Going Fishing: When Universal Studios's Jaws Ride Terrorized Park Guests

Animatronic 'Jaws' shark from the Universal Studios Hollywood tram tour.
Animatronic 'Jaws' shark from the Universal Studios Hollywood tram tour. / Thank You (21million+ views), Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In July of 1990, Universal Studios’s slogan “Ride the Movies” became all too real for Anthony Salamone. The 39-year-old bank officer from New Jersey visited the Florida theme park with his family, but found their options for rides were limited. Though the park, which had only been open for one month, featured attractions built around marquee names like King Kong and Marty and Doc from Back to the Future, it had been plagued by problems from day one. The Jaws ride in particular had become particularly troublesome, as Salamone would soon discover.

Salamone and his family boarded a pontoon boat that took them around a lagoon surrounded by New England-inspired scenery. After leaving the dock, it was almost possible to imagine they had been transported from Orlando to the fictional island town of Amity from Jaws. Then something went wrong: A railing broke, and Salamone suddenly found himself in the water with pop culture’s most terrifying shark.

The animatronic animal didn’t have a thirst for blood, but it was known for behaving erratically. And as Salamone quickly realized, it was coming his way. "The shark's gonna eat daddy!" one of his children reportedly shouted. All that was missing from the scene was John Williams’s iconic score.

Salamone made it out of the water with minor scrapes and bruises—he even received a round of applause from fellow guests who thought he was part of the entertainment—but the ride’s star didn’t fare as well. Much like the mechanical shark used in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie, Jaws the ride was plagued with problems.

A Monster of a Challenge

A shark is displayed outside the entrance to the Jaws ride in Universal Studios Florida.
A shark is displayed outside the entrance to the Jaws ride in Universal Studios Florida. / Cplbeaudoin via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

When Universal was selecting which movies to immortalize as rides at their new Florida park, Jaws seemed like a no-brainer. The original blockbuster was one of the studio’s marquee titles, and the suspenseful adventure story translated perfectly to a thrill ride. Additionally, the movie starred a life-sized animatronic shark that would look just as ferocious in a theme park as it did on screen.

At least, that was the hope. The designers of the Jaws ride failed to heed the lesson Spielberg learned while making the film: Water and animatronics don’t mix. After many special effects experts called the task of designing a seaworthy, 25-foot mechanical shark for the movie impossible, Hollywood legend Bob Mattey finally agreed to come out of retirement to do the job.

Mattey succeeded in designing three massive robotic sharks (all named Bruce, after Spielberg’s lawyer), but their seaworthiness was questionable. The movie shot in the real-life seas around the island of Martha's Vineyard, and saltwater eroded the animatronics' electric motors after just one week—so it had to be replaced with a system of pneumatic tubes. Even when the animatronics were working properly, they had to be drained, scrubbed, and repainted daily. Using the puppets as planned just wasn’t feasible.

Spielberg got around his technical difficulties by hiding the shark from view for much of the movie—a narrative choice that has since been hailed as a brilliant storytelling device and has been copied by countless monster movies since. But clever camerawork wasn’t an option for the designers of the Jaws ride. For the ride to operate, the shark would need to perform consistently multiple times a day every day.

Such an attraction wasn’t unprecedented. The ride’s designers were inspired by the Universal Studios backlot tour in Hollywood, which passes a mechanical Bruce lunging out of the water at tram riders. But while that experience lasts about a minute, the Jaws ride would do much more—or attempt to, at least.

Dead in the Water

Under ideal conditions, the Jaws ride was a spectacular show. Guests boarded a pontoon boat with a live skipper ready to take them on a leisurely tour of Amity Island. As the ride progressed, it became clear that a shark was terrorizing the town. At one point, the three-ton man-eater would swim up to the boat and bite into it. Guests who looked closely may have noticed a mouth outfitted with genuine shark teeth.

As an homage to the movie, the ride ended with the skipper firing a grenade into the shark’s mouth, causing it to “explode” after sinking out of sight beneath the surface. Chunks of fake shark flesh and water dyed blood-red sold the effect.

Unfortunately for passengers—and the company that had spent $30 million on the ride—that wasn’t the typical experience. Getting a giant robot to move through the water was trickier than anyone imagined. And its movements often failed to match up with the boat's, making it look like it was attacking nothing. Sometimes, the climatic explosion didn't happen. Because the machinery that powered the ride was located 20 feet below water, maintenance was a nightmare. Guests who did have to put up with technical difficulties were lucky to experience the ride at all; the attraction was notorious for never running.

Universal quickly realized that the problems with the Jaws ride couldn’t be solved with a quick fix. Then Salamone fell into the water with the shark. Though the incident wasn't related to technical troubles, it didn’t bode well for the ride’s future. Salamone sued the theme park for $1 million, citing poor maintenance and negligence. Universal in turn sued MCA, the designers of the ride, for alleged engineering flaws and shoddy workmanship. In August 1990, two months after opening, the park accepted that Jaws was dead in the water. They decided to scrap the attraction completely and rebuild it from scratch.

Jaws: the Ride—the Sequel

After pushing back the reopening date numerous times, Universal Studios Orlando finally debuted its new and improved Jaws ride in 1993. This version didn’t end with Jaws blowing up into tiny pieces. Instead, designers took inspiration from the sequel and electrocuted the shark at the end of the show.

Guests didn’t seem to mind the change: Jaws the Ride 2.0 operated for nearly two decades, and many of the people who rode it had no idea it wasn’t the original concept.

The new Jaws ride outlived its predecessor many times over, but it wasn’t without its own problems. It required large amounts of fuel and was incredibly expensive to maintain. After the success of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios took the opportunity to close Jaws—permanently this time—to make room for a new Potter-themed land. In 2012, the robotic shark stalked its last group of riders.

Though some theme park guests associate Jaws the ride with frustration and the stench of gasoline, others view it with nostalgia. Nearly 225 million people have watched a ride-through of the final Jaws ride on YouTube since it shut down. Homages to the attraction can be found in the park as well. In the area that used to house the Jaws ride, guests can still pose for photos with a giant great white statue. It’s not as exciting as the mechanical version, but technical malfunctions will never be an issue.