Can you put your life in danger for a ride? In the 1980s and 1990s, Action Park in New Jersey provided an amusement park experience unlike any other on the planet.
In Class Action Park, a 2020 documentary from HBO Max, risky activities like drunken bumper boats and unsafe water slides are addressed. The Action Park deaths cast a somber shade on the history of New Jersey Park, even if there are undoubtedly many amusing anecdotes about the park’s glory days.
The Class Action Park documentary sheds light on the culture that allowed a place like this to flourish and on Gene Mulvihill, the larger-than-life figure responsible for it all. It includes commentary from former lifeguards, ride attendants, security guards, and even now-famous park visitors like Chris Gethard and Alison Becker.
Employees served as test subjects for one of Mulvihill’s concepts, a “gravity-defying slide,” which allowed riders to take flight as they descended a hill. Mulvihill was inspired by zero-gravity airplanes. Everything went smoothly until one child missed his landing after getting too much air.
He was one of the fortunate ones since he was carried out of the park on a backboard. (The ride was never released to the public).
Not only were there risky rides but also free alcohol was available, frequently sparking fights. Visitors—many of whom were barefoot—had to walk across scorching, black asphalt between attractions.
The documentary provides eyewitness stories from former employees while also including some heartbreaking interviews with the family of one of Action Park’s victims, even though the park’s darker history has already been made public.
What is Action Park, and Where is it Located?
The amusement and water park known now as Mountain Creek Waterpark, formerly Action Park, is situated on the grounds of the Vernon Valley/Great Gorge ski resort in Vernon Township, New Jersey, in the United States.
When the park opened to the public in 1978, it was owned by Great American Recreation and mainly included water-based attractions (GAR).
The Alpine Center, Motorworld, and Waterworld were among the three distinct attraction zones at Action Park. One of the first contemporary American water parks was the last. Its many distinctive attractions drew thrill-seekers from around the New York metropolitan area.
The success of Action Park was accompanied by a reputation for shoddy ride engineering, underage and untrained workers, inebriated visitors and staff, and a subpar safety record. It is known that accidents on park rides have killed at least six people.
Action Park was known as “Traction Park,” “Accident Park,” “Class Action Park,” and “Friction Park” by healthcare professionals and locals.
Despite the park’s history of repeated infractions, state authorities made little attempt to resolve those problems. GAR’s management engaged in illicit financial schemes to maintain its financial stability, which resulted in the indictment of the company’s leaders, some of whom, like founder Gene Mulvihill, pleaded guilty to some counts.
Personal injury lawsuits forced the closing of an increasing number of attractions during Action Park’s later years, and in 1996 the entire facility was shut down.
Resort builder Intrawest stated in 1998 that it had acquired most of the Vernon Valley/Great Gorge ski area, including Action Park and other GAR-owned buildable real estate properties. The amusement park had a significant makeover, which involved extensively repairing and rebuilding attractions, particularly those deemed either wholly dangerous or inappropriate in light of Intrawest’s vision for the park, with several wholly dismantled. The park subsequently reopened with a new name.
History of Action Park
The proprietors of the recently amalgamated Vernon Valley/Great Gorge ski facility in Vernon Township, New Jersey, Eugene Mulvihill, and his business, Great American Recreation (GAR), sought to generate revenue during the summer off-season in 1976.
They installed a 2,700-foot-long (820 m) alpine slide down one of the challenging ski trails, following other ski areas’ lead. Mulvihill renamed the group of rides the “Vernon Valley Summer Park” and added two water slides and a go-kart track for the summer of 1978.
On July 4 of that year, Action Park officially launched two opening-day promotions: a Dolly Parton impersonation contest and a tobacco juice-spitting competition.
The Action Park area that came to be known as Waterworld received additional water slides, a small deep-water swimming pool, tennis courts, and a softball field the following year. By 1980, the swamplands that the ski area held across State Road 94 had been transformed into Motorworld.
One of the first contemporary water parks in North America was developed by the park’s 250 acres (100 ha). It developed into a popular spot with 75 rides (35 motorized, self-controlled rides and 40 water slides).
Gene Mulvihill’s motivation for developing Action Park can be summed up as “Gene didn’t want to do the same old shit, where you simply get strapped into something, or it twirls around,” according to Andy Mulvihill, who later served as the park’s head lifeguard.
“Skiing is thrilling because you have control over the action. Therefore, he wanted to apply that concept to an amusement park. Although a risk is involved, the fun factor makes up for it.”
The 1980s’ first and second halves were Action Park’s most prosperous decades. Most of the rides were still in operation, and the park’s reputation for risk had yet to take hold. Two visitors passed away at the park within a week of one another in 1982, prompting the permanent closure of one ride.
