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Sharks must keep moving or they die. What we have here is a dead shark.
Universal Orlando just announced that it’s eliminating the Jaws ride at Universal Studios Florida. It was one the last of the rides that was original to the park’s 1990 opening. (Well, sort of original. It’s a retool of a hitchy version that included some impossible-to-maintain gimmicks such as red “blood” billows in the water and a turntable that turned the boats around.)
And now this still-too complicated boat ride is mooring in that great chlorinated wharf in the sky. It puts me in the mind of 2005, when the New York Post pitched Universal Orlando on a story: Would it let me come do a theme park performance job for a day? Could I see operations from the resort’s point of view? To the park’s credit, it agreed to try it. I flew down to play skipper for the Jaws ride (which it screamingly calls JAWS) for a day.
The nervous P.R. people sent me a videotape of the ride shot from the back of the boat, and by playing it over and over, I learned the script and flew down. The Hard Rock Hotel welcomed me to my room with an over-the-top, custom-made confectionary platter complete with half-bitten chocolate surfboards poking out of a plate of blue “water” frosting.
The resort’s risk paid off. I gave a great show. I was a test case for backstage journalist access, and it was a smash. It went so well, in fact, that when Ellen DeGeneres came down to tape her show a few months later, Universal put her to work on the Jaws ride, too. I’m not bitter or anything, but it bears noting that she didn’t stick to the script like I did. I’m just saying.
I’ve been attacked by a shark, unprovoked, 84 times.
And I haven’t even had my break yet. In the name of journalism, I’m working Universal Orlando’s 2.5-acre JAWS attraction, which begins as a scenic cruise of sleepy Amity Island but, as these things do, goes horribly awry when a vicious great white menaces my vessel. From my introduction to the guests as “Skipper Jason” to the harrowing, high-voltage climax, each ride is 5 minutes of fishy mayhem. Fireballs, explosions—the whole circus. And I’m the ringmaster.
When I was a kid, any carbon-based life form with opposable thumbs could operate a theme park ride, but here, training is a ritual. Normally, I’d have to go through 5 days of it, including a swimming test at nearby Wet ’n Wild, before being allowed to “skipper” a JAWS boat, but for the sake of journalism, Universal treats me to an abbreviated education. I learn it’s not a ride, it’s a “show,” and it’s not narration, it’s a “spiel.” As a spieler, I’ll usually run three boatloads in a row before taking a break—each show takes more than 5 minutes, so that’s 15 minutes of opera-level intensity. Phil Whigham, the attraction’s trainer, shows me where they keep the Gatorade jug. I am gonna need it, especially in this heat.
I receive a costume (cleaned daily by Universal and picked up at a huge wardrobe facility), a script (eight pages, annotated with acting “beats”), plus a nine-page workbook (Essay question: “How do I feel about the grenade launcher?”), and a tongue-in-cheek dossier on people and places in Amity (in case anyone asks). Normally, I’d go through at least 4 days of training before setting foot on a boat. But I’m thrown into deep water, so to speak, with just a morning’s education behind me.
Out on the lagoon, Phil adjusts my microphone headset and explains what the boats’ dashboard buttons do. One errant elbow could shut down the entire ride. So that provided exciting potential for lifelong mortification.
I meet Mimi Lipka, Universal’s resident acting coach. Although she’s a great-grandmother, she has more perk than the clean-cut college-age kids she shepherds through JAWS’ acting rigors. Before the park opens, Mimi has me run the “show” on an empty boat while she rides along, taking notes for my improvement as the mechanized shark rams us.
Interacting with the attraction’s timed special effects is like doing a pas de deux with a pinball machine. The machines are going to do their thing even if I forget mine. I have to fire my grenade launcher at the correct targets, yank the steering wheel at the right moments, and with full-bodied emotion, I must trick the guests into thinking I don’t anticipate that pesky shark’s pre-programmed re-appearances. Like clockwork, I go Rambo on the beast. “Eat this!” I bellow, blasting away at it, while Mimi scribbles. (A typical tip: “Look for survivors!”)
Finally, with a proud flourish, she writes my name on a dry-erase board hidden behind the unload station. I am “signed off” and officially on rotation. The ride opens.
I nervously guide an empty boat to the load station, where “deck crew” assigns seating by playing what they jokingly call “Human Tetris.” Now I see 48 open faces before me, waiting for me to take control of them. Judging by their expectant—some might say passive—grins, they’re dying to buy whatever I’m about to sell. I press the green start button. No return now.
“Well, time to start our voyage,” I chirp, on cue. “Wave goodbye to the happy landlubbers!” That line was always the start of my script, but I’m surprised to see my passengers actually do it. Once I fight the urge to rush, I realize I have them. Children gleefully point to the merest ripple; grown men shy from teeth they know are fake. The interaction—a triangle between me, a multimillion-dollar machine, and my audience—is invigorating, and I stop fretting about timing and just have fun. Show by show, my voice grows hoarser and I get thirstier, but the feedback from the guests’ faces feeds my energy level. When my passengers disembark, and as I catch my breath between runs, I eavesdrop.
“I wanna go again!” squeals a boy. “I wasn’t scared,” fibs another. And from a British girl: “I’ve got a soppy bottom!”
To me, a wet customer is a happy customer. Fin.
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