Thrillseeking has long been a part of our culture; how high can we fly? How close to the edge can we get? How much can we tease death? Usually, when one goes to a theme park, there’s the illusion of a free-for-all, but everything is tightly regulated, (mostly) ensuring that guests leave in one piece. Action Park, the subject of new HBO Max documentary Class Action Park, did exactly the opposite. This unhinged New Jersey institution, free of safety regulations and experienced employees, flourished in the 1980s and became the stuff of legend. Is this deep dive into its beginnings (and dark chapters) worth strapping yourself in for? Or will you regret paying the price of admission?
The Gist: Directed by Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott, Class Action Park tells the story of Vernon, New Jersey’s infamous Action Park, a New Jersey theme park opened by Gene Mulvihill in 1978 as a way to generate income at his ski resort during the summer. Amusement parks seemed like a guaranteed cash grab; Disney had made Orlando an international tourist destination, and with the help of some of his Wall Street buddies, Mulvihill convinced investors that Vernon, New Jersey could become the same. And so was born Action Park, an experience that thrived on a lack of regulation and safety measures — and became legendary almost immediately. With the help of experts, former park lifeguards, ride attendants, and security guards, New Jersey park-goers like Chris Gethard an Alison Becker, and the family of one of the park’s victims, Class Action Park paints a picture rife with nostalgia for a time when the rules didn’t apply.
For New Jersey teens (who also were largely responsible for the park’s day-to-day operations), Action Park’s more dangerous attractions served as a rite of passage. You were respected if you came back to school bloodied and bruised from a certain slide or two, even if it meant you’d spent a few days in the hospital in the process. Class Action Park walks us through many of the individual rides known for incurring a certain brand of injury; Cannonball Loop often sent riders out with missing teeth and bloody noses (and later, folks emerged with CUTS from the MISSING TEETH that were now embedded in the tube!!!), Roaring Rapids was known for dislocating shoulders and knees and fracturing femurs, noses, and more, and the frequently too-cold water waiting for riders at the end of several different attractions often sent these guests into shock, rendering them unable to swim properly. There were many almost-drownings (and eventually, a few lives lost to drowning), people frequently taken out of the park by ambulance, and endlessly malfunctioning ride components. And yet people kept coming.
For much of the film, humorous and jaw-dropping anecdotes help Class Action Park capture the outrageousness of it all and that culture of the 1980s that allowed such a place to thrive – until it couldn’t anymore. It’s all fun and games before actual lives are lost due to negligence and a total disregard for any safety regulations on the part of Mulvihill, a man described as a Trumpian, PT Barnum-esque character. (A brief note: apparently, Mulvihill was friends with our Commander-in-Chief to be, and he tried to get Trump to invest in the park. Somehow, even Donald Trump thought the park was too crazy to invest in). Mulvihill was so obsessed with sustaining a rules-free environment that he didn’t care what happened to people. He only seemed to care about lining his pockets. The resulting film – a documentary with one foot in nostalgia, and the other in a series of stomach-churning crimes and coverups – is nothing if not a memorable one.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Class Action Park largely adheres to a pretty traditional documentary structure, so if you’re a documentary fan (or even if you’re simply someone who likes to indulge in some nostalgia time to time), you’ll find something to like here. By combining some truly mind-boggling archival footage with top-notch interviews from all its subjects, the film creates something incredibly effective.
Memorable Dialogue: There are endlessly quotable moments from the entire cast of characters in Class Action Park, but I kept finding myself hooked on whatever Chris Gethard had to say (perhaps unsurprisingly, as I was already a fan going into this). After the Wave Pool (morbidly referred to as “The Grave Pool”) was discussed, Gethard got a little heated. And as simple as what he says is, it’s totally true. “The fact that more than one person died in your wave pool… Who’s that second son of a bitch? That’s who your heart really bleeds for. Nobody should ever be the second person to die in a wave pool. You know why? ‘Cause after the first person dies in a wave pool, close the fuckin’ wave pool! Put up a fuckin’ sign or something, man!”
