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

The rebuild

Jaws second version

The problems suffered by the Jaws attraction mirrored those encountered during the production of the movie itself. Jaws had run wildly over budget – from $4 million to $9 million – after Steven Spielberg insisted that it be shot at sea, and not in a controlled tank on a studio backlot. “Bruce”, the animatronic shark that was to be its star, frequently malfunctioned, with pneumatic hoses taking on salt water, parts corroding and a “non-absorbent” skin that proved to be anything but. The director must have felt a sense of déjà vu as he witnessed the theme park version of Bruce give his stuttering performances in 1990.

With Jaws shuttered in August 1990, Universal brought together a creative team to decide what should be done with the attraction. Director of design Mark Woodbury insisted that the company never considered scrapping Jaws altogether: “All the components that make it a good film would make it a great ride. Like anything else, given another chance to evaluate things, not only do you fix them, but you take the opportunity to make it better.” The Totally Fun Company, which had worked on a number of Universal Studios Florida’s attractions, was brought in to work with the internal team on the redesign.

In place of Ride & Show Engineering, Universal brought in several key contractors. The first of these was Intamin, which would handle the movement of the boats (the previous ride system was to be stripped out completely). Orlando-based Regal Marine Industries built the boats themselves. Eastport International, a Maryland-based company, would design and build the mechanical sharks. The Nassal Co., a local firm, would construct the underwater track and surrounding ride buildings. Finally, the complicated software needed to bring the whole show together would be developed by Itec Productions.

Jaws wire bite

The script was enlarged, borrowing elements from the original Jaws and Jaws 2. Two of the most troublesome scenes were dropped: the “Jaws bites boat” scene, and the “exploding shark” finale. In their place were added a major explosion on a gas dock, and a climactic scene in which the shark was electrocuted after biting onto a high voltage barge. Another new set-piece would see a ring of fire created by underwater natural gas lines completely surround the boat.

Peter Alexander created the initial concept for the refurbishment, and recalls: “After we opened, everything else seemed like such a big hit that we felt we didn't need to re-engineer the ‘shark bites boat’ or ‘meat machine’ to make them more reliable [they would instead be replaced], so I came up with the simpler ‘shark bites wire, catches fire’ bit. After that, I left Universal and a guy named Adam Bezark took it from there.”

Bezark recalls (in an excellent interview with “I was brought in during the production phase, after the new sharks and boats had been designed and were already in construction. My role was to bring the whole thing together: fine-tune the script, program the boats and sharks, work out the effects timings and lighting, oversee the new soundtrack and train the performers, etc.”

Jaws fire sequence

Working with Ron Griffin, a pyrotechnics expert, Bezark helped develop the key fire sequence: “I wanted to make it intense and scary, but not dangerous…When it got to the point where the heat was actually painful, we dialed it back just a bit. So the impact on the audience was amazing: some people thought they were actually getting burned, but I knew from personal experience that it was safe.”

Bezark and his team also had the complex task of ensuring that the timing of the boats’ movements worked correctly. The software developed by Itec Productions would regulate the vessels’ speed, as well as triggering rolling effects that would create the impression that the shark was swimming underneath the boat. It was an arduous process: “There was no way to back the boats up, so if we wanted to change a roll effect in, say, scene one, we'd have to ride the entire six-minute ride all the way around the lagoon before we could see the results of the change. This meant literally hundreds of cycles, always taking place in the dead of night.”

Eastport International was acquired byOceaneering International in August 1992, and renamed as Oceaneering’s Advanced Technologies Group. The company had been contracted by Universal as it was a specialist in building the heavy-duty hydraulic machinery used by undersea oil rigs – its work on the updated Jaws ride would be its first foray into the entertainment business. With the original sharks reported to have suffered from inadequate waterproofing, Universal was turning to the experts.

