Walt Disney Co. will unveil one of the world's most expensive roller coasters this month at its Epcot theme park, underlining the importance of its Florida investments to the company and the state's tourism industry.
Starting May 27, riders on indoor Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind will climb into a four-seat cockpit that turns 360 degrees and travels up to 60 miles an hour, immersing guests in a story about Star-Lord, Groot and other characters from the Marvel franchise. Disney probably spent $500 million on the ride, according to an estimate from Dennis Speigel, an industry consultant.
"The technology there is incredible," he said. The company declined to comment on the cost.
The investment underscores how important Florida is for Disney - and will continue to be even as the company tussles publicly with Governor Ron DeSantis. In April, GOP lawmakers voted to dismantle a special municipal district Disney has operated in since the 1960s, retaliation for the company's opposition to a bill banning instruction of gender identity in K-through-3 classrooms. Disney has four theme parks and 29,000 hotel rooms in the Orlando area, employing 70,000 people.
"Disney World is not going anywhere because it's such a huge investment," said Chad Emerson, author of a book about the Florida resort. "You can't get rid of Disney World, both the state and Disney would have consequences."
The Guardians attraction is the latest stage in a major refreshment of Epcot. When Disney opened the park 40 years ago, designers deliberately left out film and TV characters to differentiate it from the Magic Kingdom park next door. Now Epcot is being remodeled to feature more stories from the company's deep well of programming and boost its appeal to families with younger kids.
"We saw an opportunity to bring in more young audiences through fresh and relevant IP, and this multiyear transformation will make this park more timeless, more family and more Disney," Josh D'Amaro, the chairman of Disney's Parks division, said in an email.
After reducing capital spending to conserve cash during the global pandemic, Disney plans to invest a record $6 billion in its businesses this year. The resorts division, which includes consumer products and cruise ships, is expected to earn more than all of Disney's other businesses combined in 2022, including the ESPN sports networks and film studios. It's the first time that's happened in decades, thanks largely to a U.S. consumer eager to get out and have fun again.
"Disney World is packed to the gills," said Rich Greenfield, an analyst with LightShed Partners. "They're raising pricing and literally looking at demand they can't handle."
Epcot was the second theme park the Burbank, California-based company built in Florida. Founder Walt Disney envisioned it as a place where people would actually live and work, an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. The park instead became a sort of permanent world's fair and science expo. Festivals tied to flowers and food attracted adult crowds, many of whom enjoyed pub crawls through the park's country-specific pavilions.
In 2016, Disney redesigned a ride at the Norway pavilion to include characters from its hit film "Frozen." Out went oil platforms and vikings, in came Princesses Anna and Elsa. That success inspired a broader rethinking of Epcot, according to Zach Riddley, the Disney designer who has spearheaded the remodeling.
A ride tied to the film "Ratatouille," about a lovable rodent who longs to be a chef, opened in the French pavilion last year. More entertainment extensions are coming, including music and imagery from "Moana" in an outdoor water garden. Disney characters will also be featured in an interactive Play! pavilion, still under construction.
Many projects were delayed due to the pandemic. Disney paused plans for a Mary Poppins ride at the U.K. pavilion. But film tie-ins are popping up elsewhere in the Disney empire. An Avengers-themed campus opened last year at Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim, California. The Paradise Pier hotel nearby is being remodeled with a Pixar theme.
Some Disney purists object to putting characters everywhere, said Carissa Baker, a professor who studies the parks at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, but the average fan is pleased.
"'Ratatouille' fits into France," she said. "It's love a letter to French cuisine."
Riddley, the Disney designer, said the company has made it so Guardians fits into Epcot. The attraction includes an extensive pre-ride explanation of how representatives from planet Xadar came to Earth to open a pavilion showcasing their culture at the park.
Glenn Close reprises her role as commander of the Xandarian military. One of six different songs, including "Disco Inferno" and "One Way or Another," will play during the ride, a nod to Star-Lord's love of old school mix tapes.
"We've got a lot of great touch points where you're getting the world of Guardians brought to life, but done in a way that feels pretty unique," Riddley said.
Disney is expecting strong demand. It charged fan club members $35 to be among the first to ride Cosmic Rewind before it opens to the general public. The tickets sold out.