Earlier this year, Disney Parks reserved a booth on the Show Floor at New York Comic Con to showcase Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, one of Disney World’s newest roller coasters. The resulting immersive experience Wonders of Xandar didn’t explicitly mention the Cosmic Rewind roller coaster, Guardians of the Galaxy, or even Disney Parks as an entity. And yet, it still managed to capture the essence of the Disney Parks experience by thrusting booth visitors into a less-explored corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and letting visitors explore that corner as deeply as they were willing to go.
Wonders of Xandar: A Primer on the Disney Parks Experience
In May 2022, Walt Disney World added the Wonders of Xandar Pavilion to EPCOT’s selection of attractions in the Florida park. Framed to mimic the purpose of EPCOT’s other World Showcase attractions, the new pavilion existed to provide an outpost to feature a different culture: only this time, instead of highlighting the cultures and cuisines of terrestrial locations like Mexico, Norway, or Japan, Disney took its cultural exchange intergalactic by enlisting the planet Xandar to highlight their civilization in the Andromeda Galaxy that featured heavily in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie.
The Wonders of Xandar Pavilion experience is divided into two main parts: the first installment is an extended queue experience that fulfills on that promise of cultural exchange by guiding park visitors through a series of museum exhibits, video displays, and live interactions to introduce the somewhat obscure planet featured in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After navigating the queue, visitors are thrust into the themed roller-coaster experience Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, where guests team up with the MCU’s intergalactic heroes through an off-planet mission facing off against a Celestial, threatening the planet Earth.
Which brings us to New York Comic Con, five months after the EPCOT experience’s launch.
Wonders of Xandar: A Cultural Exchange Outpost
Disney Parks framed their New York Comic Con presence as an extension of the EPCOT Pavilion’s mission of cultural exchange, with a suitably cryptic listing for their booth experience:
Following the recent opening of the spectacular new Wonders of Xandar Pavilion at Walt Disney World, the Xandarians have created a new outpost at New York Comic Con to learn more about Terra (or as you call it, “Earth”) and its unique culture and customs. Come meet our Xandarian Ambassadors, learn more about our galaxy, and bring a Terran artifact of your own to trade for a cosmic collectable! Presented by Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, an all new thrill-coaster at EPCOT.
Booth visitors were greeted by an Earth representative that explained how the planet Xandar set up a presence at EPCOT, and established this outpost at NYCC to learn more about Terrans, before getting shepherded to a table where a Xandarian ambassador proudly displayed the Terran artifacts they collected. The Xandarian ambassador would ask if the booth guest had any Terran artifacts they’d be willing to contribute to the growing collection, and listen with rapt attention as guests who take the bait explain the significance of their gifts. Particularly interesting gifts were added to the displays, quickly transforming the booth’s recessed displays into a collection of Terran ephemera that would rival The Little Mermaid’s own collection of gadgets and gizmos aplenty.
The guest in front of me solemnly presented the Xandarians with a used MetroCard noting how it served as an essential currency for Terran transit. The Xandarian solemnly added it to the display, intermingled with cassette tapes and video game cartridges. When it came to be my turn, I handed over a magic box filled with plastic jewels, noting it was ideal for smuggling particularly interesting finds across intergalactic borders for more personal use.
This public-facing side of the Wonders of Xandar experience put the convention experience on its head: surrounded by booths offering fans more stuff, the Wonders of Xandar booth asked visitors what they’d be willing to give up, after personally interrogating its value. And since these exchanges were conducted in public view, those trades served as its own kind of spectacle.
Wonders of Xandar: Going Beyond Cultural Exchange and Entering Xandarian Space
Booth visitors curious enough to offer up an item were presented with a Galactic Credit, and invited to go around the corner and check out the Xandarian cultural outpost’s break room. After opening a nondescript door, an “off duty” Xandarian would welcome the guest to the space and invite them to use the break room’s vending machine to buy a packet of Zarg Nuts.
Inside, the Galactic Credit could be exchanged for a bag of Zarg Nuts from the break room’s intergalactic vending machine, and an “off duty” Xandarian would chat about the Xandarian comic book she was reading, The Unusually Large Man.
And for the vast majority of con-goers, this is where the experience stopped. A glimpse into a charmingly mundane corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, brought to life by small moments of interactions with Disney cast and crew that are such an integral part of the overall Parks experience.
Wonders of Xandar: A Fast Pass to Xandarian Fluency
Activations at major conventions share one key frustration with theme parks, from the experience design perspective: once people figure out what the must-see attractions are, competition to get into the experience often requires advanced planning, a healthy dash of luck, and a long time waiting in line. At previous New York Comic Cons, I’ve waited in long, winding lines for well over 2 hours to experience a quick 3-5 minute experience.
Popular activations are starting to catch on: Amazon Prime’s activation for The Peripheral, for instance, used an online portal so participants could book a time slot and come back for a 10-15 minute wait at a later time. Wonders of Xandar‘s solution was similar – once the line for the Disney Parks booth got too long, Xandarian exchange workers on the Terran side of staff started to hand out appointment cards that acted like physical Fast Passes…but those cards also acted to hint that there was more to the experience, because it provided a Translation Aid that taught visitors how to read the Xandarian script transliterated from English, scattered around the booth.
In the public-facing section of Xandar’s cultural exchange booth, most examples of Xandarian script (including the Wonders of Xandar sign itself) was displayed in both English and Xandarian, so there was no need to bother translating the messages.
