Big Ang Appreciation post.
My heart sank faster than Amity 3 yesterday when I discovered that the JAWS ride—my childhood playground—will be officially closing forever on January 2nd of 2012. Throughout the day, I received text and Facebook messages from various people who felt the need to put me on suicide watch as a result of Universal Studios’ announcement. Some individuals I haven’t talked to in a few years, and they still managed to reach out to me, which tells me two things. One, I’m known for my obsession with the JAWS ride. And two, I’m known for my love of the JAWS ride. (They’re different. Just trust me.)
My fascination with Universal Studios Florida (USF) can be traced back to the early 90s when a cousin of mine came home from a trip to Orlando, telling me about the experience of “riding the movies,” the trademark phrase of USF. “Your tram is shaken by King Kong and you can only hope to Survive.” “E.T. begs that you take him home to the Green Planet, and he gives you the power to fly on a bicycle.” “You put these glasses on, and the Terminator is in your face—you’re in a battle across time.”
Of course, I made these quotations up. But I remember this cousin telling me about the theme park in great detail. To an eight-year-old who loved movies and dreamed of living them, this theme park seemed to be more of an alternate reality. However, one quote does stick out: “No, the shark is not real.”
I was in my grandmother’s house when he described JAWS: The Ride. He told me that while you wait, you see a man go down in his boat and blood gushes from below (I never saw this, though). He told me that the boat shakes and the shark is gigantic. Too, my cousin was a teenager who enjoyed film and the delight of suspense; he knew not to give too much away so that I could uncover excitement and the unexpected on my own for the first time.
So you can imagine my anticipation two years later during my first experience at USF in 1998. I’m ten. My sister is four. My parents take me to Walt Disney just one day prior to USF, and I dislike Magic Kingdom because of the monotonous waits, crowdedness, and less-than-desirable rides for a ten-year-old. But USF. This is right up my alley. Entering the park, my family makes a right, and I am introduced to Cyberdyne Sytems, where I meet a red-headed Kimbery Duncan, Director of Community Relations and Media Control. I fight the T-1000 and survive before taking pictures with Marilyn Monroe, visiting Doc at the Back-to-the-Future ride, and returning E.T. to the Green Planet. My sister wants to watch Barney (so we do). My sister wants to ride the Woody Woodpecker ride (so my mom rides with her, and I sit in the coaster behind pretending to be embarrassed but all the while loving it).
We continue to the newest ride at the time, Men In Black, and blast aliens, scoring points and racking up first-time family memories. Then, before my mom can even read the map, we are at Amity Island. The first item of interest to this ten-year-old just happens to be the shark hanging in front of Captain Jake’s Amity Boat Tours, which makes for a stellar photo.
Adrenaline surging through my veins, we wait in line, my eyes shimmying the waters for a guy in a boat as described by my cousin. I see no such thing. But I do scout tour boats with people wearing headsets, waving islanders off every other minute or two. Soon, my eyes are fixed on the front of the line. I see row 7. I make my way down toward the end. (Yes! I’m on the end!!!)
The ride begins boarding, and I see this person leading the ride dressed in a t-shirt, blue jean shorts, and tennis shoes. My mom tells me that this is our skipper. He tells us to stay seated and then waves us off before the audio cues, “This is base! You’re clear for departure, Amity Six. Have a good trip.”
Instantly, I’m in Awe. I feel like I’m in a movie. My mind races.
When am I going to see a shark? When am I going to see a shark? When am I going to see a shark? When am I going to see a shark? When am I going to see a shark?
“Mayday!” A shark fin. The skipper uses the grenade launcher and fails! We head into the boathouse. It’s spooky and dark, but we make it out. Then—the most memorable moment of my first JAWS ride—the gas dock shark appears on my left, just feet away from me. I’ll never forget that.
In fact, I don’t even remember my first ride experience after the gas dock shark (to those who even know the ride). I just remember thinking one thought: I want to be a JAWS skipper when I grow up.
“Mom, I want to live here and be a JAWS skipper.”
Surely, she must have nodded my affirmation off, suspending it as wasted air, but I knew that I was meant to be a skipper.
I’ve known it since my first ride at ten-years-old. I know it now at twenty-three-years old. Before I am an English teacher, I’m a JAWS skipper.
I even managed to incorporate the JAWS Ride into an 8th grade lesson plan when I taught the dramatic structure. First, we have the exposition during the opening of the ride when we learn that nobody has seen a shark “in these parts for about thirty-something years” and that, if we do see a shark, then we are protected by 40 mm grenade launchers. Rising action occurs during Amity 3’s sinking and the boathouse incident just before the climax when the shark chomps down on the high voltage barge. Falling action rests when the skipper cries, “Call off those marines! We’re coming home!” And, finally, the conclusion is realized when tourists exit the boat and are reminded to keep the shark episode a secret.
Additionally, the JAWS Ride is part of my colloquial language.
“Amity 6 to base” replaces interjections such as “Woops!” “Oh gosh!” “Sh*t!” “Ouch!” and “Whoa!”
