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The Wild Ride of America’s Most Dangerous Theme Park

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Action Park — unofficially known as Class Action Park, Traction Park and Accident Park — was ‘Lord of the Flies’ with a Jersey twist and a higher death count

If you were a kid who grew up in the tri-state area in the 1980s and 1990s, just hearing the words “Action Park” will unleash a flood of memories as overwhelming as the park’s infamous wave pool, affectionately known as the “grave pool.” The popular theme park featured rides so unsafe they seemed almost designed to injure. When I recently saw an old ad on YouTube, it reminded me exactly how I felt the first moment I discovered the park’s existence: I was desperate, begging my mom to let me go to Vernon, New Jersey, as soon as humanly possible.

Who could blame me? Everyone was doing it, and if there was one type of peer pressure that worked on me, it was proving that I was scared of nothing.

While the ad screamed family-friendly virtues, I soon discovered it conveniently edited out the horror show that actually awaited you once you got to the park. I began hearing the war stories of kids who had been. They proudly showed me the skid-mark-like scars that burnished their thighs after riding down the Alpine Slide. I remember listening in terror as someone recounted going down an intensely steep waterslide and receiving what they called a “freshwater enema.”

The trauma of it all only made me want to go more. While Disneyland is described as the Happiest Place on Earth, Action Park might be considered the most dangerous (in 1984–1985, the Alpine Slide alone was responsible for 14 fractures and 26 head injuries). Unofficially known as Class Action Park, Traction Park and Accident Park, it was Lord of the Flies with a Jersey twist and a higher death count. As the theme song boasted, “The action never stops… at Action Park” — and neither did the life-altering injuries.

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When I finally did go in the early 1990s, I quickly realized something wasn’t right. The park was poorly maintained and smelled of leaking go-cart gas and chlorine. I laid low as my friends seemed hell-bent on suffering a major head injury by day’s end. I, however, didn’t need the excitement that comes from surviving a traumatic experience — in my house that was a daily occurrence.

As with most things about my childhood, later on in life I began questioning if the wild things I saw that day could possibly be true. Seth Porges, the co-director and producer of an upcoming documentary about Action Park called Class Action Park, also began questioning his memories, which were so unbelievable his friends thought he was making them up. “Flash forward a few decades and I’m an adult with access to the internet and a phone. I decided to dig around and found, to my astonishment, that this was no mere urban legend,” he tells me.

Not only were his memories correct, things were actually crazier than he remembered. Of course, all of this digging led to new questions. Like: “What the heck were my parents thinking taking me there? Apparently they did a good job of advertising to families as a kid-friendly escape,” Porges says.

Action Park was the brainchild of Eugene Mulvihill, who owned the Vernon Valley–Great Gorge ski area in New Jersey. In the late 1970s, he began looking for a way to make money during the summer months. His first summer attraction took advantage of the ski lifts and was called the Alpine Slide, a 2,700-foot-long cement slide that guests would go down on a mini-sled with just a hand-operated brake helping them manage the speed. What could possibly go wrong!

The Alpine Slide

He quickly added go-carts and waterslides, eventually ending up with around 75 attractions by the mid-1980s. Mulvihill got INTO his creation, and truly seemed to have his finger on the pulse when it came to the danger that out-of-control kids crave. The rides almost seemed like they were pulled from a deranged child’s brain that had zero concept of death being permanent. How else do you explain a water ride that was basically a huge toilet?

Is it a ride or a giant toilet?

Or the Bailey Ball, a huge metal ball that kids would enter before rolling down a hill in, something that thankfully even Mulvihill put the brakes on.

The Bailey Ball

But as the park grew in size, so did its reputation for being a lawsuit waiting to happen. And happen they did — a lot.

Crank Yankers’ executive producer Jonathan Kimmel had heard stories about Action Park for years before he finally got to experience it himself. “All of my older cousins seemed nervous going and that’s never a good sign when you’re 12,” he tells me. “Every member of my family seemed to have gotten hurt and/or nearly drowned there. My cousin got his ass stuck in one of the suction intakes in the wave pool. The temperature of the water would practically put you in hypothermic shock, and my uncle once wiped out on the Alpine Slide.”

Not only was the Alpine Slide among the park’s premier attractions, in July 1980, it was also the site of the first fatality on the premises when a 19-year-old employee’s “sled” jumped the track, and he suffered a fatal head injury after striking a rock.

