When the greatest movie ever made, Jaws, hit screens on June 20th, 1975 it electrified the summer box-office.  Traditionally a dumping ground for unfancied releases, summer was not a big season for theatres.  Jaws changed all that, and practically invented the summer tentpole blockbuster that remains with us to this day.

We have already taken a detailed stroll through the movies in our former home elsewhere on the web.

Today we are going to talk about how the greatest movie of all time gave birth to the greatest theme park experience of all time.  Jaws – The Ride at Universal Studios in Florida.

Singapore Lake To Amity Island

That summer when Jaws hit (and hit big) it was decided it should become a key part of the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot tour.   Since 1964, the iconic pink and white striped “Glamor Trams” had been ferrying paying guests through old movie sets, such as the Bates Motel from Psycho.

Over time, more and more pre-staged elements had been added.  These were designed to show off movie-making techniques and special F/X.  These included a flash flood, a subway train trapped in an earthquake and a collapsing bridge.

Part of the tour was an area called Singapore Lake, where wind and storm effects were demonstrated to the tram passengers as they passed.  It was decided that this lake would be home to Jaws.  In 1976 this part of the tour opened.

An original advertising image from the ride

Passengers enter the area as the trams pass the familiar ‘Welcome to Amity’ billboard.  A series of typical Martha’s Vineyard style houses line a bay with a beach and the red and white striped beach huts from the movie.  The final remaining Orca floats at a dock. Incidentally, Spielberg used to frequently sit aboard this boat to get some peace and quiet while working.

Across the bay, complete with a hole in the side, is Ben Gardner’s boat.

The original tour segment

Sound effects of a foghorn and bell from a buoy can be heard throughout the area.   The tour guide would highlight the presence of George, a lone fisherman in a small rowing boat. The tour guide frequently would add colour commentary, saying something about how brave George is for fishing in an area where a killer shark has been sighted.

Right on cue, John Williams famous Jaws score is heard and a menacing dorsal fin slices across the bay before submerging.  The boat, complete with George, is dragged under the water in an explosion of foam and blood.

The tram is now right next to the water on a pier.  In a combination of the fisherman’s pier scene, and the climax of the movie, a yellow barrel attached to the pier is pulled out across the surface, at speed, which unwinds a massive chain.

When the chain is pulled tight the pier lurches towards the water, tipping the tram about 20 degrees towards the water. The shark then explodes from the water right next to the tram, lunging at passengers as they scream before the tram pulls off the pier and away from the danger, and on with the tour.

Any passenger who looked backward as they departed was treated to the comedic scene of the whole thing being played in reverse as the tour segment resets ready for the next tram.

This part of the studio tour is still going strong today.  George in his boat has been replaced with a police diver.  Fire effects have been added courtesy of a fuel barge, and of course, the look of the shark has evolved on from the cartoon version in 1976, affectionately called Carrot Tooth.

Courtesy of jawsride.net

Little did they know at the time, when designing this part of the studio tour, that it was to serve as a prototype for something much, much bigger.

From Hollywood To Orlando

Until the 1990s, Disney had things mostly their own way in Florida.  There were a lot of legacy attractions in the area such as Gatorland.  There was also Sea World.  However as far as technologically advanced theme parks went, it was all Disney.

in 1982, Universal hatched a plan to take their hugely popular backlot tour and expand the concept into a fully-fledged theme park, with a working movie studio attached.  They had never built a theme park from the ground up.  Universal stalwart Steven Spielberg, the man behind all their biggest hits, was the chief creative consultant and co-founder of the park.

However, the plan was put on hold indefinitely until 1986 while still in the planning stage as it became clear the technology was not available to be true to their vision.

Disney breathed a sigh of relief and promptly began planning their own movie-based theme park for Florida in partnership with MGM.  Their plan was to blow Universal away even before the rival park opened.  As Disney planned to include a backlot tram tour in their park and was looking likely to beat Universal to opening, Universal was forced to redesign their entire park.

Disney’s rival park – a pre-emptive strike!

The tram tour centerpiece Universal planned was thrown out.  A decision was made to use the central ideas from several other Universal Hollywood tour segments, but build them out to be bigger, more spectacular standalone attractions.

In 1986 work starts on land clearing.  Studio facilities are taken in advance, by partners like Nickelodeon, and it’s full steam ahead to an eventual opening in 1989, which is then delayed until the following year.

Among the rides, shows, and attractions there are three big-ticket, show-stopping attractions.  King Kong-based Kongfrontation, Earthquake and Jaws.  But all is not well in Florida.  These attractions from nearly 30 years ago were right at the cutting edge of what was technically possible at the time.

And they don’t work.

From Triumph To Failure

On opening day, all three rides were plagued with technical difficulties and closed for periods of the day.  The situation did not improve over time.  Eventually, Universal had to roll out a voucher system to allow angry, dissatisfied customers to revisit the park when the rides were fixed.  The press coverage was brutal and the stench of failure began to envelop the park.

Kongfrontation… when working

Serious re-engineering work was carried out.  Kongfrontation and Earthquake were brought back into service with improved reliability.  However, Jaws just could not be made to work with anything like the required reliability.  Eventually, in 1991, Universal admitted defeat and closed the ride indefinitely.

Nearly 2,000 miles of wire and over 1,140 feet of track running throughout the 5 million-gallon, 7-acre lagoon lay dormant.  The entire area of the park was boarded up.  A promised reopening in 1992 didn’t happen.  A bitter lawsuit broke out between Universal and Ride And Show Engineering Inc. as the engineers of the Jaws Ride.

But just like killer sharks would return to Amity again in the movie, the ride was not completely dead yet.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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