The Forgotten, Failed JAWS Ride at Universal Studios Florida

The Forgotten, Failed JAWS Ride at Universal Studios Florida

The Legend of JAWS

A blockbuster that shaped a nation. A failed ride concept that lasted only two months. A sequel that was so much more than just a theme park ride.

This is the story of the JAWS ride at Universal Studios Florida.

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A New Terror Emerges

Author Peter Benchley put the terrors of the ocean to paper in his 1974 bestselling novel, Jaws. The following year, rising filmmaker, Steven Spielberg, adapted the thriller for the silver screen. Audiences were hooked; Jaws was a hit as big as the film’s 25-foot monstrous shark.

Jaws earned the distinction of being the first summer blockbuster, earning $470 million worldwide, but its impact rippled beyond the moviegoing experience. Audiences would never view the open waters in the same way again.

Jaws in Real Life

In 1976, Universal Studios brought Jaws Frenzy to Hollywood with an addition to its Studio Tour: The Jaws Experience. The short show scene passes by the waters of Amity Island as a massive shark animatronic lunges at the tram. Parkgoers could even pose with a hanging shark photo op.

The Jaws Experience brought movie magic to life in an exciting way for Universal Studios. As the Studio Tour grew, so did Universal’s ambitions as a theme park—and none other than Steven Spielberg was also along for the ride.

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Park

By the mid-‘80s, Universal Studios began producing a new tram tour to be built in a promising tourist destination: Orlando, Florida. However, once Disney caught onto Universal’s plans, the not-so-mousy theme park giant began development on a movie studio theme park to be named Disney-MGM Studios.

The competition pushed Universal Studios to create bigger attractions beyond a tram tour. The new park was becoming a large-scale project with several E-ticket rides: a tall order for Universal Studios. The development team was spread thin with enormous engineering and creative challenges ahead—none more challenging than a fully realized version of The Jaws Experience.

Creating a Nightmare

On paper, a Jaws ride was a perfect fit for the upcoming Universal Studios Florida. A movie theme park wouldn’t be complete without a blockbuster franchise—especially a thriller, considering Universal’s horror roots.

Development for JAWS: The Adventure, a name later simplified to JAWS, began in early 1987 with an estimated budget of $20 million. This was a massive budget compared to previous investments; Universal Studios had never built a single attraction on this scale.

The boat ride was planned to have underwater animatronic sharks. Infamously, the shark animatronics for the Jaws film were mechanically problematic when in salt water. Turning the book into a movie was a nightmare in itself. Turning the movie into a theme park ride was—well, we’ll get into it.

Even with Steven Spielberg on as a creative consultant, Universal needed outside help with JAWS.

Industry legend Bob Gurr has hinted he was offered the opportunity; Gurr had “no reluctance” to decline the job, despite his previous experience on major Universal Studios projects, citing it was “too risky.”

I had no reluctance to decline to bid on giant job if I thought the idea was too risky. I no-bid on a monstrous job in Florida that had sharks in it.”

Bob Gurr, industry legend

The Early Development of JAWS

The job instead went to Ride & Show Engineering. The firm not only had a good track record with Universal Studios—having previously worked on complicated attractions like Earthquake—but also won the bid by proving they could build shark animatronics that could operate underwater.

Ride & Show Engineering would be responsible for the technical aspects of JAWS, such as the ride system and robotic sharks.

The ride was developed in partnership with MCA’s Planning and Development department, headed creatively by Peter Alexander.

JAWS, similar to Disney’s Jungle Cruise, was going to be a boat ride headed by a live skipper spieling a script. The attraction would have a spoof local radio program playing in the queue. In concept, the unsuspecting boat tour would come across several shark attacks. An early draft even had a blatant jab at Disney with a pair of floating Mickey ears among wreckage in the water—a gag later used on Jurassic Park: The Ride.

One notable scene in an early draft of the ride took place in a boathouse—a concept by Tom Reidenbach. It originally implied an unseen Jaws that bumped into a ship from where a dead sailor’s body fell out of a hole.

The concept was coming together, but the story needed an impactful scene halfway through. A show-stopping moment like completely sinking the boat would be unforgettable, but not realistic to actually build for the ride. Instead, the idea came about to have Jaws attack the boat and pop it.

If we were going to trump Disney in Orlando, Jaws had to bite the boat.”

Bob Ward, senior vice president for Design and Planning

The concept of Orlando’s JAWS ride was becoming much more advanced than Hollywood’s—and certainly more serious than its old carrot-toothed Bruce.

