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

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

Magic Kingdom

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

Magic Kingdom opening day

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.

Jaws at Universal Studios Hollywood

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

Michael Eisner and Frank Wells.

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.

Catastrophe Canyon

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.

Disney-MGM Studios construction

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.

Universal Studios Florida concept art

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.

Universal Studios Florida model

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.

Jaws movie poster

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…

Out-Disneying Disney

Jaws poster

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.

Jaws 1990

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.

Jaws explosion

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.”

Jaws shark aerial image

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].”

Jaws construction

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.

A real-life disaster

Disney-MGM Studios opening day

Disney had promised to open Disney-MGM Studios in 1989, and it was as good as its word – the park’s grand opening took place on May 1 that year. Over at the Universal site, things were progressing more slowly. The strain of producing a host of cutting-edge attractions on a company that lacked Disney’s experience had left MCA’s project behind schedule, if indeed the original intention of opening in late 1989 had ever been realistic. Instead, MCA was now targeting an opening date exactly one year after Disney, on May 1, 1990.

By January 1990, MCA was forced to concede that construction work on Universal Studios Florida had slipped even further behind schedule. The May 1 opening date would not now be met, with the park more likely to open to the public in June of that year. By now, delays and cost overruns had caused the budget for the project to balloon to around $630 million. Even with this level of investment, there was widespread speculation in the press that the park’s rides would not be ready in time for its opening day. In reality, all three of the headline attractions – Jaws, Kongfrontation and Earthquake: The Big One, were facing major issues.

In Jaws’ case, the robotic shark was still struggling with his big scene. Timing the gyrations of the pontoon boats such that they matched the shark’s actions was proving to be difficult. If the timing was off, Jaws simply appeared to be thrashing around in the water for no reason – making the experience unintentionally hilarious, rather than terrifying. The adjustments were complicated by the location of the ride’s machinery, much of which was 20 feet below the surface of the lagoon.

Universal Studios Florida opening day

With celebrities booked and the peak summer tourist season looming, MCA opted not to delay the grand opening any further. At 8am on June 7, 1990, Steven Spielberg led more than 50 well-known stars from stretch limousines down a red carpet towards Universal Studios Florida’s entrance. Among the line-up were Sylvester Stallone, Michael J. Fox, Bill Cosby, James Stewart, Linda Blair, Charlton Heston and Jane Seymour (“My god, it’s Rambo!” squealed one fan, according to the Orlando Sentinel, after catching a glimpse of Stallone).  Spielberg joined Jay Stein at the head of the line, cutting a filmstrip ribbon with an oversized pair of scissors.

Things began to go wrong even before the first guests arrived for the grand opening. At 4.30am, just hours before Spielberg cut the ribbon, a power outage knocked out the software that managed the special effects for headline attraction Earthquake: The Big One.

Things didn’t improve once guests were inside the park. The “talkback” software that managed the interaction between King Kong and the tram holding his victims on Kongfrontation was still not operating properly, and technicians were forced to trigger the enormous animatronic creature’s movements manually in order to ensure that Kong didn’t snap his hand off.


While Kongfrontation and Earthquake were suffering, Jaws fared even worse. The ride operated sporadically for just two hours before thunderstorms in the afternoon forced it to be shut down for the day. Spielberg and his family were reported to have been among those trapped on the ride.

Disgruntled visitors stormed the park’s Guest Relations department. More than 1,000 received either cash refunds or free tickets for a return visit. The following day, Universal was forced to offer a similar deal: everyone that bought a ticket would automatically receive a free ticket for a future visit.

Universal was optimistic that Earthquake and Jaws would be working on the day after the grand opening. Kongfrontation, they said, would be out action for at least a few days. Their optimism was misplaced.

Universal Studios Florida’s grand opening took place on a Thursday, and as it reached its first weekend, Kongfrontation and Earthquake: The Big One were both closed. Although signs warned that it too would be out of action, Jaws did finally open on the Saturday afternoon. Staff, though, were keen to stress that the runs were mere “technical rehearsals.” At one point, a boat’s skipper was forced to say: “Imagine explosions over there.”

Universal Studios Florida flyer

Universal began to adopt an approach of “under-promising and over-delivering”. When guests arrived at the park, they would be informed that Jaws, for example, was not operating even if it was. Television, newspaper and radio ads were adjusted to avoid mentioning Jaws, Kongfrontation and Earthquake.

When Jaws did work, it was pretty special. You can see footage of the original ride in this training video:

Admitting defeat

In public, at least, Universal had insisted that Jaws was the most reliable of its three major attractions, suffering from significantly less downtime than Kongfrontation and Earthquake. In private, though, management had begun to accept that the problems with the water ride were so severe that there were no quick fixes. Minor tweaks would not solve its problems, which were resulting in more-or-less daily evacuations.

Not all of Jaws’ problems were mechanical. During its brief run of operations in July 1990, guest Anthony Salamone had the rare experience of being in the water with the ride’s shark. His lawyer, Michael Diamond, claimed that a railing had broken, causing him to fall into the ride’s lagoon. “The shark’s gonna eat daddy!” cried one of his children, as the mechanical monster approached. Universal employees pulled the man out of the water, but he slipped and fell in a second time, apparently suffering a scraped leg and bruising. When he was finally hauled back into the boat, the other riders applauded, thinking that the spectacle was part of the show.

Jaws 1990

By August 22 – just two-and-half months after opening – Universal Studios Florida admitted defeat. Jaws was closed completely to undergo a major overhaul, with Steven Lew announcing that it would not reopen until the following year. A 40-page lawsuit was filed by Universal against Ride & Show Engineering, with Lew commenting: “We are angry. We are disappointed. There are numerous design flaws…compounded by poor workmanship.” The ride would only operate for a few hours at a time before requiring repairs, claimed Lew. Consultants would now be hired to undertake a complete redesign that would lead to the “re-engineering, rebuilding and reopening of Jaws in 1991.”

