New Jersey

Friday A/V Club: The Legend of Action Park

It was the '80s. It was New Jersey. It was another place and time.

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Action Park was a legendarily unsafe amusement park in New Jersey, the sort of place that Blue Teamers imagine a libertarian society would be like. (There is a parallel universe, I'm sure, where Action Park occupies the place held by Somalia on our plane's compendium of comment-thread clichés.) "Action Park was less a water park and more a complete insult to the evolutionary concept of self-preservation," Matthew Callan wrote in a fun Freezerbox piece some years back. "And yet, despite all the danger, we kids kept going back, tempting fate like Russian-roulette-players."

You should read Callan's whole essay, with its detailed descriptions of the park's fate-tempting rides. Here's a sample:

The very first ride you saw when you entered Action Park involved a sled and a ramp of metal rollers. You slid down on your sled across the metal rollers, reaching speeds of roughly 300 miles an hour, and skipped thirty feet across the surface of a very shallow pool. The metal-roller ramps had no guardrails on them, so there was always a possibility that you would veer off to the side and fall very quickly into two feet of water. And since there were four metal-roller ramps emptying into this pool in tandem, snarls of sled collisions were constantly occurring, making it look like the Cross Bronx Expressway on a Friday night.

The Colorado River Ride was a water slide involving huge inner tubes that could fit seven people. It tried to approximate a mountain rapid, with lots of bumps and obstacles and so forth. But the most dangerous part of it was the fact that the borders that kept the tubes on the course were criminally short. And just off to the side of the Colorado River Ride was a steep tree-and-pricker-bush-lined hill. It was the perfect demonstration of the Action Park philosophy: Put seven people in a large inner tube, push them down a wet slide, and let the laws of physics handle the rest. People would gather around to watch folks scream their way down, cheering and hoping that a tube would hop the barrier and go careening down the side of the hill. When a large family would come close to flying away, the whole crowd would gasp and then sigh in disappointment, like the audience at the Indy 500 when the Tide car just narrowly misses hitting the Pepsi car and exploding in a beautiful orange ball of flame.

And then there was this thing:

They called it the Cannonball Loop. "It was never open," Barry Petchesky recalls in Deadspin. "You wondered if it had ever been open." Turns out it had indeed been open, though apparently not for very long. Petchesky has located some footage of the slide in action, part of an alternately eerie and funny compilation of Action Park commercials and home movies:

If you want to watch people riding the slide, you can skip ahead to 8:17. But there's much more to see here, from the children-as-sewage-discharge footage at 5:12 to the breakdancing demonstration at 3:13. (The latter is recommended for hardcore '80s nostalgists only.) And at the very end of the video, there's the most frightening ad slogan I've ever heard: "where you and the rides become one."

Bonus link: "Anarchy, State, and Amusement Park."

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

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62 responses to “Friday A/V Club: The Legend of Action Park

  1. I love your fascination with Action Park, Jesse. It was truly one of the most fun places I’ve ever been, and it really was as anarchic as described. The staff really just did not give a shit what you did, if you were drinking (underage, whatever), smoking weed, using the rides unsafely, anything. Yet it still managed to function well despite all that. I did some really dumb shit there to impress girls, and I regret none of it.

    1. Indeed, Epi, I too have many fond memories of Action Park.

    2. I didn’t see a single lifeguard in that footage. It looks awesome.

      1. This is true =

        “It was common to see groups of mangy boys leaping back and forth between rafts or intentionally capsizing those of newly made enemies, like gangs of half-naked pirates staking claim to the surf. No one in an official position at Action Park seemed to care. They were probably just as drunk as the patrons.

        The “lifeguards” were stoned NJ guidos who were perfectly happy to let 13 year olds ride on the “16 and Up Only!” rides, headfirst.

        1. Paradise.

          1. This, from the Wiki entry, i think is even better =

            “”Ride designers may have had insufficient training in physics or engineering.

