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Universal Studios Florida's "Jaws" attraction sails off into the sunset

Jim Hill

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Universal Studios Florida's "Jaws" attraction sails off into the sunset

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It's time to say "Good-bye" to " ... the mistake on the lake."

Copyright Universal Orlando. All rights reserved

That's what the skippers who worked on "Jaws" used to affectionately call this Universal Studios Florida attraction. Which will be closing later today to supposedly make way for a brand-new Harry Potter "land" for this theme park.

But before they drain Amity Island's 5-million gallon lagoon and then send all seven of the sharks which used to appear in this tough-to-maintain show to that big boneyard in the sky, I thought that it might be fun to take a quick look back at the history of USF's "Jaws" attraction. Which - believe it or not - owes its very existence to former Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

Strange but true, folks. But back in November of 1979, when MCA Inc. brought the initial 300-acre chunk of what would eventually become a 423- acre parcel southwest of Orlando, this company intended on using that land " ... for possible development of a movie oriented attraction patterned after the Universal Studio Tour (in Hollywood)."

Copyright Universal Studios Hollywood. All rights reserved

"How closely patterned?," you ask. So closely patterned that - according to the original site plan for what was then known as Universal City Florida - Guests were to have spent the bulk of the time that they visited this movie-oriented recreation complex aboard a Glamour Tram. Where they would have then rolled past recreations of some of the more popular stops of the Universal Studios Hollywood tram. Mainly "Jaws," "King Kong" and "Earthquake -The Big One."

But as the projected construction cost of this Central Florida entertainment complex climbed from $100 million to $170 million, MCA Inc.'s chairman Lew Wasserman began turning to other studio heads, looking for possible financial partners when it came to the Universal City Florida project. Which is why - on July 29, 1981 -- MCA officials presented their plans for their proposed Orlando studio tour attraction to Paramount executives.

And who was president and chief operating officer of Paramount Pictures back in 1981? Michael Eisner.

Michael Eisner & Bob Hope lead the first family of Disney-MGM Studios theme park down
Hollywood Boulevard on May 1, 1989 -- the opening day for WDW's third gated attraction.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Now to this day, Michael Eisner insists that he was never at this Universal City Florida informational presentation. But other people who took part in this two-hour-long meeting (which was held in the Jack Webb Bungalow on the Universal Studios Hollywood lot) remember things differently.  As Peter Kingston (who was then an MCA development executive) recalled in an April 1989 interview with the Los Angeles Times:

"Michael Eisner was very definitely there. That's the only time I've ever met the man. He asked very intelligent questions. I was very impressed by his grasp of the subject and equally his interest in the subject. "

Okay. So let's now jump ahead to April of 1985. Where Eisner - as the newly installed Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company - announces the Mouse's intentions to build a third gated attraction for its Walt Disney World Resort complex. Which will be a working movie studio that offers behind-the-scenes tours.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

To say that MCA officials were upset when they heard this news was an understatement. But what particularly galled the people who designed the original version of Universal City Florida was when - after the Imagineers finally unveiled their plans for what was originally known as the Disney-MGM Studio Tour - 65 - 70% of the elements for WDW's third theme park seem to have been lifted directly from the 1981 site plan for MCA's Central Florida project.

So what was Universal supposed to do in a situation like this? Well, for a few months there, MCA officials waffled back and forth. They couldn't decide whether Universal should try and sue Disney or just abandon their plans for Central Florida entirely. Try and find some other buyer to take that $13 million piece of property that MCA Inc. owned out by Interstate 4 and the Florida Turnpike off the company's hands.

But in the end, MCA officials decided to push ahead with this project. Which was why - in December of 1986 - the company announced that it would be partnering with Cineplex Odeon Corp. to build a studio tour attraction in Central Florida.

Universal Studios Florida concept art. Copyright Universal Orlando. All rights reserved

Mind you, the 1986 version of Universal Studios-Florida - just because of what Disney was doing with its MGM Studio Tour attraction - has to be significantly different than the 1981 version.

