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
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 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,
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.