September 30, 1993
hopes to make a splash with shark-ride sequel
Susan G. Strother
Sentinel Staff Writer
tough training a mechanical shark. Just ask Universal Studios Florida.
The theme park will reopen its Jaws ride Friday after learning from
experience that great white sharks are ornery and ill-tempered - even
when made of fiberglass and steel.
This unveiling of Jaws follows a three-year hiatus in which the
marauding fish was dry-docked. An early version of the boat ride was
closed only two months after Universal opened its gates. The first Jaws
was unreliable; an embarrassed Universal sued the contractor and junked
millions of dollars of original equipment.
Since then, an engineering overhaul involving experts in submarine
technology and special effects has brought Jaws back to life, not
unlike the movie sequels. The new ride is one of the most sophisticated
at Universal, combining dozens of elements into a journey that would do
even Jonah proud.
It is also one of the park's costliest endeavors, weighing in at $70
million for new and old versions, according to industry estimates.
"Bringing Jaws on at this point really closes a chapter for us, and
allows us to move forward," said Bob Ward, senior vice president for
design and planning at MCA Recreation, Universal's parent company. ". .
. Obviously, we are all very excited that Jaws is becoming part of the
Industry observers are more pointed in their appraisals. "It's like a
movie, Jaws I: The Disaster, and Jaws II: The Recovery," said one
entertainment industry executive familiar with the ride. "They've got
to get it right this time."
Universal executives would agree. Leaving little to chance, thousands
of park visitors have been treated to "technical rehearsals" of Jaws
since August. That means they ride the ride and if anything goes wrong,
Universal could close it down and fix the problem without losing face
because, officially, the ride hadn't opened.
The new ride is more extravagant than the first, boasting larger
sharks, exploding docks and enough pyrotechnics to light up the night
sky. Mark Woodbury, Universal's director of design, promises that the
ride brings passengers "up close and personal" with the fiendish fish.
Universal wants to leave park guests as saucer-eyed as moviegoers were
in 1975, when the first Jaws chewed its way into American film lore.
Early reviews have been favorable, although some families say the ride
was a bit intense for children.
"It was fabulous - pretty scary, though, and we did get wet," said
Shelly Kurek, a tourist who rode Jaws during a recent rehearsal. "It's
like you're right there in the movie."
While Universal's reputation as a theme park doesn't hinge on the
ride's success, its image will be enhanced if Jaws is a hit. The
difficulties with the first Jaws began even before Universal's opening
day, when nearly all of the park's big-ticket rides failed. Most of the
other problems were quickly corrected. A year later, Universal went on
to open another showcase ride, Back to the Future, without a hitch.
Still, Jaws is something of a milestone. If successful, it may silence
the naysayers who consider Universal second best in the studios war
with archrival Walt Disney World.
"In some respects, the real acid test will be Jaws," said John Gerner,
an attractions industry consultant in Richmond, Va. "If the new version
does at least what the original was supposed to do, that will be a real
good sign that Universal knows what to do with their theme park."
As Universal sees it, the problems with the first Jaws began outside
Los Angeles in the offices of Ride & Show Engineering Inc., the
designer of the original ride. Universal sued the firm, claiming it
failed to meet the conditions of its contract.
"Jaws was an engineering nightmare," said a former park executive who
asked not to be identified for fear of endangering future relationships
with the company. "No matter how good Jaws looked on paper, there was
never any confidence" that it would work reliably 12 hours a day.
It was a classic struggle between man and the sea - and for a while, it
seemed the sea had won. The key problem was that the sharks, which were
required to go from a dead stop to a lightning-fast lunge, could not
overcome the drag caused by moving in water, said Tom Williams,
For example, in an attack scene where the shark was to surge forward,
grab the passenger boat and shake it, the beasts often lay quietly at
the bottom of the lagoon. Other times, the fish were too lifelike. Real
shark teeth were glued into the heads, and occasionally the pontoons on
the boats were ripped.
"It was a series of things with the first ride," Woodbury said. "The
biggest one being they just couldn't get it to work reliably."
Eduard Feuer, Ride & Show's chief executive, claims his company
unfairly blamed for Universal's problems. Feuer has kept silent about
Jaws for years, but now he says Universal pushed to open the ride when
more time was needed for testing.
The park also took control of the ride before Ride & Show could
correct a problem with speed-control mechanisms on the boats, Feuer
said. (Similar mechanisms are not being used in the new ride.) The suit
was settled in 1991, though neither side revealed the details.
"Basically, Universal didn't have any experience with a ride like
this," Feuer said. "If we had built something like this for Disneyland,
Disneyland maintenance would have taken it over and made it work."
After Jaws closed, Universal brought together an in-house creative team
to decide what to do about the ride. Woodbury said there was never a
question that Jaws would remain at Universal.
"All the components that made it a good film would make it a good
ride," Woodbury said, "like suspense and horror and thrills."'
There also was the little matter of a multimillion-dollar investment
and nothing yet to show for it. In the end, the creative team decided
to enlarge the script, borrowing from Jaws and Jaws 2. Some of the
nettlesome complications with the sharks and boats on the first ride
were eliminated as well.
The new boat and track system was designed by Intamin Co. of Maryland,
while the boats were manufactured by Regal Marine Industries Inc. of
Orlando. The ride system, which includes the software that runs the
sharks, boats and special effects, was designed by Itec Productions
Inc. of Orlando.
"Like anything else," Woodbury said, "given another chance to evaluate
things, not only do you fix them, but you take the opportunity to make
The new ride includes fire and explosions that were absent in the
first. At one point, a ring of fire created by underwater gas lines
completely surrounds the boat. Universal's natural gas bill for the
ride reportedly will be nearly $2 million a year.
Oceaneering Technologies Inc., a Maryland company that specializes in
robotic submarines, created the new sharks. In some scenes, the beasts
surge open-mouthed from the water with the force equivalent to a
The company received the contract because of its expertise in
underwater technology. Its unmanned vehicles have recovered tons of
deep sea wreckage, including debris from the space shuttle Challenger,
said Craig Mullen, Oceaneering's president.
"We have a high emotional stake to make sure this is successful,"
Mullen said. "This was a unique undertaking."
Oceaneering, Mullen said, faced the same problems that plagued Ride
& Show. Working in the lagoon means extra engineering to make
for the friction caused by water. Also, the underwater gear is encased
in hard plastic to prevent corrosion.
"It's a harsh environment," Mullen said. "You've got electrical and
hydraulic components, neither of which like water very much. . . .
You've also got this massive piece of machinery which you have to
accelerate from a dead stop, and then make it stop safely" near boat
The sharks are attached to a hydraulic lift, which drives them out of
the water during attack scenes. The apparatus, which weighs 12 tons, is
attached to a wheeled platform, which gives the sharks their lateral
movements. The platform is motored around on what amounts to an
Smoothing over the rough spots before Friday's official opening meant
long days of equipment tweaking. Now, with more than 500,000 people
having ridden the ride during testing, Williams, the park president, is
confident. He's cozied up to the fish a few dozen times himself - and
claims he gets a little spooked with each trip.
"I can honestly say, that if you searched the world over, you wouldn't
find another ride like this," said Williams. He'd be happy if guests
left Jaws uttering three simple words.
"Wow," he said, "that's awesome."
How does the ride work?
© 1993, Orlando Sentinel.