The Complicated History of JAWS at Universal Studios Florida

The Complicated History of JAWS at Universal Studios Florida

This article is a continuation of the history of JAWS at Universal Studios Florida. READ PART I

After closing JAWS in 1990, Universal Studios had hopes to make the failed ride operational. The ride wouldn’t be rethemed nor replaced—Universal was confident they could make it work.

All the components that made it a good film would make it a good ride, like suspense and horror and thrills.”

Mark Woodbury, director of design at Universal Studios

Universal hired third-party consultants for a “redesign that will lead to the re-engineering, rebuilding, and reopening of Jaws in 1991.” The plan was to more or less automate the boats and strengthen the mechanical structures. The assessment, however, determined the repairs were more complicated than that—the ride needed more than a moderate refurbishment.

A major finding was that the attraction developed weld cracks at the base of key framework structures for the ride and its effects. This made the attraction prone to failure—such as potentially causing a catastrophic accident. The lagoon was immediately drained at this time, and an extensive overhaul was deemed necessary.

Watch on YouTube

This article is available in video form with added visuals. Click HERE to watch it.

An Extended Closure

The poor state of the ride pushed its reopening out to 1992 at the soonest, but even that was too optimistic; the reopening was delayed to 1993.

Universal made use of the JAWS queue while the attraction was closed to guests. The JAWS queue was the venue for a haunted house during the seasonal event that would eventually become Halloween Horror Nights. The space at one point was even used as a temporary barbecue restaurant.

Meanwhile, Universal Studios Florida opened Back to the Future: The Ride in 1991. Unlike the struggles of the park’s opening day, the debut of Back to the Future went over smoothly. Universal wanted the reopening of JAWS to go swimmingly as well, assuring everything was done right this time. Reopening JAWS was going to be the final missing piece from opening day.

Re-Engineering JAWS

Universal scrapped the former JAWS ride system and effects, except the basic lagoon structure and themed sets. The old boats were sold to MGM Grand Adventures, a theme park in Las Vegas, for its Backlot River Tour.

After losing millions on its investment, Universal took this time to evaluate the creative and engineering aspects of the attraction.

On the creative side, Universal worked on a more engaging script for the skippers. The spiel for the original JAWS ride was somewhat reactionary with rudimentary lines. Peter Alexander tweaked the story to be more captivating, also incorporating new scenes to replace the old defective effects. For a more reliable ride, this version of JAWS wouldn’t have the boat attack scene or the “meat machine.”

Adam Bezark took over during development to oversee production. Jay Stein, president of Universal Studios Florida, also put a lot of care into the redesign as it was one of his final projects in the park before retiring.

The Right Team for the Job

Universal partnered with several contractors on the redesign of JAWS. The Totally Fun Company, having worked on prior Universal Studios attractions, served as the executive producer on the redesign.

Eastport International Inc., soon acquired by Oceaneering Entertainment Systems, created the new shark animatronics. The company specialized in deep sea robotic submarines, so the new animatronics could handle being underwater. The company crafted seven fiberglass, latex skin, and steel sharks, which were as powerful as the liftoff of a Boeing 737 airliner. The sharks, attached to 12-ton hydraulic lifts, were carefully designed to forcefully and safely lunge through the resistance of water.

The show sets were built by The Nassal Co., with previous work on Universal Studios Florida projects such as the Psycho House and Bates Motel.

Regal Marine Industries fabricated the new boats.

The track and motion base ride system were manufactured by Intamin, which made the simulators for Back to the Future: The Ride and many roller coasters.

ITEC Entertainment developed the ride control system, including the programming of movements and triggers.

Floating Toward a Reopening

After completely overhauling the ride, the combined cost of the two versions of JAWS jumped up to an estimated $70 million. Needless to say, this was a massive investment, and it had to work this time around.

The ride’s creators cycled the ride day and night to fine-tune every detail. Even if they were making minor tweaks to a single scene, they had to complete the entire layout since the ride vehicles couldn’t move in reverse. It was a long, tedious process getting the complex ride up and running to Universal’s standards.