Despite this, many people kept showing up. The park’s fortunes changed with two fatalities in the summer of 1984 and the resulting legal and financial issues from the lawsuits.
A 110-count grand jury indictment against the nine connected firms that ran the park and their leaders for running an unlicensed insurance company resulted from a state inquiry into irregularities in leasing state land to Action Park.
Many people used pretrial intervention to escape prosecution; Gene admitted to five insurance fraud charges that November. The park continued to draw large crowds and, at least on paper, was still lucrative.
In 1980s, Action Park hosted over a million guests annually, up to 12,000 of whom came during the busiest weekends. Park officials said this rendered the injury and fatality rates statistically irrelevant.
Although on some of the busiest days, the emergency room director at a local hospital reported treating five to ten park accident victims, the park eventually purchased additional ambulances for the township to handle the traffic.
GAR and International Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) agreed in September 1989 to sell Vernon Valley/Great Gorge and Action Park for $50 million. IBC later withdrew from the agreement after further property inspections convinced them that the site needed more suitable for their requirements.
A referendum that, if approved, would have allowed the operation of games of skill and chance at Action Park was the subject of a petition from GAR to the township committee in September 1991. Just 643 of the 937 signatures on the petition were from registered voters. Hence the initiative was unsuccessful.
In the 1990s, a few attractions had to be shut down or disassembled because of expensive settlements and rising insurance rates. The park’s attendance started to decline due to a recession that hit the country at the start of that decade. The largest water park in the world, Action Park, was still marketed as such.
Vernon Valley/Great Gorge and Action Park were run by GAR without any liability coverage at the start of 1995. GAR relied on their own self-insurance, and New Jersey did not mandate it, so it determined it would be more cost-effective to litigate rather than get liability insurance.
To cover Action Park and the skiing facilities, they did, however, ultimately buy liability insurance from Evanston Insurance Company in May of that year. The GAR’s financial problems grew worse as 1995 went on.
Labor Day 1996 saw the park’s customary season-ending closure. Still, it also saw a website opening where guests could learn about attractions, get directions to the park, book lodging, and sign up for a lottery to win park tickets.
Is Action Park in America Still Open?
Despite extensive layoffs after the previous ski season, GAR remained confident that Action Park would open on June 14 as planned for the 1997 summer season. The opening was delayed by two weeks and then moved to the middle of July. On June 25, GAR declared that all its businesses, including Action Park, would end.
Once GAR failed, Praedium Recovery Fund paid $10 million to acquire the Vernon Valley/Great Gorge resort, which included Action Park. The investment company appointed Angel Projects as the resort’s manager and planned to invest $20 million to renovate the water park and expand the ski resort’s facilities and trails.
Instead, in February 1998, Canadian resort developer Intrawest bought the land. The Motorworld and Alpine Center sections of Action Park were destroyed, while the Waterworld area was renovated and reopened as Mountain Creek Waterpark for the 1998 season.
When construction of Mountain Creek’s Black Creek Sanctuary started in the middle of 2000, the park’s Motorworld area was still standing and unspoiled.
Determinants Of the Park’s Safety Record
Various elements, including the layout and construction of the rides, the demographics of guests and employees, and insufficient government regulation, caused accidents at the park.
Riding style at Action Park
Action Park and its supporters frequently emphasized that it was one of the country’s earliest water parks, developing concepts that were later extensively imitated. As a result, rides were being used by tourists that still needed to undergo extensive field testing.
It’s possible that the ride’s designers needed to have appropriate physics or engineering education. One participant remembered, “They seemed to design rides without knowing how they would work, and [then] let people on them.”
As AR’s legal issues would suggest, it was charged with using cheap labor to increase profits. For instance, it was charged with creating rides on the cheap, maintaining many of them irregularly, and failing to update rides to benefit from later safety improvements to its concepts made by other facilities.
A variety of its functions, including customer safety, used these procedures. Despite being unable to secure liability insurance, the park maintained a portion of the ski area open in its final year.
Action Park claimed that the park’s eateries frequently used cost-cutting techniques typical of the sector, such as boiling hot dog buns that had already stiffened and dried to become moist and supple enough to appear new.
Workers Action Park employed a large majority of teens, at least among those frequently visible to guests. Jim DeSaye, the park’s security director, claimed he was hired for the position at 21 after working there for two years. His situation was not unusual.
Training sessions were held, but the personnel frequently didn’t take them seriously. In Class Action Park, a former employee recounts that practice sessions for saving drowning victims were frequently used as an excuse for hazing.
New employees frequently had to play the role of a drowning victim, and once training was over or in place of training, they frequently had to extricate themselves out of the water on their own. The majority were 15-16-year-olds.
