Tremendous buzz and rave reviews surround EPCOT’s new Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind coaster. Meanwhile, Magic Kingdom’s TRON Lightcycle Run is testing, and opening details are imminent. With these two gargantuan, futuristic, resort-defining Vekoma launched coasters making their landfall at Walt Disney World within a year of each other (after no major, high profile coaster since Animal Kingdom’s Expedition Everest since 2006), it begs the question: How are these coasters unique to each other, and which one is “better?”
Of course, nobody has ridden Magic Kingdom’s TRON – we’re still probably 6-12 months out from its opening – but TRON Lightcycle Power Run has been thrilling guests at Shanghai Disneyland since its resort’s opening in 2016. With the Magic Kingdom TRON expected to be a near replica of the Shanghai Disneyland TRON, we have a much easier idea of what to expect than we did with the well-protected Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind.
Despite having a lot in common, comparing these two attractions is a challenge because of their inherent differences – which is why opening them at the same resort still satisfies the market push for a diverse array of attractions. Nevertheless, these rides will always exist within eachother’s context because of their similarities, which is what inspires us to compare the two. It’s a somewhat daunting task, so for the sake of efficiency we’ll start at the beginning:
Entrance and Setting
Like plating a meal at a fancy restaurant, an attraction’s appearance is the initial step in consuming it – after all, “the eyes eat first.” If this was a battle between Guardians and Shanghai’s TRON, the glistening electric splendor of Shanghai’s Tomorrowland (cultivated unilaterally around TRON’s aesthetic) would be the clear winner. However, from what we already see and know, we don’t expect Magic Kingdom’s TRON – shoehorned behind Space Mountain in an aging Tomorrowland – to outplace the nostalgic-yet-contemporary feel of Guardians’ home in the EPCOT neighborhood of World Discovery.
At major theme parks, the attraction entrance is where your experience officially begins – especially when the ride has notable curb appeal. Entering the queue for Cosmic Rewind via the “Wonders of Xandar” pavilion is a subdued, quintessentially-EPCOT experience, complemented by a 1-1 scale replica of an alien spaceship positioned out front like a giant hood ornament. Those who’ve seen photos of TRON already know that entering its queue is a flamboyant affair, accented by the ride’s first few maneuvers that play out overhead with choreographed light sequences.
Queue and Preshows
With permit files providing evidence that Magic Kingdom’s TRON is, on a infrastructural level, virtually the same as Shanghai’s TRON, we can operate under the assumption that both rides will have similar, if not identical, queues and preshows. After all, with Shanghai’s TRON story setup being perfectly satisfactory, we struggle to imagine Walt Disney World feeling the need to change anything to the experience that isn’t motivated strictly from an operational standpoint. That being said, TRON’s queue offers a sophisticated, understated prelude to the ride’s dramatic storyline, with the ride’s launch bay sequence doubling as a des facto preshow early on in the queue. Aside from more operationally pertinent follow-up preshow of boarding instructions and story details, the queue offers little more than a general “vibe.”
Guardians starts off unassumingly enough (giant hood ornament notwithstanding), and the crowds are eased into the story with a compelling planetarium-style projection map program on the ceiling. Intricate models of spacecraft and Xandarian civilization pepper the stylish indoor queue along with tidbits of story setup provided by various characters, including the Gaurdians of the Galaxy themselves. Without spoiling too much, we can say that a marvelously-cast Terry Crews curates two high profile preshows back-to-back, where guests zero in on the story before being escorted to the boarding area.
At this point it should come as no surprise that TRON’s station is a stark, dramatic open space dripping with chrome, glass, and blue light. The descending queue ramp flanked by a split of load stations might feel like an echo of Orlando’s Big Thunder Mountain (or, more aesthetically speaking, Anaheim’s Space Mountain). The station doubles as a theater, for which the forward wall hosts a grand projection of the foreboding challenge ahead. Graphics of lightcycles in action alternate with a kill count scoreboard, like some kind of dystopian Buffalo Wild Wings. It’s here that TRON earns back some points after a more modest queue experience. Inversely, this is where the Guardians Experience starts to sag a bit, as the compartmentalized dual-boarding area offers little more to look at than some low ceilings.
Like the ride experiences themselves, we’ve now reached the meat of this article – comparing the actual coasters. Maybe TRON has us a bit jaded, but loading into the trains for Guardians feels weirdly unceremonious compared to boarding a Lightcycle. Once seated, TRON riders pull their handlebars forward to gently engage the restraint mechanisms. From there, the dark hue of the Lightcycles shift to a pale blue to signify that the train is locked and ready for dispatch. As the Lightcycles dispatch, we pass under the giant scoreboard. The onboard audio commences with a tense film score reprise that’s enough to give a TRON: Legacy fan hot flashes.
Meanwhile, Guardians matter-of-factly dispatches riders down a hallway and, in an unexpected move, smoothly loads riders up a small lift hill. Lighting and effects schemes are exquisite here – the Guardians of the Galaxy half-explain-the-ride-half-bicker-with-eachother as we pass through a portal into the vaccuum of space, and then through a ”jump point” to where the action is. Convincing location shifts on rides are always a challenge, but Gaurdians achieves the desired effect.
