Welcome, Attraction Insight fans to the first entry in our new “Back To The Past” series. In this series, we will review the history of rides and attractions in the Universal Studios theme park chain and show the transformation from opening day to what guests can experience at the park right now. Today we will be covering the history of one of the most famous rides in park history, the fan favorite, Jaws. You may be surprised to learn just how troubled this attraction’s past actually was and how close it was to hurting the park in the long term on opening day.
Jaws originally had its origin as a theme park attraction on the west coast in California. As part of the world-famous studio tour, guests on board the tram would travel along the shores of Amity and come face to face with the killer shark itself. This provided a thrilling experience for tourists visiting Universal Studios Hollywood and was quickly thrown into the development of the Universal Studios Florida project. With a large plot of land secured in Florida, designers for the park wanted to use the studio tour’s experiences and recreate them as enormous standalone rides. Instead of just traveling along the shoreline like in California, Universal designed a boat ride placed right in the heart of a massive land themed to Amity from the Jaws film. Construction for the ride began in the late 1980s and was designed by Ride & Show Engineering; famous director Steven Spielberg served as the ride’s consultant
Ride Experience: Old vs New
Guests would board special boats as part of an “Amity Island Tour” and were accompanied by a guide. In true theme park ride fashion, what should be a leisurely cruise around the island quickly turns into danger as the famous great white shark attacks your boat in multiple different show scenes. The attraction opened with your guide telling you about some famous locations in Amity when a distress signal from another tour boat came in over the radio. After your cruise boat rounded the lighthouse, the distressed tour boat can be seen sinking with no survivors. The first of multiple shark animatronics would appear, this time only as a dorsal fin. Your guide would then take you to the attraction’s only indoor portion, inside a boat shack. Once inside, the tour boat would “stall” as crates and barrels fall inside the dark shed. On the way out, Jaws appears on the right side of the boat. The next scene is the only one that ever changed in the ride’s history.
In the original attraction, guests would enter a large open lagoon portion and the Jaws animatronic would jump out and grab the front of the ride vehicle, taking it for a spin around the lagoon. After, the boats would reach the climax, where your guide would fire a grenade launcher at the shark and kill it, saving the guests from danger. The newer version had a completely different ending. Guests would enter the lagoon scene where the turnaround would occur, only this time, they would be met with a different shark animatronic and a fireball effect. The end of the ride also featured a new scene similar to Jaws 2 ending with the electric cable. Why was this scene changed in the first place? The answer lies in manufacturing.
Upon opening, Jaws was subject to numerous breakdowns, some lasting days over others. Many of the original rides broke down frequently due to their elaborate special effects (including Kongfrontation and Earthquake) but the park was able to contain most of the issues, except for Jaws, which had to be evacuated almost daily. In fact, during Universal Studios Florida’s grand opening, it is said that Steven Spielberg and his family were among those stuck on the ride during a breakdown, and had to be escorted off. The ride’s breakdowns included major mechanical issues with the shark animatronics and other special effect moments. Throughout the early 1990s, Universal tried to repair the ride but could not successfully keep it operational. The company sued Ride & Show Engineering for their manufacturing issues and grouped together Oceaneering, Intamin, and ITEC Entertainment to completely rebuild the ride most know. The ride reopened to the public in 1993.
End of Jaws
For many years after the refurbishment, the attraction never reached the failures it went through when it opened. In the mid-2000’s the rising cost of gas internationally kept Jaws operations at a minimum. The ride was closed in January of 2005 and was then reopened in December of the same year, but listed only as “seasonal” (only open in peak seasons for capacity/money reasons) much like Triceratops Encounter at the time. After numerous guest complaints, the park reopened the ride under normal year-round operations. Then in December of 2011, Universal Orlando announced the permanent closure of the ride and its surrounding Amity area to make way for a new experience (the Harry Potter expansion: Diagon Alley). The entire land the attraction sat on was leveled over the course of 3 years and completely reimagined as one of the most well-themed environments in a theme park anywhere in the world. In true Universal fashion, they managed to keep several references to the old attraction both in the park and in Diagon Alley itself. The famous shark photo op that stood in front of the ride’s entrance was moved to the San Francisco area of the park. Some guests may not know that Diagon Alley holds three separate references to Jaws. In the London waterfront, a record shop facade has a record titled “Here’s to the Bow Legged Women”, a song sung in the first film. Once inside Diagon Alley, an apothecary facade has a pair of shark jaws in the window and inside one of the gift shops, the telescope that hangs from the ceiling is made up of brass pipes that were once part of the Jaws queue.
Jaws is still to this day a ride that is a favorite among many of Universal’s fans. Much like the film, the attraction was revolutionary in its approach to animatronics and storytelling experience. Although the ride faced many difficulties in its life, it paved the road for the future of the resort and for theme park rides in general. While we may never be able to ride along the shores of Amity anymore, the experiences we share about the ride will keep it alive for years to come.