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

Out-Disneying Disney

Jaws poster

Peter Alexander, charged with leading the creative side of  the Universal Studios Florida project, says of the plans: “As the (one and only) show designer, it seemed to me that the only way we could compete against Disney with essentially the same product (a studio tour) in the same market (Orlando) was to ‘out-Disney’ them. That meant bigger, better rides. The thought of designing and building custom rides was both new and staggering to Universal’s management. They had never before built any kind of ride, let alone a Disney-quality experience. When I told Sid Sheinberg that the rides would probably cost $25-30 million each (about four times what we had spent on the L.A. version of King Kong), he looked ashen, but being a fearless executive, he green-lighted them anyway. We were in an ‘arms race’ with Disney, and he knew that only way to win was with bigger and better ‘weapons’.”

In Hollywood, Jaws’ great white shark lunges out of a lagoon at the Studio Tour’s trams. The Florida version of the experience would be significantly expanded and enhanced. Riders would now board flimsy-looking boats, placing them in much greater jeopardy. In one section, Jaws would actually grab the boats with his sharp teeth.

Jaws 1990

Even before work started, it was recognized that developing the Jaws attraction would be a hugely complicated undertaking – perhaps more so than any other attraction at Universal Studios Florida. Legendary former Disney Imagineer Bob Gurr, then with Sequoia Creative, recalls: “I had no reluctance to decline to bid on giant jobs if I thought the idea was too risky. Once, as a VP in a themed entertainment company, I no-bid on a monstrous job in Florida that had sharks in it.” Gurr’s decision was to prove to be a wise one.

With Sequoia Creative declining to bid, Ride & Show Engineering, Inc. (also based in California) won the tender to produce the Jaws ride, in conjunction with MCA’s own Planning and Development group. Spielberg himself acted as a creative consultant on the attraction.

Spielberg’s trusted friend Peter Alexander took the reins on Jaws. He recalls: “Originally, I wanted to make Jaws just one scene in a longer water ride, but my boss, Jay Stein, figured the movie was worth a whole ride. So I came up with an ‘all Jaws’ design, including the ‘shark bites boat’ scene.” Alexander defined the overall storyline, with former Disney artist Tom Reidenbach helping to devise a scene in which the shark tears apart a boathouse in which the guests’ vessel is sheltering, MCA’s team then put together storyboards and a script for the attraction, with Ride & Show Engineering being responsible for creating the animatronic sharks and ride system.

Jaws explosion

True to Universal’s aim of placing guests “inside the movies”, Jaws would feature a live actor playing the role of the boat’s skipper (leading many to compare it to a white-knuckle version of Disney’s famous Jungle Cruise attraction). After boarding their tour boats, guests would be whisked around the waterfront in the town of Amity (seen in the Jaws movies) to explore the sites where the shark had previously attacked. Of course, things would soon go awry, with the shark appearing on the scene and attempting to devour the riders.

The biggest challenge facing Jaws’ developers was how to enable enormous, life-sized models of sharks to move through a large body of water, with perfect timing so that their movements coincided with those of the boats. Former Universal show producer Adam Bezark recalls: “You can imagine how complex it must be to get one giant mechanical watercraft to swim up and bite another giant mechanical watercraft – which is moving – with absolute precision, hundreds of times per day.”

Jaws shark aerial image

The sharks, “swimming” at 20 feet per second, would not only grab the boat, but would then drag it around the attraction’s seven-acre lagoon. Weighing some three tons each and measuring 24 feet in length, they would move through the water with a thrust equivalent to that of a Boeing 747 engine. To enable this, nearly 2,000 miles of electrical wire and 7,500 tons of steel were part of the lagoon’s construction. Computer-guided hydraulic systems were used to control the actions of the sharks.

The construction and testing of the Jaws ride was fraught with problems, with the key issue being how to overcome the enormous drag caused by the water when the giant robotic sharks went from a dead stop to a rapid lunge. During testing of the boat attack scene, the shark would often lie in a stationary position at the bottom of the lagoon, refusing to emerge. Other times, its teeth – which were real shark teeth, glued into the model – would rip the pontoons on the boat. “Jaws was an engineering nightmare,” an anonymous former MCA executive told the Orlando Sentinel. “No matter how good Jaws looked on paper, there was never any confidence [that it would work reliably].”

Jaws construction

The spectacular finale of the ride would see the shark blown into thousands of tiny pieces, just as it was in the original movie. The boat’s heroic skipper would fire a grenade into its mouth, with the shark submerging before it exploded, sending chunks of shark up to 10 feet into the air. To accomplish this, a compressed air source was linked to a submerged shooting device that would fire out small pieces of “shark flesh”, along with water that had been dyed red to resemble blood. The pieces of deceased shark were then reused, having been guided back into a submerged collecting device shaped like a funnel.

In total, MCA spent more than $30 million to produce the Jaws ride, making it one of Universal Studios Florida’s most expensive attractions. However, persuading its mechanical predators to perform for guests on a day-by-day basis was to prove to be an even bigger challenge than the ride’s initial construction.

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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

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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