Finally we come to the end of our historical walk through the history of the greatest theme park ride of all time – Jaws, at Universal Studios Orlando.
In Part I we talked about the genesis of the ride from a segment on the Hollywood studio tram tour to a full blown experience at a brand new theme park.
In Part II we talked about the original version of the ride and how it was very different to the one most people knew and loved.
In Part III we talked about the engineering problems and how the ride suffered before it was eventually brought back to life by extensive re-engineering and a complete reworking of the ride plot.
Now before we talk about what was ultimately the final chapter in the life of the Jaws ride at a Universal Studios we must give some context. Fight our corner, even. Why do we think this is the greatest theme park experience of all time? Two words. Ambition and Scale. The sheer balls of Universal for the undertaking.
Full water effects, a daylight ride with a dark portion, pyrotechnics, animatronics and a shark meeting it’s end every 80 seconds.
2,000 miles of wire. 1,140 feet of track. 5 million gallons of water. A lagoon covering 7 acres of park. All churning 2,700 guests an hour with live, acting hosts as part of the show all day, every day bringing a new plot woven into Jaws lore to life.
Wow! You got that as a project brief today you would probably walk away saying it couldn’t be done. But it could. They did! For all Disney’s exquisite imagineering and seamless theming in their parks something about this just stands out and stands tall.
We would go as far as to say that without this level of ambition and managing to deliver something on this scale, many future theme park attractions such as the current Harry Potter experiences and Jurassic Park would never have come into being. This paved the way for movie themed thrill delivery in an epic way.
The Show Must Go On
So after the many detailed challenges, and full-scale re-working of the entire ride, the show was back on the road. Jaws took its place as one of the premium experiences at Universal’s Park and business was booming. All was right with the world for a decade. However storm clouds were gathering.
The name Jaws itself was losing its lustre. Not only had three sequels of rapidly declining quality affected the brand name, a series of knock-offs and cheap imitations of the movie had continued, unanswered.
By 2005 the movie was already 30 years old. Sure, anyone of a certain age and a certain movie going vintage would always appreciate Jaws, with its epic tension, amazing score, incredible script propelling the tightest of tight plots. We knew and understood how magnificently written and acted the characters were, reacting in credible ways to incredible circumstances. We appreciate the sheer movie making art on display across the board.
However a new breed of theme park guest was appearing on the scene. These were people born after 1990. We know, surely nothing on Earth can be that recent? But, our friends, we promise you they do exist.
To these uneducated whippersnappers one of the greatest movies of all time is simply:
”That goofy old movie with the plastic shark?”
This is what happens when you make it illegal to beat pupils in schools. We tried to warn them this would happen.
With the movie underpinning the theme park experience beginning to fade from the public consciousness, how long could seven acres of prime park real estate continue to be given over to such a sprawling ride?
Through 2004 and 2005 the worldwide price of oil and gas climbed steadily. Jaws used a LOT of power to drive it, and huge amounts of gas for the pyrotechnic effects. Against this backdrop in September 2005 Jaws went down to “seasonal” status and only operated during the busy, prime weeks. This is a classic theme park phase before an ageing ride is sunsetted for replacement.
In February 2007 the cries of disappointment had grown too loud and Universal relented. Jaws went back on full time duty. Yet another reprieve.
For the reopening the ride had been improved, the queue had been cleaned and reworked to make it more efficient, the boats had been repainted, the sharks thrashed around more and were bloodied up and repainted to make them feel much more realistic. However the fire effects were significantly reduced.
Just around the corner was yet another shock. In 2008 the worldwide financial crisis was another hard knock. Investment income tumbled and wages stagnated. A trip out to a theme park or a sunshine holiday to the vacation state of Florida was one of the luxury items in family life that soon got cut off.
Theme parks required something new to get families to chose them over competitors. A must-see attraction in order to get a hard up family to decide the out-lay was worth it.
In June 2010 the final seeds of Jaws destruction were sown. Only it was not faulty engineering, or fuel costs that planted that seed.
It was a boy wizard.
Harry Bloody Potter!
While Jaws had been operating at Universal Studios, Orlando, the company had opened a second theme park next door, Universal Islands Of Adventure.
In 1997 it made a decision to re-theme one of its “Islands” completely and entered a deal with Warner Bros. for the theme park rights to Harry Potter.
The Duelling Dragons rollercoaster was re-themed as was the entire Forbidden Kingdom area of the park. This was transformed into Hogwarts and Hogsmeade. This was Universals secret weapon in the war against Disney for post financial crash dollars, and it was a nuke!
When it opened in 2010 the Wizarding World was a phenomenal success and an enormous jolt to the entire resort, while giving Disney a smack in the mouth.
By year’s end, Universal Orlando had broken a slew of internal records including both net and operating profit. Attendance soared seventeen percent from January to December.
Merchandise sales more than doubled. In just seven months the Wizarding World had served more than a million mugs of Butterbeer.
The message was clear. The world wanted more Potter in its theme parks, and Potter had a lot of settings, adventures and experiences to give. There as just one problem. They needed space to expand.
Right behind Hogwarts Castle at Islands Of Adventure was a huge staff car park. Directly across that? Nestling right at the back of Universal Studios, the sister park, in 7 acres of prime theme park territory, was the Jaws Ride. It’s days were numbered by the expansion of a speccy teenaged wizard attraction.
Universal Orlando officially announced the Jaws ride’s closure on the morning of December 2, 2011. Absolutely no time was wasted. By January 2, 2012 it was ended. That was the final day of operation for the ride. The final ever boat trip into the lagoon with the final ever skipper was an emotional experience for all those involved.
And then, just like that, it was all over.
Boards went up the next day and bulldozers moved in after that. It was to be the site of the massive expansion of Harry Potter. The two parks would be linked and this would be a London Kings Cross and Diagon Alley recreation filling the entire 7 acres of Jaws. The lagoon was filled. The shark pits too. Tracks ripped up.
When you walk the streets surrounding the Universal version of London’s Kings Cross, when you queue for the Hogwarts Express to take you from London to Hogsmeade, when you stroll up Diagon Alley on your way to Gringott’s Bank, take a moment to stop, look down and pay respects to what is there underneath your feet.
Buried under tons of concrete are the remains of a lagoon, deep shark pits, whatever is left of poor old Gordon on Amity 3, and the rest of the Greatest Theme Park Ride Of All Time!