What do you get when you combine teenagers, a water park, New Jersey, and alcohol? You get one of the most dangerous amusement parks of all time.
Action Park was a water park in Vernon, New Jersey that ran from 1978 to 1996. It became notorious for being unsafe with many accidents and was a place where rules didn’t necessarily have to be followed–by visitors or owners.
I’ve been to my fair share of sketchy carnivals and amusement parks. I’ve been on roller coasters where you could see pieces missing and new wooden beams put in their place. In big-time parks, like Disney or Six Flags, it’s all about creating thrills. Their rides create the illusion of feeling unsafe, even though everything is designed with the utmost safety in mind.
Some places I’ve been to weren’t trying to create the illusion: they were genuinely unsafe. But none of these places can compare to Action Park. I vividly remember the stories and news reports of this place and this is a look back at what can be considered the most dangerous amusement park ever.
How Did Action Park Star?
Action Park comes out of the 1970s and has connections to an ex-Wall Street employee Gene Mulvihill. This is the time of penny stocks and you just have to picture the Wolf of Wall Street to get an idea.
Next, there is Robert Brennan, who was a salesperson for Mulvihill. Eventually, they got in trouble for selling worthless stocks. His next move was to buy up some old ski resorts in Vernon, New Jersey. This could be an excellent investment, as they could use it for skiing in the winter and recreation in the summer.
The area was getting popular as Hugh Hefner had opened a Playboy camp in the same area and there were hopes the area could be the next Vegas–or at least Atlantic City. Donald Trump even went to check out Action Park to see if it was worth investing in.
The initial focus was on skiing, but what would they do in the summer? How about rides that try to replicate the speed and action of downhill skiing?
The idea was to create intense water slides and make it into an entire park. They pushed the idea that Vernon was going to become the new Orlando. And water parks weren’t really a thing yet.
Since it was a newer idea, they had to build and create it on the fly. Eventually, they put it all together in 1978, to form Action Park.
What Was Action Park Like?
Water slides were the main attraction, but the park was divided into three sections. An area with the slides, an area with pools, and then Motor World mostly made up of go-karts and anything with an engine.
One of the craziest attractions was the Cannonball Loop. This was a water slide with an actual giant loop in the middle like it was right out of a Hot Wheels race track set. Human beings–specifically younger ones–could actually ride this thing. One issue with rides like this–and the entire park–is that there didn’t seem to be any consulting with engineers.
In the fantastic documentary “Class Action Park” we get some great insights into everything that went on. They tell the story of how they tested the loop with crash test dummies. The dummies were coming out completely mangled. Some with missing limbs, some missing heads. A few adjustments clearly needed to be made…
After the adjustments, they started testing the Cannonball Loop ride with their teenage employees. Anyone who had the guts to try it would get $100. Some of the first few who tried it came out the bottom with bloody mouths. They decided to add some padding. Then, others were coming out all cut up. When they went to look at the top of the loop, they found teeth stuck in the padding.
Finally, someone asked if this was safe. They brought in someone from the Navy to measure the effect of the slide. They found out the gravitational effects were the same as an F-14 fighter plane: 9Gs.
But it wasn’t just Cannonball Loop; there was Cannonball Falls, which was a water slide that would launch you out ten feet in the air into a 17-foot deep pool below. Kids were getting rocked on this ride and having to be pulled out of the pool.
And we need to point out again; none of these were designed by engineers or ride experts. Anyone who thought up an idea had a genuine shot of seeing it created. Apparently, Cannonball Loop was designed on a cocktail napkin and built by local welders.
Here’s another one: They took a giant ball with another ball inside. Picture a hamster ball, but for human beings. Ball bearings were in between the two balls and you would sit in this thing as it rode on a PVC track down a mountain. On a test run, the track broke, and the ball continued to roll down the mountain and right across a highway.
Then there was the SuperSpeed Slide, where riders would hit speeds of 60mph.
Do we have time for one more? One water slide was “designed” to create zero G’s and the rider would take flight in the air while going down it. It actually went well at first until one kid went so high in the air he launched right off the track. He had to be stretchered out.
What Else Did the Park Have?
It wasn’t just the water slides, there were other situations that could still cause injury. First, they paved the entire park with black asphalt. That meant the asphalt was absorbing and reflecting all the heat from the sun and turning people’s feet into mincemeat.
One of the rides had a bee’s nest all around the bottom of the ride. There was also the Tarzan Swing. It was a simple idea: swing out and release into a pool below. Most people couldn’t hold their weight and would face plant into the water. But that wasn’t the main problem: the water was actually freezing cold spring water with live trout in it. Going from super hot weather into freezing cold water was putting some people into shock.
Where were the lifeguards during all this, you ask? They were most likely taunting the person making the jump along with all the other spectators.
Let’s not forget, along with all the dangerous rides, Action Park was also serving alcohol. Alcohol and danger? What could possibly go wrong? Also, the staff was as young as 14, and around 17 on average. It was a park run by teenagers, for teenagers.
Picture Lord of the Flies but with more sunscreen.
