Universal Studios Hollywood’s Jaws attraction in 1996 (Universal Studios Hollywood).
Forty years ago, a troubled film by a novice filmmaker opened in theaters. Within weeks of its June 20, 1975 release, Jaws became a record-devouring monster, rewriting summer-movie marketing, and setting Steven Spielberg on the way to become Hollywood’s most bankable director.
As Jaws made chum of the box-office competition, executives at Universal Studios scrambled to cash in. Aside from an unprecedented merchandising blitz that saw Universal slap the iconic Jaws logo on everything from T-shirts to toilet seats, the studio had a bold idea: make Jaws real.
Using designers from the film, Jaws the smash movie would become Jaws the smash attraction — a high-tech addition to Universal Studios’ signature tram tour and a sure-fire draw to the California theme park that labored in the shadow of Disneyland.
They just needed to get three things right.
And, yes, the shark.
To understand how well their vision worked and why Jaws keeps delightfully terrorizing tourists after all these decades, we pored over archival material and made a pilgrimage to the site for a behind-the-scenes tour with the park’s creative director and keeper of knowledge. We lived to tell this only-in-Hollywood history.
1976 newspaper advertisement for Jaws attraction.
While the film still played in theaters, workers broke ground at the bottom of a hillside, in the shadow of the Psycho house. “Before Jaws was here, this location was called Singapore Lake, used for television and movies,” explains John Murdy, the creative director for Universal Studios Hollywood who has spent the better part of three decades on the backlot.
Top: Postcard from 1975 shows Singapore Lake on the tram tour, with demonstration of “lighting and wave effects.” Norman Bates’s house looms in the background. Bottom: During construction in 1975-76, huts have been disassembled (note wood pile next to ‘Psycho’ house) and shark track installed (Images courtesy of theStudioTour.com).
The existing Southeast Asian-style houses were redressed to look like the movie’s New England beach town.
Construction on Amity and on the shark, 1975 (Images via JawsRide.net).
“Everything else you see is mimicked from the film,” Murdy continues as he wheels his golf cart around the back of the village to offer a panoramic view of the pond and the trams. “There used to be those candy-striped changing rooms that you see in the movie. They were built for the attraction. The billboards were re-created for the attraction. We repaint them all the time because they take a lot of sun damage.”
Amity in the 1970s, with lifeguard tower, changing rooms and billboard on the beach. Orca is on the right and George the fisherman in the foreground (Image via JawsRide.net).
Steven Spielberg delivered the most authentic prop. “I had a good souvenir. I had the Orca [the boat captained by Robert Shaw’s Quint] for a while,” the director says in the fan-made documentary The Shark Is Still Working. “I had the Orca shipped back to Universal Studios. We put it on the tour on the backlot.”
The Orca moored in Jaws lagoon; Ben Gardner’s boat can be seen in the background, docked in front of the hotel.
At the other end of the pond, they docked another relic from the movie: Ben Gardner’s boat.
The final touch: a luckless angler. “There used to be a wooden carved fisherman in a boat and his name was George,” says Murdy. “It may have been a reference to George Lucas, because obviously Spielberg and Lucas were friends.”
Beyond the ersatz hamlet of Amity, the park designers needed to distill the essence of Jaws the movie into a two-minute tram ride. They decided to follow the Spielberg playbook and only tease the shark’s presence — via dorsal fin and a surprise attack — until the climactic reveal.
This is how Universal described the encounter in a 1976 press release:
As the tram approaches the calm waters of the bay, a fisherman is noticed off to the right… patiently awaiting the day’s first catch.
Suddenly, a huge dorsal fin heads in the boat’s direction and begins circling.
Before tram passengers have a chance to gasp, the fisherman’s line is jerked backwards and he and his dinghy sink rapidly into the water, leaving only a circle of blood to tell its terrible tale.
Not without horror, the tram quickly moves on, traversing a pier built decades before… Again, unexpectedly and off in the distance, flotation barrels with shark bait lines tumble into the water, the line dragging them across the bay and under the water by some massive force.
A fragment of the pier is towed out to sea, collapsing the main section under the tram and leaving all aboard dangerously approaching the water level.
Out of the water lunges the Great White Shark! Its teeth deadly sharp and close, its size and intent horrifying!
Luckily, the “jaws” are only threatening, not biting, and the unbelievable sea creature sinks back into the water. The tramload of would-be shark victims is saved and, as it limps off the pier, only memories of an incredible Jaws sea drama remain.
Like the mechanical predators in the movie, the sharks built for the Universal Studios tour have all been called Bruce, after Spielberg’s lawyer. But the first fish wound up being known by a different moniker. “It was Jaws production designer Joe Alves who coined the term ‘Carrot Tooth’ after a meeting in which the studio executives wanted a shark with big scary teeth, like the film’s poster,” says Scott Weller, a Jaws historian who runs the Lost Shark YouTube channel. The name stuck.