Oceaneering International Spectrum

Eastport’s unmanned vehicles had previously recovered tons of deep sea wreckage, including debris from the Space Shuttle Challenger. “We have an emotional stake to make sure this is successful,” claimed president Craig Mullen. “This was a unique undertaking.” The company would face the same challenges as Ride & Show Engineering. “It’s a harsh environment,” said Mullen. “You've got electrical and hydraulic components, neither of which like water very much. You've also got this massive piece of machinery which you have to accelerate from a dead stop, and then make it stop safely.”

The Oceaneering International team built no fewer than seven fiberglass-and-steel great white sharks, which proved to be much more reliable than the original versions. At various points during the ride, the sharks surged from the water with a force equivalent to a 500-horsepower engine. All of the underwater equipment was encased in hard plastic to prevent corrosion.

To achieve their rapid forward lunges, each of the sharks was attached to a hydraulic lift. This apparatus, weighing 12 tons, was mounted on a wheeled platform, enabling the sharks to move around the lagoon. The platforms themselves sat on underwater tracks.

Jaws return poster

Universal was taking no chances on a repeat of the disastrous original opening of Jaws. The ride debuted in August 1993, but was officially categorized as undergoing “technical rehearsals” until early 1994.

The extended rehearsal time also enabled Universal to perfect the ride’s script and for the boats’ skippers to settle into their roles. Five days of training was required for each skipper, including a swimming test at nearby Wet ‘n Wild. When the ride was operating, they would narrate (or “spiel”) three consecutive runs of the six-minute attraction at a time, before taking a short break. As well as receiving an eight-page script and a nine-page workbook, they were also equipped with a tongue-in-cheek dossier on people and places in Amity. An acting coach would ride through the attraction with them before signing them off as fully qualified. The job was not a glamorous one, with skippers required to show up for work at the crack of dawn to scrub down the boats with soap. In a reference to the original version's mishaps, staff lovingly referred to Jaws as “the mistake on the lake”.

Universal effectively wrote off the $30 million that it had spent on the first version of Jaws and started again from scratch. This time around, the cost would be even higher: an estimated $40 million, the same amount that had been spent on Back to the Future: The Ride (which opened in 1991). Still, the company was relieved to have the sharks back in the water. “Bringing Jaws on at this point really closes a chapter for us, and allows us to move forward,” said Bob Ward. “Obviously, we are all very excited that Jaws is becoming part of the family.” Jaws stars Roy Scheider and Lorraine Gary, along with director Steven Spielberg, were on hand to reopen the attraction.

Jaws promotional image

Despite the new version’s much-improved reliability, Jaws was still a hugely expensive attraction to maintain. It was estimated that the natural gas needed to fuel the climactic scene would cost the park around $2 million every single year.

Whatever the costs, visitors were impressed. “It was fabulous - pretty scary, though, and we did get wet,” Shelly Kurek told the Orlando Sentinel. “It's like you're right there in the movie.” Universal’s management were happy too, with general manager Tom Williams commenting: “I can honestly say that if you searched the world over, you wouldn’t find another ride like this.”

Jaws dry from above

It was operating reliably and thrilling guests, but Universal’s problems with Jaws weren’t quite over. At least once a year, the five million gallon lagoon was drained into two large stormwater ponds on Universal’s property, which eventually emptied into a drainage ditch. The Department of Environmental Protection received an anonymous tip that pollutants were leaking out from the ride, with floating oil being spotted on the stormwater ponds. Tests showed high levels of petroleum pollutants and heavy metals. In June 1995, it ordered Universal to clean up its act.

The company was forced to apply for an industrial wastewater permit, requiring it to conduct regular tests on water leaving the ride. The most significant change, though, was the switch to a different hydraulic fluid, one that was nontoxic and biodegradable. However, this caused a minor controversy. The new oil was made by Mobil. The official sponsor of Kongfrontation, and the “official motor oil of Universal Studios Florida”, was Texaco – which also made the old fluid. “We contacted Texaco about a new fluid,” said Ron Sikes, Universal’s in-house lawyer. “We would have bought from them if they would have offered a product that met our needs.”

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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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