How Was Action Park Possible?
Action Park was in full force going into the 80s. But you may be asking yourself this question: how in the hell was this possible and how could they ever get insurance for a place so dangerous?
Not surprisingly, the owners of the park were not too concerned about insurance. But they obviously needed it to stay open. As pointed out in the documentary, Mulvihill created his own phony insurance company called London and World Assurance, Ltd.
It was also based out of the Cayman Islands, and nothing sketchy ever seems to be associated with the Caymans. Not only did he have a company to prevent him from paying insurance, but he could also launder money through it.
This didn’t go unnoticed, and the state eventually investigated. Even though he refused to appear in court, Mulvihill pleaded guilty to conspiracy and fraud. Action Park was partially on state land and they forced him to give up control. Again, he found a way around this by becoming the worst tenant ever.
Action Park simply refused to pay rent or taxes. And somehow this worked. The state of New Jersey was at its wit’s end and decided to sell him the land. All ties were severed, and he was no longer connected to the state.
Mulvihill could do whatever he wanted. Whenever he needed a new ride, he would turn back to his Wall Street friend for money. How could a park that went through all this turmoil still attract people? Well, it did. When they started running commercials for Action Park, everyone wanted to go.
When Action Park first opened, it started with a two-day promotion, including a Dolly Parton look-alike contest, and a tobacco juice spitting competition.
But, honestly, what kid wouldn’t want to go to Action Park? You could slide off cliffs into water, race go-karts, and take 20 foot jumps into pools.
Here Come the Injuries
Most of the dangerous things we’ve covered happened to the staff, and those who were testing the rides. But now the park was fully open to the public. Rules aren’t just being avoided–they’re not even being enforced.
To go down the water slides, kids were supposed to be instructed to hold their arms in front of them across their chest to avoid injury. But, again, nothing was being enforced. They were going on rides in any position they wanted and hitting the water at such force, shoulders were being dislocated.
And going down a ride head first could result in kids being knocked out when hitting the water from 20 feet above. Eventually, the bottoms of the pools needed to be painted white so lifeguards could see unconscious kids.
There was Surf Hill, which was like a giant Slip’ n’ Slide, but that went down a cliff. Someone apparently broke their neck.
There was a tube ride that was so overrun with people it became like Roller Derby. In the Documentary, they tell of kids being rammed and launched straight out of the ride. Ride security wouldn’t even try to slow down the rate of tubes and just let kids go, resulting in multiple pile-ups.
Rides weren’t properly maintained, and it wasn’t uncommon to see bolts sticking out of the slides.
Then there was the Colorado River Ride. This was supposed to be a Lazy River ride, but the owners wanted to create the experience of whitewater rafting. They would load several people into a tube and just let er rip down a course that wasn’t designed properly. You could get stuck in multiple areas and then be hammered by another group coming in at warp speed.
The ride used class-4 rapids, which I don’t have to explain to you, is not for amateurs. Initial testing on this ride had people coming back unconscious. With all these issues, you’d think there would be lifeguards all over the place for the Colorado River Ride? Nope! You didn’t have lifeguards helping you on the real Colorado River, so they decided you didn’t need them here.
And remember, this attracted testosterone-laded kids, hopped up on who knows what, looking for trouble, and with no rules to follow. Fights and violence were common, as the clientele were not exactly the elite of society.
The News Reports Begin
Not only are kids getting pummeled by the rides, but by each other. The pools and rides were turning into mosh pits. As the injuries and violence piled up, news reports started to spread. Enticed by what they were hearing, even more questionable youth started to show up. It sounded like American Gladiators in water.
Police in the area said the majority of their calls during the day were for Action Park.
But we haven’t even touched on Motor World.
Fueled by an afternoon of drinking, visitors could stumble from the beer tents straight next door to the go-kart tracks. People were driving wherever they wanted. They were leaving the track in their car and driving through the grass.
Employees found out how to override the speed governor and the karts could now hit speeds of up to 60mph. Go Karts were being taken by staff out onto the nearby highway.
There were also the Super Speed boats, which were like proper speed boats in a lazy river. These legitimate miniature speed boats were treated like bumper boats with users ramming the hell out of each other. Boats would regularly flip over. The water was so filled with gas and oil that you dare not fall into it.
Did I mention the Battle Action Tanks? Thankfully, these things only shot tennis balls. But kids were finding the gas tanks and lighting the balls on fire to shoot them.
But when it came to injuries, there was one ride to rule them all: The Alpine Slide. A chair lift would take you to the top of the hill where you got on a little cart that had a stick to control braking and speed. The track was made of fiberglass and concrete with a nice mix of asbestos mixed in.
It turns out many of the carts were broken, so the brakes would do nothing. Now, the users are rocketing down a hot concrete track wearing nothing but bathing suits. People were getting launched off the track. Again, it wasn’t designed properly to keep people on. Broken bones and torn-up skin were a daily occurrence. It got so bad that pictures of injuries were included at the top of the ride as a warning to see how dangerous this thing was.