As for Kimmel’s own experience: “I got pressured into going on the Alpine Slide even though you took a chairlift to get up the mountain, and I was afraid of heights. Then, on the way down, when you actually skin your knee, you’re like, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have done this.’ After you survived, though, you did feel a real sense of accomplishment.”

TV writer Kevin Seccia worked at Action Park for four summers in the early 1990s and has vivid memories of how dangerous the ride was. “You’d be flying down the side of a literal mountain and suddenly see that the person in front of you had gotten scared and stopped and was inching their way down, you know, because it was scary. Or someone would be getting back on the track after having crashed, and now you were moments away from plowing into them. But if you braked too fast, you’d go flying off the track too,” he recounts.

Flying off the track was a common occurrence. Even worse, according to Seccia, was the road burn: “You could rip the hell out of your bare skin when it grazed the track at 40 miles an hour. I saw many people getting off at the bottom crying and holding ribbons of their own flesh in their hands. I remember thinking, ‘Who designs amusement park rides? Someone with a physics background, probably? I don’t think we had that person.’”

Brian, now 35, grew up in West Milford, the next town over from Action Park. He was too young to go on most of the rides himself, but he did watch in fear as his then 30-year-old uncle risked his life sitting on a square of carpet while he sped down a mountainside. “For what feels like hours, I watched bro after bro in the 25- to 45-year-old range go down the slide headfirst, seemingly reach top speed at the bottom of the slide, glide across the landing and fucking smash — so hard — into the barrier, a roll of padding you might see in a gymnasium,” he says. “I was only eight or so, but I distinctly remembering thinking, ‘What the fuck is happening here? How is this real?’ Anyway, my uncle ultimately smashed the barrier hard enough on his last run to dislocate his shoulder, and we went home.”

James, a 46-year-old from Trenton, had gone to more traditional amusement parks as a kid, but a cool aunt turned him on to Action Park. After suffering some minor road rash on the Alpine Slide, he became cautious about going on the more intimidating rides, especially the Geronimo Slide, a waterslide that was basically a vertical drop with sides so low park guests were warned not to move at all or they risked flying over. (In Action Park’s defense, they did eventually add a canopy.)

A slide called the Cannonball (the first version) seemed like a safer bet. Per James, “This was a foam rubber tube that went under the ground and then dropped you out 10 feet or so above a pool of ice fucking cold mountain water.”

Cannonball Slide I

James quickly felt apprehensive about his choice, however. “When you were at the top of the ride, there was a guy with a hose whose job it was to squirt you down, so you didn’t burn off all your skin going down a dry slide. I waited patiently for the guy to hose me down, but he was distracted,” he says. As James waited, the crowd started yelling at him to get the fuck in the tube, so he did. “I started sliding down into the darkness, and I guess the guy finally noticed me go because suddenly the cold water hit my ass from the hose. Thankfully, I didn’t get too ripped up from the friction.”

He found the makeshift “pool” at the end though, its own kind of death trap. “I swam all around, trying to find the surface, but there was just darkness everywhere, and I couldn’t get my bearings,” he tells me. “The next thing I remember is coming on to the deck around the water with a lifeguard over me. I don’t recall any type of CPR, compressions or anything, but I was on my way out if it wasn’t for the guy who pulled me out.”

Mark, a 39-year-old who now lives in Oakland, had a memorable experience on the Tarzan Swing, a proto–zip line that you whipped down before dropping into — wait for it — frigid water. “This ride was set up next to the Cannonball, and let you out into the same water,” he says. “As you’re riding down it, kids are shooting out of the tubes next to you. Sometimes right underneath you.” The most important rule was to not let go too soon or you’d land on cement. “I was one of the ‘lucky’ ones who held on for the entire length of the line. Because nothing was spelled out to you, you had no real understanding of what to do.”

“I remember the noise as the handlebars violently hit the end of the line,” Mark continues. “My whole body shook, but I didn’t let go. I just hung there, 20 feet above the water. I remember some guy yelling, ‘LET GO!’ So I did. The shock of the water shot through my body. It was like freezing cold lightning. To this day, I can still remember how cold that water was.” (In 1984, a man suffered a heart attack after entering the water on the Tarzan Swing.)

