Controversially, some insiders say that Eisner’s time at Paramount meant that he knew full well about Universal’s plans for a movie park in Florida, and that he used that insider knowledge to fast track a movie-themed park of his own for Disney. Even though Disney-MGM Studios was announced after Universal Studios Florida was, Disney’s unique legal arrangement (wherein Disney retains governmental control of their own property and can effectively approve its own permits) meant that Disney’s movie park would open a year before Universal’s.
What’s worse, the Disney-MGM Studios park they were building would be a half-day park, built around only two major attractions: the first would be the elaborate dark ride once envisioned for Epcot (a fellow Lost Legend: The Great Movie Ride), and the second would be – you guessed it – a Backstage Studio Tour through the park’s working studio facilities, backstage areas, and staged “catastrophes.” Universal’s own bread-and-butter – its iconic tram tour – had been ripped out from underfoot and repurposed by its competitor.
Here’s where karma kicks in.
Disney might’ve beat Universal to the punch, but Eisner had intentionally under-built the Disney-MGM Studios, sure that the multi-hour Backlot Studio Tour would be the park’s real draw. But as quickly as it opened, the Studios’ concept sunk. Disney and Universal’s dreams of turning Orlando into a “Hollywood East” were quickly dashed and production never really came to Disney’s studio park. The grand tram tour meant to be the park’s star attraction quickly became a ride worthy of its own Declassified Disaster: The Backstage Studio Tour feature; merely a showcase of vacant and repurposed facilities that would never actually be used for filming anything.
And since Disney had stolen their studio tour idea, Universal Studios Florida would have to change plans. Brilliantly, Universal adapted. The staged elements and encounters that had been mere blips along Hollywood's grand Studio Tour were instead separated out and re-imagined as full, standalone E-Ticket attractions of their own!
And yes, one of those headlining new rides was JAWS. But it’s probably not the Jaws that you remember…
JAWS: Take 1
When Universal Studios Florida opened on June 7, 1990, JAWS was one of its must-see attractions alongside Earthquake: The Big One and the headlining new ride that earned its own in-depth entry, Lost Legends: KONGFRONTATION (with all three being extended standalone rides based on Studio Tour scenes). Even if this project was bigger, Universal Planning and Development brought on Ride & Show Engineering Inc. (the designers of the Studio Tour’s Jaws scene) to recreate their magic on a grander scale.
On-board pontoon boats piloted by a live skipper, guests would explore the coves and bays of Amity Island for a number of close encounters with the great white himself. While he was sometimes visible only as a dorsal fin slicing through the surf, the shark was also present a number of times via impressive animatronics. In one particularly unique scene, the shark would burst from the water, physically bite onto the boat, and drag it backwards, rotating the ship 180-degrees.
The explosive finale involved a grenade launcher and a hungry shark, mirroring the finale of the film; the skipper would shoot a grenade into the shark’s mouth just before it submerged to swim under the boat. Once it reached the other side? A bloody burst of water signals the end and a cheering boat returns to dock.
You can see the original version of JAWS in action in this rare point-of-view video filmed as a training reference for the ride's skippers:
From the start, JAWS was an ambitious ride with some cutting-edge animatronics and sincerely tense moments; a "Disney quality" attraction in terms of detail, effects, and interaction. The problem is, the ride didn’t work.
Industry experts saw the writing on the walls. Disney Legend Bob Gurr (at the time the vice president of the Sequoia Creative design firm) took one look at the plans and passed at making a bid to build. The ambitious ride was determined to rival Disney, and on paper it did. But engineers knew that mixing electricity, hydraulics, animatronics, synchronized audio, boats, and water would require immense expertise and a handful of backup plans.
Allegedly, faulty special effects, frazzled computers, and animatronics that were improperly waterproofed led to almost daily evacuations and extensive breakdowns. The ride limped through its opening summer (a summer marked by sincere hardship given that the park’s other two headliners were disastrously designed, too and the beloved Lost Legend: Back to the Future: The Ride’s opening was delayed a full year) but by August 1990, Jaws had had it. We chronicled the very, very short life of the original ride in its own in-depth feature.
The ride closed two months after it opened and Universal sued Ride & Show Engineering for improperly designing the ride, citing “poor workmanship.” The then-president of Universal Studios commented on the debacle, saying, “We have suffered tremendously. Ride & Show did not deliver on what they said they could deliver on. In the interim, we had to discover and correct problems at our own expense. I think we have been more than reasonable.” For two years, Universal worked toward re-opening the waterlogged ride, but it was no use.
A New Hope
After years of being closed, Universal started from scratch. They hired some prominent attraction-engineering firms and designers. Intamin Worldwide (best known as a roller coaster and water ride manufacturer) designed and built an entirely new ride track and control system with ITEC Entertainment, who developed software to control the precisely-timed show.
Oceaneering International, a global leader in deep-sea research equipment, constructed seven brand-new fiberglass and steel sharks. Their engineering skills would be tested, given that each time a shark burst from the surf, it would require 500-horsepower of thrust – about equivalent to the force needed to get a Boeing-737 aircraft off the runway – giving the sharks a thurst speed of 20 feet-per-second.
An unimaginable undertaking, the 7-acre, 5,000,000 gallon lagoon was rewired with 2,000 miles of electrical wiring and underwater track (for the sharks to “swim”) carrying 12-ton hydraulic lifts (to make them “jump”).
The new engineers and designers determined that two of the ride’s scenes – the “boat biting” scene and the “exploding shark” scene were so impractical, they didn’t even warrant rebuilding. Instead, they’d be replaced by an exploding gas dock and a shark fried by an underwater electrical cable (based on the finale of Jaws 2). They’d also fill in much of the ride’s vast emptiness with new scenery.
When it’s all said and done, the complete rebuild was said to cost an additional $45 million on top of the original version’s $30 million price tag.
In Spring 1993, Steven Spielberg was on hand with the film’s stars – Roy Scheider and Lorraine Gary – to rededicate and re-open JAWS.
Ready to ride through what guests found on this true classic? Read on...