On an average day, 50-100 people were being injured on The Alpine Slide. Double that for a weekend. Injuries were treated in a makeshift infirmary by spraying a weird orange concoction on the wounds.
Action Park was taking up most of the usage of the area ambulances to the point they were forced to buy their own. This is the 80s, so they didn’t have to disclose their injury reports, only the most serious. And they were allowed to determine what constituted a serious injury.
How Did Action Park Keep Going?
A park like this wouldn’t last two minutes today, but remember: this was the 80s. In an era of deregulation, many believed they could regulate themselves. For Action Park, the idea was you could throw caution into the wind–and no one could stop you.
In the same way that Ronald Reagan lifted the restrictions on advertising to children, Action Park could run things the way they wanted to. The owner of Action Park also had connections to some higher-up people, which seemed to lead to even fewer restraints.
It’s not that lawsuits weren’t happening: they simply refused to settle. They would draw out the cases so long that it became too much trouble to even pursue. In the documentary, they point out that any cops that showed up were probably given some “monetary encouragement” to keep ongoing.
But, yes, unfortunately, there were deaths. One incident involved a kayak river. The river had underwater fans that kept the water moving. Someone fell into the water and a fan short-circuited, electrocuting them.
The Wave pool had a “death zone” as it, too, became nothing more than a mosh pit in water over your head. Lifeguards who sat in the “death chair” would regularly save the lives of 4 to 5 people every shift. Unfortunately, another death occurred in the wave pool. The water was so murky from a muddy runoff, human excrement, and open wounds, that it was almost impossible to see the bottom.
And then it happened again. And then someone else tragically passed away riding the Alpine Slide. These incidents took place in the early 80s. But another death occurred again in 1984. Then again in 1987–also in the wave pool.
It seems unfathomable how this place continued to operate. But it did. Investigations obviously took place, but the facts became too misconstrued. Even if you tried to sue the park, you probably weren’t going to end up with much because the insurance company wasn’t even real.
The other problem was that Action Park was a big part of the local economy. They brought in a lot of money, employed hundreds of people, and paid a lot of taxes. Local officials were likely to look the other way when a serious incident occurred. And it may be dangerous to speak up. Were their connections to the mob? Who knows, but people still seemed cautious.
The End of Action Park
They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but in the case of Action Park, the negative press reports caught up with them. The constant news reports about the danger and accidents at the park caused people to turn away.
By the 1990s, attendance dropped. More lawsuits had also popped up. Apparently, some 2,400 injury claims had been filed against the parent company, Great American Recreation. Then there were the issues with Robert Brennan. He had been found guilty of money laundering and fraud. He went to jail for ten years and Action Park no longer had its usual cash flow.
Great American Recreation eventually declared bankruptcy. The end of the 1996 season would be the last for Action Parks.
When Action Park opened in the late 70s, they could get away with anything. By the time the mid-90s rolled around, there was a whole new world of legalities and regulations. Action Park came out at the right time and only could have existed during the 80s.
But the park still exists, albeit in an entirely new form. It was purchased by a company that took out all those old features and renamed it, Mountain Creek. It was now just a regular–and very safe–water park.
In 2014, it was then bought back by the son of Gene Mulvihill. The name was changed back to Action Park. In 2016, the name went back to Mountain Creek Waterpark.
If you grew up in the 70s and 80s, you know how we were probably the last generation where parents just didn’t give a crap. We would disappear for hours on end, no cell phones, no checking in–just be back in time for dinner.
I wasn’t technically allowed to ride my bike outside of my neighborhood, but we would often ride to explore old abandoned homes. This was an era where you could still get in trouble with teachers and what they said goes. My parents would never question what a teacher would have to say, but these days, I think it’s the complete opposite: how dare you infer my child isn’t perfect?
We drank from rusty hoses and had to walk it off when we got hurt. This isn’t to say that the 80s approach was noble, it was just a different time, and Action Park was the personification of all this. It represented the freedoms kids had during this era.
Looking back, It seems pretty horrifying, but at the time, this was just par for the course. Every city had its own small version of Action Park. It probably wasn’t on the same scale, but we all had certain funfairs, parks, and playgrounds that were a massive risk to use. We had playground/climbing equipment at our schools that were absolute death traps.
My elementary school had a gigantic steel spider web/cage-like creation. The top of this thing was a good 8 feet off the ground and I remember so many kids–including myself–getting battered from using it.
Today, no one would even consider installing something like this. It’s not that we are any better for how we handled things, we just didn’t know any other way. The story of Action Park is like capturing the essence of the 1980s in a nutshell. It appealed to our love of risk and danger. We jumped BMX bikes off of homemade ramps and did flying elbows off of our garages onto a pile of mattresses.
Like Action Park, we seemed to have very few limits and restrictions.
A place like Action Park was a 1980s utopia. It appealed to our lack of senses and desire for risk. Action Park came out at the right time, in the right place, with the right approach. There are some terrible and unfortunate stories, but it remains the perfect microcosm for how so many kids experienced the 80s.