Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

The Improbable Staying Power of the 'Waterworld' Stunt Show

The movie flopped. But nearly 25 years later, the Mariner is still wowing audiences daily at Universal Studios Hollywood.


It's a blisteringly hot day in the San Fernando Valley and a booming, disembodied voice is presenting a dystopian scenario to the hushed crowd of nearly 3,000 people sitting around me. We're not here to learn about the potential ramifications of climate change. We've come to watch a mutated fish man tool around on a jet ski and kick some bad-guy ass in the desolate future that awaits us all. It's just another day at "Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular," the improbably long-running stunt show at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Based on a bonkers sci-fi thriller that's regarded as one of the biggest flops of the 1990s, the live show is still zooming along nearly a quarter century later. It has outlasted attractions adapted from beloved blockbusters E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Back to the Future, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and spawned similar shows at Universal's theme parks in Japan and Singapore (with another planned for China). Brett King, VP of entertainment operations at Universal Studios Hollywood, tells Thrillist via email that the "Waterworld" show [note: Universal brands it as "WaterWorld"] is one of his outpost's highest-rated attractions. "It's basic storytelling combined with really great stunts and effects," says initial project manager Norman Kahn. "That, I think, really, is what led to it becoming as successful as it is."

But mention any of this to someone who hasn't been to Universal Studios recently, as I often did while reporting this article, and they react with disbelief: Seriously? Waterworld?

Kevin Costner and Dennis Hopper in <em>Waterworld</em> | Universal/Getty Images

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."

The patented seaplane jump | Gabriel Bouys/Getty Images

I've come to Universal Studios Hollywood looking for clues that might tell me why audiences all over the world are still packing the grandstands to watch dated IP. One explanation? The seaplane. As the crowd files into the stadium, we receive a couple of warnings: Keep your bags off the floor and If you sit in the front rows of seats, you will get wet. Cast members dressed like Atollers -- the ragtag residents of a man-made atoll in the movie -- appear around the arena to lead a warm-up routine that involves coordinated cheers and the crowd getting doused with water, a reprieve for sunburnt skin. "You're already wet, dude," the performer says to one guest sitting close to the action, dumping a bucket of water on the floor as a fakeout.

Almost immediately after the narrator's booming voice presciently establishes the stakes, the show begins. Helen, the movie's female protagonist, last seen kissing the Mariner farewell and forlornly watching him return to roam the rugged seas, has been reimagined as an action hero, and she re-emerges on the atoll to announce that she's found Dryland. She is soon besieged by the Smokers, one of whom is riding a jet ski and towing another on water skis. People get "shot." The Deacon, who is somehow still alive despite clearly getting blown to smithereens in the movie, vamps by hitting golf balls into the audience and announcing, "Hi, I'm Tiger Woods," a joke that doesn't feel quite as topical as it probably once did. The crowd boos him just like they're supposed to. Eventually, the Mariner enters the fray. There are high dives and explosions. But it's all just preamble to the show's most show-stopping stunt.

Suddenly, I hear the buzz of a plane behind me. I look up, even though I know that I will definitely see no plane in the sky because the sound is coming from behind a janky metal wall blocking out the rest of the park. The vessel roars up over the barrier and, as the smell of smoke and gas fills the stadium, skids to a stop right in front of me. It's all theme-park wizardry, but the effect is unnervingly exhilarating. The crowd explodes in cheers.

Plenty of solid ideas that might have made the "Live Sea War Spectacular" even more spectacular were left on the proverbial cutting-room floor. One was to have the crowd waterlogged, too, with the stadium seating replaced by barges that swayed with the action. Another was to have a jet skier dive underneath the audience timed to a vibration that simulated theatrical gunfire hitting aluminum seats. Another was to incorporate a hot-air balloon into the performance as a way to reference the movie's finale, which finds the Mariner, Helen, Enola and friends making landfall on the upper reaches of a mostly submerged Mount Everest, aka Dryland. But the one crazy idea that did stick was the plane. Though it wasn't an immediate success: Kahn says the first time it was launched it sunk to the bottom of Falls Lake, the body of water used for such productions over the years as True Lies and the TLC "Waterfalls" video. 

Smith sent me a ripped-from-VHS clip he once posted to Facebook that captured the plane's first launch in the stadium built for "Waterworld." That attempt went slightly awry: Just as the plane erupts into the frame, the camera ducks out, and the vessel lands right where Smith was previously standing. To ensure the seaplane wouldn't pose a constant danger to audiences required a clever bit of engineering. There are no wires or tethers that truly prevent the plane from going AWOL, but the plane's inverted wings are designed to make the plane fly poorly. "Instead of making it a plane with wings that wants to fly, [we gave it] a negative lift," he says. "It's like when you build a really bad paper airplane, you throw it and and it goes straight down." According to Smith, he and his colleagues actually acquired a patent for the plane (that also encompasses the contraption that propels the jet skier who's towing the water-skier), and the stunt is still a scene-stealer at Universal Studios Hollywood.

