From 1978 to 1996 — in summer movie terms, from “Animal House” to “Twister” — Vernon, New Jersey’s Action Park waterpark flung thousands upon thousands of sunburned, liquored-up, party-down thrill-seekers headlong into a notorious collection of poorly designed water slides, a 40 mph concrete Alpine coaster where the brakes didn’t always work, and 60 mph go-karts. According to those who worked there and depending on the driver’s risk tolerance and blood alcohol level, the go-karts sometimes veered off course and straight onto Route 94, which bisected the park itself.
Everything about Action Park could kill you. And it sometimes did, as the wittily appalling HBO documentary “Class Action Park” makes clear.
The half-wisecracking, half-serious reminiscence grew out of an earlier 15-minute documentary, “The Most Insane Amusement Park Ever.” That title does not lie. With little safety oversight and, eventually, a series of fatal accidents, Action Park operated as a place where the usual rules of theme park engagement didn’t apply. As more than one interview subject notes, it was like an ’80s movie about latchkey kids in over their heads, running loose and wild.
Comedian Chris Gethard a terrified Action Park regular as a kid and the ringer here, equates the experience to a rite-of-lonely-adolescence-passage. “We felt like we were on our own,” he says. “We felt like the world was an unsafe place.” Action Park confirmed it.
Millions of kids in America can tell you about the stupid stunts they pulled, or the time they went way over the line trying this or that. Action Park was made for those kids, and their knucklehead parents. It had the deceptive distinction of offering a heavily advertised, healthy-seeming chaotic day in the sun. It promised excitement and it delivered, complete with skin abrasions, snake-infested lagoons where the “Kayak Experience” attraction was located and far, far worse.
The park’s huckster-founder, Gene Mulvihill, provides the focus for writer-directors Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges. A disgraced but well-connected graduate of the Wall Street go-go years, Mulvihill bought two ski resorts in the Vernon township and realized he could make money in the off-season by building a waterpark of his unbridled dreams. What was touted as “the next Disney World” became a down-market expression of pure adolescent id, where “you control the action!”
Fifty miles from New York City, Action World featured three main areas: Alpine Center, Water World and Motor World. The Cannonball Loop dominated the talk at Water World. A long, high, steep tube, wetted down by sprinklers, sent customers plummeting into an upside-down hell before skidding onto a too-short runway puddle.
Some of the craziest details in “Class Action Park” involve the initial testing phase of this attraction. Park security director Jim DeSaye recounts Mulvihill paying his employees $100 to try out early iterations of the Loop. The first two kids, he says, came out with their “mouths all bloody.” The next two came out with substantial skin lacerations, from the stray loose teeth embedded in the tube’s padding.
“Gene didn’t believe in the concept of insurance,” Porges notes on-camera, detailing the Cayman Islands shell company Mulvihill established to self-insure, minimally, a business built on adrenaline and terror. Summers came and went, with the stories of dislocated shoulders and other injuries piling up. It was a pretty rough crowd, and fistfights broke out routinely, waist-deep in the “Colorado River” traffic jams.
The documentary’s second half turns darker. Several patrons died, either from massive head injuries or electrocution or drowning, between 1980 and 1987. Among them was 19-year-old Sussex County resident George Larsson, whose mother, Esther Larsson, serves as the film’s conscience.
Throughout “Class Action Park” the filmmakers link Mulvihill’s unregulated lethal funhouse to the larger, deregulated capitalistic greed of the Reagan era. (Editor’s note: It’s back!) That’s not a stretch, exactly, but the documentary infers a good deal about Mulvihill’s underworld connections and political maneuvers without quite nailing them down.
Relying heavily on park employees’ memories and stories, it’s well worth seeing nonetheless. The ’80s trappings, particularly the synthesizer-heavy score and the funsy animated segments, evoke memories of a time before cellphones and helicopter parenting. Former Action Park lifeguard Faith Anderson remembers, with some fondness, the “Lord of the Flies” behavior of the boys and men, and girls and women, who loved the place.
She also says: “I think our parents should’ve been more afraid.”
‘CLASS ACTION PARK’
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Rating: TV-MA (for language)
Now streaming on HBO Max.
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