Waterworld was viewed as a failure almost from the start. This was, after all, a movie in which Costner plays the Mariner, a mutated and super-tan human with gills, webbed feet, and a nifty catamaran who hydrates by drinking his own urine, scavenges the oceans for resources on a lawless future Earth ravaged by global warming, and gets drawn into water-based intrigue after reluctantly taking aboard a woman named Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and a girl named Enola (Tina Majorino), whose mysterious back tattoo of a map purportedly leading to a fabled sanctuary called Dryland has made her a target of the Smokers, a Mad Max-style band of aqua-marauders led by the Deacon, Dennis Hopper's unhinged, one-eyed villain. It was also filmed on the open seas off the coast of Hawaii, and endured numerous setbacks and salacious behind-the-scenes drama during the tumultuous shoot, which a production designer later referred to as "18 months of hell." The project eventually came in ridiculously over budget, at about $172 million (roughly $280 million in 2019 dollars), making it the most expensive film ever made at the time. The weirdo premise, increasingly hefty price tag, and ego clashes between Costner and director Kevin Reynolds, fueled a pre-release narrative that Waterworld was going to be a bigger disaster than the Exxon Valdez -- which, as it turned out, made a clever cameo in the movie.
But even as this seeming debacle was unfolding during production, an idea was brewing at Universal Studios Hollywood. The Miami Vice stunt show, which opened in 1987, hadn't been pulling its weight, so Tom Thordarson, the Director of Attraction Development at Universal at the time, was tasked with finding out if Waterworld could potentially be massaged into a park experience compelling enough to replace Crockett and Tubbs. Waterworld, despite its eventually well-documented problems, still had a uniquely compelling action-movie idea underneath, and a futuristic setting that allowed for a lot of leeway with how a spin-off might be approached. "The vocabulary of Waterworld was so eclectic -- it was junk, it was stuff," says Thordarson. "And that's what made it exciting because there was an endless ability to use your imagination and ingenuity to take that vocabulary. It wasn't like you have to faithfully reproduce a French street in 1936 or whatever."
Once Waterworld was on the table, Thordarson flew to Hawaii while filming was underway to collect information and tag sets and props that might be used as hand-me-downs for the stunt show. Jon Binkowski and co-writer Lisa Smith of Renaissance Entertainment started scripting the show's plot, working off footage flown in from the set. "Now, we're all basing this off of the dailies that are coming in from Hawaii and the movie," says Binkowski. "We're receiving dailies coming in and I'm like, 'What is going on? This is a wild movie.'" Meanwhile, Universal began repurposing the Miami Vice set into a four-million-gallon lagoon in the middle of the park with sight lines that would make it seem like you're in a dystopian hellscape on the open ocean rather than the middle of the greater Los Angeles area. (Now you can see the Hogwarts spires from "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" in the distance.)
According to Binkowski, Universal Studios Hollywood's original plan was to open the attraction on July 28, 1995, the same day as the film's theatrical release date. Even though that didn't end up happening -- it officially opened in October 1995 -- the revised launch date for the stunt show had nothing to do with the movie's production problems or its box-office haul. Multiple people who were involved in the stunt show told me that behind-the-scenes and box-office issues are rarely a major concern. Adapting a stinker or a dud doesn't automatically lead to a situation like the one Scott Smith, who served as a technical director on the "Waterworld" project, encountered while working on an attraction tied to the Billy Zane superhero clunker The Phantom, where the creators were told to pack up their work. "We were quite used to the fact that the fate of the movie didn't necessarily spell the fate of the attraction," Kahn says. "It should also be noted that the attraction wasn't meant to last 24 years."
To be fair, Waterworld eventually recouped its sizable production costs, per a 2013 analysis by Deadline, ultimately turning a profit of $67 million, and its largely negative critical assessment upon release doesn't jibe with the instant cult following it generated or its place in the official good-bad movie canon. As recently as 2015, Costner has pointed out that it's beloved around the globe. But "Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular" was unequivocally a hit immediately upon opening. "The guest satisfaction scores were totally blowing out everything, and it was beating everything in the park," remembers Tito Enriquez, the attraction's original director. "We were like, 'This is so bizarre. This is strange.' It was like, normally a show does not beat out these multi-million dollar attractions that have a whole lot more technology and can be a lot slicker than a live show, which, by its nature, has its challenges of trying to hide the tricks."
The ultimate endorsement came after a visit from the Mariner himself. "I had heard through the grapevine that Kevin [Costner] was real leery about coming and seeing the show because he didn't know how the Mariner was being portrayed," says Larry Rippenkroeger, who played the character in the show's original cast after doing stunt work on the movie. "He actually really enjoyed it."