The Mariner on a jet ski! | Gabriel Bouys/Getty Images

The plane is undeniably cool, but humans are likely the real draw. "Waterworld" which is included with the price of admission to the park, is performed multiple times a day, runs about 20 minutes long. That's a lot of work for the 64 stunt crew members assigned to the show, especially factoring in the death-defying stunts. (Each actor can only do 20 shows per week.) The stuntman responsible for doubling the Deacon, for example, must be able to perform a dive while engulfed in fire, and if he sucks in any flames, he could die. "When we first started doing full rehearsals, by the time you're running down the peninsula at the end, and the bombs are going off, and you dive in the water and climb into the Helen boat, it's like you need oxygen at that point," says Rippenkroeger, a world-champion jet-skier. "You're gasping for air."

To have a shot at being cast, you need to possess a specific set of water-based skills. Peter Nelson -- head of Action Horizons, the company that casts and operates the show now -- says finding potential stunt performers has gotten increasingly more difficult as the years have gone by, thanks in large part to Yamaha and Kawaski's decision to stop producing stand-up jet skis. Nelson, a former professional water skier who was also in the live show's original cast, now does much of his recruiting in Wisconsin, which he describes as "the water-ski capital." But for anyone hoping to break into the stunt game, the show is a legitimate stepping-stone. "A lot of stunt coordinators now in Hollywood came through 'Waterworld,'" says Nelson. "I could name 15–20 stunt coordinators that came through that venue." The list of successful stunt performers who've tooled around in apocalyptic garb under the San Fernando Valley sun includes one of Nelson's partners in Action Horizons who works with Liam Neeson, as well as Rippenkroeger, who parlayed his stint into a ten-year gig as Bruce Willis' stunt double.

Around 2014, Action Horizons revamped the choreography for the Hollywood show, taking cues from the versions in Japan and Singapore. "Our goal was to make all the fights look real so the audience cannot see a miss anywhere," says Nelson. The jet-ski chases became faster, scenes were rearranged so that the Mariner never disappears from the view, and a new high fall was added to a fight between one of Deacon's lackeys and Helen, who has evolved from the movie's damsel in distress into a thrilling action heroine scaling towers and ziplining across an entire lagoon. When I watched the show in the summer of 2018, I became exhausted by proxy for these men and women, as they punched and kicked and jumped jet skis in often extreme temperatures. While the plane might be the most shocking moment of the show, the performers are its heart and soul. 

click to play video

In 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that Universal's five-year plan included the closing of "Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular" to make way for more Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley to be specific. While Universal executive King said in his email that there were no plans to shut it down anytime soon, it's hard not to think that the end of a show based on nearly quarter-century old IP has to be nigh in the face of seemingly more alluring alternatives.

A shutdown would certainly break the hearts of at least some longtime devotees. Among them is Chris Hayner, an entertainment journalist who ran an Instagram account dedicated to "Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular" -- it has since expanded to be more broadly about theme parks. He became a superfan after seeing its naughtier, bloodier Halloween Horror Nights incarnation, "Slaughterworld," on a trip in the mid-2000s. He started going regularly once he relocated to Los Angeles in 2013 and estimates he has now seen it close to 100 times. "It blew my mind that they did this thing several times a day," says Hayner, whose Instagram account is the result of a challenge from his friends to feed his obsession. "It's so good and pure in a weird way. As much as I love Universal Studios, it's a very underwhelming theme-park experience for the most part. It has a couple of good rides and then a lot of so-so 'look at the screen and sit in a chair' kind of ride [so 'Waterworld' stands out]."

Just how many attendees have actually seen the movie is unclear -- and on my visit, I'm accompanied by a Universal Studios representative and asked not to interview patrons. But Nelson says he operates under the assumption that most people who sit in the arena aren't familiar with the Kevin Costner version, and so the show has to be able to stand on its own. A survey conducted for the Asian markets, he adds, revealed that 80 percent of the audience didn't even realize there was ever a movie. It's not like the "Waterworld" stunt show is well-known, either, although last year it figured into a plotline on the Netflix comedy series Love, when one character, played by actor Chris Witaske, lands an audition. (Witaske says he was "blown away they were still doing it.")

Despite any uncertainty about its future, there's something quaintly appealing about the persistence of "Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular." It's a testament to the power of analog pleasures in our digital age. "The parks are very heavy with rides and they're dark rides," Nelson says. "But I think that people still want to see live theater." The famous Universal Studios Tour has added 3D sections where the trams rattle as King Kong swings over you or one of the Fast and Furious bros drives by. Elsewhere in the park you can get strapped into a seat and blasted into the blindingly yellow world of the Minions. The famed Jurassic Park ride, built in the 1990s, has been updated to showcase the bombastic thrills of Jurassic World. At no point do you ever worry that the three-dimensional Kong will stomp you or an Indominus rex will chomp you. But "Waterworld" keeps rolling on because it's still a blast to watch real humans performing superhuman feats. If Waterworld, the movie, posits that humanity can survive ecological crisis through community, hope, and a sexy fish man, "Waterworld," the show, proposes that simple thrills can save us all.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.