My elementary school classmates were prone to hyperbole. Trips on the school bus to Defino Central in Marlboro, New Jersey were filled with wild stories that I learned to treat total skepticism. The hoverboard from Back to the Future Part II? Those were real, the kid down the block insisted, but Mattel took them off the market after kids kept getting hurt on them. Three Men and a Baby? There’s a ghost in the movie if you look carefully — a real ghost. The Star Wars trilogy? Actually it’s a “tri-trilogy” and there are six more coming out. (Okay, so even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then.)
Then there were the stories about Action Park, a local water park advertised constantly on local television in New Jersey in the 1980s. According to one kid in my neighborhood, Action Park was a literal death trap. One particular water slide with a 360-degree loop at the bottom was so deadly, he swore, that it had been permanently closed after repeated bodily traumas. At the time, I nodded and mumbled something in agreement but quietly thought to myself “This kid is full of crap.”
Then I went to Action Park.
As explored in Class Action Park, a very funny and sometimes terribly sad HBO Max documentary, Action Park in Vernon, New Jersey was the rare place where the urban legends were not only true, they undersold reality. People did die at Action Park; countless more were hurt, some gravely. Even the “safe” rides were monitored by a staff of disinterested, underpaid, drunk and/or stoned teenagers. The film notes that at the park’s height, it became so popular — and so accident-prone — it had to buy and staff its own ambulance, because the local emergency medical services was spending so much time driving Action Park’s victims to the hospital there was no one available to help the rest of the town.
Class Action Park, which gets its title from one of the place’s morbid nicknames (“Traction Park” was another popular one), chronicles the resort’s surreal and sordid history. It combines archival and home movie footage from Action Park with interviews from former staff members, journalists, and guests who endured the experience. (It turns out comedian Chris Gethard’s brand of dark humor is the ideal vehicle for descriptions of Action Park’s deranged rides, like the “Alpine Slide” that mimicked the concept of a ski slope in the summer via a sprawling concrete half-pipe guests traversed in a rickety sled outfitted with a barely-functioning brake.) One park manager points out that “a certain number of the Action Park rides were more or less designed in house by people without engineering degrees — and I was certainly one of them.” His eyes gleam with pride as he speaks these mortifying words.
Some of the most extreme attractions, like the famed Cannonball Loop seen above, sprung directly from the mind of Action Park’s owner and founder, Gene Mulvihill, who turned to entrepreneurship after a failed stint on Wall Street. He purchased a ski resort in Vernon and then struck upon the idea of a water park that he could operate in the off-season. If Willy Wonka sold his chocolate factory and designed a theme park in order to identify and punish reckless children, he would have built Action Park. The portrait painted of Mulvihill in Class Action Park — a man who flagrantly and even gleefully ignored every law, never apologized for a mistake, and sued anyone who challenged hi — will sound awfully familiar to modern audiences who followed national politics over the last four years.
Mulvihill’s son Andy appears as a talking head in Class Action Park, describing with obvious pleasure his father’s wild schemes and outlandish rides. (It’s hard to pick the single craziest attraction, but the Go-Karts with a top speed of 60 miles per hour that were located directly besides the enormous Oktoberfest beer tent might take the cake.) For most of Class Action Park’s first hour, interviewees breathlessly describe the staggering number of hazards present in almost every corner of the park. Untrained people designed the rides, which were then built by people with no experience, who then tested their handiwork on unsuspecting park employees, who would get $100 to play guinea pig on amusements like the Aqua Skoot, which attempted to replicate the physics of skipping a stone with the human body. (In practice, riders tended to face plant into the Aqua Skoot’s pool rather than bounce across it as intended.)
Action Park’s commitment to thrills and total disinterest in safety means it’s hard not to laugh at a lot of this documentary, and directors Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges do an nice job of capturing the essence of the park’s larger-than-life reputation through the incredulous testimony of the resort’s survivors. The filmmakers could have stopped there and wound up with a frivolous bit of nostalgia. Instead, they go deeper, interviewing the family of one man who died at Action Park while taking a broader look at the place’s impact on the local community and residents. While I’m not sure I agree with all of their conclusions, especially the way they present Action Park’s laissez-faire attitude as evidence of some kind of broader societal dysfunction of the 1980s, I admired the fact that they didn’t shy away from the dark side of this story, even though the audience for this documentary might prefer a lighter take on the material.
Action Park closed down in the mid-1990s, but its legend continued to grow. In 2018, it served as the loose inspiration for Action Point, a Johnny Knoxville comedy about an eccentric who opens his own DIY amusement park. Although that movie tried to capture the anarchic spirit of the real park by subjecting Knoxville to authentic Jackass-esque stunts, Action Park was a place where truth was actually stranger than fiction — and no Hollywood approximation could do it justice. Now Class Action Park stands as the document it deserved. Like the resort it captures, everything in this film is fun and games right up until the moment someone gets seriously injured.
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