Welcome back to our look at the story behind the greatest theme park ride of all time – Jaws.
In Part I, we looked at the history of the ride, from its beginnings as a segment on the Universal Studios Hollywood tour, including the troubled opening in 1990 as Universal Studios Florida made its debut. Here in Part II, we will examine the ride in its original format and describe why it was so plagued with problems.
It Is All In The Detail
Anybody who has ridden Jaws at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida since it reopened after its rework would have been very surprised by how different the original ride was.
It was a technical marvel of incredibly ambitious scope and scale. After Disney MGM Studios beat Universal out of the gate with their own backlot tram tour, Universal went BIG! Out went their idea for a beefed-up backlot tour containing segments like the one in Hollywood. In came huge attractions based on all their biggest hits.
And none came bigger than Jaws.
The tram-tour shark-encounter would be expanded into a boat-based water ride where the guests would be tourists on a boat trip around Amity Island itself. On this boat tour, they encountered the titular killer shark who would repeatedly attack their boat. Not lunge, not appear nearby and menace. Genuinely attack their boat.
The rest of the ride would then become a fight for survival against the shark, including full water effects, pyrotechnics and a dark portion of the ride until the beast was eventually vanquished in a spectacular underwater explosion.
Sounds great on paper. Somebody had to try and make this actually happen. Enter Steven Spielberg’s old college roommate Peter Alexander. He worked closely with Universal President Sid Sheinberg and Spielberg himself, park co-founder and lead creative consultant, to design the experience.
The ambition was clear from the beginning:
“Sheinberg comes up to me with that cigar in mouth, and says ‘In every shark picture, the shark blows up in the end.’ So, I went out and found someone who could make a shark blow up every 60 seconds.”
This was just one sequence. In the original 1990 version, the ride was meant to play out as follows.
Ride Into Hell
Amity is recovering after some recent “shark trouble” that Mayor Vaughn believes has been solved. The solution is on display at Amity Circle en-route to the ride entrance. A large, very dead Great White shark hanging there for guests to take photos with.￼
After boarding your tour boat and setting sail out of Amity Harbour, the skipper would direct guests to look towards Quint’s shack, outside which the Orca was docked. This was before the boat had entered the lagoon proper and while it was still en-route to the first scene.
Through an open porthole on the Orca guests would hear a heated argument between Chief Brody and Quint.
“It’s not the shark, Chief. I’m tellin’ ya, the shark hanging out there ain’t big enough to be our shark. Our shark swallow ya whole. A little shakin’, a little tenderizin’, down ya go.”
The tour skipper was to dismiss Quint’s claims about the hanging shark as drunken ramblings. The concept of the ride was to prove Quint right. There is another shark out there, and it’s a big one!
On rounding the lighthouse at the harbour entrance, as with the relaunched ride, the tour comes across the remains of another tour boat, in the process of sinking and surrounded by debris.￼
To highlight the more intense and adult nature of this first version of the ride there was to be blood in the water. Also, in a sly dig at the competition, a pair of children’s Mickey Mouse ears were floating among the blood-stained wreckage.
As the unfortunate tour boat slips beneath the water, a huge dorsal fin surfaces and heads directly for your boat. The enormous shark passes the boat then dives underneath, causing it to rock violently before surfacing again on the other side and turning back towards you.
The panicked skipper fires his emergency grenade launcher at the shark, causing water explosions near the advancing shark but failing to stop it. Skipper then guns the throttle and drives you into a nearby boathouse to hide from the shark.
The shark attacks the pitch-black boathouse, causing the walls to shake and various props to spill and fall. The only light is from the tour boat’s spotlight. The skipper decides it is time to make a run for it, but the boat won’t drop into gear.
With the engine revving wildly the skipper finally gets the boat into gear just in time as the shark smashes his way into the boathouse and surfaces right next to the boat.
Screaming passengers only catch a glimpse of the beast, briefly illuminated in the spotlight, as the boat exits at speed.
Next was the most technically challenging part of the early version of the ride.
The shark surfaces right in front of the boat and lunges forward, grabbing the boats inflatable pontoon in its mouth. It thrashes around and shakes the whole boat as the pontoon deflates due to the bite. It remains deflated for the rest of the ride to add a sense of danger that this boat might actually sink.
With the boat still in its mouth, the shark spins the boat completely around and pushes it through the water. Eventually, it releases the boat with the skipper pointing out the damage and declaring that the boat won’t survive another attack like that.