But a lot of people, like Brent, a 45-year-old who also relocated to California as an adult, thinks the pain was worth it. He suffered numerous injuries at Action Park, including skinning his body multiple times on the Alpine Slide, and a case of whiplash after being slammed into by another sled. He also experienced severe pain after going on the bungee jump in the early 1990s. “I’m 6-foot-5 and was built like a stick back then,” he says. “The people who worked there were beyond ill-equipped to fit me with one of their four harness sizes. My balls and groin area were bruised for a week after that.”

Still, his only regret is that he never got to try the park’s (other) infamous Cannonball Slide. “It was never open on any trip I made there,” he tells me. “I heard the rumors of someone dying in it.”

It definitely beheaded dummies during test runs. Mulvihill, however, was determined to make it work. (In fact, his son Andy writes about being the original test rider in his new book on Action Park.) Deadly or not, teeth were often lost — sometimes embedded in the top of the loop — and it proved dangerous enough that it was only operational for about a month.

Cannonball Slide II

What really upped the danger at Action Park, though, was the fact that it was basically being run by teenagers who were, to put it kindly, out of their depth. Thirty-four-year-old Michael grew up in Vernon and knew tons of people who worked at the park over the years. He tells me these weren’t the people you wanted to watch your dog, much less hundreds of kids with a death wish. “My sister-in-law worked there for a few summers; she even worked the bungee-jump tower,” he says. “Very scary to think she was doing anything safety related.”

Seccia got his start working in the cafeteria, and agrees that the employees were as unsupervised and reckless as the guests. “I remember spending lots of time trying to see who could throw a frozen burger patty furthest down the mountain and over the wave pool without hitting anyone,” he tells me. “People were definitely hit.”

He eventually moved on to working the line on the Colorado River Tube, where he had the job of informing guests about the safety rules before they went on the ride. “We had leeway to say what we wanted, and joke around with the customers,” he explains. “Obviously, we immediately abused this privilege. That program lasted a few months before it was canceled.”

Next, he found himself in the Beer Hut. “I vividly remember getting yelled at for throwing out four-day-old shriveled-up hot dogs that legit looked like Slim Jims,” he says. “I was told that those were the ones you used for the chili dogs. It won’t surprise you to learn that we got a lot of complaints.”

In fairness, the job wasn’t exactly a walk in the, um, park. “Soon after winning the Super Bowl, the 1986 New York Giants went to Action Park to celebrate,” Porges says. “There were a couple dozen NFL players, hopped up on the thrill of winning the Super Bowl (and perhaps a few drinks). The teenage security guards had their hands full dealing with the team as they started throwing employees over the cliff jumps to get into rides.”

Even crazier is another story he tells me: “A guy escaped from a nearby prison and decided to hide out from the police by spending a day at Action Park. I believe he was re-arrested while in line for the Colorado River Ride.” (Would watch this movie.)

Danger, however, isn’t really a sustainable business. And in 1996, Action Park finally shut down after being overwhelmed with — you guessed it — personal injury lawsuits. Overall, six people died at the park. The total injury count is impossible to tally.

A few years later, it reopened with new owners under the name Mountain Creek Waterpark, but nothing could ever replace Action Park — at least nothing legal.

“At its most romantic, Action Park is remembered as this freedom fantasy land,” Porges says. “It was a place where you could do whatever you wanted without anybody telling you ‘no,’ ‘one at a time’ or ‘don’t try to drown your friends in the wave pool.’ For children of the 1980s and 1990s, Action Park represents everything we’re nostalgic for. A time before insurance and lawyers, sure, but more importantly, a time when things were physical and tactile and personal and it felt like anything was possible and everything mattered. People who grew up going to and working at Action Park repeatedly compare it to a real-life 1980s movie.”

“People were just running around drunk, getting sunburned and passing out from exhaustion and near-drowning experiences,” Seccia adds. “There were fights and robberies, and the medical truck, which was like a modified golf cart, was constantly in motion, racing from one disaster to the next. It was total chaos, but also super fun and a great way to grow up.”

For his part, Kimmel thinks all that fun — as well as all that fear — were simply one in the same. “The biggest difference between Action Park and other theme parks was that kids often have a fear of rides, but everything usually turns out fine. At Action Park, that often wasn’t the case. The fear was justified.”