But how would they do that exactly? Bob Ward - as part of his 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Themed Entertainment Association -- recalled the moment when Universal Studios Florida planning and development team had their big breakthrough. Given that the Imagineers had decided to "borrow" one of Universal Studios Hollywood's main conceits - taking a tram-load of tourists out on a drive around the backlot - for Disney-MGM Studio Theme Park ...

 "We asked ourselves: Why not allow visitors Studio access to explore the backlot on foot rather than see it from the tram? Which led to the heretical thought: What would happen if we got rid of the tram?"

Bob Ward in 1987 with the model for Universal Studios Florida theme park.
Copyright Universal Orlando. All rights reserved

And with that one question, Universal Studios Florida took on a whole new look and feel. Each "land" at USF now had to work both as a visitor-friendly theme park environment as well as a shootable street set. And as for Jaws, King Kong and Earthquake - The Big One ... Out in Hollywood, these were just two minute-long vignettes. Whereas in Orlando, this trio were slated to become full-fledged, stand-alone mega-attractions.

And when it came to the ride version of "Jaws," the Universal Studios Florida creative team spared no expense. They brought in Steven Spielberg - the director of the original 1975 film - to serve as the creative consultant for this theme park in March of 1987.  Who promised that USF wouldn't just be " ... a reflection of the film(-going) experience ... We will sit you in the bike with E.T. We will have you crashing through the centuries with Doc Brown."  

And how exactly was this theme park going to recreate an attack by that 24-foot-long Great White Shark which moviegoers saw in "Jaws" ? What's more, how was USF going to move 2500 Guests per hour through this water-based attraction? To answer that question, MCA Inc. turned to Ride & Show Engineering Inc., a San Dimas, CA. based themed entertainment company.

Copyright Universal Orlando. All rights reserved

And Ride & Show Engineering Inc. - working off of Universal Creative's own designs - came up with a pretty compelling show. One where animatronic sharks - "swimming" at 20 feet per second - would do things like bite down on the "Jaws" boat's pontoon and then take that vehicle for a spin around this attraction's 7-acre lagoon.

What's more, this USF was supposed to have ended with a bang. Literally. As the boat's skipper first fired a grenade into this robo-shark's mouth. Then after the Great White dove out of sight under our boat, there was supposed to have been this slight pause before an underwater explosion would then send fake blood & plastic shark chunks flying 10 feet up into the air.

USF's original version of "Jaws" was certainly ambitious. Perhaps too ambitious. On opening day in June 1990, the 3-ton mechanical sharks that were hidden all around Amity Island worked only sporadically. Which is more than could be said for the 37-foot-tall mechanical apes inside of "Kongfrontation" and/or those faux BART subway trains that were supposed to allow USF visitors the chance to experience what an 8.3-on-the-Richter-scale "Earthquake" felt like. Which is why hundreds of angry people made their way to Universal Studios Florida's Guest Relations office on this theme park's Opening Day and then demanded their money back.

Copyright Universal Orlando. All rights reserved

Well, it took three more months of "technical rehearsal" (during which time USF gave every visitor who bought a ticket to this studio theme park a second ticket for free. So that these people could then return at some later date and see Universal Studios Florida when all of its rides, shows and attractions were working properly), but Universal's engineers finally debugged "Kongfrontation" and "Earthquake - The Big One" and got these shows operating consistently. Whereas "Jaws" closed in the late Summer of 1990 and then didn't officially re-open for business 'til early Fall of 1993.

"And why did it take so long to get 'Jaws' working again?," you query. Well, there's a reason that all of those skippers called this USF attraction "the mistake of the lake." According to the lawsuit that MCA Inc. filed in August of 1990, it was poor workmanship on Ride and Show Engineering Inc.'s part that made "Jaws" so difficult to operate on a consistent daily basis. Whereas this San Dimas-based themed entertainment company insisted that Universal hadn't given its ride engineers enough time to do proper on-site test & adjust. Which - given that this robotic sharks moved through the water with the equivalent thrust of a 747 engine - meant that there were invariably going to be breakdowns and malfunctions.