Making a run back to the harbour, your tour boat passes a fuelling dock when the shark attacks again. This time, an errant shot from a grenade launcher strikes the fuel dock causing an enormous explosion that you really feel the intense heat from.
Finally, the shark emerges again in front of the boat and lunges at the bow as the skipper takes a final grenade shot directly at its gaping mouth. The shark submerges and just as the skipper wonders if he got it, there is an enormous explosion in the water.
Blood, foam, and chunks of shark meat are thrown into the air to signify the end of the aquatic terror. With the cheers of his adoring tour party ringing in his ears, the victorious skipper pilots you all safely back to the dock to be unloaded.
Fantastic stuff, right? But very, very complex. And that was part of the problem. So what went wrong?
You’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat
This was all far, far too ambitious for late 1980s theme park engineering. The scale of the undertaking, coupled with some conceptual flaws such as decisions on boat control, would haunt this version of the ride throughout its very short life. As would decisions to outsource large amounts of engineering work.
Starting with the lagoon itself.
The lagoon was actually quite shallow. Around 1 meter deep in many places. The ride segments, the shark effects, and interactions were placed in deeper parts known as “shark pits”. Some of these were several meters deep.
In order to hide the ride mechanisms and keep the sharks hidden until just before bursting from the supposed depths, normal water wasn’t going to cut it. So to create murk, a clay suspension was added to the water.
The problem was that this could play havoc with the rides sensitive engineering.
Problems were further exacerbated by the inevitable leakage of hydraulic fluid and boat diesel into the lagoon. This made the water extremely unhealthy and attacked the latex skin of the shark models. This led to them requiring frequent repainting.
Then there were the boats themselves. The earliest version of the ride didn’t travel on tracks. The boats were still computer-controlled but they were guided around the lagoon through a submerged channel. This ride control was not 100% accurate which led to mistimed effects and sometimes completely missed shark interactions.￼
The most complex ride segment, the boat attack, and spin were notoriously unreliable. Show Director Adam Bezark sums it up:
“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.”
Everything on this ride was technical and difficult. As it turned out everything was fragile too.
That’s A Twenty-Footer
The sharks on this iteration of the ride were also significantly more realistic than any version of the Hollywood studio tour shark, or indeed the sharks that eventually replaced them.
Their tails thrashed as they moved, they banked and turned, they heads could move from side to side. Their latex skin was realistic. They were decidedly non-cartoonish. This added to the intensity of the ride.
The problem was this kind of engineering is complex. Along with the ferocity of the boat attack causing the teeth to become damaged and fall out, and the previously mentioned issues with the clay suspension and water contamination, the control systems were unreliable.
Whereas Disney predominantly keeps ride design and build 100% in-house via its Imagineering Division, Universal outsourced huge amounts of their work. The boat, shark and accompanying systems build was sub-contracted to Ride And Show Engineering Inc.￼
They struggled to reconcile the technically advanced functionality with the challenges of working in a hostile environment and the multi-repetitive nature of such high capacity ride.
Making large machinery move fast through the air can be a challenge. Through water, it is a whole other level of challenge. In order to propel the machinery at the speed required to simulate the attacking shark, the underwater rigs needed to be powered by a level of thrust that was equivalent to a 737 engine on full throttle during take-off.
The stress this placed on the engineering and structure was incredible. When the sharks broke, the ride was broken. The Jaws ride was a renowned “people eater”.
In theme park parlance this means it can absorb a huge amount of people. Jaws could serve 2,000 guests an hour, and hold another 2,000+ in its queue area. When it went down this had an effect on queues and crowds in the rest of the park. A broken shark had a negative impact across the park.
Smile You Son Of A Bitch!
Another complication was the big boss Sid Sheinberg and his insistence that, like in the climax of the movie version of Jaws, the shark needed to explode. For this, they created a contraption known to the crews as The Meat Machine.￼
This enabled one of the most spectacular sequences of the ride, the final grenade shot and the destruction of the shark.
A compressed air tank is linked to a sub-surface cannon to drive the charge of water upwards for an explosion. Red dye is added for blood. Shark flesh pieces, made from rubber and foam are weighted to make them negatively buoyant so they sink.
The cannon fires this shark debris through the water and up into the air with the red dye. An underwater collector covers a wide area beneath the surface. This is connected to a winch system and following the explosion the winch pulls the collector inwards like closing an inverted umbrella. This pushes the shark debris back into position ready for the next shot.
But none of it worked reliably. The ride was closed for technical issues more often than it was open.
Eventually, it was clear that something had to give.
TO BE CONTINUED…