The former Jaws ride at Universal Studios Florida holds a special place in the hearts of many theme park fans. It operated for almost two decades, subjecting millions of guests to the terror of being pursued by a giant great white shark - just like the characters in Steven Spielberg’s classic movie.
Jaws finally closed in 2012 to make room for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley. Such was its enduring popularity that furious Twitter users bombarded Universal with abuse, with one proclaiming “You’ve ruined Orlando!”
What many fans of the Jaws ride didn’t realize was that it wasn’t, in fact, the first ride that Universal had built based on the man-eating, razor-toothed beast (and no, we’re not counting the short Jaws section of Universal Studios Hollywood’s tour, which opened years earlier). The company had blown an eye-watering $30 million (around $53 million today, accounting for inflation) on the original incarnation of Jaws at Universal Studios Florida. Only a relative handful of guests were able to experience it before it was shuttered completely. So bad were the ride’s technical problems that it was completely rebuilt, becoming the attraction that most of us remember.
In the latest of our In-Depth Retrospective series looking back at classic, lost rides, we’ll dive into the murky waters and learn just how such a calamity came about. We’ll recall what the experience of riding the lost original was really like. We’ll investigate how Universal reconstructed Jaws and did, eventually, make it a success. And, finally, we hope you’ll share your memories of both versions in the comments, so that we can bring Jaws back to life together.
We’re gonna need a bigger boat…
A forced change of plans
In 1971, Disney expanded its theme park empire beyond California with the opening of the sprawling Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Despite some initial struggles and question marks over whether East Coast audiences would take to Disney’s brand of entertainment, the resort quickly became a huge success. Not only that, but it created the template for a new style of “destination theme park resort” – one featuring its own on-site hotels, which would attract visitors for multi-day vacations, instead of mere day visits.
Universal’s owner MCA was looking on enviously. Seven years earlier, it had thrown open the gates at a much-enhanced Universal Studios Hollywood, spending $4 million on a fleet of trams, dining locations, parking lots and other facilities. Other attractions, such as a $5 million Visitor’s Entertainment Center, were soon added, and the tour was boosted with set-pieces such as a flash flood section and a “torpedo attack” sequence. By the 1970s, Universal was spending millions on updates to the tour, including a spectacular rockslide display and the Jaws Experience, which saw guests being attacked by the 25-foot-long shark seen in the smash-hit movie.
Even before Walt Disney World opened its gates, the chairman of the board of MCA’s Recreation Services Group, Jay Stein, had mooted the idea of opening a studio tour in Florida, to capitalize on the influx of tourists heading to Disney’s property. In the early 1980s, Universal devised a plan for the Florida studios and began looking for investment partners to share the risk. The Florida tour was to be similar to the Hollywood version, and would be built around a brand-new, working production facility. The plans called for a “front lot” walking tour, as well as a tram tour through the studio’s backlot.
One set-piece, the “Hollywood Canyon”, would see a tram rolling onto a bridge in view of the Hollywood Hills. A massive earthquake would then strike, causing a dam to crack and a wall of water to pour down towards the tram, which would escape into an oil field in time for riders to witness a semi-trailer truck explode after crashing into an oil tank.
In 1981, MCA purchased 423 acres of land in Orlando on which to build its Florida tour. To the company’s frustration, though, none of the prospective partners came on board. Even worse, its plans to bring movie magic to Florida had roused the newly-competitive Disney into action
Disney had traditionally taken an aloof view of competitors in the tourism industry, describing them as “supporting” rather than “competing” amusements. By 1984, though, things had changed. That year saw Michael Eisner (formerly CEO of Paramount’s movie studio) and Frank Wells (formerly head of Warner Bros.) brought in as Disney’s CEO and President respectively, in an ultimately successful attempt to strengthen the company and ward off hostile takeover attempts.
Eisner was not about to let Universal invade “Disney’s turf” without a fight. Disney’s Imagineers had put together a plan for an entertainment-themed pavilion (dubbed the Great Movie Ride Pavilion) for EPCOT Center’s Future World area, which had not been pursued. By expanding this into a full-sized, studio-themed park, Eisner surmised, Universal’s plans could be blown out of the water.