Shortly after the skippers started training, JAWS was officially in technical rehearsals by August 1993—three years after its original opening. Universal was more patient this time around as technical rehearsals lasted for months; 500,000 guests rode JAWS during technical rehearsals.

To generate buzz leading up to the ride’s reopening, Universal Studios had a 30-foot-tall, 30-foot-long LandShark vehicle that made 300 promotional tour appearances.

Universal Studios Florida had some positive years after fumbling its grand opening. The theme park rehabbed its image, and a functional JAWS ride would really be the cherry on top.

Bringing Jaws on at this point really closes a chapter for us, and allows us to move forward.”

Bob Ward, senior vice president for design and planning

JAWS Resurfaced

JAWS resurfaced at Universal Studios Florida on Oct. 1, 1993, with an opening ceremony featuring Spielberg and some of the original film’s stars.

The experience started off the same way as before: Guests passed through the Amity Island area, celebrating the Fourth of July. The festive town circle still led to a hanging shark photo op where countless families made memories for decades.

According to the backstory, this was the “real” Amity Island; Spielberg’s blockbuster film was just an overblown retelling of the town’s infamous shark attacks from 1974. Amitys tourism fell on some economic hard times after that incident, but the best and only Captain Jake’s Amity Boat Tours was turning that around.

The JAWS queue went through the rustic boathouses of Captain Jake’s Amity Boat Tours with nautical decorations and some authentic props from the movie like Chief Brody’s jacket.

Hey There Amity!

In the queue, a 50-minute video played local programming called Hey There Amity!. The channel played ads for Amity’s local business plus Ocean Spray, an early sponsor of the ride. The video also had some talk show segments with the “real life” counterparts of the Jaws characters. The “real” Mayor Vaughn was denying shark incidents, the “real” Hooper was defensive about his portrayal in the movie, and someone claiming to be Quint said he survived the attack.

JAWS 2.0

At the dock, guests boarded tour boats with tiered rows, seating up to 48 passengers. The new diesel-powered boats appeared sturdier than the original pontoon boats, now with automated movements. The live onboard skipper had no actual control over the boat (other than E-stops)—only pretending to steer and pilot. Skippers were now much more involved in the story.

The reimagined JAWS ride, though heavily re-engineered, had a very similar format to the original. It was still in a massive 7-acre lagoon, holding 5 million gallons of water. The lagoon still had a central island with lifelike New England building facades to sell the small seaside town atmosphere. The widespread and believable environment made the attraction feel secluded from the world.

The ride was a tour around the “real” Amity Island to visit the locations of the infamous shark attacks of 1974 that inspired the 1975 film.

A voice over the radio from Amity Base, voiced by the ride’s show director, gave the boat the all-clear. Uh, this is Base. You are cleared for departure, Amity 6.” The ride started with a cue from its soundtrack, composed by David Knuepper and based on John Williams’ melodies, as the skipper and riders waved goodbye to all the land-lovers waiting on the dock.

In the new version of the ride, the skipper introduced the tour and pointed out Chief Brody’s home across the lagoon. The first few scenes of the reimagined ride were fairly similar to the previous version, except without Quint’s heated discussion.

A distress call from another tour boat played over the radio, and the tour continued around the lighthouse only to discover a sinking boat. A fin popped up by the wreckage, went under the boat, and resurfaced on the starboard side. The tension was rising on the open water with a 25-foot shark stalking the boat. After a call from Base, the skipper grabbed the grenade launcher—which was definitely not over-the-top at alland shot at the shark twice before going to hide in a nearby boathouse, where the Orca was docked.

Once in the dark, cool boathouse, the skipper shut off the engine; the off-putting silence gave the foggy scene an eerie feel, with ambient dripping sound effects and an ominous glow from the water. It was a cinematic moment.

The skittish skipper swiveled the boat’s light around at each bump and bang heard in the claustrophobic boathouse. This scene had improved effects with boats and cargo knocking around as the shark was trying to barge its way inside. Jaws crashed in and charged at the boat—probably the most tense moment of the ride. The skipper finally got the boat to restart and rushed out of the boathouse.

