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SYFY WIRE Waterworld

Some Three Decades After Waterworld the Movie, Universal Studios' Live Stage Show Remains a Must-See

The Waterworld theme park show continues to thrill audiences in Hollywood, Japan, Singapore, and Beijing.

By Tara Bennett
The Waterworld Stunt Show at Universal Studios Hollywood

Just shy of three decades ago, Waterworld (now streaming on Peacock!), the dystopian, post-apocalyptic epic, opened in theaters and promptly confounded audiences. Set in 2500, it presented a future where rising sea levels drowned all the major continents and what's left of humanity exist on atolls on the ocean. Some of those pruned and eternally bobbing humans hope to some day find what's left of the legendary "dryland" to plant new roots and realize their salvation. Kevin Coster stars as The Mariner, a reclusive human who has evolved with the water so he possesses gills and webbed feet. Labeled a pariah by distrustful humans and an impediment by pirates led by the vicious Deacon (Dennis Hopper), The Mariner ultimately becomes the unlikely guardian of humanity's next chapter. 

In 1995, Waterworld was way ahead of its time in embracing such a hard-line, environmental-centric story. Even with a high-concept "Mad Max set on water" premise, Waterworld fizzled at the box office, but eventually broke even (and it certainly still has its fans). However, Universal Pictures had big plans for the property including creating the Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular stunt show at Universal Studios Hollywood.

RELATED: We don’t care what they say, 'Waterworld' was rad as heck

Three months after the film premiered in theaters, the live show opened October 21, 1995, and has since expanded to the Universal Studios theme parks in Japan, Singapore, and Beijing. It's also consistently rated one of the best live theme park shows anywhere in the world. Here's a rundown of the show's long history, which is so popular with theme park guests that it's arguably overshadowed the movie it was based upon. 

The History of Universal Studios' Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular

The entrance to the Waterworld Stunt Show at Universal Studios Hollywood

Going Back to the Beginning 

Prior to the Waterworld Stunt show, Universal Studios Hollywood had The Miami Vice Stunt Show, which had been operating since 1987. Looking for something more contemporary to replace it, Thrillist spoke with Tom Thordarson, who was the Director of Attraction Development at Universal in the '90s. The Waterworld film was in production in Hawaii in 1994 and had all the raw elements needed to make a potentially great theme park show: action, water (to temper the hot California sun), and an abstract concept that could be worked into the backdrop for a fixed premise. They ultimately used the dailies from the actual movie to craft a storyline for the show and replaced the Miami Vice stage with a new four-million-gallon lagoon for Waterworld. They also repurposed some of the set materials from the movie to build the massive atoll set that was built with multiple tiers, working cranes, zip lines, water canons, fire gags, and a scale-sized airplane. 

The Waterworld Stunt Show at Universal Studios Hollywood

The Story

The Waterworld Stunt Show at Universal Studios Hollywood

Technically, the show is a sequel to the Waterworld movie and takes place after events of the film with the Helen character returning to her atoll to convince her friends to relocate to the "Dryland" that was discovered at the end of the movie. When she's taken by The Deacon and his pirates, The Mariner returns to save her and almost gets himself killed trying to get her out of the clutches of the Atollers. 

RELATED: How 'Waterworld' started as a Roger Corman 'Mad Max' knockoff & became a $175 million blockbuster

Per the Thrillist piece, initially there were a whole lot of ideas that didn't make it into the live show such as having the audience seats staged on water barges, or adding a hot air balloon to tie the show to the ending of the movie where the Mariner and the other handful of survivors make it to the peak of Mount Everest. However, the craziest idea — which was launching a small-sized plane over the metal wall of the set and have it land in the water with no lines, guides, or safety harnesses — actually made it into the show after plenty of trial and error. 

The Waterworld Stunt Show at Universal Studios Hollywood

It's the showstopper of the already impressive performance that includes jet ski jumping, a guy who goes up in flames and then dives into the water below, boat choreography, and hand-to-hand stunts executed by a staff of 64 rotating stunt professionals who work in Los Angeles on film and television productions. Each are trained to take bumps, do fire work, and close combat choreography, all without getting hurt througout multiple shows a day. In fact Action Horizons, who runs and casts the show, says it's where a lot of future stunt coordinators learn how to run a show and then go on to work on bigger television shows and movies. It's a big part of what keeps the show so gripping, even though it's based on a nearly 30-year-old movie. All of the action work is real, involves water that often reaches the audience, and fire effects that you can feel, viscerally, in your bench seats. 

Waterworld Around the World

The Waterworld Stunt Show at Universal Studios Hollywood

Just one year after opening in Hollywood, Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular won the 1996 Thea Award from the Themed Entertainment Association. On March 31, 2001, the show was reproduced and opened at Universal Studios Japan. It retained the same storyline and major stunt elements with some revised sight lines for the audience. On March 18, 2010, a Waterworld Stunt Show was added to Universal Studios Singapore. And on September 20, 2021, the latest Waterworld Stunt Show opened in Universal Studios Beijing. All four shows are in continuous operation. 

The Waterworld Stunt Show at Universal Studios Hollywood

Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular admission is part of the Universal Studio ticket. Check the Universal Studios App for showtimes throughout the day of your visit. 

And be sure to go back to the original movie, Waterworld, which is streaming now on Peacock.