Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind is an indoor, reverse launch roller coaster at Walt Disney World’s Epcot with a villain bent on destroying humanity.
(Kent Phillips)

Can a roller coaster dance?

The new Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind at Walt Disney World’s Epcot aims to answer that question with ride vehicles that twist and turn in time to a beat. They move, swiftly and smoothly, in a journey that will take guests back in time to randomly selected songs such as the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno,” Miami Sound Machine’s “Conga” and Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” among others, transforming an area of the park that was once dedicated to the edu-tainment of the Universe of Energy into one where good times and save-the-world heroics take precedence over classroom lessons.

Cosmic Rewind is part of a multi-year transformation of Epcot, a park once loosely based on Walt Disney’s concept of an altruistic future city dedicated to innovation and experimentation. Opened in October of 1982, Epcot was ultimately designed as a sort of permanent World’s Fair, with attractions in pavilions dedicated to the land, the sea and various science and engineering topics, all of them sitting across from World Showcase, a celebration of international cultures.

But today it’s out with the old and in with the Marvel, as Cosmic Rewind is also Walt Disney World’s first proper superhero-themed attraction, and only the third Marvel-based ride at a Disney park in the U.S. It’s one piece of a multi-pronged update to place more Disney characters in a park that has long stood on its own and with its own mascot, the little purple dragon Figment. Cosmic Rewind is arguably the boldest shift yet away from Epcot’s cultural and once educational focus.

The good news: It’s a fresh infusion of theme park vitality to a park that has badly needed some reinvention among aging attractions.

The Universe of Energy, a ride once described by Disney as documenting how “oil, coal and natural gas [became] so important to our way of life,” was no modern classic, as its various revamps over the years never quite divorced the ride from its roots as borderline oil industry propaganda. It did, however, have a dramatic scene involving larger-than-life robotic dinosaurs. Cosmic Rewind is generally screen-based, with the exception of some impressive pre-show illusions that want to trick us into believing we teleported into space.

The facade for Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind at Walt Disney World's Epcot.
The facade for Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind at Walt Disney World’s Epcot.
(Kent Phillips)
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But lack of dinosaurs aside, the ride still attempts to make overtures to Epcot’s traditional themes. Though irreverent and self-reflexive — the raccoon-like character of Rocket jokes about Epcot’s name at one point — the ride takes a science-rooted explanation to the birth of the universe. Though the ride is essentially a chase through a darkened show building filled with floor-to-ceiling screens, it’s ultimately a roller coaster that places an emphasis on feeling over high-speed thrills or any fake sense of danger.

The power of song to unite us is a theme, as is the joy of discovery through space exploration. There’s a villain that wants to destroy Earth, but what I remember more is the wonder of rocking in time over a vision of the Milky Way, a moment that felt like a triumphant treatise on space travel. In that way, Cosmic Rewind nods to the classic Space Mountain, just with far more pop and Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill (other Hollywood personalities who make appearances include Glenn Close and Terry Crews, in addition to the full roster of Guardians).

“The goal of our transformation is that Epcot is a park about what’s possible, it’s about inspiring people and people are our subject,” says Zach Riddley, the creative executive with Walt Disney Imagineering who has been overseeing Epcot’s rebranding and additions, which include a ride inspired by “Ratatouille,” a new nighttime show and the upcoming walk-through attraction “Journey of Water,” inspired by “Moana.” “The idea of what a global community means is something that we focus on in different ways. It can be an intergalactic community.”

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Where Epcot has been and where it’s heading is perhaps exemplified and contrasted by Cosmic Rewind’s neighbor, Spaceship Earth. Both rides are centered on imaginative concepts of time travel but Spaceship Earth is a slow-moving attraction that takes us through visions of the Renaissance as well as the birth of space travel and the World Wide Web — the ride as an essay centered on human communication. Cosmic Rewind, in contrast, is around a 3-minute blast of infectious melody, modern intellectual property, and a unique ride system that marries Haunted Mansion-style Omnimover vehicles that can turn and rotate with roller coaster fluidity and speed.

The conceit is that it’s Epcot’s first “other-world” showcase pavilion, one dedicated to showing the similarities among humans, aliens and the residents of the planet of Xandar, the fictional Marvel world that figures heavily into the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films. Here, in the queue of the ride, there are nods to the Xandar way of life — Riddley notes, for instance, that we can learn a little about Xandar‘s urban planning — but these are fantasy history lessons. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; just a change from Epcot’s original mission, but Cosmic Rewind still ultimately succeeds as a jukebox roller coaster.

“One of the big themes here is Xandar is this other planet that has come to Epcot and essentially put their version of a World Showcase pavilion here,” says Steve Spiegel, a story editor executive at Imagineering. “We really wanted that theme to be that even though they’re from another planet two and a half million light years from us that we’re more alike than we are different. They’re reaching out across the stars to make friends, because we all came from the Big Bang and we all were born with the same stardust.”

The villain of Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind.
The villain of Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind.
(Marvel / Disney)

Such themes of togetherness come at a time when the Walt Disney Co. has been embroiled in a tussle with Florida Republicans over the company’s statement against the anti-LGBTQ legislation known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which has led to state leadership taking retaliatory moves to dismantle long-held operational privileges given to Walt Disney World. There’s no indication that anyone at any of Walt Disney World’s crowded parks gives a hoot, but Cosmic Rewind includes one moment where it’s implied humans may not always have their act together.

Park aficionados, for instance, will certainly hear some words that would have once been blasphemy to echo in Epcot. The villain here is out to destroy all humans and Earth, with the justification that “this species has failed.” Striking words for a park built on concepts of human ingenuity, but Guardians doesn’t dive deep into human foibles and instead plays the line off as humor.

“That’s why it’s the villain saying it,” says Spiegel. “Because Epcot is all about the aspirational and how we’re all more alike than we are different. We all live on this Spaceship Earth together. So it’s about saving humanity from a person who just doesn’t get it.”

Cosmic Rewind is the loudest piece of Epcot’s reinvention, which will also include a new plaza dedicated to festivals and the “Moana” walk through. Other promised initiatives, such as a pavilion dedicated to the art of play and a “Mary Poppins"-inspired attraction, have fallen off the current docket in the wake of extended pandemic closures with no word yet as to when they may re-materialize. But in the meantime, Ridley promises “Moana’s” Journey of Water will tap into Epcot’s original themes.

“The Epcot-ness of this story is to focus on learning about the water cycle — how it moves through various ecosystems,” Ridley says. “We use ‘Moana’ as references and a jumping off point, but we’re not telling that story of that film or of her. It’s about this message. Epcot again is a park about people and possibility. So our way in on an Animal Kingdom or Magic Kingdom story is that it is about us, and what we can learn and do, and what it should inspire us to do in terms of action.”

Hitting all those marks in a roller coaster is a challenge, but I look forward to revisiting Cosmic Rewind. No ride before this, after all, has ever inspired me to want to dance on a roller coaster.

The ride vehicles on Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind can twist and turn in time to the music.
The ride vehicles on Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind can twist and turn in time to the music.
(Kent Phillips)


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