The Launch Bay
TRON’s broad-strokes approach wins again for us again here – the pulsating countdown of our Lightcycle team’s social-media-sweetheart launch bay is a crowd pleaser. Queueing guests look on as the riders now partake in the preshow they’d watched earlier, and moments later riders are fired out of the showbuilding with a jolt of flashbulbs and the jittering feedback of our Lightcycle’s revving “engine.” (Watch POVs at own risk if you don’t want spoilers on these ride experiences).
The launch sequencing on Guardians couldn’t be more dissimilar – the jump point brings us to a completely starless space before time , which, in reality, is in a wide, squat room above the gift shop. The room is black, save for the extremely wide screen taking up most of the visible wall space. We find the “flatness” of the room a bit of a distraction, since the screen only occupies a narrow strip of one’s field of vision – but anywho – things happen, there’s an explosion, and our vehicles (whose programmed spinning has us positioned backward) rocket into the primary showbuilding, lightning crackling away as one of 6 classic radio jams blasts through the onboard speakers.
The Gravity Building
At this point, gravity takes over on both rides. Incidentally, both approach the first of many midcourse brake runs rather quickly. Aside from TRON’s brief jaunt outdoors beneath the light canopy, the rides play out somewhat similarly on paper: pitch black showbuildings, state-of-the-art light programing, superb audio, and lots and lots of turns and shallow drops. On a strictly physical level, whether its motorcycle vehicles or spinning cars, both rides offer much more than just another coaster in the dark – but what separates these rides the most is what’s actually inside the showbuilding with the coasters.
One of the first things we noticed is that Guardians is very screen-heavy throughout the ride. The screens offer an opportunity to bring sequences to life that would be virtually impossible to do with pracical effects; the downside is, with rapid changes of physical perspective, even the best screens fall flat. The ride’s great physical props are too few and far between, and the reliance on giant, wall-covering screens has the unfortunate effect of making riders naggingly aware that they’re – well – in a giant box full of screens.
Time and time again, TRON illustrates that sometimes less is more. Despite having a smaller showbuilding, the space feels larger because the walls have relatively sparse thematic embellishments – and never once are the riders’ eyes drawn directly to the showbuilding wall (ok, this actually does happen *exactly* once, but its so worth it. The visual gag employed here is an instant classic, and is best revealed/enjoyed in person or on a good, low-light POV video). In fact, TRON almost always focuses riders on the center of the show building, where a majority of the ride’s 8 “light gates” are (through which riders are tasked with passing through, or they lose “the game” and die).
This brings us to our next topic: the story. Guardians stumbles through is its complex storyline, which riders are expected to follow during the ride via an onslaught of fragmented character dialogue. The actual events of the ride are always interesting but never completely self explanatory, and the cacophony of voices competing for attention over the onboard music does little to make things clearer. Only after several repeat rides does the story seem to come together easily, which will reward return riders but tarnish first impressions. On the other end of the spectrum is TRON’s abundantly straightforward premise: We’ve wandered dubiously onto “The Grid,” where we now must partake in a game (TRON is a video game, after all) where competing teams of 14 lightcycles must be the first pass through the 8 light gates. If we win, we win our freedom – if we lose, we perish. It’s not too deep of a plot; simple enough to impart on riders in the queue – this way, when the actual ride is in progress, the events aren’t hampered by the need of an explanation.
Our valiant efforts have been fruitful – we return to solid ground with our lives and dignity intact. We are now honorary members of the Guardians of the Galaxy, which is pretty cool – with TRON you’re pretty much lucky to be breathing. In the end, both experiences have their rewards, but TRON feels a bit more successful overall despite not having the stronger build up to the ride itself. Guardians is a loftier, grander, physically-larger premise, but too often the ride falls just below the astronomical expectations set for us in the queue and preshows.
While the choice here is obvious for us, we can’t ignore the uneven playing field. TRON has the benefit of a built-in, bound-to-win concept in terms of running with a franchise’s obvious opportunity for ride inspiration (I won’t be convinced that the idea of a “lightcycle ride” didn’t cross everyone’s minds since the original film’s release in 1982), but Guardians does a respectable job of squeezing a roller coaster attraction out of a franchise that doesn’t exactly beg for one. It’s also worth mentioning that Imagineers were tasked with repurposing an existing structure for Guardians, whereas TRON’s only inhibitions are the ones it created for itself (We should all know that it technically doesn’t make sense that we exit The Grid, mid ride, in broad daylight, on a Lightcycle, and then re-enter it).
Pieces like this are always purely subjective: there’s no “better” coaster because what makes these rides great can’t actually be measured. We might be TRON people, but if a longer ride in a normal coaster seat (where the music is different every time!) is more attractive to you, then you may be more of a Guardians person. Either way, its a win-win for Walt Disney World.