            They seemed to build rides,” one attendee recalled, “not knowing how they would work, and [then let] people on them.”[19]”

            The main source of *consistent* injuries in my memory was the Alpine Slide = an otherwise normal sort of thing found at many summer ski-resorts… except, it wasn’t.

            The design of the course and the shittiness of the sleds was such that if you tried to go at *any speed* slow enough to prevent the inevitable crash, you were in serious danger of being rammed from behind from someone less in love with life than yourself.

            The alternative was to eschew safety completely, and simply hope that your inevitable crash caused only mild injury, and won a few ‘style points’ from your friends.

            There really was no ‘in between’ choice. Which is why Alpine Slide was something of a drug for people *determined* to hurt themselves in a spectacular fashion. It was Crash-Porn.

            Injuries produced on other rides were more genuinely ‘accidents’. on the slide, they were part of the show.

            1. I rode a similar slide at a rundown tourist trap near Mammoth Cave, KY years ago. My wife and I were the only ones on it, and I still damn near wiped out. One tends to assume some sort of safety features are built into a ride like that, and it’s bracing to realize that no, you really can easily go fast enough to fly off the track and go skittering down the hillside.

    3. The place was great back in the day. We would go there stoned and drunk; had a blast.

  2. I hear a lot of prattle about “potential” incidents. How was the record of Actual incidents in terms of injury?

    1. Something like six people died in the park and there were countless injuries. It was referred to as “Traction Park”. Here is more info. That’s what made it so great. Enter at your own risk.

      1. And it shockingly never really came under serious scrutiny from the state. Likely mob-connected in some way.

        1. It was a different time. As foreign to us now as ancient Rome. People simply just did not sue others when they got hurt. If you hurt yourself, it was probably your own damn fault.

          1. Well to be fair there are reports in the wiki that Action Park was unique in the low number.of.fire.especially and regulatory actions against.it.when.compared.with.other parks.of the same era.

          2. Actually, Action Park got sued a great deal. Back when I was in high school, a friend of mine on the school paper who fancied himself an investigative reporter did a piece on Action Park. He found that it suffered an enormous volume of lawsuits. Beyond all the slack safety, he seemed to think that volume was heightened by a “settle everything” policy on the park’s part. He specifically cited a case of a guy who collected for emotional distress and loss of consortium because he was frightened by the size of the artificially generated waves in the water park.

      2. “Fatalities[edit]

        Main article: Incidents at independent amusement parks

        Six people are known to have died directly or indirectly from rides at Action Park:…

        I love the way that sentence leaves open the possibility that “these are only the Bodies We’ve Identified”

        Because you don’t want to write off the possibility that some of those faces on the back of Milk Cartons? Yeah, they might have gone to Action Park once. Once.

  3. That looks like a blast!

    1. It was – part of the fun was the danger, and the nobody-gives-a-shit attitude.

      1. I remember danger. Seems like so long ago.

  4. I remember going there as a kid, and it was all that and more. I don’t think anyone left there without losing at least one patch of skin.

    Imagine that this park was a ski resort in the winter, so the entire thing was built on a mountainside with slopes that would be fun to ski down. Well in the summer, it was all grassy hills. Pave a narrow concrete sled track down that hill, and give people what was basically a skateboard with a wider deck to sit on, and send them careening down that concrete tube. That was the alpine slide. It was glorious.

    The water slides were no better. You would reach amazing speeds, and the puddle at the bottom that was meant to stop you? Yeah half the time you would just skip right over it like a stone over water and slam into the padded wall at the other side.

    Good times.

  5. Wow, that really does look like an.outstanding amount.of.fun.. wonder what shut.it.down and when?

    1. What shut it down? The pussification of America, that’s what.

      1. I was asking.half rhetorically, and half wanting to.know.specifically when.and.why.it.was shut.down. I would have to assume it was some.combination.of safety concern.trolls, lawyers, and regulation. Or did.people just.become.so obsessed with safety at the expense.of.enjoyment that they stopped going?