If I am asked to wait outside of a doctor’s office, I might shout, “Ten Minutes! We’ll all be shark bait in ten minutes!”
Should a stop sign keep me while trying to cross over an intersection during rush hour in an effort to get to Starbucks, I may confess to bellowing, “THIS ISN’T FUNNY!”
Even when I aim for cats and crush them successfully in my Kia Koup I call at the top of my voice, “Man. That thing is DISGUSTING.”
Also, my room is themed after the aquatic. Seventy-five percent is due in large part to Dawson’s Creek. Twenty-five percent can be credited to JAWS: The Ride.
And that 25% is a lot.
So, yes, I’m disappointed and heartbroken because my childhood playground is being burned down. And I’m not alone.
I know hundreds of other people must be feeling the same way.
When I was a freshman in college, I saw a YouTube video that featured a guy my age giving JAWS rides out of his Jeep in Ohio. I phoned my friend Sarah and told her we needed to take a road trip. We did, and we managed to get a ride in the dark depths of Worthington, Ohio.
This guy knew and cherished the ride so much so that he would actually become a JAWS skipper. (Sarah and I later embarked on another road trip to Florida to board a true John Bernard tour.) The three of us posed with 40 mm grenade launchers, and I am still wholly thankful that I know a JAWS skipper in that six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon way.
You know: there are several things I would have rather heard than the JAWS ride closing down.
“Derek, you’re fired.”
“Derek, you’ve been denied rhionoplasty.”
“Derek, you failed Econ and have to take next semester over before graduating.”
“Derek, the liposuction didn’t take.”
“Derek, your body is allergic to merlot.”
“Derek, grandma’s been killed.”
Yeah, it’s selfish. I’m sorry, but it’s true.
I’m a kid that Holden Caulfield could not catch. I’m a kid who just fell over the cliff, and tumbled toward reality and adulthood yesterday.
Sure, It’s not that I didn’t see this day coming. The ride is costly because it burns fuel and requires routine maintenance (the boat house shark seems to stay under almost all the time). The sharks are completely fake. Unless you luck up on a sensational skipper, the ride is not worth the wait. I understand.
But that does not make the ouch hurt any less.
My dad and I built a playhouse together when I was six. Since the weathering and aging of the relic, I’ve always told myself that the real playhouse is in Orlando. And Orlando will always stand the test of time. That the JAWS ride will be the portal that takes me back to 1998, the channel that transports my soul to ten-years-old. I’ve recognized that permanence is not a given in real life, but I will always have the JAWS ride. Friends may come and go, but I’ve got Amity 6.
Now it doesn’t seem that way. And I’ve spent the last two days at Target folding clothes during my seasonal position wondering just how this came to be. My feelings are hurt. I go stoic. I’m feigning optimism. Taciturn.
You’re right. It’s a ride. But it’s my favorite ride, my favorite place, in the whole wide world.
“Derek, if you could travel anywhere, then where you would want to go?”
The JAWS RIDE.
And, last week at work, “Derek, what do you want for Christmas?”
I answered, “A day on the JAWS ride.”
Of course, my team members looked at me like I’m crazy or weird. I’ll take it. It’s the truth. I’m being honest—no place has offered me so much at once. The JAWS Ride embraces reality and fantasy at once, and I’m free to play make believe even in my twenties.
The last time I went to Universal was in September. I went with Amanda, who knew my passion for Captain Jake’s and those skipper scallywags. We met with a friend who appreciates the JAWS ride as much as I do. Together, we toured Amity Island, singing back to the skipper all the lines to the five and a half minute show. We were chanting along to our favorite movie of a ride.
We were sharing the JAWS ride together. Not very many people I know get it. (And that’s okay.)
Alas! JAWS: The Ride will shut down on January 2nd 2012, and I will drive down to Florida to experience the final curtain call.
Last week, I envisioned myself as a father to a son named Braylen, to teach nouns from verbs, to curl his lashes, and to imbue a passion for the JAWS ride (and the film), to shape a boy who might grow up to be a renaissance man. But now I can say that I’m okay with adopting an Alaskan Klee Kai and raising a Bengal cat. I’m fine with goldfish and coyotes howling in the backyard.
I’m content with trading in my green tights in Neverland for a hook and a ship. All children, except one, grow up. And I’m not the exception. Let my five o’clock shadow seep in and don’t mind the crows feet.
The JAWS Ride will carry on with the YouTube videos.
The JAWS Ride will exist as a relic when I walk around Amity Island in 2014 when it’s christened as something else, something I suspect might be Harry Potter.
The JAWS ride will survive in my teaching.
Because if there is one thing people can take away from the JAWS Ride, then it’s the experience of sharing an event with a friend. And “amity, after all, means friendship.”
Lester Burnham: [narrating] I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn’t a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time… For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars… And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined our street… Or my grandmother’s hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper… And the first time I saw my cousin Tony’s brand new Firebird… And Janie… And Janie… And… Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.