Action Park and the end of the American Dream

Action Park was the mad brainchild of Gene Mulvihill, a place where the visitors were in control of their experience, one inspired by the thrills of the great outdoors.  Today, it’s spoken of in hushed tones, as though merely mentioning a time when kids were free to roam and play, determining for themselves what was safe and unsafe without constant supervision, was somehow taboo in and of itself.

Action Park, the infamous combination water park and motorsports facility in Vernon, NJ, has become synonymous with 80’s era excess and utter lack of concern about safety.  Frequently referred to as “the most dangerous water park in America,”  Action Park featured a combination of attractions that seem downright insane by modern standards.  There was the Alpine Slide, which was essentially a ski slope paved with a curved cement track, where riders would take the lift to the top of a mountain and then mount a plastic kart with a center locking brake to make their way down without helmets, pads, or anything of the sort.  The Cannonball Loop, an enclosed water slide with a rollercoaster style 360 degree loop, meaning riders were upside down in a small tube before being launched into a pool, was even more mythical, known to knock out people’s teeth and rarely ever open because of it.  Cannonball Falls was an underground water slide that shot riders from an elevated tube into an ice cold pool.  There was another, taller water slide so steep riders wouldn’t even touch the surface at first, literally in free fall for a few moments before it leveled out. The Tarzan Swing featured an elevated platform and a rope with a handlebar, where people would launch themselves over the open water, or not, sometimes crashing into the platform itself.  The cliff dives approached professional level 10 meter heights into a pool where other people were swimming, minding their own business until someone plummeted down upon them.  Multiple sets of rapids with no harness, pads, helmet, or life jacket, allowed people individually or in groups to descend down an artificial river, frequently falling or colliding with one another.  The Tidal Wave Pool was nicknamed the “Grave Pool” because 40 inch waves would crash over a crowd of people on cement.  They say thirty people per day needed to be pulled from the pool on a big weekend.  There was also an area devoted to high speed go karts, motor boats, bumper boats, even dune buggies, all of which were operated with little to no safety equipment.

Above and beyond the rides and attractions, there was a pervasive sense that anything goes at Action Park.  This was not an era of strict parental or adult supervision, one plagued by rules and regulations for everything.  Parents would deposit their children at the entrance of the park and not see them until lunch or perhaps even dinner.  In the meantime, young people were free to do essentially whatever they pleased under the supervision of mainly other young people.  The staff was largely pulled from the surrounding town, and associates began their career at Action Park as young as fourteen years old.  Many of the managers were not yet eighteen.  The guests and often the staff were frequently fueled by no shortage of alcohol.  Though the drinking age in New Jersey was 21 throughout the park’s eighteen year existence from 1978 to 1996, these laws were rarely enforced, especially in the early days.  The result was something like a roving teen house party combined with thrills culled from the great outdoors.  Between the peer pressure of your group, the potential for intoxication, and the relatively lax rules, it is no surprise that things sometimes turned dangerous.  The park is said to be responsible for at least six fatalities:  Three drownings in the tidal wave pool, an electrocution in the Kayak Experience after a mishap with an exposed wire, and a nineteen year old thrown from the Alpine Slide, only to have his head smashed on a rock (I could not find the means of the sixth death).  There were lawsuits, of course, enough that a recent documentary on Action Park was titled Class Action Park.  A combination of management’s political connections and a refuse-to-settle attitude that insisted all suits actually go to court, however, limited the park’s legal exposure. There is no accurate reporting on the number of injuries as the state only required notification for major incidents, which was perceived by park management to mean a trip to the hospital at a minimum.  Those, however, were frequent enough that Action Park acquired its own ambulance.  The Alpine Slide produced some 26 serious head injuries and 14 fractures alone.

Action Park was the mad brainchild of developer Gene Mulvihill who wanted to build a park where the visitors themselves were in control of their experience, one inspired by the thrills of the great outdoors mentioned earlier.  Disney World or Great Adventure, where the rides do the work and the rider is strapped completely in, Action Park was not.  Calling them rides is something a misnomer to begin with:  A rollercoaster can run whether or not anyone is in it.  The “rides” at Action Park put you in charge, from the start to the finish.  Here, the adventurous among us could choose how fast and how far they went on attractions that were self-evidently dangerous and advertised as such.  No one could exit the lift at the top of the Alpine Slide, for example, without seeing multiple warnings complete with graphic photographs about what happened when a person’s bare flesh skid across the cement at high speed, what was described as “essentially a giant track to rip people’s skin off that was disguised as a kid’s ride.”  It is also true that some of the rides were not properly designed or thoroughly tested. In fact, Mr. Mulvihill would pay park employees $100 to test a ride after throwing a crash test dummy or two down it to ensure a fake human body didn’t come out the other end dismembered.  Mr. Mulvihill’s son admitted as much, when he noted that they “never quite perfected” the Cannonball Loop and my father, “if he could find a guy with a crazy idea for a ride, he’d hire the guy, even if he never built it before.”  Some of these crazy contraptions never made it to the public.  There was, for example, an idea for a free-floating capsule, essentially a sphere large enough for a person inside another rotating sphere.  The capsule would be launched from the top of the mountain down a set of PVC tracks.  Unfortunately, the PVC tracks were not weather resistant, prone to growing and flexing in the summer heat, and a test run saw the capsule leave the track entirely and go rolling off down the mountain into the woods.  Another idea was for a water slide steep and fast enough to produce an airborne launch, literally throwing riders in the air like a skateboard or bicycle quarter pipe, but for better or worse, it never came to fruition either.

