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Jaws: How Universal’s Shark Ride Turned into a Real-Life Disaster

Jaws

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

Magic Kingdom opening day

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.

Jaws at Universal Studios Hollywood

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

Michael Eisner and Frank Wells.

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.

Catastrophe Canyon

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.

Disney-MGM Studios construction

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.

Universal Studios Florida concept art

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.

Universal Studios Florida model

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.

Jaws movie poster

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…

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There are 18 comments.

my experience on the jaws ride (that most people know today) was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. when I was growing up and saw "jaws" for the first time, I watched half of the film peeking from behind a blanket. absolutely terrified. even today I am deathly afraid of sharks, but also fascinated by them. but anyway, when I went to universal studios for the first time when I was about 8 years old my family and I decided to go on the Jaws ride. despite knowing everything everything was going to be a fake tourist attraction I had no idea what "the terror of the deep" had in store for me. unknowingly I sat in the worst possible seat on the boat ( for someone that was suffering from PTSD after watching "jaws"). i kept telling myself,"you'll be fine. Be brave," but I would be eventually be reduced to a pile of horrified mush when I was confronted with the animatronic shark that was stalking our boat. at the point in the ride where the shark finally breaches the water with its mouth gaping right next to the boat, guess where I was sitting? RIGHT NEXT TO IT. I felt paralyzed as I stared at this monster that haunted my dreams for countless nights. As a young boy, it felt so real. Too real, maybe. I'm pretty sure I didn't blink for at least a half hour after we finally had gotten off the ride. it's a day I will never forget.

Aw man loved jaws thanks for bringing back awesome memories
I remember my dad before I was born was at jaws (the original version) waited in line 7 times and one of those seven he was about to get on the boat and broke down now remember that was 1990 since 2002 (having, me, my dad and my mom move to Florida) enjoyed jaws me and my dad rode it every time we got to universal minus the time even they had seasonal ride usage in the mid 2000's
When me and my dad heard jaws was closing it beige my hearty but it was a more of why until reading the articles after closing it, made sense or final ride was January 1st 2012 and when the next day came I stayed on suicidal media to see other people go on and give final reactions until the last official ride came and you knew people were sad that jaws would be gone
Now me I'm not a Harry potter person not my cup of tea but bold move by universal still I think jaws is 10x better tab potter but that's me
At least they are bringing back Kong (but what, Kong though)
That's my memory

Oh My God!!! The ride that Terrified me! When we went on this when i was a kid guess where i was sitting? Right where the Jaws attacks the Boat! Someone somewhere prob. still has pics of me tryin to get to the other side of the boat away from what i thought was a real life Jaws. Needless to say my folks still find it funny to give me shark gifts over 20 yrs later.lol

Ok. I love your family! There's nothing like a family with a sense of humor!

I remember being quite young when I first rode Jaws back in late 1993, not too long after Universal first reopened the ride. I was absolutely petrified by the experience. The last time I got to ride was at Halloween Horror Nights in probably 2010 or 2011. It was so much fun at night.

Having grown up in Orlando i remember this ride with great fondness. the length and depth of this article brought back some awesome memories. Thank you for a great write up

Oh MAN I only got a chance to ride it once, but Jaws really screwed me up! I was a kid when we went to Universal Studios, and I had no idea which ride we had gotten in line for - when you're that age (6? 7?) you don't really CARE, and I think my mom was just happy to ride something that didn't involve a talking animal.
I vividly remember seeing something on FIRE, off on the shore-line of the ride, and leaning over the boat to see what it was...and being confronted by a giant mechanical shark. I spent the remainder of the ride curled up near the back of the ride - my mom was so worried about me, we left the theme park immediately after. To this day, I am terrified of sharks. I can only JUST, after almost 20 years, keep my feet on the floor when I hear the familiar 'Jaws' theme song. So in MY book, the ride did exaaactly what it was supposed to do!
I'm only sad that my kids won't get a chance at the same gut-wrenching fear I experienced as a whipper snapper! My mom probably saved a ton of money NOT paying for those scuba lessons I was so sure I wanted, once upon a frickin' time.

Great feature article! Thanks for putting all this together for us!

I was a skipper on the Jaws ride back in 98.... My favorite job ever...

