A Review of Adventures in Amity: Tales from the Jaws Ride by Dustin McNeill

2018 was a very good year for fans of the Jaws franchise because it marked the release of two great books: the expanded edition of Jaws 2: The Making of the Hollywood Sequel by Michael A. Smith (read my review of that book here) and Adventures in Amity: Tales from the Jaws Ride by Dustin McNeill. This review covers McNeill’s book, which I recently got a chance to read over the holidays.

The Jaws ride at the Universal Studios Theme Park in Orlando, Florida has long been a subject of fascination among Jaws fans. It was an ambitious expansion of the Jaws segment from Universal’s popular backlot tours in Hollywood, an expansion that aimed to recreate the look, feel and thrills from the Jaws movie inside of a theme park ride. However, just when you thought it was safe to put a theme park attraction in the water, the Jaws ride was plagued by a number of malfunctions shortly after it opened in 1990 and underwent a significant overhaul before it reopened in 1993. Between the passionate fan base the ride amassed until its end in 2012 and the lingering mystery over what happened to the original version of the attraction, the Orlando Jaws ride has become just as legendary as Jaws itself.

The "Kill Shark" from the second version of the Orlando Jaws ride.

In order to preserve the Jaws ride’s legacy and settle any unanswered questions, McNeill tells a comprehensive history of the ride through a series of interviews that cover almost every aspect of the ride. He arranges the interviews in a chronological order, which helps the reader get an idea of how the ride originated, the expectations that it was expected to meet, the changes that it underwent during its run, and the subculture that emerged around it within the theme park’s internal community. Throughout the book are behind-the-scene photos, technical diagrams, and snippets of promotional material that add context and details to the ride’s background.

McNeill’s skill as an interviewer go a long way towards filling in many of the key details behind the Jaws ride. He elicits all sorts of interesting information from the people in his book, which helps the reader understand exactly how complicated it was to create and operate an ambitious theme park ride that’s based on a popular film franchise. Whereas the mechanical sharks in the Jaws movies were props that the actors had to play against, the mechanical sharks in the Jaws ride were components in a much larger machine that required a large team of dedicated engineers, divers and actors (a.k.a. “skippers”) to keep it running day after day. As such, McNeill talks about the ride with as many different people as possible, including people who worked on both versions and those who could provide details about what it took to make such a complicated project run successfully (even when it didn’t).

A diagram of the "meat machine", one of the critical components of the original Jaws ride.

As someone who has been following the Jaws franchise for years, Tales from the Jaws Ride provides plenty of new information that helped me to better understand and appreciate this unique chapter of Jaws history. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, I remember how Universal heavily promoted its Hollywood tours and the Jaws sequels by having the tour shark make cameo appearances in numerous TV shows and movies. According to McNeill’s book, the popularity of the Jaws tour shark—as well as tour stops that were based on Earthquake and the ‘70s remake of King Kong—were what ultimately convinced Universal executives to compete with Walt Disney World in Florida with their own theme park. However, it was Universal’s inexperience with running theme parks that also contributed to the multiple malfunctions and subsequent closure of the first version of the Jaws ride, since no one in charge seemed to understand how theme park rides needed to be maintained. Universal supported the first version because it looked great when it worked, but second version of the Jaws ride kept running for almost two decades because it was easier to maintain and repair than the original design. These are just a few of the interesting details that McNeill shares in his book.

Of the many books that have been written about the Jaws franchise, Dustin McNeill’s Adventures in Amity: Tales from the Jaws Ride is one of the essentials, something Jaws fans everywhere should have on their bookshelves. You can order your copy through Harker Press here.

I received my copy of Tales from the Jaws Ride 
as a Christmas gift in this bag. I have a jaw-some family!


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