Movies

Review: Class Action Park

Death in the afternoon

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Mockers of my native state of New Jersey are usually careful to acknowledge what they see as the few positive aspects of the place. It's the home of Springsteen and Sinatra, of course, and an excellent source of big-ass tomatoes and ambrosial Taylor Pork Roll, the king of processed breakfast meats.

But naysayers always bring up the lamentable stuff, too. Not just Joe Piscopo or the ridiculous Jersey Devil, but also the Garden State's vast number of toxic-waste dumps and homegrown goombahs like Richard "Iceman" Kuklinski, a mob assassin who claimed to have terminated 200 people and who surely served as some kind of role model for his little brother, the rapist and murderer Joseph Kuklinski.

Not easily situated in either the pro or the con category would be Action Park, an outdoor amusement attraction in northern New Jersey that from 1978 to 1996 was probably the world's most dangerous fun venue. On one hand, the park offered the liberation of extreme, largely unchaperoned thrills to a generation of bored latchkey kids in the New York tri-state area. On the other hand, some of them left the place in body bags.

The Action Park story is related in transfixing detail in a new HBO Max documentary called Class Action Park. ("Fracture Park" was another of the site's inevitable bynames.) Directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III have done a brisk job of interweaving sunny, soft-focus archive footage of the old park with contemporary testimony from the park's surviving employees and patrons. ("Every member of my family was injured at that park," says Jimmy Kimmel.)

Action Park was the creation of a Wall Street wild man named Gene Mulvihill, who found himself at loose ends after his stock operation was shut down by the SEC in the mid-1970s. He bought and combined two ski resorts near leafy Vernon Township, then realized he'd have to find some way to make it pay off in the warm-weather months, too. Thus impelled, Mulvihill created what may have been the world's first water park. Unfortunately, says Jersey-boy comic Chris Gethard, "they didn't consult anybody who had a background in engineering."

Indeed, one of the park's more terrifying rides—the Cannonball Loop—started out as a doodle on a napkin, which Mulvihill turned over to some welders to actualize. It was a huge closed tube, pitch dark inside, through which kids found themselves rocketing at uncontrollable velocities. "There's two places you can experience 9G as a civilian," says a veteran employee. "One is the back seat of an F-14. The other one [was] at Action Park."

Mulvihill's water park was an instant hit. Looking back to her youth, one woman says, "there were no rules, and for a lot of kids, that was heaven." Indeed, many of the park's ride attendants were underage (some as young as 14) and kids as young as six could be found perched atop an artificial bluff preparing to make a 20-foot leap into the crowded water below. In addition, among the park's many proffered entertainments was a German beer brewery—where a kid would have to try pretty hard not to get served, apparently—and it was situated right next door to Motor World, which offered mini race cars and powerboats to tear around in. (There was also a major state highway running through the property, just to keep things interesting.)

The park's most dangerous ride might have been the Alpine Slide—a ski-lift affair in which the schuss back down was over raw concrete. In the doc we're told that the slide chewed up kids at a fearsome rate, leaving them with dislocated shoulders, broken arms and, in one girl's case, a severed finger. Mulvihill took considerable pains not to report every injury—he was a man who felt that if you took your chances, you had to be ready to swallow the pain. Nevertheless, the stats that he did own up to were disturbing: At the end of the 20-week summer season of 1986, a local paper, the Sunday Herald, reported that there had been more than 330 people injured at Action Park.

This was an especially vexing problem because Mulvihill couldn't get anyone to provide insurance for the chaotically managed park. To finesse that, he invented his own fake insurance company and incorporated it in the Cayman Islands. When the occasional Action Park customer did sue, he would never settle, but instead would keep the plaintiffs marooned in court, watching their money dribble away.

Action Park's time was running out, however. One kid was electrocuted on a "Kayak Experience" ride, another drowned in the Wave Pool, and Mulvihill was forced to start closing down rides. "People thought that drowning in the Action Park Wave Pool was part of the experience," says a former attendant. (We're told that the Pool was actually a soup of dirt runoff, suntan lotion, body wastes, and blood from open wounds.)

