Welcome to Universal Studios Florida, where you can "Ride the Movies!"... Particularly if you're into disasters and creature features.
Stepping through the Studio Gates, you'll be immersed into a world of movie magic. Of course, the truth is that Universal Studios Florida was never a hot set like its Californian sister, but just like Universal's esteemed movie sets, the "lands" designers constructed for the park could've been stand-ins for real life locales. Habitable recreations of New York, Hollywood, and a World's Fair concealed soundstages with King Kong, the Terminator, and Doc Brown inside, respectively.
The strangest of the park's themed lands (and perhaps in any Floridian park) would have to be San Francisco/Amity. Seemingly grouped only because they're both waterfront, the unique recreations of the diametrically opposite West and East coast locales are home to two of the park's stand-outs: Earthquake – The Big One and JAWS.
Ride The Movie
Here's the setup. Jaws happened. It was decades ago – back in 1974 – that a 28-foot great white shark terrorized the citizens of Amity Island. Chief Brody, Matt Hooper, and Quint really did put an end to the creature's reign of terror and, in so doing, became local heroes. So prolific was their victory, it inspired a hit movie by famed filmmaker Steven Spielberg. Problem is, the incident left a sour taste in the mouths of Amity's annual summer crowds, and tourism has taken a nosedive. However, an ingenious local resident seaman – "Captain Jake" Grundy – has taken to capitalizing on the notoriety and is running tours of the real landmarks around the island that inspired the film!
Alright, so it's a little convoluted, and a lot contrived. But let's be clear: the story we're sold in line sets us up for something new, and something that doesn't require much pretense.
And to Universal's credit, Disney fans deride what are often called "book report" attractions where we simply ride through a scene-by-scene, song-by-song retelling of a story we already know, simply observing it unfold in three minutes instead of the usual 90. Rides like Magic Kingdom's Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid test fans' patience for their lack of creativity. No new settings or feelings allowed, these "book report" rides feel like mere summaries of a story we already know. And say what you will about Universal's storytelling (and the criticism is fair), but JAWS and its peers at Universal Studios Florida will hardly be re-tellings of the story we already know.
So our queue today is inside none other than Captain Jake's Amity Boat Tours boathouse. In line, we'll pass real artifacts and costumes from that Spielberg picture based on the real happenings here, including two boats used in the real filming of JAWS 2: The Revenge. Overhead television monitors are tuned to Amity's WJWS Channel 13 – "The Station that BITES!" – and the local access program, "Hey There, Amity!" It's catching us up on the 1974 attacks. Among the lineup of local commercials on each commercial break is an advertisement for Captain Jake's. We're lucky to have made it before the rush! And just in time, one of Captain Jake's repurposed pontoon boats arrives, ready to tour us around the island!
Captain Jake's Amity Boat Tours
Today, our seafaring sightseeing is all hinging upon our Skipper, a loyal (and low-paid) employee of Captain Jake who's nothing short of an expert when it comes to Amity's bays, landmarks, and waterlogged history. "Welcome to Captain Jake's Amity Boat Tours! We are the best – ... and only – scenic cruise on the island. I'll be your Skipper today when we visit all the spots where, back in the 1974, that bad ole' shark Jaws devoured all those poor innocent islanders!"
Speaking of which, the Skipper lets us know that he's armed with some impressive firepower – an army surplus 40 mm grenade launcher – but never fear; a shark hasn't been spotted in these waterways since the big one back in the '70s... a very long time ago!
"Base, you're cleared for departure Amity 6!" Immediately off the dock, we see a few key points of interest portside: the actual homes of Chief Brody and Mayor Larry Vaughn, the real life heroes who would be brought to life in the film by Hollywood's A-list. From this vantage point, Amity looks like a fairly simple, peaceful village of waterside cottages, beautiful trees, and peaceful docks bobbing in the tide.
While the ride's triumphant musical score presses on, a crackling frequency comes across the boat's transmitter... It's Amity-3. "Mayday, mayday! -- something's out there --- I don't know wh-- help! --- Help!" Only blood curdling screams are left behind as the long strings of a violin echo off...
The Skipper reaches for the radio. "Amity 6 to base, did you copy that transmission?"
"Uh, 10-4, we copy. He can't be too far away; he was headed back in! We're picking up his distress signal now. Keep an eye out for him! I'll call Chief Brody. Base clear."
Rounding a rocky jetty with a lighthouse atop is our first signal that something is amiss... The steaming remains of Amity 3 – our sister ship – are disappearing beneath the surface, with churning, bubbling water escaping from the wreckage. The last piece of the boat in view is its rear, with a chunk taken clean out...
The Skipper's speechless for a moment. "Amity-6 to base. Amity-3 is sinking out by the lighthouse. I don't know what could've done with except..."
In the distance ahead off the port side, a grey dorsal fin emerges, slicing through the surf as the ominous, tense, award-winning theme by John Williams signals impending doom. Duh-dun, duh-dun, duh-dun, duh-dun... Just as the menacing figure submerges again, its trajectory intersects with the boat's path. We feel the boat shift and rock from its tremendous power as it swims beneath us. "He's under the boat, base! What do we do?!"