In February 1985, at his very first shareholders meeting, Eisner announced plans for Disney-MGM Studios. The initial plans bore a striking resemblance to those for Universal’s tour. The main attraction would be a tram tour past four working soundstages, an animation building, backlot sets and post-production facilities. One of the set pieces to be included in the tour would be “Catastrophe Canyon”, during which an earthquake would shake the tram, cause fires to ignite, lead to an oil tank explosion and trigger a flash flood. The similarities to Universal’s proposed Hollywood Canyon were undeniable.
If Disney’s plans were designed to head Universal off at the pass, they actually had the opposite effect. Rather than killing Universal’s plans, the announcement of Disney-MGM Studios instead reignited MCA CEO Sidney Sheinberg’s desire to get the Florida project off the ground.
The war between Disney and Universal escalated in March 1986, when Disney broke ground on Disney-MGM Studios on a 100-acre site southwest of EPCOT Center. By this stage, Disney had increased the budget for the project substantially, from $300 million to $550 million.
MCA hit back in December 1986 with a grand announcement: it had found a partner to help develop its Florida project. Cineplex Odeon Corp., a Toronto-based entertainment company 50 percent owned by MCA, would be an equal partner in what would now be known as Universal Studios Florida.
Steven Spielberg was along for the ride. In March 1987, MCA announced that the director of Jaws, E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial and a swathe of other hits had signed on as a “creative consultant” for Universal Studios Florida. With George Lucas working on attractions for Disney, the pair – long-term friends, and collaborators on the Indiana Jones series – were now pitted in competition with each other.
With a tram tour being the headline attraction of Disney’s park, simply cloning the Universal Studios Hollywood experience in Florida would leave MCA open to accusations that it had copied Disney, and not vice-versa. The company decided to redesign the park from top to bottom, throwing out many of its original ideas. In all marketing activities, MCA attempted to differentiate its park from Disney’s, stressing that Universal Studios Florida would be a very different proposition.
The core concept of a theme park built around a working movie studio was retained, meaning that some overlap with Disney’s offering was inevitable. However, the tram tour – the signature element of Universal Studios Hollywood – was dropped altogether from the plans for the Florida attraction. Instead, the main set-pieces from the Hollywood tour, such as the encounters with Jaws and King Kong, would be blown up into separate, standalone attractions.
With the original Jaws movie having pulled in an incredible $470 million at the box office and being one of Universal Pictures’ best-known productions, the decision to bring the shark to Orlando was not a difficult one. But the reality of implementing a major, water-based attraction would prove to be anything but easy…
I was one of the lucky few that actually got to ride the original version of the Jaws ride before it closed for the newer one.
It was even more thrilling that the training video shows. The original ride had 3 attacks by Jaws, one the boat house which is in the video, then the part he bites the boat was much more violent, as there was lots of white water all around the boat when he was dragging it. Then the last attack not in the video, the boat actually would lean hard to the right, almost like it was going to capsize as the shark would shoot out of the water like an animal planet great white shark vid with its mouth wide open. That was the scariest part! This was easily the best ride at any park at the time, when it was running. We only got to the ride this version once, every time after I was disappointed with the newer toned down version. I didn't know they remade it, I just thought the elements kept breaking an they just kept turning more an more of them off. Thinking maybe next time they will have it all working, lol. If you thought the newer version was scary, it didn't even come close to the original.
It might have been a testing day but the new Jaws was definitely open in April of 1993 when I went to Orlando for the 2nd time with my parents. My father got so scared he nearly threw his cane at the shark and I've been telling that story and laughing about it with him for more than 25 years. The trip was definitely April of 1993 in 7th grade.
OMG if i was to know that jaws was closing and might never come back to make way for harry potter i would have beged my mom to take me one last time because JAWS was one of our most favorite rides everytime that we would go to universal that was our first and last ride we did for the day sometimes as a kid when my mom took me for the first time i thought it was so real and i was holding my mom tight brings me to tears a lil bit because i didnt get to experience my favorite ride one last time and im not sure if the shark bites the boat ever came into play but i feel like it happened some of my best memories are from Jaws and it makes me sad to see it go. Would be really amazing for all the fans of the park was expanded and Jaws decided to come back to eat its boaters but we all know it wont as much as we want it too the boat house was always my favorite
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The JAWS ride was a dream come true for a JAWS nut like me. First went on it in grade school and was able to go on it in college before it closed. Nothing is quite like watching the dorsal fin cut the water the first time which was done very well as it was in the movie. A true treasure that I wish they would try to bring back for a generation that could use it.