The most startling statistic in Class Action Park goes by fast. While testing the infamous Cannonball Loop waterslide that sat near the entrance to Action Park, an engineer determined that riders would experience upwards of 9 g. That’s nine times the force of gravity. For reference, a Space Shuttle launch subjected astronauts to a maximum of 3.5 g. The average person passes out after a few seconds at 5 g. In 2018, cosmonauts escaping a disintegrating Russian rocket briefly pulled 7 g. The only people who have ever experienced more than 9 g and lived to tell about it are highly trained fighter pilots wearing protective equipment—and kids who went to Action Park in the summer of 1985.
The Cannonball Loop at Action Park, circa 1985.
Founded in 1978, the Vernon, New Jersey theme park had many nicknames, including Class Action Park and Traction Park. It was a rite of passage for a generation of New York and New Jersey teens and tweens. The Cannonball Loop was decommissioned after one summer, but it sat near Action Park’s entrance until it closed in 1996, the physical embodiment of owner Gene Mulvihill’s anything-goes philosophy of mass entertainment. But there was more where that came from — a lot more. The go-karts had a maximum speed of 60 MPH, and the track was right next to the beer garden. The wave pool had a “death zone.” There were so many injuries that local officials forced the park to buy its own ambulance.
If there was anything more dangerous than going to Action Park, it was working at Action Park. They were all young (one of the interviewees was Head of Security when he was 17 years old) and chock full of drink and drugs. The closing weekend parties, paid for by money recovered from the bottoms of pools and auctioning off items in the lost and found, are the stuff of New Jersey teenage legend. After test dummies sent through the Cannonball Loop came out dismembered, Mulvihill enticed his employees to be the first human subjects by standing at the bottom of the slide waving $100 bills. Later, he attacked workers with a fake cattle prod.
Needless to say, nothing like Action Park could survive in today’s regulatory and litigation environment. It was only rampant criminality, fueled by a Wall Street money laundering scheme, that allowed Action Park to thrive in the first place. But the fact that the park survived 16 years after the first patron death, caused when a teenager was ejected from the Alpine Slide and flew face-first into a stone wall, speaks to the difference between the Reagan years and today.
And yet, Action Park is remembered with fondness by the majority of the people interviewed by directors Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges. Maybe “fondness” is the wrong word; more like a mixture of nostalgia and astonishment. The best of the interviewees is comedian Chris Gethard, who says every member of his family was injured at Action Park—but they kept going back.
The not-so-lazy river ride.
Class Action Park is enormously entertaining in that watching-a-train-wreck kind of way. But it’s also about the power of memory to transform borderline trauma into good times. Looking back on the experience with fully developed frontal lobes, none of the interviewees would ever send their own kids into the Action Park meat grinder.
Was something of value lost when the laissez-faire childrearing philosophy gave way to helicopter parenting? Arguably, yes — but don’t tell that to the still-grieving parents of the Action Park casualties. Featuring apparently every foot of film and video ever shot at the park (including an MTV Headbangers Ball episode where drug-addled members of Alice In Chains hurl themselves down life-threatening waterslides) and some excellent animation illustrating the workings of the more extreme rides, Class Action Park is a tight doc. I’ll have to say, I have always heard people who grew up in New Jersey claim to be tougher than your average teenager. After seeing what they used to do for fun, I now believe them.