Doubts in Development

Florida’s JAWS ride was a technical feat, reaching a cost of $30 million—among the most expensive attractions in the park. It took 850 feet of track, 2,000 miles of electrical wire, and 7,500 tons of steel to build the ride. It was impressive, but many involved were losing confidence in its reliability.

Major effects were failing to work repeatedly. The manufacturer and Universal worked long hours to resolve these issues as the park’s opening day neared. Their backs were up against the wall. They cycled the ride countless times making adjustments, but it still couldn’t perform reliably.

The ride couldn’t even run at full capacity with executives and Spielberg on board. During tests, someone in management commented how the ride needed some work. Spielberg allegedly replied with something to the extent of, You’re going to have to do a lot more than that,” implying the ride needed heavy creative improvements.

The large design and its troublesome elements made it an “engineering nightmare,” in the words of an anonymous former MCA executive. Some from Ride & Show Engineering saw JAWS as a flawed concept, but development continued.

Disappointment was brewing. Out of all the ride’s early issues, the worst was its tight deadline; opening day was getting closer and closer.

Universal Studios Florida was originally set to open in 1989, but the park’s debut was pushed back to 1990 because of its state-of-the-art lineup and significant workload.

Anticipation was growing as elaborate advertisements for the park were popping up, including a 3D JAWS billboard sculpted by Michael Davy.

Even with a year delay, the park probably still opened too early, but the show must go on.

A Disastrous Opening

For a movie theme park filled with blockbusters, Universal Studios Florida’s debut was anything but. The $600 million theme park opened to the public on Thursday, June 7, 1990—a day marked with extreme technical issues and thousands of disappointed guests.

A power outage and operational complications affected the park’s major attractions, including Kongfrontation, Earthquake: The Big One, and especially JAWS.

JAWS was closed throughout most the day; park personnel publicly blamed its closure on possible lightning in the area, despite beautiful weather.

In the following days, Kongfrontation and Earthquake were operationally reduced to technical rehearsals; JAWS, however, was fully closed for maintenance, reopening for technical rehearsals that weekend. The limited JAWS was met with a generally positive reception, despite a number of effects not working. With so many effects missing, some skippers reportedly improvised with reactions like, “Imagine explosions over there.”

JAWS wasn’t perfect yet, but at least it was open.

JAWS 1.0

To experience JAWS, guests entered a real life Amity Island. This Amity Island, set in the timeline of the movie, celebrated the Fourth of July year-round, giving it a spirited, energetic feel across the midway. The coastal town had a quaint, believable look to it—almost as if you could smell a salty ocean breeze. Its white-picket-fence, happy-go-lucky feel lulled guests into a false sense of security as a terror dwelled beyond the shores ahead.

The town led to a photo op of Bruce the shark hanging on display, right in front of the ride’s entrance.

Inside, the queue spanned three boathouse-like buildings with props and decorations sourced from Northeastern fishing communities.

The ride’s 7-acre, 5-million-gallon lagoon wrapped around a central island. Its charming New-England-style buildings hid the ride’s large equipment, such as its water filtration system. The convincingly themed environment made the open-air ride even more believable.

Guests boarded large inflatable pontoon cruisers that looked intentionally flimsy as part of the story. Piloting each boat were live onboard skippers, playing an even bigger role.

The scenic tour to Lighthouse Cove was accompanied by a condensed version of John Williams’ iconic soundtrack. The attraction began by cruising by Quint’s shack with the Orca boat docked outside. Riders clearly overheard an argument from Quint, discussing how the hanging shark outside wasn’t their shark. The skipper reassured riders the waters were safe as the nonchalant tour moved along.

A radio transmission from another boat in distress interrupted the tour, instantly dragging down the ride’s upbeat tone. Around the bend, guests witnessed a tour boat just like theirs sinking bow-first into the lagoon—with no survivors. Terror stuck as a fin emerged from the water, prowling for the next victim before dipping back under the surface.

The massive shark reappeared on the starboard side of the pontoon. The panicked skipper grabbed a grenade launcher, shooting and missing the shark a few times.

After a back-and-forth with the chief over the radio, the skipper navigated into a nearby boathouse for safety. The sign on the building read “Jay’s Boathouse” as a reference to Jay Stein, president of Universal Studios Florida. This dark, indoor scene was a break from the Florida sun, but not from the shark. The giant great white broke into the boathouse, and riders got their first full glimpse of the shark and its vicious teeth. A highly articulate Jaws animatronic darted at the pontoon in the dim, eerie boathouse.

The ride’s final two scenes were its most ambitious. After escaping the boathouse, the tour boat was still being hunted, but the shark was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, the shark lunged out of the open water, attacked the flimsy pontoon boat, and dragged it across the lagoon. This terrifying scene worked with a turntable system that rotated in sync with the thrashing animatronic shark.