In retrospect, even I will admit that much of this seems completely insane and out of control.  Some wonder how it was possible in the first place, playing up the danger as if it were a miracle anyone who visited the park escaped without a major injury.  The Class Action Park documentary talks about it in hushed tones, as though merely mentioning that there was an era when kids were free to roam and play, determining for themselves what was safe and unsafe on their own, under at times questionable conditions, without constant supervision, was somehow taboo in and of itself, something the modern thought police might accost you for embracing.  Some who loved the park at the time, still think it never should have happened and wonder how it was allowed to happen, claiming it was an unhealthy way to grow up.  “When you talk to other people who went there, there’s a certain shared level of sort of survivor’s respect,” explained a park guest who grew up in the area.  “Many of the people who you talk to who grew up in New Jersey, laughing about Action Park, if you ask them on a basic level, do you think the way you grew up was healthy for a kid, they’ll say no.  We laugh about it because what else are we gonna do, but we don’t think it was healthy.”   “Everything’s in your face today, and I think we’re more fearful.  Rightfully so, I think our parents should have been more afraid,” explained another “survivor.”  At least one person has suggested that the entire thing was a scam that lives on today in the fraudulent Fire Festival and even the Theranos pharmaceutical scandal.   Even the person who claimed it was unhealthy, completely disagreed with that.  “Gene gave you every thing he fucking promised you.  He said come to my amusement park, do whatever the fuck you feel like.  You might get hurt, but you are probably gonna have a shit ton of fun.  It was what it says.  It was fucked up.”

What are we to make of this close to 40 years after the park’s heyday?  Is this an accurate description or are we missing something, looking back on the past with the perspective of the present as we do so often these days?  The temptation is strong. Action Park’s influence on modern culture remains unique for its kind, having recently been parodied on The Simpsons as Riot Rivers. Homer fondly remembers the insane days of his youth, only to discover the modern incarnation has been rebranded Quiet Rivers and he gripes that even the life guards aren’t stoned anymore. The real Action Park was a perennial favorite in the Twiste household, making it difficult for me to provide an object assessment.  We were not Great Adventure goers.  We preferred the excitement of the water park and the ability to control your own destiny as if you were the ride, rather than simply being strapped into it.  There was little more exciting in a mid 80’s summer than the mere anticipation of a trip to Action Park, one of the few things well worth the hour and a half drive from Staten Island in my young mind.  Nor did we view these trips as some kind of dangerous experiment in Darwinian evolution.  We went simply for an escape and the fun of it all, and we loved it.  It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we started to consider that some of these adventures might not have been good ideas.  This does not mean that we were without fear.  The fear, in fact, was part of the fun.  Being a young kid and looking up at the stairs leading to a monstrous water slide, imagining the view from the top and what it will feel like to come plummeting down.  My mother still recounts her one and only experience with the Cannonball Falls.  There was a bar to hang from above the start of the slide, before you officially took the plunge so to speak.  You would step into the top of the tube, grab the bar so your legs were stretched down, and then the operator would spray you with freezing cold water.  The unexpected shock startled many people, causing them to release their grip on the bar with a yelp, as it did my mother, disappearing into the shoot whether or not they were ready.  As one park goer put it, “Even though I was scared to do those rides, I fucking did them.  There’s also a part of me that’s like if you can’t do them, get the fuck out of Jersey.”

In my opinion, this is the true spirit of the park in action, but it also points to something deeper about the American Dream itself.  The future, the unknown and all it entails is frequently frightening.  There are things that we can’t control, things that will knock you down, you don’t even see coming as Bruce Springsteen once put it.  The freedom to explore, to take risks, and yes even to get hurt or fail is critical to achieving your dreams.  Dreams in fact can’t come true without this freedom.  If nothing is risked, nothing is gained, the result is that we become decidedly pessimistic about the future.  In America today, we look at the past with dread, wondering how we even survived a theme park, and we look to control every aspect of the future, prioritizing safety above all else, as if life locked in your house, hidden from danger, were worth living in the first place.  An overabundance of safety breeds stagnation and complacency, both of which we appear to have a surplus of by almost any measure.  This risk-averse mentality begins in childhood and is only likely to get worse with each generation.  As another park guest described it, “We live in an era when kids don’t really go outside as much.  When they do go outside, people are scared they are going to get hurt.  In the 80’s kids were running free, they were running out doors, they were scraping their knees.   They were going to Action Park.  We look back at our childhoods, carefree.  We didn’t have jobs.  We didn’t have to answer to anybody.  We could do whatever we wanted.  We look at Action Park and we remember this heightened version of this.  We could do whatever we wanted.  So when you’re nostalgic for Action Park, you’re nostalgic for childhood, you’re nostalgic for freedom.  You’re not nostalgic for being hurt, you’re nostalgic for everything else.”