Ride & Show Engineering responded angrily to the lawsuit. Joseph B. McHugh, its vice president of marketing and administration, told the Orlando Sentinel: “We strongly disagree with Universal’s claims. Except for the expense of litigation, we welcome the chance to vindicate our company.” The firm claimed that it would consider filing a counterclaim against Universal.

By December 1990, Universal was forced to admit that Jaws might not reopen until 1992. “We are undergoing a comprehensive engineering effort that will translate into an opening that has yet to be determined,” said Tom Williams.

The following April, Universal reached an out-of-court settlement with Ride & Show Engineering. The agreement barred both parties from discussing details of the case, with Universal claiming that the settlement was “amicable”. Ride & Show Engineering, though, would not be involved in the redesign of Jaws.

Jaws 1990

Despite the vow of silence, both sides eventually weighed in on the Jaws debacle. Universal’s Tom Williams claimed that the major problem with the ride was overcoming drag caused by the water when the sharks lunged forward. Director of design Mark Woodbury commented: “It was a series of things with the first ride. The biggest one being they just couldn’t get it to work reliably.”

Ride & Show Engineering’s chief executive Eduard Feuer insisted that the blame lay with Universal itself. He said that management pushed to open the ride when more time was needed for testing, and that Universal took control of the ride before his company could correct a problem with speed-control mechanisms on the boats. “Basically, Universal didn’t have any experience with a ride like this,” Feuer said. “If we had built something like this for Disneyland, Disneyland maintenance would have taken it over and made it work.”

The Jaws saga continued to rumble on. In January 1992, Universal was forced to once again push back the ride’s reopening date, this time into 1993. “The process of coming up with a design we liked from a creative standpoint, as well as the technical side, and moving forward on a cautious and prudent basis [led to the delay]”, said Ron Sikes, Universal’s vice president of legal and business affairs. Having suffered through a torrid opening period, Universal was determined that when Jaws returned, all of its problems would be ironed out.

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 TheStudioTour.com): “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.”

The end

Throughout much of the early 2000s, Universal Orlando was struggling. The debut of a second theme park, Islands of Adventure, had gone much more smoothly than the opening of Universal Studios Florida. However, the marketing campaign surrounding it had been a disaster, and attendance at both parks had disappointed.

That all changed in 2010, when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at Islands of Adventure. Suddenly, the park was swamped with guests, and Universal Orlando began to generate cash again. It was boosted further by a takeover of Universal by the deep-pocketed Comcast in 2009, with the media giant taking full control of the Florida resort in 2011. The firm soon began to build on the success of the Harry Potter attraction by splurging hundreds of millions of dollars on new additions.

With attendance at Universal Studios Florida lagging 20 percent behind that of Islands of Adventure after the Wizarding World’s debut, Comcast was not about to stop its sudden capital spending spree. Instead, it would accelerate it to enhance the original park.

In December 2011, it was announced that Jaws would close the following month to make room for a new attraction. Rumors immediately began to circulate that the Jaws site would be occupied by a second Harry Potter land, ensuring that fans of the wizard would have to visit both parks at the resort. Ultimately, those rumors proved to be correct, with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley opening on the site in 2014.

Jaws aerial image

“Jaws offered the largest area for us to create something that was about the same footprint that we did back at Hogsmeade,” explains Universal Creative’s Thierry Coup. “Jaws had been here for about 22 years and it was still going well. But in the rating of all the attractions of the park, it was probably time for it to refreshed or changed.”

After one last ride on January 2, 2012, fans waved goodbye to Jaws forever.

The afterlife

Quint trio

There are tributes to the former Jaws attraction scattered throughout Diagon Alley. One of these can be found in the London Waterfront area, where you’ll find a nondescript record store. Displayed in the window is a record titled “Here’s to Swimmin’ with Bow Legged Women”, by the Quint Trio. This is a reference to a toast made by shark hunter Quint in Steven Spielberg’s movie.

Shrunken heads

While attempting to track down the shark in the movie, the three heroes sing “Show Me the Way to Go Home”. This song is among those performed by the shrunken heads that are on display in Knockturn Alley.

You can find another Jaws reference in the storefront of Mr. Mulpepper’s Apothecary. A set of shark jawbones is hidden away behind a variety of herbs and potions.

The legacy

Burnt Jaws

Although the first version may have been an expensive flop, the Jaws ride did ultimately serve its purpose. Along with Back to the Future: The Ride, the second version of the ride played a huge part in attracting guests to Universal Studios Florida. Once they were there, it showed them that Universal really could create world-class theme park attractions – ones that were edgier, scarier and more technologically advanced than anything Disney was putting out at the time (the debut of the magnificent Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney-MGM Studios in 1994 was widely seen as a response to Universal’s success).

Just like the movie that it was based upon, Jaws dated over time but continued to hold a nostalgic charm. Unlike a movie, though, it couldn’t live on forever and its ultimate replacement was more-or-less inevitable, particularly given Universal’s merciless stance on aging attractions. It lives on in our memories, and in the form of a clone at Universal Studios Japan.

Help us preserve this experience by telling us about your memories of being harassed by Jaws in the comments, and let us know what other attractions you’d love to see in our In-Depth Retrospective series.

You can learn more about the creation of Universal Orlando’s rides and attractions by reading Universal Orlando: The Unofficial Story, the first full-length history of the resort.