Let me take you somewhere. Think about grade school and the conversations you had in the yard at recess, or crowded around a desk before school started. Kind of whispering, asking questions over one another. Remember the illicit thrills of those conversations? Someone was allowed to see an R-rated movie and breathlessly relayed the plot. A cousin somewhere broke their leg in three places, and the bone was sticking out. Your neighbor got to second base. Your friend jumped off the highest diving board at the community pool. There’s nothing as an adult that comes close to that giddy, dangerous sort of excitement, mentally judging your own mettle to see if you could pull off whatever you’re overhearing.
Until CLASS ACTION PARK.
This documentary is the grown version of schoolyard gossip, detailing Action Park — an infamous DIY amusement park known more for its injuries, deaths, and law-breaking than clean summer fun. Action Park closed its gates for good in 1996, but the legend of this place continues to fascinate not just the people who visited, but also the people who never got a chance to. John Hodgman narrates, and comedians Chris Gethard and Alison Becker are highlights among the talking heads of ex-park employees, park attendees, and experts.
Looking to capitalize on summer money with the ski resort land he already owned, Gene Mulvihill opened Action Park in 1978. From the beginning, it was largely run and operated by teenagers, engineered by non-professionals, and seemingly attended by most of New Jersey and the tri-state area while it was open. It’s considered one of America’s first water parks, and it featured two separate water-themed areas — Alpine Center and Waterworld. It was also home to Motorworld, which featured carts, cars, and boats for racing; and a ride called Battle Action Tanks, which are exactly what they sound like. The safety regulations weren’t so much lax as non-existent, with lifeguards a rare sight and the orange stain — a combination of alcohol and iodine sprayed onto park goers open abrasions at the infirmary — as common as sunburn.
One of the most well-known rides in Waterworld was Cannonball Loop, a tube waterslide with a loop that required highly specific physics requirements to get through without injury. If you weren’t the right weight, going at the right speed, with the right amount of water below you, riders were known to lose teeth and slam into the walls of the loop because, you know, gravity. Cannonball Falls was a neighboring slide that, while seeming tame at first, stopped abruptly and shot riders out off “the side of the mountain” into a pool below. Despite it being summer, much of the water in the park was described as freezing cold. On the Tarzan Swing, where you’d hold on to a rope and swing into water below, the water was reportedly cold enough to cause a literal heart attack, which killed a parkgoer in 1984.
There are six known deaths that happened in or because of Action Park. CLASS ACTION PARK spends a segment with the mother and brother of George Larsson Jr, a nineteen-year-old who was killed after being thrown from the Alpine Slide. The other deaths are mentioned but not explored enough, and it feels like a conscious choice by the filmmakers to try and keep the film on the lighter side. It’s an impossible task, because the subsequent handling of Larsson’s death by owner Mulvihill, who had falsified insurance documents soon after the park opened, is sickening to watch. The lies told to the public, the disrespect shown to the Larsson family, and the flagrant lack of empathy take the film in a different direction. There are brief mentions of paid off reporters and city officials, along with possible mob connections. These are avenues that could have deepened the overall impact of CLASS ACTION PARK. Instead, it re-tracks to the money issues that finally closed the park, the passing of Mulvihill, and the modern ever-changing hands of the land and Action Park name.
While some romanticize the park and hold up Gene Mulvihill as a rebel who broke the rules and was allowed to get away with it, someone to be admired for his make-it-happen spirit, I’m not buying that ticket. Whatever entrepreneurial investments he brought to New Jersey tourism don’t outweigh his irresponsibility. Maybe I’m too square, but forgoing safety and willfully endangering the safety of people is seriously uncool and not a sustainable business plan. Insert Steve Buscemi “How do you do, fellow kids?” GIF here if you want. I own it.
And yet… Hearing Gethard and Becker talk about their experiences firsthand at the park still gives me that little schoolyard tingle of wondering if I could handle at all.
That’s the victory of the documentary, the childlike curiosity it incites — especially since it’s delivered alongside such horrific truths.
You can watch CLASS ACTION PARK right now, on HBO Max.