The former Jaws ride at Universal Studios Florida holds a special place in the hearts of many theme park fans. It operated for almost two decades, subjecting millions of guests to the terror of being pursued by a giant great white shark - just like the characters in Steven Spielberg’s classic movie.
Jaws finally closed in 2012 to make room for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley. Such was its enduring popularity that furious Twitter users bombarded Universal with abuse, with one proclaiming “You’ve ruined Orlando!”
What many fans of the Jaws ride didn’t realize was that it wasn’t, in fact, the first ride that Universal had built based on the man-eating, razor-toothed beast (and no, we’re not counting the short Jaws section of Universal Studios Hollywood’s tour, which opened years earlier). The company had blown an eye-watering $30 million (around $53 million today, accounting for inflation) on the original incarnation of Jaws at Universal Studios Florida. Only a relative handful of guests were able to experience it before it was shuttered completely. So bad were the ride’s technical problems that it was completely rebuilt, becoming the attraction that most of us remember.
In the latest of our In-Depth Retrospective series looking back at classic, lost rides, we’ll dive into the murky waters and learn just how such a calamity came about. We’ll recall what the experience of riding the lost original was really like. We’ll investigate how Universal reconstructed Jaws and did, eventually, make it a success. And, finally, we hope you’ll share your memories of both versions in the comments, so that we can bring Jaws back to life together.
We’re gonna need a bigger boat…
A forced change of plans
In 1971, Disney expanded its theme park empire beyond California with the opening of the sprawling Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Despite some initial struggles and question marks over whether East Coast audiences would take to Disney’s brand of entertainment, the resort quickly became a huge success. Not only that, but it created the template for a new style of “destination theme park resort” – one featuring its own on-site hotels, which would attract visitors for multi-day vacations, instead of mere day visits.
Universal’s owner MCA was looking on enviously. Seven years earlier, it had thrown open the gates at a much-enhanced Universal Studios Hollywood, spending $4 million on a fleet of trams, dining locations, parking lots and other facilities. Other attractions, such as a $5 million Visitor’s Entertainment Center, were soon added, and the tour was boosted with set-pieces such as a flash flood section and a “torpedo attack” sequence. By the 1970s, Universal was spending millions on updates to the tour, including a spectacular rockslide display and the Jaws Experience, which saw guests being attacked by the 25-foot-long shark seen in the smash-hit movie.
Even before Walt Disney World opened its gates, the chairman of the board of MCA’s Recreation Services Group, Jay Stein, had mooted the idea of opening a studio tour in Florida, to capitalize on the influx of tourists heading to Disney’s property. In the early 1980s, Universal devised a plan for the Florida studios and began looking for investment partners to share the risk. The Florida tour was to be similar to the Hollywood version, and would be built around a brand-new, working production facility. The plans called for a “front lot” walking tour, as well as a tram tour through the studio’s backlot.
One set-piece, the “Hollywood Canyon”, would see a tram rolling onto a bridge in view of the Hollywood Hills. A massive earthquake would then strike, causing a dam to crack and a wall of water to pour down towards the tram, which would escape into an oil field in time for riders to witness a semi-trailer truck explode after crashing into an oil tank.
In 1981, MCA purchased 423 acres of land in Orlando on which to build its Florida tour. To the company’s frustration, though, none of the prospective partners came on board. Even worse, its plans to bring movie magic to Florida had roused the newly-competitive Disney into action
Disney had traditionally taken an aloof view of competitors in the tourism industry, describing them as “supporting” rather than “competing” amusements. By 1984, though, things had changed. That year saw Michael Eisner (formerly CEO of Paramount’s movie studio) and Frank Wells (formerly head of Warner Bros.) brought in as Disney’s CEO and President respectively, in an ultimately successful attempt to strengthen the company and ward off hostile takeover attempts.
Eisner was not about to let Universal invade “Disney’s turf” without a fight. Disney’s Imagineers had put together a plan for an entertainment-themed pavilion (dubbed the Great Movie Ride Pavilion) for EPCOT Center’s Future World area, which had not been pursued. By expanding this into a full-sized, studio-themed park, Eisner surmised, Universal’s plans could be blown out of the water.
In February 1985, at his very first shareholders meeting, Eisner announced plans for Disney-MGM Studios. The initial plans bore a striking resemblance to those for Universal’s tour. The main attraction would be a tram tour past four working soundstages, an animation building, backlot sets and post-production facilities. One of the set pieces to be included in the tour would be “Catastrophe Canyon”, during which an earthquake would shake the tram, cause fires to ignite, lead to an oil tank explosion and trigger a flash flood. The similarities to Universal’s proposed Hollywood Canyon were undeniable.
If Disney’s plans were designed to head Universal off at the pass, they actually had the opposite effect. Rather than killing Universal’s plans, the announcement of Disney-MGM Studios instead reignited MCA CEO Sidney Sheinberg’s desire to get the Florida project off the ground.
The war between Disney and Universal escalated in March 1986, when Disney broke ground on Disney-MGM Studios on a 100-acre site southwest of EPCOT Center. By this stage, Disney had increased the budget for the project substantially, from $300 million to $550 million.
MCA hit back in December 1986 with a grand announcement: it had found a partner to help develop its Florida project. Cineplex Odeon Corp., a Toronto-based entertainment company 50 percent owned by MCA, would be an equal partner in what would now be known as Universal Studios Florida.
Steven Spielberg was along for the ride. In March 1987, MCA announced that the director of Jaws, E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial and a swathe of other hits had signed on as a “creative consultant” for Universal Studios Florida. With George Lucas working on attractions for Disney, the pair – long-term friends, and collaborators on the Indiana Jones series – were now pitted in competition with each other.
With a tram tour being the headline attraction of Disney’s park, simply cloning the Universal Studios Hollywood experience in Florida would leave MCA open to accusations that it had copied Disney, and not vice-versa. The company decided to redesign the park from top to bottom, throwing out many of its original ideas. In all marketing activities, MCA attempted to differentiate its park from Disney’s, stressing that Universal Studios Florida would be a very different proposition.
The core concept of a theme park built around a working movie studio was retained, meaning that some overlap with Disney’s offering was inevitable. However, the tram tour – the signature element of Universal Studios Hollywood – was dropped altogether from the plans for the Florida attraction. Instead, the main set-pieces from the Hollywood tour, such as the encounters with Jaws and King Kong, would be blown up into separate, standalone attractions.
With the original Jaws movie having pulled in an incredible $470 million at the box office and being one of Universal Pictures’ best-known productions, the decision to bring the shark to Orlando was not a difficult one. But the reality of implementing a major, water-based attraction would prove to be anything but easy…