We'll Be Shark Bait in Ten Minutes! A Brief History of Jaws, the Ride
Like many people who visited Universal Studios Orlando throughout the '90s and early 2000s, I have a lot of nostalgia for the original attractions of the park. One attraction in particular sticks out to me: Jaws the Ride, the water attraction loosely based on the movie franchise of the same name. Though many of the other removed and replaced attractions from the early days of the park have faded in my memory, Jaws the Ride is still clear, and for good reason; it was one of the best. Let’s go back to the beginning and see just how it came to be, and what ultimately became of this iconic attraction.
The Tram Stop
In 1975, while the hit movie Jaws was still playing in theaters, Universal Studios Hollywood was breaking ground on the latest addition to its studio backlot tram tour—a stop based on the movie, featuring an up close and personal encounter with Bruce the shark. Premiering to the public in 1976, the original shark on the stop was a funny looking thing, nicknamed “Carrot Tooth” for the shape of its teeth, which had come about due to the desire of studio executives wanting the shark to resemble the jaws of the shark from the now iconic movie poster. The shark has been replaced and altered multiple times throughout the stop’s history, just as the story of the stop itself has.
Originally, the tram stop even contained props from the movie, including the actual Orca used during filming. It was long rumored and then later confirmed that director Steven Spielberg would often visit the Orca, and was heartbroken when he discovered that a recent alteration to the stop had led to the decision to remove the decaying prop. Sadly, the original Orca was chopped into pieces and thrown away. It was far from the only major change to the tram stop, but it is by far the most significant.
The tram stop is still operational and popular today. The current iteration features a pyrotechnics display in addition to the shark encounter. Unfortunately, the Universal Studios Orlando attraction based on this brief show would have a different fate.
The Original Jaws the Ride
When first designing their Orlando park, Universal initially considered replicating their famous Studio Tour. However, they were worried about being seen to be copying a similar attraction that was to be featured in Disney’s new MGM Studios park. The irony, of course, is that Disney was taking Universal’s idea in the first place, but I digress.
After scrapping the idea of a new tram tour taking up the bulk of the park, Universal decided to take its most popular parts of the tram tour and create standalone attractions based on them. Naturally, one of these proposed attractions was an expansion of the Jaws experience.
Universal wanted to “out-Disney” Disney, and in an effort to accomplish this, they attempted to make all of their new attractions bigger and better than those of the competing company. Peter Alexander, in charge of the creative side of the park, originally envisioned the Jaws ride as a larger water ride with only a Jaws scene, but Jay Stein, his boss, wanted instead to base the entire ride around the movie.
Costing $30 million—about $53 million when adjusted for today—this original version of the ride was quite different from the version that most people remember today. First, the boats were much flimsier looking, which enhanced the feeling of danger for the guests. The sharks used in this version weighed 3 tons, were 24 feet long, and moved through the water with a thrust equivalent to that of a Boeing 747 engine. The lagoon contained 2,000 miles of electrical wire and 7,500 tons of steel. The animatronic sharks were controlled with computer-guided hydraulic systems.
Two scenes from this version of Jaws the Ride are particularly noteworthy. The first is a scene early in the ride that involves Bruce swimming up to the boat and biting it, and then spinning the boat around 180 degrees. The second is the finale of the ride, which involved the skipper blowing up Bruce, similar to the finale of the original movie. Peter Alexander said of this climactic scene, “[MCA Inc. President Sidney] Sheinberg says, ‘In every shark picture, the shark blows up in the end.’ So I found someone who could make a shark blow up every 60 seconds.” The reason both of these scenes are notable is because they would both be removed from the ride when it was redesigned.
MCA and Universal Planning and Development designed this version of the ride along with Ride & Show Engineering, Inc., the company that had designed the Jaws scene in the Hollywood Studios tour. Steven Spielberg was also a creative consultant for the ride.
The Original Ride
So why was this version of the ride not kept? Simply put, it didn’t work. And Jaws the Ride wasn’t alone in this. Kongfrontation and Earthquake: The Big One, the other two main opening day attractions, also suffered from extensive breakdowns and bugs. However, while both of those rides were able to be fixed to a point where the bugs were at an “acceptable level,” Jaws did not appear to be able to be saved.
The effects on the ride didn’t work most of the time. Guest evacuations were daily. So many problems occurred so frequently that staff were told to stress that the ride was in “technical rehearsals” and had to compensate in other ways, such as one report of a skipper telling guests, “Imagine explosions over there,” during the ride. Guests were also told that Jaws wasn’t working when they arrived at the park regardless of the actual status of the ride in order to avoid later disappointment.
