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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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Comments

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

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.

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

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.

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