In 1978, the amusement and water park Action Park opened in Vernon, New Jersey. Founded by Wall Street tycoon Gene Mulvihill, Action Park was billed as the destination “where you’re the center of the action!”
That was exactly its boon and bane.
Action Park became equal parts famous and infamous for its wildly unregulated and objectively dangerous rides.
There was the Alpine Slide, a 2,700-foot-long track made of concrete, fiberglass, and asbestos that became a regular site for serious friction burns and abrasions as riders were thrown from their sleds at hairpin turns. There were the Super Speedboats that often capsized into an oil-filled, snake-infested pond. There was the Tidal Wave Pool, which was given the rather accurate dysphemism “The Grave Pool.”
And, of course, there was Action Park’s most emblematic attraction the Cannonball Loop, a long, enclosed water slide ending in loop that defied physics and either left riders stuck or with lacerations all over their body from the teeth that were knocked out and left behind in the chute.
Over the course of its 18-year run, Action Park’s rides caused countless injuries and at least five fatalities from drowning, head trauma, and electrocution.
But for many, the danger and reckless freedom of the rides were intrinsically linked to the appeal of Action Park. As Mulvihill’s son Andy explained it once, “It was really more like a participation park. You didn’t get strapped in, you kind of controlled your own destiny.” That air of self-governance was largely abetted by the park’s predominately teenaged (and frequently underaged) staff.
There’s not a shred of a chance that Action Park could exist today, which is why many who experienced it firsthand have a complicated relationship with their nostalgia.
That’s precisely what led journalist and former Action Park patron Seth Porges to codirect the documentary Class Action Park.
“The journey I had is, to some degree, the arc of the film, which is when I first heard about Action Park, I was enthralled by it as this hilarious wacky strange place. Then I started to learn about those tragedies and I felt really bad for having laughed about it earlier,” Porges says. “Then you start talking to the people who actually lived and survived and realize that they looked back with a sense of fondness because it changed them. It was their childhood, and there’s a sense of nostalgia associated with that—even if it hurts us.”
Class Action Park started as the 2013 short doc The Most Insane Amusement Park Ever that Porges made after writing a few articles about Action Park. He says the doc took off because people who spent years telling others about Action Park—and were dismissed for seemingly exaggerating their tales—were finally vindicated.
“After that came out, a million other people started reaching out to me saying, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve got stories to tell,'” Porges says. “I started talking to people and digging deeper and researching it, and I realized there’s something bigger here.”
Class Action Park unpacks the lore and litigation that came to define Action Park and the shady deals and politics that kept it open much longer than it should’ve been. But the doc’s greatest success is highlighting how the greatest pitfalls of Action Park were also rooted in the teenage spirit of its heyday in the 1980s.
Several sources in the doc look back at Action Park and liken that sense of freedom and adventure to living in their own ’80s teen movie.
“You watch The Goonies, you watch Meatballs, you watch E.T., you watch these movies and it’s like, where are the parents? It’s not treated as a strange thing—that’s just how a lot of people grew up back then,” Porges says. “The fact that people could get injured at Action Park was the appeal of Action Park. In our modern-day world where everything’s rubber coated and insurance and lawyers run everything, people look at a place like Action Park and are astonished it was ever able to exist.”
That fascination has manifested not only in Class Action Park, but a recently released memoir from Mulvihill’s son that’s being adapted into a TV series for Hulu and the 2018 comedy Action Point that’s loosely based on Action Park.
“People are not just nostalgic for Action Park, not just nostalgic for the ’80s, they’re nostalgic for going outside, for hanging out with their friends, for going on adventures,” Porges says. “Action Park is the hyper-distilled version of all of this.”
But still, lurking behind the rose-colored memories are deaths by negligence and an owner who shirked responsibility for the bottom line.
“I don’t want to tell anybody how they should feel about Action Park, but what I’m personally left with is that it’s a place that makes you question how society operates. It makes you question how thin the barrier is between order and anarchy,” Porges says. “There’s something about the topic that’s just so hard to shake. Once you get sucked into it, there’s no shortage of mental contortions you’ll take as you alternate between thinking, ‘This was amazing! This was horrible. This was amazing! This was horrible.’ And I think everybody has a right to feel both ways at the same time about it.”