Action Park drew many visitors from urban neighborhoods in the New York metropolitan region because it was closer and slightly less expensive than Six Flags Great Adventure. They frequently came from low-income areas where they had few opportunities to learn how to swim.
According to park officials, the park greatly overstated these talents, contributing to several mishaps and drownings.
Since only a few personnel spoke Spanish and no written materials were made available in that language, DeSaye blames management’s choice to increase the client base by advertising in Spanish-language media for the accident rate.
Visitors, who generally valued having much control over their experience, adopted a similarly lawless attitude as a result of the staff’s disregard for many of the park’s own laws; as one interviewee in Class Action Park described it, “In a world saturated with no, Action Park became the land of yes.”
When offered free passes for subsequent visits as compensation, those hurt were frequently eager to accept them. Employees at the park frequently blamed the riders for accidents.
A state official remarked that many water slide accidents were caused by visitors who frequently dumped their mats midway down the slide and waited at the turn for their companions so they could go down the slide together, blatantly violating a clearly written rule.
When it was finally their turn, many played to the crowd with provocative and bawdy conduct. Many attractions routed their lines so those waiting could watch every preceding rider. Mainly the Tarzan Swing was notorious for exhibitionism and unplanned outbursts of filthy language as people jumped off the swing in front of the entire line behind them.
There have occasionally been physical fights between different visitor groups or between guests and personnel. A large-scale riot requiring police intervention occurred at the Gladiator Challenge when a patron felt one of the gladiators had been unduly violent with him. This brawl started due to raft crashes on the Colorado River ride.
On another occasion, a group of passing bodybuilders threw the lifeguards into the pool they were watching, prompting the lifeguards to ask for assistance from their pals.
Andy Mulvihill also remembers a time when a confrontation over alleged line jumping spilled outside the park, resulting in one participant trying to flee while a worker was being brought home by her mother; the worker opted not to come back to work after that.
Alcohol availability on grounds
The drinking age was similarly laxly enforced at the park’s numerous kiosks selling beer as it was at other limits. The injured were frequently found to be inebriated, according to doctors caring for them.
Lack of regulations
Despite receiving numerous warnings between 1979 and 1986 for safety violations, such as letting children operate some rides and failing to report accidents, an investigation by the New Jersey Herald, Sussex County’s leading daily newspaper, later revealed that the park had only been fined once.
Apart from Action Park, all other amusement parks in that division were subject to fines for first infractions. It inquired as to whether GAR and the state had any particular ties. As the largest employer in Sussex County, Class Action Park allegedly received preferential treatment from the township government, according to a reporter for Vernon’s neighborhood weekly.
Several state regulations needed to address the situation sufficiently. The state apparently treated the Tidal Wave Pool as a pool rather than a ride following the drowning in 1987.
That implied that the business was only required to maintain the water’s cleanliness and ensure that trained lifeguards were on duty under state standards in effect at the time.
Horrifying Deaths at Action Park
Some of the deaths and horrifying injuries sustained by the patrons of the part are as follows:
The death of George Larsson Jr. after riding the Alpine Slide is one of Class Action Park’s key foci, and it may be one of the ugliest and most disturbing of the tragedies at Action Park. Riders would sit on miniature sleds with a brake/accelerator stick and slide down the slope on the 2,700-foot-long Alpine Slide, built of concrete, fiberglass, and asbestos.
According to a patron who wished to stay anonymous, “a friend and I went to the park one afternoon, and Larsson, then 19 years old, boarded the Alpine Slide. Evidently, his sled ran off the track because the brake on it had broken.
“He smacked his head on a rock after falling into an embankment, which caused a coma and ultimately led to his death.”
Gene Mulvihill, the park creator, said to reporters that Larsson was a worker, that he was riding at night, and that it had been raining; however, his family contradicts this account.
Mulvihill related this tale because, if Larsson had been an employee, he would not have been compelled to notify the authorities of the death. According to state records, the Alpine Slide alone caused 26 head injuries and 14 fractures between 1984 and 1985. “Luckier” riders frequently avoided severe burns and scrapes from the concrete track.
The Wave (Grave) Pool
Employees at Action Park nicknamed the Wave Pool “The Dead Pool” since it caused numerous fatalities. Former lifeguards and staff members claimed Class Action Park’s water was too strong and deep, even though non-swimmers frequently dove in.
As the water reached shoulder height, or “The Death Zone,” as lifeguards dubbed it, people would grab each other or seek the ladders, which frequently resulted in accidents.