The next scenes were completely different from the original versionno more shark attack or “meat machine.”

Back on the open water, the shark was nowhere to be found. Chief Brody called in saying he’d be there in 10 minutes; the skipper reacted with one of the most iconic lines from the ride: “Ten minutes? We’ll be shark bait in 10 minutes!”

The shark charged at the boat. The skipper tried shooting it but missed, causing the gas dock on the shore to explore. Large equipment fell over, a barrel rocketed into the sky, and the lagoon went up in flames. There was no way out.

This scene was hot. Some guests complained this scene burned their skin, but it could’ve just been discomfort from sunburns combined with the heat. In development, the creators cranked up the flame effect until it was painful and dialed it just below that extreme level.

The skipper carried on, escaping through the fire that dissipated just in time for the boat to pass.

This was the home stretch. The skipper headed toward a dock where everyone could evacuate. However, Jaws was still on the hunt. Its fin surfaced and rushed toward the boat, disappearing into the wake. Just as the boat stopped near a high-voltage barge, the shark attacked once more, accidentally swimming into an electrical cable with its mouth. Sparks and steam shot up, and the shark went under. It floated back to the surface, completely fried from the voltage, just like the electric ending of Jaws 2.

The shark was dead, giving off a burnt smell. Everyone onboard made it out alive, and the skipper triumphantly screamed, “Call off the Marines; we are coming home!”

Reception

The return of JAWS was well-received by guests. This version of the ride was a bit more clever and resonated with parkgoers. It would even grow a devoted fanbase over the coming years.

Simply put, the new and improved JAWS was exciting. The boat’s motion base was intense, and the ride didn’t hold back on giant animatronic sharks. The unpredictability of being outdoors on the water gave it an expansive, real feeling with the uneasiness of not knowing what was under the surface. On a ride like Kongfrontation, King Kong was out in the open, seen from far away—but Jaws could pop out from anywhere in the lagoon. No other ride could replicate the uncontrollable, secluded tension JAWS had. Plus, night rides were a bonus.

The improved JAWS ride did exactly what Universal wanted it to do: It was reliable, unlike the original version. Most guests could actually get on it and experience JAWS for themselves.

Having JAWS back at Universal Studios felt right. But, even though the new JAWS ride was a huge improvement over the old version, it still had its fair share of issues.

The Issues of JAWS 2.0

Some of the ride’s issues were very simple and out of the park’s control; obviously, being an outdoor ride, JAWS was prone to weather delays, and Central Florida is known for its afternoon showers.

The outdoor ride had other weird quirks, like “duck stops.” As the story goes, a duck was in the lagoon one day—as is common during certain seasons—and was unfortunately on top of a special effect during the ride. The duck shot up and landed on a horrified guest. From then on, skippers were instructed to stop the ride if a duck were in danger.

Oddities aside, JAWS also had more complex issues. For starters, the ride needed constant maintenance, but the water made work difficult; some tasks required either certified scuba divers or draining the entire lagoon. The sharks could be raised above water level via lift platforms for convenient maintenance.

The animatronics themselves were prone to breaking down. They weren’t necessarily faulty like in the original version of the ride, but they were still tricky to keep fully operational. The shark skins were replaced biannually, and other components of the ride needed custom parts.

Additionally, the animatronics occasionally leaked hydraulic fluid, which contaminated the lagoon water. In extreme situations, this turned the water lime green and stained some guests’ clothes.

These leaks among other pollutants affected local stormwater ponds when the lagoon was drained. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency received an anonymous tip about the issue, forcing Universal Studios to change its practices with the lagoon water. Universal switched to a more efficient hydraulic fluid for the animatronics, among other improvements for drainage.

The ride actually closed every so often—about once per year—for deep maintenance. During those times, the entire lagoon was drained, and team members scraped sludge from the bottom to clean it.