The tour struggled onward, as the menacing fin resurfaced, swam toward the boat, dove underneath, and bumped it. Jaws came back for one final scare: The shark charged out of the water with its mouth ready to attack the boat. The skipper shot another grenade, landing directly in the shark’s mouth. Jaws swam back underwater. The delayed grenade went off, blowing up the savage shark similar to the end of Spielberg’s 1975 film.

After this scene, the boat returned back at the dock to drop guests off.

The ride’s explosive climax was made possible with a contraption called the “meat machine,” created by producer Craig Barr and fabricated by TRA Architects. The effect launched water and rubber shark chunks into the sky, simulating an underwater explosion. It then spurted red dye into the water, which was defused right after. The pieces would catch into a net system and funnel down to reset the effect for the next boat.

“The Shark is Not Working”

From a guest perspective, JAWS was a well-received ride. It left riders screaming, laughing, and cheering along the action-packed journey, complete with a good payoff at the end. It was an ambitious ride, but that ambition was also the cause of its major issues and malfunctions.

In the early days of Universal Studios Florida, JAWS was often closed. The ride would typically operate only for a few hours on a regular day before going down for maintenance—if the ride were even open that day to begin with. Maintenance crews worked on the attraction over many nights to make it operational for the next day. The underwater mechanisms caused frequent issues. After a bit, Universal Studios Florida stopped promoting the ride to avoid disappointment.

One of the leading causes of the ride’s problems was the attack scene. The turntable effect had two synchronized elements—the boat and the shark—which moved independently. This effect relied on accurate timing by the skipper, which happened inconsistently. The boat and the shark in that case would not connect, causing a very awkward and anti-climatic scene at best. Plus, the precision of multiple moving parts was made more complicated with the resistance of water.

The animatronic also had real shark teeth, which fell out if bumped by the boat. People are afraid of shark teeth, not gums. This not only made the shark look silly, but the bumps also could have damaged the boat.

The low success rate of this effect was only part of the issue. Park executives were well aware of the ride’s pitfalls and were quick to consider possible adjustments. Leadership, including Steven Spielberg, rode JAWS to evaluate what repairs were needed. In case it hasn’t been obvious, it was a lot.

JAWS had been nearly inoperable, limping along with its lingering issues. Universal Studios Florida, following its rough opening day, had been able to sort out the technical issues at other major attractions, such as Kongfrontation and Earthquake. JAWS, however, had too many complicated issues to overcome.

The inevitable happened on Aug. 22, 1990, just over two months after opening: Universal Studios Florida closed its anchor attraction, JAWS. The ride was shuttered for further evaluation and repairs.

Pointing Fins

Lawsuits for a ride this problematic were inevitable.

The first lawsuit happened while the ride was in operation. A 39-year-old guest fell into the water after his lap bar allegedly broke. The lagoon was fairly shallow in most areas except for the deep pits for the animatronic sharks; unfortunately, that was where the guest fell. The skipper reacted quickly by pressing the emergency stop button, which immediately shut down the ride and its effects. The guest was pulled back into the boat with no serious injuries. The numerous reports of this incident tell inconsistent details about what happened, some stating the other guests thought it was all part of the show. After the incident, the guest sued Universal Studios for $1 million, claiming negligence and poor maintenance.

The other lawsuit came after the ride closed. Universal Studios Florida took a huge loss by pulling the plug on JAWS. It was a $30 million investment plus the millions of additional dollars it would take to get it properly up and running. So, Universal Studios opened a 40-page lawsuit against the ride’s manufacturer, Ride & Show Engineering. Universal claimed poor workmanship and a defective design, such as underwater animatronics that were not fully waterproof.

The manufacturer defended that the park rushed development. The unrealistic deadlines resulted in key effects not being tested underwater before being installed on the ride. Having enough time to test prior to installation may have prevented malfunctions. The ride was also designed to operate in filtered water; Universal Studios allegedly mixed clay into the JAWS lagoon to make the water murky and hide the underwater mechanisms. However, the clay caused complications to the underwater equipment.

The chief executive of Ride & Show Engineering commented that Universal Studios wasn’t experienced enough to properly maintain the ride.

Basically, Universal didn’t have any experience with a ride like this. If we had built something like this for Disneyland, Disneyland maintenance would have taken it over and made it work.”

Eduard Feuer, chief executive of Ride & Show Engineering

The two sides settled out of court in April 1991. Universal Studios moved forward.

CONTINUE TO PART II

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