It was common to practice hazing lifeguards by placing them in “The Death Chair,” which looked out over the wave pool. At all times, there were twelve lifeguards on duty. They frequently saved several individuals in a few minutes and couldn’t take their eyes off the water for a second.
They had to pause the waves every few minutes to inspect the bottom for any bodies they might have missed because the water was so dark from sunscreen, human excrement, and runoff from the mountain.
George Lopez, 15, perished in the Wave Pool in 1982. A man named Gregory Grandchamps drowned five years later. Even though it is apparently much shallower now, the pool is still open.
The Kayak Experience
Only a few days after 15-year-old George Lopez drowned in the Wave Pool, 27-year-old Jeffrey Nathan died while participating in “The Kayak Experience,” an attraction that involved paddling down 1,000 feet of rapids in 20 boats.
As it turned out, underwater fans were what caused these rapids. One of these underwater fans apparently short-circuited when Nathan was in the water attempting to climb back aboard his kayak, electrocuting him.
It has been reported that Nathan tumbled out of the kayak, which is typical for visitors to this attraction. He suffered a heart arrest and passed away soon after. The park refused to accept blame for the fatality and said they simply shut down The Kayak Experience because customers would be too terrified. Nonetheless, this incident resulted in its permanent closure.
The infamous enclosed tube waterslide greeted visitors to Action Park. It sounds accurate when it says in Class Action Park that it resembles something from a cartoon.
Dummies were used as test subjects when the slide was first created, and it was discovered that they consistently emerged mutilated. At some point, park creator Gene Mulvihill encouraged his young workers to use the slide by flashing $100 dollars in their direction.
According to the former workers, they crossed their arms and legs before entering the dark tube because the $100 cash appeared to be really decent. Riders had bloodied mouths as they emerged before padding was introduced.
Once they discovered that the previous riders’ teeth had been locked in the loop and were cutting them up, the lacerations that the following riders suffered made sense. In the short, shallow pond designed to catch them as they landed, people rarely had much room to recover after exiting the slide bruised, bloody-nosed, confused, and unable to stand.
The Bailey Ball
Even though “Man in the Ball in the Ball”—later renamed “The Bailey Ball” when that was too tiresome—never had a confirmed guest show up, a test went horribly wrong. The enormous ball was designed to roll down a PVC pipe mountain course with a guy inside.
It was covered in caster wheels. On one of the hottest days of the summer, Mulvihill hired an employee called Frank $100 to test it, as is his custom. Mulvihill sent the ball down the hill without realizing that the heat had caused the PVC pipe path to widen and the adhesive to melt.
In the process, it jumped off the track, descended a 600-foot mountain, crossed a motorway, and landed in a marsh. Then, it was rolled into the surrounding woods, where it stayed long.
We can only assume that Frank never strapped himself into any experimental contraption again after that, even though he was disturbed up and ill.
Legacy of Action Park
Many Generation Xers who grew up in North and Central Jersey and surrounding areas in New York and Connecticut considered Action Park a cultural landmark. A well-liked list of “You’re From New Jersey” goes, “You’ve suffered significant injuries at Action Park.”
Some people even claim that the park forced them to learn challenging lessons. Matthew Callan described Action Park in 2000 as follows:
A generation of Tri-State region children who passed through Action Park’s blood-stained gates became adults due to the lessons it taught us about life: It is not safe, you will get hurt a lot, and you’ll ride home wholly burned.
Weird NJ author Chris Gethard agrees, as does the author of the related book series:
“For any New Jerseyan of my generation, going to Action Park was a real life-changing experience. When I get to discussing it with other Jerseyans, we swap stories like we were fellow combat veterans.
“During some of those rides up in Vernon Valley, several of us may have come the closest to passing out. It truly saddens me that future generations will never experience the horror of having to prove their mettle at New Jersey’s most hazardous theme park.”
MTV’s Headbangers Ball filmed an episode at the park on August 1, 1993. Riki Rachtman, the host, spoke with the band Alice in Chains and rode the rides with them.
In June 2016, the inaugural episode of the Relay FM podcast Ungeniused, which explored the park’s history, its level of safety, and why people kept going there, focused on Action Park.
A movie by Jackass founder and star Johnny Knoxville was inspired by the park’s history of having a bad reputation for safety. Filming began in March 2017 and ended in June 2017. Action Point was the title given to the movie when it was released on June 1 by Paramount Pictures.
The Most Hazardous Theme Park in America, a documentary produced by Mashable, features Action Park (September 24, 2019).
The 2020 HBO documentary Class Action Park is about Action Park.
Next, read about the Disturbing Disappearance of Rebecca Coriam, a Woman Who Disappeared from a Disney Cruise Ship, and then about Gary Webb, The Man Who Exposed the CIA And Paid the Price.
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