        1. If it was near my house, I would be there with my kids right now. Sadly, nothing like this will exist in America ever again.

        2. From the.wiki:

          Little action was taken by state regulators despite a history of repeat violations. In its later years personal-injury lawsuits forced the closure of more and more rides and finally the park itself in 1996.

          Ah, I see. Mainly as I suspected.

          1. Yep. I’m worried that ski resorts are next.

            1. Here in PA, ski resorts were clamping down heavily on safety in the late ’80s, early ’90s. It was making skiing less.and.less fun. As I.understand it, the.major.resorts pushed through a law immunizing them from lawsuits, at least in cases not.involving gross.negligence.by the operator. In the late.’90s, ski.areas.were.installing jumps, half pipes, and all manner of fun stuff.designed.to get.you air, where earlier.that decade, they were.bulldozing everything as flat as they.could to basically make everything a.groomed cruiser (one.or.two mogul runs notwithstanding).

              1. Yeah, ski resorts are perhaps the only places going in the opposite direction of cultural trends.

              2. I started wearing a helmet voluntarily when I am doing some of the higher speed stuff, and I notice that a lot of other people are too. That was unthinkable 15 years ago.

                1. I’m one of the very few who does not wear a helmet on the mountain. I figure I’m grandfathered like those legacy NHL players. I suspect helmets will be required some day.

                  1. Wow – I haven’t been skiing in …. way too long, but let’s call it 15 years or so and I don’t recall seeing anyone wearing a helmet (Colorado slopes – larger resorts)… & this was after what’s his name and the tree.

                    Is it really that different now? Do lots of “skiers” now wear helmets?

  6. like the audience at the Indy 500 when the Tide car just narrowly misses hitting the Pepsi car

    Looks like Callan confused NASCAR with Indy. Surely should have said Daytona 500 or Brickyard 400 or something else. I’m not a racing fan, but come on, cultural literacy man.

    1. Never mind that, what about when the Tide and Pepsi trucks collide? (With or without bleach & caffeine.)

  7. We can’t have that sort of thing in the Land of the Free.

    1. The Land of the Risk-Free and the Home of the Busybody

  8. Alice in Chains at Action Park

    “It doesn’t look very safe at all.”
    “You’ve got your aqua wings in case anything happens.”

  9. Here’s one hilarious remembrance:

    http://uncouthreflections.com/…..tion-park/

  10. That looked like serious fun. There were no such things as waterparks when I was a kid so we had to make do with things such as zooming (helmetless – this was the mid-60’s and helmets were for organized football) down a hill on our 478 pound Huffy bikes up an improvised ramp (it was about 8 feet high) we made in a pile of dirt that was an artifact of the road rebuild that was happening on our street. We did this in full view of the people who lived on the street and no one went down with a case of vapors or 2nd degree pearl clutching injuries. None of us died but there were some spectacular crashes that resulted in much bleeding from hands, elbows and knees. Good, clean, unsupervised mayhem.

    1. We used to pedal up our bikes as fast as we could and then jam on the.front brakes to see how far we could soar (helmetless) before crashing back to earth, and hopefully avoiding the still-airborne bike following.close behind.in the.ballistic trajectory.

    2. Yeah, even unto the early 90s, it was not uncommon to see kids doing breath-takingly stupid things on bicycles, skateboards, and sleds without worrying about the ol’ melon. As my father says, “no telling how smart we could have been.”

  11. We had an “Action Park” thread here a couple years back. I wonder if anyone who is a H&R search-ninja might find it?

    I was in high school in NY in the late 80s, and skipping school to road-trip to AP was considered a Manhood Ritual. It also involved getting wasted in the parking lot. I witnessed some broken limbs, and remember when deaths were reported in the local papers.

    It was awesome.

