At This Water Park Bloody Gashes Were the Price of Admission
The HBO Max documentary “Class Action Park” takes viewers inside Action Park, the New Jersey water park that “ended in a tidal wave of broken bones, lawsuits and fatalities.”
On more than one sunny day during my childhood, my friends and I took a drive down to Vernon, New Jersey’s Action Park, which was advertised incessantly on tri-state area TV as a venue of non-stop good times courtesy of “75 of the wildest, wettest family rides in the world.” While its commercials promised family fun, however, Action Park really delivered a traumatizing sort of excitement, since its many attractions were all barely supervised and exceedingly dangerous. As with the towering, ludicrously vertical Super Speed Slide that I vividly remember almost falling off of—my demise only prevented by the thin mesh canopy at its top—it was a place that provided literal death-defying thrills that you never forgot.
Action Park’s notoriety was immortalized a few years ago in a YouTube documentary titled The Most Insane Amusement Park Ever, and it also served as the inspiration for Johnny Knoxville’s 2018 comedy Action Point. For an even more in-depth look at the place that physically and mentally scarred many a Northeastern kid during the ’80s and ’90s, HBO Max now presents Class Action Park, writers/directors Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges’ non-fiction trip down memory lane about the infamous summer locale. Premiering on the streaming service on August 27, it’s an equally nostalgic and critical portrait of the park, its mastermind Gene Mulvihill, and an era of anything-goes entrepreneurial enterprise that ended in a tidal wave of broken bones, lawsuits and fatalities.
More than one talking head in Scott and Porges’ doc proclaims that visiting Action Park was akin to a “rite of passage” where you earned adolescent cred by taking your lumps and living to tell the tale. Upon arriving at the park, there was certainly no doubt that you were in for a uniquely harrowing—and hazardous—experience, given that many of its prime attractions looked like they’d been explicitly designed to increase hospital attendance. That was most true of the Cannonball Loop, an enclosed tube slide that featured a literal upside-down loop, and which one park vet says resembled something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
As explained by former staffers and attendees (as well as narrator John Hodgman), the Cannonball Loop was so treacherous that Mulvihill (known, lovingly, as “Uncle Gene”) bribed employees with $100 just to test it. Upon briefly opening in 1985, it was a predictable disaster, with riders emerging with bloody lacerations that they received when their faces smashed into the top spot of the Loop where prior riders’ teeth had become embedded in the inside wall.
“It was absolutely terrifying,” recalls park operative Daron Fitch, which is an apt description of virtually everything at Action Park. Having made money on Wall Street in the ’70s selling crooked penny stocks (à la The Wolf of Wall Street), Mulvihill was booted out of the financial industry for fraud. In response, he turned his attention to Vernon, a quiet enclave 45 minutes outside of New York City that promised to be a rival to Las Vegas and Orlando. Hugh Hefner’s decision to open a Playboy Club in the “idyllic small town” further implied an imminent transformation into a destination-resort mecca, and Mulvihill had dreams of being at the center of it all, thanks to his purchase of two ski resorts (where he pioneered artificial snow creation). To complement his winter activities, he began building summertime rides on some of his land, and the result was Action Park, one of the world’s first modern water parks, where everything was constructed to be higher, faster and newer—all in a do-it-yourself fashion.
The park was split into three different sections: Alpine Center, Water World, and Motor World, the last of which offered customers the opportunity to drive Super Speed Boats in thoroughly polluted water and race Grand Prix go-carts that topped out at 60 mph. The fact that Motor World was located right next to Action Park’s beer tent only made it that much scarier. Then again, every other ride at Action Park was a catastrophe waiting to happen, be it the Battle Action Tanks (which shot tennis balls), the Tarzan Swing, or the Alpine Slide, in which kids raced down a concrete-and-fiberglass chute in faulty brake-equipped sleds, dodging the other sleds that were occasionally dropped from above by mischievous customers on chairlifts (!!!), and trying their best not to go flying off the track and into the nearby rocky hills.
That wasn’t always possible, as Class Action Park makes clear in a sobering late segment about George Larsson, a young man who died from injuries sustained after he was launched off the Alpine Slide in 1980. George’s mother Esthe and brother Brian recall this tragedy with still-simmering fury at Mulvihill, and coming on the heels of discussions about the park’s reckless operation—where unqualified engineers concocted perilous attractions that were run by unruly, irresponsible teens mostly interested in smoking weed, getting laid and slacking off—their anger seems more than justified.
Further deaths followed, caused by Mulvihill’s total disregard for safety (he insured his establishment via a fake offshore company, bribed local officials, and was reportedly in tight with the mob). Those unnecessary calamities, including the lethal electrocution of a kayaker who came into contact with a faulty motorized fan used to create rapids (“Underground electricity in a water park—that’s the Kayak Experience!” deadpans comedian Chris Gethard), puts an additional damper on the doc’s celebratory mood, reminding one that the park’s gonzo ethos was anything but harmless.
Uninhibited euphoria and crushing sorrow ultimately intertwine in Class Action Park, whose wealth of home-movie footage, old promotional materials, Headbangers Ball clips (with Alice in Chains!), comical animated sequences, and newspaper headlines convey both the place’s devil-may-care spirit and the horrors it begat. Scott and Porges’ doc is a wild ride about a decade that prized freedom to an alternately enlivening and treacherous degree, and a once-in-a-lifetime spot where it was all fun and games even if you did lose an eye. Mostly, though, it suggests that Action Park’s lasting legacy is as an example of the vital need for business regulation, lest one leave children’s well-being in the hands of wacko impresarios who prize profit—and thumbing their nose at the powers-that-be—above all else.