You know when your stomach flips as you reach the apex of a rollercoaster? How about that rushing sensation that accompanies a trip down a waterslide?
Part of the reason why we feel so exhilarated after an amusement park ride is that our bodies didn’t exactly realize they weren’t in danger. There’s real adrenaline pumping through our veins at Six Flags. We just happen to know that the rides are safe.
But what if the rides weren’t guaranteed to be safe? What if the adrenaline inspired by one of these rides was very, very merited? Well, allow us to introduce you to the thrill and the threat offered by Action Park in Vernon, New Jersey. Now the stuff of NJ lore, Action Park was nicknamed “Class Action Park” due to its many reported injuries and deaths.
The park closed in 1996 but remained a distinctive memory for all those that spent their summers risking their lives down those water slides. In that spirit, let’s take a look back at what made Action Park such a dangerous, albeit unforgettable, establishment.
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Let’s start at the beginning. Founded in 1978 by Gene Mulvihill, Action Park was sold as a new amusement park experience. Mulvihill envisioned a type of park that put the power in the patrons’ hands, building rides and slides that defied safety laws and for that matter, physics.
Mulvihill was a stockbroker and theme park enthusiast. He purchased the land for Action Park from a ski resort and converted the grounds into an attraction that could run year-round.
The park officially opened on July 4, 1978, and would spend its first few years under heavy construction as it attempted to draw crowds. Mulvihill didn’t want the same old rides people could try everywhere else. He was looking to embody the same thrill of skiing, adding just the right amount of risk to get people’s hearts pumping.
Like Walt Disney on X-Games mode, Mulvihill built relentlessly, sometimes even paying his employees to test out rides before they were deemed safe for the public. Ultimately, Gene Mulvihill remains a complicated New Jersey legend. He worked tirelessly to achieve his vision for an amusement park but skirted important safety measures to get there, putting people at risk. In the end, those missteps would be Action Park’s undoing. We’ll get to that later.
Firmly cemented in the memories of New Jersey locals, the rides and experiences at Action Park were the main attraction, precisely because they were so off-the-wall. Let’s review some of the most insane.
Action Park’s first attraction, the Alpine Slide, was made of fiberglass, asbestos, and concrete. Participants would ride a ski lift up to the top of a hill, grab a cart, and hope for the best as they slid down the 2,700 foot-long track. This turned out to be more tricky than one might expect. A small adjustment to the way a person was leaning could cause them to fly off the track, leading to, at best, a skinned knee and, at worse, death. A 19-year-old suffered a traumatic and fatal brain injury after hitting his head on the Alpine Slide.
The Cannonball Loop was dreamt up soon after Action Park opened its Waterworld area, one of the biggest waterparks in New Jersey. The ride would never stay open long, as the physics of the slide was fundamentally flawed. The ride was a straight-shot water slide with a 360-degree loop at the end. Riders would frequently end up falling from the slide in the loop, resulting in more than a few broken noses. One former Action Park employee said, “We called it a monument to stupidity.”
The deadliest of Action Park’s attractions, the Tidal Wave pool was essentially an open swimming pool that experienced artificial waves that sent people tumbling. Wave pools are fairly common at water parks, but Action Park’s version had waves up to 40 inches high and a surprisingly deep floor. Three people died from drowning in the pool and lifeguards were constantly jumping into the water to save patrons.
One of the most popular attractions, the Tarzan Swing, was a glorified rope swing that carried participants over a pool of water that they’d then jump into. The issue was that the jumping-off moment was decided entirely by the person holding onto the rope. If they jumped at the wrong moment, they could fall onto concrete. This ride was also infamous for having a noisy peanut gallery. Action Park famously served alcohol which could lead to a rowdy crowd. Everyone’s jumps received praise or foul-mouthed criticism from the many viewers.
In addition to its slide and water ride offerings, Motorworld was a section of Action Park devoted to powered vehicles. The most unique and popular offering there was certainly Battle Tanks, a version of bumper cars. Riders would drive around in small tanks outfitted with canons that shot out tennis balls. When a tennis ball hit your tank, it would spin around in circles for fifteen seconds. On its own, this attraction wasn’t particularly dangerous, except for the time that one drunk attendee soaked his tennis balls in gasoline before shooting them through the cannon. We’re talking flaming tennis balls, people.
The examples provide only a small sample of Action Park’s full offering, but it’s no wonder that the park faced many uphill battles. Despite gaining a reputation for dangerous and even deadly rides, Action Park remained popular until its closure in 1996. Ultimately, Action Park closed due to legal issues. Mulvihill’s company, Great American Recreation, was $48 million in debt and backed into a corner of bankruptcy, up to its ears in lawsuits and an insurance fraud indictment.
Mulvihill sold the park to Intrawest, who tore down some unsafe rides and renamed it Mountain Creek. The park still operates today, splitting the year between a ski resort and a waterpark. The Cannonball Loop has been taken down, and the wave pool no longer requires Olympic swim lessons.
Many people remember Action Park as “classic New Jersey.” It seems to exist in a strange bubble of the past before safety precautions and oversight would have made the site impossible. While some feel nostalgic for such a time, it’s worth remembering that safety precautions help ensure no one dies in the name of amusement, which we think is a pretty worthwhile cause. For now, it’s probably better Action Park lives on only in the memories of New Jersey locals.
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