And even though Universal Studios Florida & Ride and Show Engineering Inc. would eventually settle their respective lawsuits out-of-court, USF was still stuck with a marquee attraction which wasn't working properly. What's more, given that the "Jaws" lagoon was made up of ten thousand cubic acres of concrete, 7500 tons of steel and nearly 2,000 miles of electrical wire, this just wasn't a situation that lent itself to a quick fix.

Copyright Universal Orlando. All rights reserved

So in essence, MCA had to write off the $30 million that they had originally spent on "Jaws" and start from scratch. Which is why they hired Intamin to build an entirely new boat-and-track ride system for this USF attraction. As for the charter cruises that took Guests around Amity Island, those were built by Orlando-based Regal Marine Industries Inc. And as for the software that controlled the boats, "Jaws" special effects as well as the shark themselves, that ride system was created by Itec Productions.

Speaking of those sharks ...  Given that initial reports suggested that one of the main reasons that the original version of "Jaws" had performed so inconsistently back in 1990 was because some of the hi-tech gear used to power these mechanical Great Whites hadn't been properly waterproofed ... Well, Universal Creative was determined not to make the same mistake twice. Which is why they then reached out to Oceaneering Technologies Inc., a Maryland company which built heavy-duty hydraulic machinery for undersea oil rigs.

And using their expertise in underwater technology, Oceaneering Technologies fashioned 7 robotic Great Whites which perform consistently - day in and day out - while being submerged in water. Which then guaranteed that "Jaws" could be operated for 12 hours straight, giving 2500 USF visitors per hour a six minute-long thrill ride.

Copyright Universal Orlando. All rights reserved

And what was the price tag for this "Jaws" redo. An estimated $40 - 45 million.

Mind you, even with all of this heavy-duty, guaranteed-not-to-quit equipment that Oceaneering Technologies, Inc. had provided, "Jaws" was still something of a maintenance nightmare. Not to mention being prohibitively expensive to operate. Just the natural gas that was needed to fuel this USF attraction's fiery finale cost the theme park $2 million annually.

Which is why - after "Jaws" was officially re-opened in the Summer of 1993 with a gala ceremony that Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary and Spielberg himself attended - this attraction gradually shifted from being a year-round ride to becoming something of a seasonal show. In fact, during the Fall of 2005 when natural gas prices spiked, Universal Studios Florida shut down "Jaws" entirely - citing the high cost of operating this attraction's exploding-fuel-dock sequence as the reason for this closure.

Copyright Universal Orlando. All rights reserved

But in February 2006, after natural gas costs once again dipped (more importantly, after USF's Guest Relations department had received hundreds of complaints about what seemed to be the permanent closure of  "Jaws"), Universal Studios Florida reluctantly re-opened this water-based ride. But with so many of this theme park's opening day attractions having already been replaced by rides, shows and attractions there were based on current, more popular TV shows & film franchises ... It was only a matter of time before "Jaws" would join "The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera" and "Ghostbusters Spooktacular" at that big theme park in the sky.

Which is why - when word came down last month that this USF attraction was being shut down to pave the way for a yet-unnamed new "land" for this theme park - industry observers weren't all that surprised.  But even so, it's just kind of sad to think Jake's Amity Boat Tours will be sailing off into the sunset forever sometime later today.

So do any of you folks have fond memories of USF's "Jaws" ? Or - for that matter -- did anyone of you ever get the chance to ride the original version of this attraction? And - if so - how did the 1990 original compare to the 1993 redo?

Copyright Universal Orlando. All rights reserved

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  • I spent nearly 2 years working the Jaws Ride. I loved every minute minute of it, even on the harshest days. There'll be a hole iin my heart the size of Amity Island after today.

  • Sad Sad Sad to see it go, I always thought they should have a version in USH, where the shark is so lame.  It was the best water based ride IMO, more exciting than Jungle Cruise.  If gas costs were an issue, why couldn't they rewrite the story to do away with it?  IMO the gas explosion wasn't the exciting part, it was the attack by the shark.