However, a larger display at the entrance to the Wonders of Xandar booth made a more explicit promise that studying the alphabet might prove a worthwhile endeavor:
(In Xandarian): TEST YOUR SKILLS
(In English): Use this tool to decode Xandarian text around the booth.
(In Xandarian): Translate our language here – translations are rarely exact.
While the booth’s public-facing exterior did lead to a few modest surprises, learning the script unlocked a completely different experience inside the Xandarian break room, where everything was written in Xandarian.
Wonders of Xandar: Everybody Hates Terry
When the Xandarian ambassadors were “on the clock” at the public-facing side of their Cultural Exchange outpost, they maintained the highest standards of professionalism and decorum. But behind the Break Room doors, things became a little more relaxed. During my visit, I witnessed an off-duty Xandarian teasing their wide-eyed Terran counterparts for closely examining a perfectly mundane coffee pot, tucked into the corner of the space.
And that laid back attitude extended into some of the easter eggs planted across the mountains of Xandarian text, littering the break room walls. The first indication that something was amiss came from a pair of Xandarian OSHA notices, providing safety tips for office hygiene and jump point travel. Scrawled next to Workplace Etiquette Rule #6, requesting that Xandarian employees clean up and label their food, someone scrawled the message “Looking at you, Terry.” But it gets worse for Terry’s co-workers.
According to a series of post-it notes tacked to the office corkboard, Terry is potentially responsible for everything from overflowing the coffee machine, drinking someone else’s milk, neglecting to turn off the lights before leaving the office, and (most egregiously), tearing down the post-it notes complaining about Terry’s many sins. A significant portion of office communications are dedicated to this office rivalry, simmering under the surface of the otherwise benign Cultural Exchange program.
While Terry’s escapades remain my favorite office easter egg, dig through the space deep enough and you’ll find a recipe for Cake Toast, a troubleshooting guide for the Xandarian Worldmind, and an Employee of the Month award for Onix Conception (along with timecards for other Xandarian employees who happen to share names with Kansas City Royals players).
There’s even a reference to the prosthetic leg Peter Quill steals off an inmate at Rocket Raccoon’s request in Guardians of the Galaxy by way of a MISSING poster that doesn’t need translating to get…especially since the working phone number will Rickroll anyone trying to snitch on the Guardians of the Galaxy, signaling that it might be time to stop digging quite so deep.
…or at least, to shift that attention from the NYCC booth to the Park experience, where those symbols had been hiding in plain sight for months, with Xandarian messages liberally scattered throughout the experience adding color to everything from in-universe trash cans to signage throughout the roller coaster itself.
Wonders of Xandar: Rewarding Engagement at Every Level
Disney Parks bought a booth at New York Comic Con under the guise of promoting a newly opened roller coaster. However, it didn’t feature Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind by showing footage of the roller coaster in action, or celebrating the technical features of the coaster: while it’s interesting that Cosmic Rewind is a reverse-launch coaster that can rotate 360 degrees, that’s not what makes the Disney experience.
Instead, Disney created an experience that showed their care and consideration for all of the elements of an experience surrounding the ride itself. The booth’s manual FastPass system minimized the amount of time standing in line instead of exploring the NYCC show floor, while the Xandarian cultural exchange booth provided ongoing entertainment as earlier guests model conversations by offering random junk up as priceless cultural artifacts.
The interaction itself provided an experiential reminder of the magical and sometimes even intimate moments that can come from interacting with Park cast and crew, by giving attendees a chance to play pretend, if only for a little while. And that decision was rewarded with a chance to pull back the curtain and see another side of the experience, otherwise hidden from view: a more intimate space, where characters created the illusion of letting their guard down.
The booth also showcased how many different ways to play with the Parks – even if that involves obsessing over petty office drama revealed through amateur cryptography. It’s worth noting that while the Wonders of Xandar booth was the first time the Xandarian alphabet and numerical system were explicitly spelled out, Parks fans manually decoded the script before the Pavilion even opened officially.
Oh, and for those of you who didn’t scan the QR code from the Zarg Nuts, mentioned earlier? That drives to an augmented reality experience that finds yet another way to bring the Marvel universe into the real world.
Wonders of Xandar: Leaving Space for Disney Magic
In a Twitter thread reflecting on the Wonders of Xandar booth, producer Wes Lagattolla reflected on the gifts fans left at the Cultural Exchange, including a hand-written thank you note, written in Xandarian. And while the team was blown away by the care and consideration that some attendees gave to their gift giving, they were not wholly unprepared to reward people who went above and beyond.
During New York Comic Con, I took to Twitter sharing my fascination by the Xandarian messages sprinkled around the booth. Responding to that, I got a direct message written in the language, inviting me to return the next day for a “special gift”.
Upon returning, I received a double-sided poster of the comic book the Xandarian was reading in the break room: a special surprise set aside for guests who impressed the Disney team through their heartfelt gifts, roleplaying, or obsession with the printed word.
The poster hides a few surprises that are well worth exploring (including proof that the Comic Code Authority’s grasp on the industry extends past Terran borders), but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.
Wonders of Xandar invited con attendees to enter a little known corner of the Marvel universe, and presented them with multiple avenues to play in that world. And the experience took that invitation seriously, making sure to build in rewards (both experiential and tangible) for guests who took the leap and accepted that invitation that extended beyond the confines of the booth itself.