I grew up in Denver, CO; throughout my youth there were two amusement parks people would talk about. Elitch Gardens was right downtown and boasted some impressive roller coasters. It was even a Six Flags affiliate for a hot second. The other was Lakeside Amusement Park which was much smaller, would often be where parents just dropped off their kids and left, and had rides people would laughingly say hurt them. A lot of suburban areas have these kinds of parks, that become the lore of teenage summer. If that area is Vernon, NJ, you don’t get more ambitious or infamous than Action Park. Opened in 1978, the park was almost immediately the source of injury, malfeasance, and sadly even death.
Action Park is the subject of Chris Charles Scott III and Seth Porges’ fascinating, entertaining, and ultimately very troubling documentary Class Action Park. Interviewing former employees, famous patrons, and gobsmacked city officials, the film approaches the subject with a mixture of incredulity and fond nostalgia. Watching it is to constantly smack your forehead in wonder; how on Earth did this last so long?
The central figure in the story of Action Park is its founder, businessman Gene Mulvihill; who made his money selling penny stocks like the guys in The Wolf of Wall Street. He was an unscrupulous guy who didn’t care to bring his park’s many wild attractions up to safety standards if it meant spending too much money. He just wanted things he knew would bring in crowds and keep them coming back year after year.
The film spends a while going through each of Action Park’s main attractions; it explains how they should have worked, and then goes in to how they inevitably hurt people. Among these include the Cannonball Loop water slide, which was too steep and the loop badly designed; go-karts and speed boats with larger-than-regulation engines; Battle Tanks that shot tennis balls at each other (and people would light on fire); a dangerously steep alpine slide and a massive wave pool, both of which resulted in deaths of patrons. Oh, and people could drink alcohol all day and still go drive the vehicles.
The interviewees, specifically comedian Chris Gethard comes to mind, talk about each of these rides, and the experience of going to the park itself, like surviving it is a badge of honor for New Jersey kids from the ’80s. Every single subject knows Action Park was dangerous and should have been shut down ages before it was, but they laugh about it with the kind of nostalgic afterglow you can only have 30 years removed.
But people did die, Mulvihill did evade prosecution and squeaked by any lawsuit, and while we have to laugh at it now in retrospect—again, how did this exist?—it’s important to remember that this place was dangerous. As the movie heads toward the final third, things take a serious turn; we get to hear from the families of some of the people—the kids—who died because of Mulvihill’s gross negligence. It’s enough to churn the stomach. There are consequences for this kind of recklessness, and the filmmakers do a very good job of investing us in the whole of the story, not just the hilarious “wow, how insane they did that” parts.
Ultimately Class Action Park is a fascinating, supremely entertaining documentary about a place you’re shocked actually existed. It balances humor and anecdotes with the true villainy, or at least greed, that made it happen in the first place. Mulvihill was a contemporary of Donald Trump, the movie explains, and even Trump thought Action Park was too wild to invest in.
Action Park is the stuff of suburban legend now; only home movie footage and bruised and scarred patrons can tell us it was real. You must watch the documentary; these things must be seen to be believed.
Class Action Park hits HBO Max August 27.
Featured Image: HBO Max