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

A real-life disaster

Disney-MGM Studios opening day

Disney had promised to open Disney-MGM Studios in 1989, and it was as good as its word – the park’s grand opening took place on May 1 that year. Over at the Universal site, things were progressing more slowly. The strain of producing a host of cutting-edge attractions on a company that lacked Disney’s experience had left MCA’s project behind schedule, if indeed the original intention of opening in late 1989 had ever been realistic. Instead, MCA was now targeting an opening date exactly one year after Disney, on May 1, 1990.

By January 1990, MCA was forced to concede that construction work on Universal Studios Florida had slipped even further behind schedule. The May 1 opening date would not now be met, with the park more likely to open to the public in June of that year. By now, delays and cost overruns had caused the budget for the project to balloon to around $630 million. Even with this level of investment, there was widespread speculation in the press that the park’s rides would not be ready in time for its opening day. In reality, all three of the headline attractions – Jaws, Kongfrontation and Earthquake: The Big One, were facing major issues.

In Jaws’ case, the robotic shark was still struggling with his big scene. Timing the gyrations of the pontoon boats such that they matched the shark’s actions was proving to be difficult. If the timing was off, Jaws simply appeared to be thrashing around in the water for no reason – making the experience unintentionally hilarious, rather than terrifying. The adjustments were complicated by the location of the ride’s machinery, much of which was 20 feet below the surface of the lagoon.

Universal Studios Florida opening day

With celebrities booked and the peak summer tourist season looming, MCA opted not to delay the grand opening any further. At 8am on June 7, 1990, Steven Spielberg led more than 50 well-known stars from stretch limousines down a red carpet towards Universal Studios Florida’s entrance. Among the line-up were Sylvester Stallone, Michael J. Fox, Bill Cosby, James Stewart, Linda Blair, Charlton Heston and Jane Seymour (“My god, it’s Rambo!” squealed one fan, according to the Orlando Sentinel, after catching a glimpse of Stallone).  Spielberg joined Jay Stein at the head of the line, cutting a filmstrip ribbon with an oversized pair of scissors.

Things began to go wrong even before the first guests arrived for the grand opening. At 4.30am, just hours before Spielberg cut the ribbon, a power outage knocked out the software that managed the special effects for headline attraction Earthquake: The Big One.

Things didn’t improve once guests were inside the park. The “talkback” software that managed the interaction between King Kong and the tram holding his victims on Kongfrontation was still not operating properly, and technicians were forced to trigger the enormous animatronic creature’s movements manually in order to ensure that Kong didn’t snap his hand off.


While Kongfrontation and Earthquake were suffering, Jaws fared even worse. The ride operated sporadically for just two hours before thunderstorms in the afternoon forced it to be shut down for the day. Spielberg and his family were reported to have been among those trapped on the ride.

Disgruntled visitors stormed the park’s Guest Relations department. More than 1,000 received either cash refunds or free tickets for a return visit. The following day, Universal was forced to offer a similar deal: everyone that bought a ticket would automatically receive a free ticket for a future visit.

Universal was optimistic that Earthquake and Jaws would be working on the day after the grand opening. Kongfrontation, they said, would be out action for at least a few days. Their optimism was misplaced.

Universal Studios Florida’s grand opening took place on a Thursday, and as it reached its first weekend, Kongfrontation and Earthquake: The Big One were both closed. Although signs warned that it too would be out of action, Jaws did finally open on the Saturday afternoon. Staff, though, were keen to stress that the runs were mere “technical rehearsals.” At one point, a boat’s skipper was forced to say: “Imagine explosions over there.”

Universal Studios Florida flyer

Universal began to adopt an approach of “under-promising and over-delivering”. When guests arrived at the park, they would be informed that Jaws, for example, was not operating even if it was. Television, newspaper and radio ads were adjusted to avoid mentioning Jaws, Kongfrontation and Earthquake.

When Jaws did work, it was pretty special. You can see footage of the original ride in this training video:

Admitting defeat

In public, at least, Universal had insisted that Jaws was the most reliable of its three major attractions, suffering from significantly less downtime than Kongfrontation and Earthquake. In private, though, management had begun to accept that the problems with the water ride were so severe that there were no quick fixes. Minor tweaks would not solve its problems, which were resulting in more-or-less daily evacuations.

Not all of Jaws’ problems were mechanical. During its brief run of operations in July 1990, guest Anthony Salamone had the rare experience of being in the water with the ride’s shark. His lawyer, Michael Diamond, claimed that a railing had broken, causing him to fall into the ride’s lagoon. “The shark’s gonna eat daddy!” cried one of his children, as the mechanical monster approached. Universal employees pulled the man out of the water, but he slipped and fell in a second time, apparently suffering a scraped leg and bruising. When he was finally hauled back into the boat, the other riders applauded, thinking that the spectacle was part of the show.

Jaws 1990

By August 22 – just two-and-half months after opening – Universal Studios Florida admitted defeat. Jaws was closed completely to undergo a major overhaul, with Steven Lew announcing that it would not reopen until the following year. A 40-page lawsuit was filed by Universal against Ride & Show Engineering, with Lew commenting: “We are angry. We are disappointed. There are numerous design flaws…compounded by poor workmanship.” The ride would only operate for a few hours at a time before requiring repairs, claimed Lew. Consultants would now be hired to undertake a complete redesign that would lead to the “re-engineering, rebuilding and reopening of Jaws in 1991.”

Ride & Show Engineering responded angrily to the lawsuit. Joseph B. McHugh, its vice president of marketing and administration, told the Orlando Sentinel: “We strongly disagree with Universal's claims. Except for the expense of litigation, we welcome the chance to vindicate our company.” The firm claimed that it would consider filing a counterclaim against Universal.

By December 1990, Universal was forced to admit that Jaws might not reopen until 1992. “We are undergoing a comprehensive engineering effort that will translate into an opening that has yet to be determined,” said Tom Williams.

The following April, Universal reached an out-of-court settlement with Ride & Show Engineering. The agreement barred both parties from discussing details of the case, with Universal claiming that the settlement was “amicable”. Ride & Show Engineering, though, would not be involved in the redesign of Jaws.

Jaws 1990

Despite the vow of silence, both sides eventually weighed in on the Jaws debacle. Universal’s Tom Williams claimed that the major problem with the ride was overcoming drag caused by the water when the sharks lunged forward. Director of design Mark Woodbury commented: “It was a series of things with the first ride. The biggest one being they just couldn't get it to work reliably.”

Ride & Show Engineering’s chief executive Eduard Feuer insisted that the blame lay with Universal itself. He said that management pushed to open the ride when more time was needed for testing, and that Universal took control of the ride before his company could correct a problem with speed-control mechanisms on the boats. “Basically, Universal didn't have any experience with a ride like this," Feuer said. “If we had built something like this for Disneyland, Disneyland maintenance would have taken it over and made it work.”

The Jaws saga continued to rumble on. In January 1992, Universal was forced to once again push back the ride’s reopening date, this time into 1993. “The process of coming up with a design we liked from a creative standpoint, as well as the technical side, and moving forward on a cautious and prudent basis [led to the delay]”, said Ron Sikes, Universal's vice president of legal and business affairs. Having suffered through a torrid opening period, Universal was determined that when Jaws returned, all of its problems would be ironed out.

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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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