Universal unveiled the attraction on on April 10, 1976. And despite the shark’s comically outsized chompers, the attraction was an instant hit, becoming the signature stop on the backlot tour and eventually being converted into a thrill ride at Universal Studios amusement parks in Orlando and Osaka, Japan. Nearly 7 million visitors came to the Hollywood park last year; vastly more people have experienced Universal Studios’ animatronic shark than saw the blockbuster film in theaters.
Among those drawn to the lagoon was Spielberg himself. “He would have been really involved [in the design], but I’m not sure he was officially consulted on it,” says Murdy. “He had a very personal connection to Jaws. I’ve seen footage of him on the tram. I know he’s experienced it. It’s Hollywood legend, but he would supposedly come out here and have lunch on the Orca.”
The Orca in better times.
The legend is true. “Every once in a while, I’d go up in my little electric cart and I’d visit the Orca. By myself,” Spielberg recounts in The Shark Is Still Working. “Look around and make sure no tourists or anyone could see me. And I’d just sit inside [and] reminisce and look back to that movie that launched my career. But I would go there alone and spend time on it and not tell anybody.
“Then one day I went for another journey back in time, down memory lane — the boat was gone. And I called up the head of the backlot and I said, ‘What happened to the Orca.’ He said, ‘Well, it was just rotting there so we just took an ax and a couple chainsaws and cut it up for timber and shipped it out.’”
Adds Murdy: “The Orca and Ben Gardner’s boat are gone now. That’s the thing about when you make something for a movie. It isn’t built to last. It’s built to last for the life of the production.”
Over the years, the candy-striped changing rooms disappeared; the rocking dock was replaced by a stationary one; even the resilient George bid farewell and adieu. “We retired George in 2001,” says Murdy. “Now it’s an Amity police diver. He doesn’t have a name.”
Carrot Tooth is also long gone, replaced, in true Hollywood fashion, by younger, sexier animatronic actors. The first shark revamp came in 1978 for Jaws 2, and there have been a handful since. “I made [the current] one,” says Murdy. “I did the last overlay to the attraction, which is the fire, in 2001. They called it ‘Jaws on Fire’ because of the pyrotechnics.” He has better teeth, too.
But Carrot Tooth still lurks in the deep recesses of Netflix and Hulu. “If you want to see what the attraction looked like back in ’80 — to see what that version of Jaws looked like — you can see it in this movie with the unfortunate title of The Nude Bomb,“ says Murdy. “It was made for the TV series Get Smart, with Don Adams, and was a shameless promotion for the theme park. It’s a time capsule.”
Bruce and Don Adams in ‘The Nude Bomb’ (Universal Studios).
The Jaws lagoon has also been the setting for everything from The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island to episodes of Diff'rent Strokes, Airwolf, The A-Team, Knight Rider, and Columbo, as well as such films as The Blues Brothers, Mallrats, Casper, and Escape From L.A. Most famously, it was Cabot Cove, Maine, where Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher would tool around on her bike during the opening credits of Murder, She Wrote (“Cabot Cove” is still painted on the boat dock).
Angela Lansbury in ‘Murder, She Wrote’ (Universal Television).
The various Bruces have seen their share of backlot intrigue over the past 40 years. For instance, Alfred Hitchcock was so embarrassed for taking a $1 million check to shill for the park (including the Jaws attraction) in TV ads and a promotional film, that he refused to meet with Spielberg, who was a devoted fan.
Then there was the tale of the hapless deer. Murdy picks up the story: “One day I come out here and I see a deer walking in the middle of Jaws lagoon. And there’s the shark attacking and the explosions and the trams coming through and I think to myself, ‘How are we going to get this deer out of the middle of this lagoon?’ So I had to go get some guys from our animal actor show to help the deer get out of the water. Poor confused deer was just out there wondering what was going on with the shark.”
Maybe the deer was just playing tourist to one of the most enduring attractions ever created for a theme park. “I think it’s still popular because it’s got a decent, simple story to it,” says Jon Primrose, steward of the encyclopedic site The Studio Tour (who provided several of the images here). “It doesn’t require any backstory knowledge; it’s all right there in front of you.”
Murdy, who still sounds like a giddy fanboy when visiting Amity, echoes that sentiment. “The shark is goofy, but it still works, which is amazing. People still scream and you hear them screaming and freaking out when the shark attacks them… The crazy thing is our shark works way better than the shark in the movie ever did,” he says, surveying the pond with a smile as a tram full of soaked, picture-snapping visitors pulls away from the dock.
“Family Guy did a parody and it was our shark, not the movie’s. I’ve seen toys in Japan based on the ride. This has transcended the theme park to become a part of pop culture. Like the movie, this stands the test of time.”