The main issue causing the ride’s failure was the amount of drag caused by the actions of the sharks. They were forced to go from a dead stop to a lunging speed for the ride scenes. Adam Bezark, who would later oversee the ride’s redesign, said of this, “You can imagine how complex it must be to get one giant mechanical watercraft to swim up and bit another giant mechanical watercraft—which is moving—with absolute precision, hundreds of times per day.” There was also a problem with the fact that the sharks used real shark teeth, which would sometimes cause actual damage to the boats during the biting scene.
Probably unrelated to the ride’s closure, but still an unfortunate incident nonetheless, in July 1990 a guest named Anthony Salamone fell out of the boat and into the lagoon, coming dangerously close to one of the sharks. The other riders applauded when he was pulled back in, believing the event was just part of the ride.
It wasn’t long before Universal decided to close the ride and attempt to fix its problems. They attempted a refurbishment through 1991 and early 1992, but they had no success in fixing the issues, deciding instead to start from scratch and build a new attraction. Universal sued Ride & Show Engineering, Inc. for allegedly failing to properly design the ride, but Ride & Show blamed Universal for the ride’s problems. The matter was settled out of court.
The New Ride
For their new version of the ride, Universal hired several different contractors to build the ride’s components separately: Totally Fun Company, ITEC Entertainment, Intamin, and Oceaneering International. The new collaborators installed an entirely different ride system and different special effects from the original ride. Universal was determined not to repeat their mistakes and refused to open a new Jaws ride until any technical problems could be fixed and the ride would reliably work.
The boat biting scene and shark blowing up finale were replaced with the now well-known gas dock explosion and electrocution scenes. According to Peter Alexander, the decision was made to not try to keep these original scenes because everything else in the original ride was “such a big hit” that there was no point in preserving them.
The new sharks were much more reliable, lunging in the water with the equivalent force to a 500-horsepower engine. They were attached to a 12-ton hydraulic lift that moved them through the water. The skippers, an essential part of the ride experience, were now forced to undergo five days of training and have an acting coach sign off on them before they were considered fully qualified for the ride.
Another new addition to this version was DADS, the program used to control the sharks. It displayed a 3D virtual image of what was happening on the ride and allowed operators to control their movements. It also detected any technical issues with the sharks.
Jaws the Ride officially reopened in spring 1993. This new version of Jaws the Ride cost Universal $40 million, and the petroleum used for both the boats and the dock explosion cost the company about $2 million a year.
At least once a year, Universal had to drain the lagoon of its 5 million gallons of water. In June 1995, following an anonymous tip, the company was ordered by the Department of Environmental Protection to fix its improper disposal of pollutants from the ride during these drainages.
Following the 2004 hurricane season, Universal decided to temporarily close the ride from January to December 2005 due to rising gas prices. It was reopened seasonally in December, only operating on busy days up until February 2007. During its nearly year-long closure, several renovations were made to the ride. This included a cleaned up queue, repainted boats, and repainted sharks. Unfortunately, this refurbishment also included a reduction of the fire effects. It was refurbished every year thereafter until 2011.
On December 2, 2011, Universal announced that Jaws the Ride and the entire Amity area of the park would be permanently closed to make way for a new experience ultimately revealed to be the Diagon Alley expansion to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. This announcement prompted severe backlash that did nothing to affect the planned closure.
On January 2, 2012, the last 48 riders experienced the attraction for a final time. Perhaps appropriately given the ups and downs of the ride’s history, the last appearance of the shark did not happen due to a ride malfunction.
The following day, Amity was walled off, and demolition took place over the next few months.
The Final Ride
Though Universal Studios Orlando’s Jaws the Ride is gone, the original tram tour stop is still operational. In addition, a version of the ride that opened at Universal Studios Japan in 2001 is still operating today as well. It is more or less the same as the classic Orlando attraction.
Jaws is also not completely absent from the Florida park. Diagon Alley features many references to Jaws, which have been documented by eagle-eyed fans.
And last but not least, the iconic hanging shark statue is still displayed, having been relocated to Fisherman’s Wharf in the San Francisco area of the park. The statue was even featured in 2015’s Sharknado 3, which was tragically a few years too late to include the full glory of the ride in its campiness.
Jaws the Ride holds a legacy of proving that Universal was capable of competing with Disney’s parks and holding their own in the theme park industry, and it was instrumental in establishing the park in its early days. Though it is now gone, Jaws the Ride is certainly not forgotten.