CLASS ACTION PARK
Starring: Chris Gethard, Alison Becker, Jim DeSaye, Esther Larsson, Faith Anderson, and more
Directed by Seth Porges, Chris Charles Scott III
Narrated by John Hodgman
“Action Park was like the movie The Purge.”
If you lived in the New Jersey, New York City, or State, or Philadelphia area in the 1980s, chances are you knew Vernon, NJ. If you know that, then you knew Action Park. Action Park was the infamous amusement park known for some of the most horrific bruises, lethal rides, and fatal tragedies.
My dad told me one summer his ex-girlfriend got so banged up from the Alpine Slide that most of the flesh was ripped off her right leg. She was in the hospital for a couple of days. Despite this, he said he had the most fantastic time at Action Park, but it was wild. The park, to this day, carries a sense of nostalgia (and dread) for everyone whose been there. The documentary Class Action Park recounts the legacy of Action Park, which sounds like an urban legend to those who weren’t there, but very real to those who lived it.
Founded by Eugene Mulvihill, a rule-bending Wall Streeter who was loved and hated (it depends on who you talk to), opened Action Park in Vernon, NJ, in 1978. First, a little about the park. The park was divided into three themed sections, while also divided on RT. 94. (Already off to a great start.) The three areas were Alpine Center (home of the Alpine Slide), Waterworld (the water park and home of the Cannonball Loop), and Motorworld, located across RT. 94 (home to land, water, and air rides, including Battle Action Tanks and Sling Shot). With the three layouts in place, teenagers (14-18 years old) were hired to operate the rides and attractions. (Good idea.) Gene and many non-engineers designed the rides (Great idea!). With this, Action Park becomes known as one of the most dangerous amusement parks in forever. (*screams*)
Class Action Park is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen all this year. Even if you think you know Action Park, there’s so much more to learn, and all of it is absurd. Class Action Park is a fun combination of sentimental memories in the most batshit place that you’d never think of in your wildest dreams. Two things stuck out to me about Class Action Park. One was how they arranged the stories adjacent to the different parts of the park. The second is how nostalgia spreads throughout the documentary for the good and the bad.
THE HAPPY TIMES
The way the story of Action Park is narrated is comparable to going through an amusement park. You want to hit all the rides and the attractions along the way, so you can’t say you missed any part of the action. The participates who described Action Park were people who worked there, visited the park, or lived around or in the town. This feeling sets the tone for this film to exchange and recollect memories of the park. The stories they tell were funny, heartwarming, and wonderful, but also a lot of yikes.
The documentary lays out the map from the beginning on where they’ll go. We venture into each park, and the subjects tell their experiences within each and breakdown the rides. It was hands-down my favorite thing about this documentary. It was captivating listening to them talk about the horror of those rides and how they worked and kept the energy flowing within the documentary. Every time a different ride popped up, you had the feeling of “Oh fuck, what does this one do?”
The most insane one for me had to be the Cannonball Loop. (Picture below.) It was an enclosed water slide that you slide down, but it had a loop before you slide out. Gene made up the design on a napkin and presented it to welders to build. It had an escape hatch on the top, just in case someone got stuck. It was also pitch black inside until you came out from the bottom. Before they fixed the slide (barely), people would come out with bloody noses and missing teeth. Many people who slide down the slide slid across the teeth!
The nostalgic bliss of the part keeps going until you hit the 50-minute mark, and boy, does shit get real. That’s where that sense of “good nostalgia” bubbles over into something a little darker. In this, injuries, criminal activities, the fact that half of their employees were underage, the parties, and reckless actions are mentioned. When things shift to a darker place, it becomes even more engaging and gripping. It makes you think about how we hold onto memories for nostalgia’s sake and forget the crazy bad things.
It’s all fun and games until you hear the backstory of someone who died in a park. – Me, 2020
That was one of my notes as we’re told the story of George Larsson. George was a nineteen-year-old who went on the Alpine Slide and landed into rocks supposed to be off the property. It gets a little worse when Gene doesn’t call the family. The lawyers made up all kinds of shit about this kid, including that the incident happened at night, and it was raining. The most egregious of all of this is the claim that the ride didn’t kill him. The rock that was 25 feet away did so the park isn’t liable. The park and the state completely fucked over the Larsson family because Gene was pumping money into the economy. Why should they afford to care?
By no means am I saying Gene set out for this park to be this much of a death trap. However, it sounds like he didn’t make things any better, and some of the rides were, in fact, death traps. Colorado River Ride was meant to simulate “class 4 rapids,” and some of the guests were knocked unconscious by the ride. Many people died in the Wave Pool. The Tarzan Swing water was way too cold that some people would go into shock when they hit. The Alpine Slide was the most dangerous ride in the park. It was made out of fiberglass, concrete, with a cement track. It wasn’t designed to keep you on, and everyone got injured on the ride. And that’s where you get the most tragic death of them all.
Four other people died at the park, and most of the injuries were never reported. In the realm of what we know as “nostalgic bliss,” it can quickly turn into a high-key reality that tells you the true nature. Action Park felt like a powder keg of a lot of things that could go wrong. Even those in the documentary tell the story of their time at Action Park with a mixture of fond memories. They fully understand that it was an equally fucking insane place to be too.
Action Park is gone, but not forgotten. As you watch, you’ll learn the massive corruption of Action Park, but also be swept up in the high octane energy. Action Park was a place of the 80s, a sense of nostalgic bliss mixed with reckless abandon. Action Park was a place with no rules and no one to tell you what to do, and it was both a dream and a nightmare. It remains a place where people speak of their experiences in a way that makes the site feel alive. You almost want to go to Action Park and get your own set of cuts, burns, and bruises. With that, Class Action Park is a triumph. It’s a solid documentary mixed with the right mixture of informative and absorbing, with participants that keep you entertained from start to finish.