Written By Richard Bertin
“Is Jaws the best movie ever?”
Of course, the answer is no, but it was a question raised by the quixotic Bill Simmons on The Ringer’s recent and wildly addictive Rewatchables podcast during an episode dedicated to Jaws. During the discussion on the film, I couldn’t help but think of Universal Studios Florida’s defunct attraction, Jaws: The Ride.
If I had to sum up the ride in one word, it would be “glorious.” Others might describe it as terrifying or even frustrating. The truth is that it’s probably a combination of all three considering the attraction’s complicated history. One thing is certain. If you went on the ride, you probably have strong memories of it burned into you, and for some people, that can be taken literally.
It’s impossible to reminisce on the ride without forgetting about its iconic mechanical flaws because there was nothing more disappointing for kids than to make their summer pilgrimage to Orlando only to discover an “Out of Service” sign waiting for them at the dock. This happened to me on more than one occasion, but I was lucky enough to have gone again during a time in which it was operating.
As explained in Defunctland’s episode on the attraction, there were two versions of the ride. The first had so many technical difficulties that a massive renovation resulted in entirely new scenes. Not many people experienced the first version of the ride, but it would feature the shark attacking the boat and being blown to bits by a grenade launcher. The renovated version, which more people remember, had newly designed sharks. Universal’s decision to increase the durability resulting in the sharks appearing less realistic, and a new ending was created in which the shark would be electrocuted to death from the bite of a loose cable.
The Jaws ride was obviously flawed. It was unreliable, expensive to run, and was, at times, painful to ride. That said, I will always stand behind it. In fact, I think it deserves much more appreciation than it’s given. It was the last of its kind.
Today’s modern theme parks are being overrun with screens. The grand theme park attractions from decades ago, such as E.T. Adventure, Kongfrontation, and Jaws: The Ride, are probably not going to return for quite a while. Simulators are reliable and cheap, while animatronic attractions are unpredictable and expensive. The unfortunate part is that our everyday lives are already filled with screens. It is sad that they are now infesting the places that are supposed to be an escape from reality.
Universal Studios Orlando, of course, was a harbinger of what was to come. Rides like Back to the Future and Terminator introduced much of the public to motion simulator rides. Back in the early 90’s, those sorts of rides were revolutionary and thrilling, but today, I don’t think its misplaced nostalgia to crave Spielberg-esque attractions where we can physically see, hear, smell, and nearly touch the movies that we love. There seems to be burgeoning bitterness towards digital media that have caused people to return things we can feel with our hands, and I believe it’s a sign that we’ve moved too far away from experiencing things with all of our natural senses.
With that said, this is why I appreciate the Jaws ride so much. It was one of the few ride experiences where nearly each of your senses was affected. This added the emotional components of anticipation, excitement, and fear.
Nostalgia can be deceiving, but I genuinely appreciate the feeling of being in an actual film as opposed to watching one. If I were able to ride Jaws: The Ride again as an adult, I believe my feelings of fear would be replaced with marvel. I would love to see Jaws being told in another medium again, similar to how grown adults froth for every comic book film.
Looking back at the video of Jaws ride’s final voyage on some forgettable winter evening in 2012, I found myself getting emotional. I’m not sure how a silly ride could spur that reaction in me. It’s almost like actually watching the last days of your childhood coming to a close. Jaws: The Ride will always hold a special place in my memory, and I hope that through time it gains back the respect it deserves as a bold amusement attraction unlike any other.