Great article! I really enjoyed all the history behind it. I had no idea how different the original ride was or that it even existed! I remember first riding it around 1994 when I was about 6. It was so traumatizing that I refused to go on it for years. Years later when I was older, I decided to try it again. And I loved it! In 2011 I rode it for the last time at at age of 23, and it still made me scream. Although I am a huge Harry Potter fan, Jaws the ride will always hold a very special place in my heart.

I remember being 9 years old, an Orlando resident and frequent visitor of the local theme parks. My parents took me to Universal, but we could not ride Jaws the first two visits because it shut down. One of which incidents happened when we were about 10 people from the boarding spot. Better than being stuck on it I guess. I miss back to the future and especially the boat stunt show on the main lake with the disappearing airplane. The Wild West stunt show was awesome too. My mom still has a picture of our family with the cast on the set :D

My marching band was invited to do the Macy day parade the month before jaws closed. So naturally i had to go on it for my first and last time. Ater the parade I went on jaws with my buddy in the bottom half of our uniforms. Needless to say we were sitting in the top left corner of the boat got soaked and man that was a cold 2 hour bus ride home.

I lived in Florida when Universal opened and we went a few times right after opening. I remember the ads on tv that said, 'Universal Studios, now open' but we used to say 'Universal Studios, now broken' since nothing worked in those early days.

In 2016 my family and and I were leaving to go to Universal Studios in Orlando. I was a little number that the Jurassic Park ride wasn't to cool, but I started crying because they shut down the Jaws ride for Harry Potter. Harry Potter. Some kid who survived an attack for a crazed no-nose wizard. What about the guys that swam a very long distance across water. After witnessing one guy be eaten alive, after barely surviving the shark by swimming to a rock, by blowing the son of a b**** into smitherines. I mean, come on! I am very depressed right now. Getting rid of the Jaws ride DID ruin Orlando.

Jaws may have been edgier, but to say it was more technologically advanced than anything Disney was doing is simply unfair. In some ways Great Moments with Mr Lincoln, the 1963 version, is more advanced than any animatronics at Universal, even today, and certainly more refined in execution than the shark in Jaws. Both companies emphasizes different things, and offer very different experiences for a clientele with different priorities and expectations. This is also true at a technical level. Universal sells HUGE!!! and eXtreme!!!!! Disney sells subtle and charming. Diagon Alley is a bit of both, sure, but most of the rest of the Universals parks is not aiming to be magical and subtle like Disney is, and almost everything requires you to tolerate screen-based motion sickness. I think both parks have their place.

Disney appeals most to small children and adults, Universal to teenagers and tweens.

Disney also has a generally wealthier, better educated demographic (this is statistical fact).

It's great that there is something for everyone

I remember my first trip to Universal Orlando and Disney World was when I was 9. The date was in December, 2001. My first trip out of many to come. I had never been allowed to watch Jaws since my mother knew I was easy to scare. But I had heard of it. My parents liked it so they took me along to the ride, telling me it would be just a nice little boat ride around the area like what my dad would do for us back home.

We waited in line for what seemed to me like forever. There was some guy and a shark hand puppet on the TVs in the waiting queue that was interesting. Next thing I knew, we were sitting down in a boat and I was reflecting on some terrifying shark movie I had recently seen on TV. It wasn't Jaws, but it was scary. It was about a mama shark who terrorized a group of scientists and guests at an aquarium like Seaworld to try to get her baby back. It had me worried about what I was going to witness here.

At first it wasn't so bad. We had a highly entertaining Skipper that day and I enjoyed his jokes. Then the ride began to get crazy. Not long after we drew backward out of the shed, I saw something in the water. I leaned slightly to watch it and BAM. I was spattered with water and the most terrifying thing I had ever seen nearly had my head in it's mouth. I screamed a little, hid my face in mom's shirt and might have cried a few tears of fear.

But ever since then, I have gone on Jaws every time I've been to the park except of course after Jaws closed to make way for my favorite childhood world of magic and wonder. Though now I'm not so sure I'm pleased with Potter. I can't ride thrill rides and that's all Potter is. And now I am distressed to find out that the discovery that Universal has made with Potter has eventually led to me losing something else I've loved since childhood. Beetlejuice.

I will always miss Bruce with all the frights he gave me, but nothing hurts as bad as losing BJ.

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.

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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