Sex and Skin: Discussion of horny teens and guests frequently losing their swimsuits after some particularly rough rides are about as sexy as things get in Class Action Park.
Our Take: As a former theme park employee of 5 years myself, my interest in this documentary was particularly piqued from the moment I heard about it. And I was not disappointed. The former Action Park employees are truly a cast of characters; it’s all too easy to picture these rowdy teens excitedly taking $100 bills to risk their lives for Mulvihill’s ride tests, trying to corral guests their own age, and treating their job more like a party than, well, a job. It’s crucial to understand what the culture was like at the time to allow something like Action Park to flourish, and Class Action Park makes sure to paint a pretty vivid picture; we see Mulvihill’s shady Wall Street beginnings (he sold penny stocks a la Wolf of Wall Street), the desire to live without rules, the summer boredom that drove the kids who couldn’t vacation in The Hamptons or Cape Cod to ride their bikes to Action Park day after day. The more the park’s dangers were reported (the park literally bought its own ambulances because it was utilizing too much of the town’s resources), the more people seemed to want to go. Friction burns, fractured bones, and fucked up teeth? It might not sound like a selling point to you, but it certainly worked for Action Park in the ’80s. This is captured beautifully in interviews, though admittedly, many of the talking heads almost speak of the tragedies with a hint of dismissiveness, as if all those lives and injuries were worth it for the stories and resulting nostalgia – with a few exceptions.
It’s so easy to romanticize the park and Mulvihill and all the “quirks” of the dangerous attractions, but the filmmakers are smart enough to show us the human cost of such an institution’s existence. The interviews with the family of George Larsson Jr. – the young man who lost his life after skidding off the Alpine Slide – are absolutely crushing. They held onto their bitterness towards Mulvihill till the day he died, and you can’t really blame them. For all the legends and lore that came out of Mulvihill’s unhinged idea for a theme park, he was responsible for collateral damage that cannot be ignored. And the film does a great job showcasing his many sides, and the many versions of him that people close to him (and his enemies) came to know over the years.
One of Class Action Park‘s greatest strengths – and I don’t say this just because I am a fan – is Chris Gethard. He is the only interview subject who manages to convey both the excitement he and others felt for the park and also the toxic heart of it all. He acknowledges that they may laugh about it now, but it wasn’t a healthy way to grow up. Just because it happened, doesn’t mean it was good. They laugh because what else can they do? How do you reconcile a fun childhood experience with the idea that this same experience was responsible for the pain of others? Gethard’s insight is absolutely crucial to Class Action Park really working as a whole. Contextualizing one’s youth is no easy feat, but no one does it better – and is really willing to give it a hard look – than Gethard. He is the thread that ties all the genuinely funny employee interviews together with the heartbreaking commentary from Larsson’s family.
Class Action Park is a success because it manages to hit home for those who grew up there, and for those of us who knew absolutely nothing about this place. It’s both funny and smart, gutting and nostalgic. It strikes a tone that few documentaries are able to, balancing light and dark in a way that is effective on a storytelling level and feels respectful to those hurt by the park. I laughed out loud. I teared up. It’s some good stuff. It sure helps that the story on its own is a fascinating one, but I’m not sure it would have worked so well had it not been in the hands of these filmmakers.
Our Call: STREAM IT. This nostalgic documentary may indulge in frivolity for a little too long before it dives into the dark underbelly of Action Park, but for the most part, the juxtaposition of light and dark really works. The anecdotes from former employees combined with archival footage and some effective, goofy animated sequences makes for something truly compelling – and occasionally shocking. Those who visited Action Park in its prime or at least knew of it will likely enjoy the insane trip down memory lane. For those of us who weren’t around in Action Park’s heyday, there are truly some things that have to be seen to be believed – and Class Action Park is all too happy to convince us.
Jade Budowski is a freelance writer with a knack for ruining punchlines and harboring dad-aged celebrity crushes. Follow her on Twitter: @jadebudowski.