In 1975, the Steven Spielberg-helmed Jaws took the movie industry by storm. Part horror-thriller, part social commentary, the film became the first summer blockbuster and the highest grossing film until it was dethroned two years later by Star Wars. It also won several awards for its score and editing due to critical acclaim.
The movie was such a hit for Universal Pictures that when they started dipping their toes into the theme park industry, the studio heads knew they had to get their great white moneymaker up close and personal with guests in experiences that we now view as classics.
Grab your shark cages and beloved boats; it’s time to go hunting for the history of Jaws at Universal’s theme parks!
A Shark in Hollywood
After the rampant success of Jaws, the MCA-owned Universal Pictures set to work immediately on integrating the great white shark into their famous Studio Tour that runs through the backlot in Hollywood. Boy, did they work fast because the Jaws segment of the tour opened just a year after the release of the film it was inspired by.
A whole new area was devoted to the movie, with sets designed to look like a portion of the village of Amity Island and the actual hero prop boat of the Orca parked in the lagoon (unfortunately, the boat was removed sometime between 1991 and 1992 and chopped up for timber).
As your tram would move onto a boat dock next to the lagoon, you would witness the work of Jaws first-hand before the shark would set its sights on you. The dock would “break away” and gasoline barrels would ignite as the great white terror moved in for an up close and personal encounter.
The Jaws event proved to be popular with guests and can still be experienced to this day, which is more than we can say for its bigger cousin that would find a home in the waters of Florida.
The Disastrous Opening of Universal Studios Florida
Once the plans for a new park to be built in Orlando, Florida, were green-lit, it was decided that the great white shark would star in one of the opening day attractions. Unfortunately, what should have been a grand debut for Universal Studios Florida turned into a disaster.
Most of the opening day attractions suffered some level of malfunctions due to an electrical error, but Jaws got the worst of the problems by far. The mechanical sharks and other effects refused to work properly, and the ride had to be evacuated almost constantly. The thunderstorm that moved into town later in the day put the final nail in Jaws’ coffin for the opening.
The problems with the ride turned out to be more serious than originally thought, and Universal ended up suing the original manufacturer, Ride & Show Engineering, Inc., for what was essentially design malpractice. Universal then collaborated with Totally Fun Company, ITEC Entertainment, Intamin, and Oceaneering International to completely rebuild the ride from scratch.
The ride officially reopened in the spring of 1993 with film stars Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary, and director Steven Spielberg in attendance. Thankfully, this version of Jaws finally gave us what Universal had originally promised: a terrifying encounter with a great white shark in his territory.
The story for the ride broke the fourth wall, imagining that Amity Island and the shark attacks were real, and the film that we saw in theaters was a documentary of what actually happened. We’d be going out on Captain Jake’s Amity Boat Tours with our talkative guides to see the locations where the attacks actually happened.
Just like any good theme park attraction, chaos ensued, and we found ourselves dealing with a new pair of teeth. While the original end of the attraction mirrored the first film’s fate of the shark (death by explosion), the new ending for the ride was now inspired by Jaws 2 where the shark would bite down on a cable tied to a high-voltage barge.
One of the best parts of Jaws 2.0 was your skipper guide. Much like the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland and Disney World, the experience was defined in big part due to your skipper’s delivery and how eccentric they got.
The new and improved Jaws at Universal Studios Florida would be transplanted over to Universal Studios Japan for the park’s opening in 2001 with very few changes. Unfortunately, this would be the last good news fans of the ride would hear.
Universal announced in 2011 that Jaws and the entire Amity area would close to make room for a certain boy wizard. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter had done gangbusters over at Islands of Adventure and now Universal wanted to expand with a new area inspired by Diagon Alley.
The attraction would close permanently on January 2, 2012 despite fan backlash. However, not all remnants of the ride have been removed from the park. The photo-op of the hanging shark managed to survived and can be found near the Fast & Furious – Supercharged attraction.
While we can no longer sail the open seas on Captain Jake’s Amity Boat Tours (and we miss Jaws a lot), we can take solace in the fact that our favorite hungry shark pal can still be found terrorizing the Universal Studios Hollywood Studio Tour and across the pond at Universal Studios Japan.
Did you ever get to ride Jaws before it closed? Share with us your favorite memories in the comments below!