During the 1980s and 1990s, New Jersey’s Action Park earned a reputation as the craziest, most dangerous amusement park that had ever existed. Run by teenagers and fuelled by alcohol, the rides defied physics and common sense. Safety was far from guaranteed.
Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott’s brilliantly entertaining documentary, Class Action Park, explores the history and legacy of Action Park - a place, we discover, where “death was tolerated” and a variety of crimes were committed.
Action Park was the brainchild of Gene Mulvihill. He is described in the documentary as a mix of (brace yourself) P.T. Barnum, Donald Trump and Gordan Gekko - with a dash of Jordan Belfort thrown in for good measure.
When Mulvihill was thrown off Wall Street (for selling his customers worthless stocks) he decided to buy two ski resorts in up and coming Vernon, New Jersey. During the “downtime” summer months, Mulvihill decided to develop one of the first modern water parks in the country.
In 1978, Action Park was born. It was divided into three main sections: Alpine Centre (home of the Alpine slide), Water World (home of the Cannonball Loop) and Motor World (home of gas guzzling carnage). Incredibly, running down the middle of the park was Route 94, a major US highway.
Class Action Park examines Mulvihill’s creation via breathtaking archive footage, fun animation and interviews with employees and visitors. The documentary features a clip from Jimmy Kimmel’s talk show where Kimmel recalls that every member of his family was injured at Action Park at some point. Meanwhile, actor and visitor, Chris Gethard, is on hand to put Action Park’s legacy in stark context.
Action Park’s rides were often developed “on the fly” by people (including Mulvihill) who had no engineering expertise. Some rides worked, others didn’t. One of the park’s most infamous attractions was the Cannonball Loop - a terrifying enclosed tube water slide. The ride really has to be seen to be believed and the stories behind its development are horrifying.
During the slide's trial phase, “Uncle” Gene would give teenagers $100 to test the ride. “The loop was fun,” says one brave park employee. “And, yes, it hurt”. This is something of an understatement. Test riders emerged from the Cannonball Loop covered in blood and lacerations - some having lost teeth along the way.
Cannonball Loop was far from the only problematic ride at Action Park. Cannonball Falls, for example, was just as deadly - shooting visitors out of a tunnel 10ft in the air and dropping them into deep, ice cold water. The Alpine Slide was incredibly, horrifically dangerous (and accrued the most injuries). Meanwhile, “the man in a ball, in a ball” ride is the stuff of nightmares.
Watching Class Action Park, you soon begin to question what type of person would create such a place. Ed Youmans, the park’s operations manager, describes Mulvihill as “far and away the most unique character I have ever met in my lifetime. He was big and loud and full of ideas”.
That these ideas made it into reality is truly hard to fathom - prompting another question: who would insure such a dangerous place? Who indeed. Porges tells us in the film that “Gene didn’t believe in the concept of insurance. He believed that if you got hurt, you should be responsible.”
Nonetheless, Mulvihill needed insurance to stay in business. As a result, he created a fake insurance company in the Cayman Islands to circumvent insurance regulations. He also used this company to launder money. Suffice to say, Action Park’s offsite story is just as shocking as the one inside the park itself.
Much of the entertainment of Class Action Park lies in the story behind the creation of these extreme rides and the outrageous and unbelievable actions of Mulvihill. It is all so hard to believe. However, the documentary also takes care to remind us that, from the start, many people were injured. Sometimes seriously. Sometimes fatally.
As Class Action Park moves into its final act, the documentary examines the consequences of Mulvihill’s love of risk and aversion to safety rules. We meet the mother and brother of 19-year old George Larsson who died on Action Park’s Alpine Slide. 39 years later, George’s mother, Esther, talks about the pain of losing her son. Her anger at the callous way Mulvihill treated her family in the aftermath of the incident remains raw.
George Larsson was the first person to die at Action Park. Tragically, he would not be the last.