  • I must say I am kind of bummed out about this. I have never been able to travel to Florida and ever since I was a kid I have dreamed about going on the Jaws ride, it always looked so fun. Now I will never get the chance. Harry Potter is a cool replacement and all but...

  • @ pureval - The Jaws ride is still at Universal Studios Japan if you're able to travel out there.

  • USJ's Jaws is a good time.  The added plus is that having your experience narrated in Japanese makes it all the more surreal.

  • Wait wait...they just build a huge Harry Potter land at Islands of Adventure? Why close Jaws to build the same damn thing?

  • I had the terrific honor of working on the 1993 edition of JAWS as Show Director. I was working for Landmark Entertainment Group at the time, and they were doing a fair bit of work for Universal in those days. Landmark "rented" me to Universal for about three months (which stretched into six). The show was already in construction, so my role was to polish the script, oversee the show programming, direct the soundtrack, and train the first crew of live skippers. It was a crazy summer, and a delightful adventure. One of my favorite show experiences.

  • I thought this ride was a lot of fun.  I only experienced it once . . . prior to the 1990 closure I think.  In my case, the show worked flawlessly.  The boat house scene actually creeped me out a bit.  I think I might have been back there during the early 90s closure, but my impression was that the attraction was temporarily down, not that it was closed down for an extended period.

    I have made a number of trips to Orlando, visiting WDW and Islands of Adventure.  Didn't go back to USF because most of the stuff seems exactly the same as the Hollywood version.  Jaws was the one thing that felt really unique to Universal Florida, but it didn't seem to me it was worth the admission just for one ride.

    Sorry to see it go.  It's probably even less likely now that I'll get back to Universal Studios Florida anytime soon.

    I wish they had given some warning that the shut down was coming.  I'm sure many would have visited for one last go.

  • Overall, your articles are very good, and I hate to be nit-picky, but your sentence structure needs some adjusting. You really shouldn't starts a sentence with "So these people..."

    Here's the before:

    Well, it took three more months of "technical rehearsal" (during which time USF gave every visitor who bought a ticket to this studio theme park a second ticket for free. So that these people could then return at some later date and see Universal Studios Florida when all of its rides, shows and attractions were working properly), but Universal's engineers finally debugged "Kongfrontation" and "Earthquake - The Big One" and got these shows operating consistently.

    It should read:

    Well, it took three more months of "technical rehearsal", during which time USF gave every visitor who bought a ticket to this studio theme park a second ticket for free, so that these people could then return at some later date and see Universal Studios Florida when all of its rides, shows and attractions were working properly. But Universal's engineers finally debugged "Kongfrontation" and "Earthquake - The Big One" and got these shows operating consistently.

    Also, sentences shouldn't start with "Which then". Have you considered using a comma instead of a period and shortening the sentences?

  • Was on the third last boat on jaws on Monday night. It was a very emotional night for all the staff where there wasn't a dry eye to be seen. A good crowd gathered for the last rides. I would love to see "how to train your dragon" as the replacement.

  • Jaws was CRAP! I wish it would have gone when I lived in Orlando!

  • My dad had his arm hairs burned off during on of the many explosions (He's Italian)

  • We rode on the Jungle Cruise a few days after Jaws closed last week.  As we pulled away from the dock, the Skipper told us that we were now on the only boat-on-a-track attraction left in central Florida since JAWS was officially dead.

  • Great stuff, as ever, Jim. Fascinating to see a figure put on the annual fuel usage of the ride. I knew the hydraulics were a potential pain in the proverbial but never figured on the cost of that one scene, which you can certainly understand making the accountants blanche at every fuel rise! certainly sad to see it go, as the effect it had on most guests was terrific and the captains' spiel and enthusiasm was legendary. I'm still not convinced it is going to make way for a Potter expansion, though. KK360, maybe...

  • I wrote about what it was like to skipper the ride (which I did for an article in the New York Post) on my blog: jason-cochran.com/.../as-universal-drains-jaws-for-the-last-time-i-recall-my-time-as-skipper

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