The Costs of JAWS 2.0

The intricate JAWS ride was also expensive to operate—from staffing needs, to regular maintenance, to costly resources. Every ride vehicle had a spieling team member on board, costing slightly more than the staffing of typical attractions. The explosion effect reportedly cost around $2 million annually in natural gas. The boats ran on diesel fuel, which added to the ride’s expenses; that cost went up even more when Universal Orlando switched to a more environmentally friendly diesel.

Speaking of fuel prices: The cost of gas skyrocketed in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. Universal Orlando, which was struggling in attendance at this time, temporarily closed JAWS to save on rising fuel costs. The ride operated seasonally, but after overwhelming guest complaints, the attraction reopened in 2006.

That’s a Wrap

JAWS across the years had many ups and downs—the failed original version, the popularity of the second, the mechanical issues, the loyal fans, the costs, and so on. JAWS was now well over a decade into operation and outlasted other opening-day attractions like Kongfrontation and Nickelodeon Studios; Universal Studios was a very different park by this point. It was no secret the complicated JAWS couldn’t last forever. The tides were changing at Universal Orlando Resort.

Next door at Islands of Adventure, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was a smash success when it opened in 2010. It was only a matter of time before Universal Studios Florida had its own Wizarding World as well.

In late 2011, Universal Orlando Resort announced JAWS would soon close permanently to make room for a Wizarding World expansion. Many guests complained against the beloved ride’s closure, but it was a done deal.

Fans showed up for JAWS’ final day of operation on Jan. 2, 2012, with the line reaching nearly 90 minutes at its peak. The emotional day ended with the late Michael “Skip” Skipper behind the helm for JAWS’ final public ride, followed by a lap for just the closing team. In true JAWS fashion, the final rides were passionate and high energy: Riders screamed the iconic lines, cheered the whole way through, and of course the kill shark animatronic was out of commission.

That was JAWS: exciting, personable, and unpredictable.

A Lasting Legacy

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley opened in place of JAWS and Amity Island on July 15, 2014. Even without JAWS, Universal Studios Florida still has a few remnants and Easter eggs from the classic ride—whether it’s a nod to Spielberg’s 1975 film or the famous Bruce the shark on display in San Francisco. It’s also been said the fire-breathing dragon in Diagon Alley uses the same utility connection as the gas dock explosion; it’s certainly in the same area.

JAWS is missed in Orlando, but it still is featured on the Studio Tour in Hollywood and since 2001 has operated at Universal Studios Japan.

Back in Florida, JAWS left behind a storied reputation. It was one of the most celebrated attractions not just in Universal’s history, but in all of theme park history. The redesign lasted well beyond its years despite issues; it was almost doomed to fail but instead thrilled guests for years.

A lot of that success can be credited to the ride’s design; sharks are always scary, and nothing beats the up-close-and-personal feeling of seeing a giant animatronic shark trying to attack you. It’s a major reason why so many people are fascinated and unnerved by the idea of submechanophobia.

“Amity, As You Know, Means Friendship”

But the real reason this ride stayed so relevant for so long were the skippers. They put their heart in soul into every single show to make sure everyone had a great time. They cared about the attraction, its story, and its significance. Without the personal touch of skippers, JAWS would’ve just been a lap around the lagoon with some animatronics. Their timing and effort made the ride feel believable, and they made a connection with guests in just five short minutes. That’s an experience worth doing again and again.

And with unofficial traditions like leaving their shoes behind, there’s no doubting how much that ride mattered.

A Special Place in Theme Park History

Rides like JAWS are almost impossible to come by nowadays. Human-led experiences are becoming more and more rare with attractions like The Great Movie Ride and Poseidon’s Fury closing their doors forever.

Nothing is quite as special as JAWS was. Experiences like Shark in the Dark night rides at Halloween Horror Nights were legendary, and that’s just one of a million reasons why JAWS is still adored all these years later.

Fans and skippers alike still celebrate the ride, and Universal Studios Florida has honored the franchise with tribute stores, entertainment offerings, and more.

The blockbuster, the ride, and the memories—JAWS undoubtedly made waves in theme park history.

Back to blog

Support Storybook Amusement

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting Storybook Amusement in these ways:

Storybook Amusement Shop