Ask anyone and they’ll tell you: New Jersey has an attitude. Both halves (yes I said halves, sorry to the non-existent “central jersey”) live in the shade on a major city, leading to a bit of a chip on our shoulders and a “get off my back” ethos. And nothing defines that attitude better than Action Park.
Action Park was a theme park in Vernon, in Suffolk County, NJ. Notably, it contained one of the first modern water parks in the US, and as one of the first, well, there wasn’t a ton of oversight. This led to Gene Mulvihill, the owner of Action Park, basically doing whatever the hell he wanted. If that meant dreaming up absurd rides like the Alpine Slide or the Cannonball Loop that caused injury or even death while simultaneously creating fake companies to “insure them”? Gene could and did do it. If that meant paying off local politicians to look the other way while he ignored labor laws? Gene could and did do it. And so the legend of Action Park grew and grew, becoming a place where New Jersians came from all over to prove their mettle.
My immediate family has had plenty of experience with Action Park. My dad went frequently in his youth – thankfully not sustaining any injuries more severe than (the extremely common at Action Park) friction burns from the slides. My mom never actually went – she got scared off when one of her friends from high school, Keith Weinberg, died in an accident there. I went on a camp trip years later when it was transitioning to Mountain Creek Waterpark; the most dangerous rides had been removed in the refurbishment, but plenty still stood like a dare from a bygone era. Who could swing the furthest on the Tarzan Swing? Who was brave enough to do the Cliff Jump, and who would take the coward’s way in with the Cliff Slide? (I took the slide, for the record.)
Because Action Park looms so large in the Jersey Canon, it was no surprise to me when HBO announced they were producing a documentary on it named Class Action Park directed by Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III, and folks, that documentary has finally arrived. But is it worth your time? Does it accurately capture the feeling of Action Park? I’m delighted to say that thanks to the talents of NJ and NJ-adjacent folk like Chris Gethard and John Hodgman, it sure does.
But what does that mean? A lot of the movie is in the talking head format, with former employees, patrons, and even the son of Gene Mulvihill talking about the atmosphere of the park and going through ride by ride, describing the terror and delight that came with visiting. However, much like Action Park itself, there is an underlying darkness to the tales. Employees talk about the freedom they had, but really, it was children supervising children with no regulation. Visitors talk about the fun they had, but injuries and deaths were covered up and typically wound up with little or no money for the victims thanks to Gene’s aggressive refusal to settle cases out of court. And again, much like Action Park, there’s a chance you’ll get whiplash thanks to the tone of the final third diving into the deaths much more intensely, even interviewing family members.
With all that said, Class Action Park is worth watching. The transition in tone could probably have been handled more deftly, but there’s no way to get around the fact that for many people, Action Park was both a truly joyful place and a place where you took your life into your own hands. Most will get enjoyment out of gawking at the wild rides, but if you’re a survivor of Action Park, or even of Mountain Creek Waterpark, you’ll connect on another level. You’ll enjoy the nostalgic look back, but more importantly, it will make you thankful you made it out alive.