It is yet another irony of our age that interest in extreme sports has only increased since the 1980s, both in the number of participants and the access to them.  It’s not like people aren’t doing things these days that are far more dangerous than Action Park ever was.  My own wife believes I’m more than a little insane to spend thousands of dollars racing cars at triple digit speeds along with other insane people on a crowded track.  Skiing, of course, is the closest analogy to a ride like the Alpine Slide and skiing remains almost entirely unregulated just like the park once was.  Anyone can purchase a lift ticket, ride to the top of the mountain above the tree line and take the bowl down straight into the woods, where a collision with a tree is a near certainty for a beginner and is going to happen at some point for even an expert.  There are parts of major ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains that aren’t even patrolled; you are free to go there, but no one is coming to get you.  Somewhere around 40 people die per year skiing in the United States, far more than died the entire time Action Park was open, but fortunately we have yet to hear any calls to ban the sport.  Nor does freedom and the thrill of a little danger require access to a large facility or an expensive resort.  The woods of America and the hiking trails cutting through them remain filled with pools where you can jump into a waterfall, climb up mountains, camp out in the wilderness free from everyone and everything.  There is a river in Stowe, VT open to everyone and on that river are two rope swings, one hung from a bridge, the other from a tree, both completely old school.  One of them makes the Tarzan Swing at Action Park look like the safest thing ever conceived.  There are wooden boards nailed into the tree.  You shimmy up the lower part of the trunk, scramble onto these boards, grab a rope with knots instead of handles, and figure out how to push yourself to the right where you can swing out over the water without catching yourself on the tree.  The drop to the water from the tree is well over 25 feet.  I’ve done it four times, truly successful only once.  Otherwise, I variously face planted in the water, scraping myself on the sandy bank.  As a mid-forty something, I will admit the view is a little terrifying.  I found myself wondering what the fuck I was doing up there, but I went ahead and did it anyway, and can’t wait to try it again.

Incredibly, this simple, dangerous rope swing remains a prime attraction.  There is always a line of kids and a few adults waiting to test their mettle, watching the others fly into the sky or crash and burn, as they were decades ago beside the Tarzan Swing.  Last summer, my nephews were with us for the first time and, at thirteen and ten, they too took the plunge along with their crazy uncle.  They are not precisely the most adventurous pair.  I’m not certain they’d survive an hour at Action Park back in the day, but that afternoon, it didn’t matter how far they flew or whether they plunked into the water like a stone.  Doing it was the key.  The next day, they were with me again in the rain, jumping from a slick rock into a pool twenty feet below.  This winter they took up skiing.  Perhaps the American Dream is not entirely dead yet even if we no longer have Action Park to frighten and inspire us.

5 thoughts on “Action Park and the end of the American Dream”

  1. I’m not sure when the move to safety (over freedom to try/do) began. You’re right about skiing and the wilderness. But that, too, is shrinking. A lift ticket now costs what? $100.? (used to be $8.) And the ski patrol writes tickets. I don’t ski anymore, nor hike/pack into the wilderness. But back in the day (the 70’s) we were wild and free. I think it was the 90’s when political correctness began to take over. It was a slow, cultural takeover. I remember when where I lived (Colorado mountain suburb) I couldn’t get a cat because I refused to have it declawed. It was the mid-90’s. I had to travel over the divide to get one. ~
    I laugh (sadly) when I see toddlers on trykes with helmets and knee pads, with dad or mom right behind them. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would agree that it started changing sometime in the 90’s, but it picked up from there fast. I first realized the stark difference when I worked on a film in 2007-2008 when I was 31-32. There were some women in the cast that were straight out of college, and though the age difference was less than 10 years, it might as well have been 50. We shot at a house on the Outerbanks, and there was a pool in the backyard beside a three story deck. Needless to say, everyone in my age bracket saw the layout and were placing bets who was going to jump from the third story first. The younger actresses, on the other hand, all thought we were insane. Don’t even get me started when we busted out some fireworks. You would have sworn we had grenades. Sadly, there is no going back, once a kid has a helicopter parent, they can’t cope without a constant appeal to authority.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah. I went back to college in the mid 90’s, in my mid 40’s. And things had changed. Students, mostly young women in their 20’s, felt/thought they were entitled to A’s, well because they got A’s in high school. The department head (a woman) caved. The bar was lowered. Make the tests easier she told the professors. No more Blue Book, in class essay tests. And they did. Masculine behavior became toxic, bit by bit, inch by inch. ~
    I think you’re right “there is no going back”. Sadly, yep.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s when I was in college myself, but I went to NYU and back then at least no one really gave a fuck about anything. It was liberal in the sense that you knew most of the students and progressives were Democrats, but libertarian in everything else. I could not imagine going back in my 40’s. I think I would shoot someone. 🙂

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