    I figured it made sense when it was closed, but i didn’t see it as a sign of the coming Nanny State dystopia we live in now.

    1. “GILMORE|2.29.08 @ 2:22PM|#

      “Alas, poor Action Park. I knew it, Horatio. A place of infinite jest, most excellent fancy. Those waterslides bore me on my back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is.”

      I didn’t remember that. I like Old Me. You’ve got style, buddy!

  12. Seriously, though, the angular acceleration on that loop slide probably did break some kid’s neck. Or maybe they put a dog through first and killed it instead.

    1. The park would come up with a ride (like that loopdy loop slide) and then just build it. There were no computer models. Testing mostly involved getting some brave lifeguards to try it out first.

      And yeah, even for Action Park, that slide proved too dangerous and was only open for a short time. I think some people actually got stuck in the loop.

    2. I don’t see why there wouldn’t be a bunch of pooling at the beginning of the loop. As in, enough water to drown in.

      1. I’d bet they had a drain there, maybe made of slots cut in the pipe. They must have had.some sort of sprays to keep the upper.parts wet, though.

        1. You could see the water being sprayed at the top in the video, in and on the slide and the sliders, as it was just a hose directed from the outside toward the entrance.

  13. I can’t even get my head around how anyone would make it through that loop thing unscathed, or wedged at the top of the loop.

    1. They would get wedged. There was actually a door to get stuck people out. It never really worked as they had hoped so it was usually shut down.

  14. Ahh, childhood, the time of blissful ignorance about your own mortality.

    Although I have never been to Action Park, it sounds like a wonderful place, and I have many fond memories of the stupid and dangerous stuff that I did as a child.

    I am thankful my parents let me run around unsupervised from the age of 6 up.
    I had SO much fun.

    1. my parents generation never worried about us getting hurt. They could always make more of us.

  15. The loop de loop picture made me think of the red slide in the water park they just opened at the ski resort by my parents’. It’s not fully vertical on the loop, but you do start the ride by standing in this thing till the floor drops out beneath you and you freefall into the tube.

    1. That’s a good way to make sure nobody wastes time and chickens out. Where is that?

      1. Not sure, but Disney World has a couple of these – slides almost straight down (it feels that way) with different heights of descent – I think the highest is 200.ish feet….

    2. Step in here and take a shower to rinse the pool chlorine off.

      “Why don’t I see a drain?”

      Oh, you will see a hole beneath you momentarily.

  16. The wikipedia entry for Action Park is hilarious.

  17. Dammit, I want to go NOW!

  18. You know what’s sad?

    I was a teenager in the 1980s. And I distinctly remember a conversation with some friends.

    We knew some older people who, 20+ years earlier, had done things like go out prospecting, and grabbing a box of dynamite sticks at a C-store on the way out to the desert. They’d been able to look through the backs of magazines and mail-order a whole list of military surplus firearms from around the world, before they were old enough to get drivers’ licenses. Nobody cared if they drank beer.

    We, of course, all wished we could have experienced that. But then I said, “You know, sometime in the future, kids will be looking back on right now, and wishing they could only do the stuff that WE still can.” Everyone nodded.

    Turns out, sadly, that I was right.

  19. “It’s even got an underwater river.” WTF???

  20. My friend lost his tit on the alpine slide in action park in 1982.

  21. And there was a Playboy Club resort right around the corner – this was the era when Hef thought branching out into family-friendly entertainment while still keeping the bunnies and (ahem) so forth would work.

    Playboy and AP did promotions together and my square/clueless parents figured it was quite a deal. The resort -did- have a great golf course, anyway. They booked a three-night stay in the summer of 1980.

    So not only did 16-year-old me get the near-death Action Park experience, I also got Playboy bunnies (who knew damn well the effect they were having on me) as dinner waitresses.

  22. I cannot think about water parks without remembering the Carl Hiaasen book, “Native Tongue”. Death by dolphin [shudder]and mouldy water slide tubes.

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