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.
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.
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.”
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].”
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.