"Uh, stay calm!" The voice over the radio warns. "Try the grenade launcher!" Two contradictory strategies, it would seem, but the Skipper reaches for the weapon. The shark's fin emerges again, this time ahead on the right. The Skipper takes aim and launches, with an explosion of water just short of the shark's fins. He fires again and again, but the shark has disappeared again into the depths.
Our only possible means of escape? The looming wooden boathouse ahead.
"Tell Chief Brody we're going to wait for him inside of the boathouse!" As the heavy wooden doors swing open, a curtain of dense mist escapes. The boat pulls into the shed and stalls as eyes adjust to the foggy darkness and the hardware scattered around. The Skipper illuminates a searchlight to add context to the darkness. "Let's see... Where can we tie up?" His light scans the shed, highlighting carcasses left bleeding into the water.
The boathouse offers what may be one of the most tense, adrenaline-packed, and purely "fun" moments on any attraction in Orlando as every creak and groan within elicits shrieks from riders. A rowboat suspended on ropes suddenly falls, splashing into the water. A bucket slams to the ground. Suddenly, the walls of the boathouse begin to shake as if the shark is ramming itself against its moorings. A faulty gear-shift leaves the boat stranded in idle water as the Skipper tinkers frantically. The rumbling subsides as daylight begins to eminate from underneath the boathouse dock... almost as if something has made its way in from the lagoon outside...
Just as the Skipper kicks up the engine, the boat bucks to the left by the pure force of the 25-foot great white leaping from the waves, grazing the side of the pontoon boat. In our first face-to-face encounter with the hellish creature of the deep, its gnashing teeth and fabled dead, dark eyes are piercing, even in the darkness. Then, as quickly as it appeared, the unmistakable monster disappears back into the murky water.
The doors out of the boathouse swing open and usher us back into the light. The stunned Skipper fails to notice that we're headed right toward Bridewell's Gas Dock, a fueling station with towering tanks of gas. Only Chief Brody's voice over the radio brings him back to reality as he hastily turns the wheel to steer us away into open water.
"Amity-6, this is Chief Brody! I'm on my way; I'll be there in 10 minutes!"
"10 minutes?! We'll be shark-bait in ten minutes! Alright guys," he grabs the grenade launcher and faces out to the desperate unknown of the bay to our right. I don't see him... WHERE IS HE?"
The shark surfaces just to our left in an explosion of water. The startled Skipper sends off an grenade, launching it well past its target and to the base of the gas tanks. As the shark disappears again, the tank explodes in a massive column of flames. Tanks fly off the dock and fall into the water, upending submerged pipes that guzzle gasoline. The chain reaction ignites the floating gas, encircling the boat in flaming water.
Death by shark or death by fire? We opt for fire as the Skipper guides the boat right through the wall of flames. We make it, and salvation lies directly ahead. With a little manuevering, the Skipper can line us up with a fishing dock ahead on the right. But we'll need to keep our hands and arms inside the boat for this one, because a high voltage barge is floating just to the left of the docking site.
The shark's fin breaks the water off in the distance. The Skipper arms himself with the launcher, ready for war. But as the great white makes a final play to have us for dinner, it makes a fatal mistake: its last lunge sees it catch in its mouth a submerged high-voltage electrical wire.
With one chomp, the shark recoils, sparks erupt from the barge, and the sea is filled with an electrical buzz, blinding steam... and the unsavory sent of charred flesh.
It's not over till it's over... But this one's over.
The grizzled, toasted, burnt remains of the menace float to the surface, its lifeless body bobbing. With one final surprise burst of steam, it sinks again, this time for good.
"Amity-6, this is Brody! Are you alright?"
"Chief, this is Amity-6. Call off the marines... We are coming home!" As the celebratory streets of Amity come back into view, the Skipper asks for a little help... "If word of this little fish episode leaked out, that'd be it for Captain Jake and all the other businesses around here! So keep it to yourselves. After all, we did get him, didn't we?!"
As always, we end our Lost Legends entries with the best point-of-view videos to surface. Here's a look at what it was like to conquer the mighty Jaws at Universal Studios Florida:
A Select Spoof
If it seems at all to you that JAWS is in any small way a take-up on Disney's own Jungle Cruise, you'd be right. First of all, Universal's designers intentionally set out to match Disney, knowing that only by truly approaching or meeting Disney's standards for sets, animatronics, story, and character could they justify a Floridian park at all. "Go big or go home" doesn't go far enough when you're a theme park hoping to establish yourself in Orlando, Florida.
And it's true that Universal – well-versed in their "spoofs" of Disney rides and their often-colorful ribbings of their primary competitor – upped the ante on Disney's wildlife-gone-too-wild cruise with a more sinister version of their own. JAWS was, in many regards, a spoof of Jungle Cruise, turning the clueless skipper and mysteries of the unseen on its head.
And for Universal fans, JAWS is held in as high a regard as the Jungle Cruise is by Disney fans!
So imagine how Disney fans would feel if the closure of the Jungle Cruise was announced. It would seem unthinkable; unimaginable! And yet, the feeling would be all-too real for Universal Orlando fans. After barely a decade, the first signs emerged that Universal's surprising shark epic might be sunk... Read on...