At the end of the film, its farcical tone turns darker as we meet a woman whose son was killed at Action Park, and who got no sympathy from Mulvihill, and who is still heartbroken and angry today. It's impossible to laugh through her tears. Still, for many other survivors, memories have softened over the years.

"I think the very reason people were attracted to Action Park was because they could get hurt," says one man. "That was the allure of it. I mean, who wants to sit on a Ferris wheel?"

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: August 28, 1958

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  2. (We’re told that the Pool was actually a soup of dirt runoff, suntan lotion, body wastes, and blood from open wounds.)

    I think you’ve got that confused with the Passaic River.

    1. Or the public pool we went to.

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  3. “It was a huge closed tube, pitch dark inside, through which kids found themselves rocketing at uncontrollable velocities.”

    Where have I seen that before?

    1. It’s a youtube link so it can’t possibly be birthing videos, right?

      1. The Simpsons

  4. What’s the big deal? A place where young people can take stupid risks, some aided by alcohol, and end up with broken bones? Outside the urban bubble, we call that “the outdoors”. See any rural county.

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    2. I was gonna say, sounds like the place across the street from me when I was a kid, which was full of dirt paths and clay hills, where we’re ride our BMX bikes, and injure ourselves greviously, and then be back as soon as the stitches were out. And sometimes before.

    3. Most common words spoken before someone dies: “Hold my beer.”

    4. These days that’s downtown in the cities of the woke.

  5. Due to corona virus public parks suffer huge loss as well. Let pray to human race
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  6. It’s the home of Springsteen

    Wow NJ must really blow if this is one of the few positives you can cute.

    1. When I hit submit, that motherfucker said cite. WTF?

    2. If I were from NJ, I would be much more proud of the Toxic Avenger than Springsteen

  7. IT’S TAYLOR HAM YOU FUCKTARD!!!

    This was the biggest oversight in the article. North of Rt. 80 it’s TAYLOR FUCKING HAM!!!

    Pork roll is for the mouth breathers in south Jersey (anything below rt 80 or 46).

    1. I’m from South Jersey, shoot me

    2. On the boardwalk at Wildwood, it’s pork roll.

      And that’s all that matters. There’s nothing like sitting there, eating your two eggs over medium, with pork roll and home fries that have been cooking since summer started, drinking that thick dark coffee that lurks on the Jersey Shore, while watching the sun rise over the Atlantic. Before the rides open, before the games start up.

      yup.

      1. Taylor ham, egg, and cheese on a hard roll is the breakfast of champions. Cup of black coffee to wash it down.

        1. Taylor ham, egg, and cheese on a hard roll is the breakfast of champions. Cup of black coffee to wash it down.

          Almost–

          Taylor pork roll, egg, and cheese on a hard roll is the breakfast of champions. Cup of black coffee to wash it down.

          See, we call it ‘pork roll’ because that’s what it says on the package.

    3. Great. Some Godless Northerner wandered in.

    4. How childish to get so bent out of shape over bologna.

      *Cuts into pizza with knife and fork*

      1. Not bologna. Spam. Fancy spam.

    5. It was invented in Trenton. Trenton calls it pork roll. It is pork roll.

      Also, South Jersey is 7/8 of the state? So tell me, exactly how many times is it possible to fail 7th grade goegraphy before they just say fuck it and let you graduate?

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  10. I was in high school in NJ from 1978-1982 and I saw the commercials for Action Park all the time. I really, really wanted to go, but somehow just never got around to it. I have my regrets.

  11. In my neighborhood we referred to it as Traction Park, and visiting it was always a summer highlight. Any kid who came back with an injury to show off saw his reputation among the other boys skyrocket.
    I left a good deal of skin on the Alpine Slide and still remember the cliff dive (you basically jumped off a cliff into a pool with water so cold — you were in the mountains — it would knock the breathe out of you.)

    Never tried the water tube slide that did a loop-de-loop as even as a 13 year old I wasn’t suicidal — it just LOOKED lethal. I have fond memories of that place.

    As dangerous as it was, it was no more so then the railroad tracks or water towers we played on, and the trees we climbed in our neighborhood were taller than the houses.

    There’s a fun in danger, and there’s a danger in avoiding danger. It’s cruel to bubble wrap children. It does them a disservice.

    Testing your courage is an important part of developing your character.

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