You could die at Action Park. That was both a warning and a sales pitch for the most notorious amusement park in the United States, where injuries were rampant in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The park, which leaned towards water slides rather than roller coasters, was a New Jersey institution for years, and its notoriety has expanded far beyond the regional area that served as the park’s customer base.
Now Action Park is the inspiration for a movie starring Johnny Knoxville. In Action Point, the Jackass ringmaster plays the manager of a ramshackle park who has to compete with a new, more modern and corporate-run amusement park across town.
In the film, the solution is simple: attract customers with the promise of thrills they can’t get anywhere else. If a few bones are broken along the way, who cares? They’ll heal! That story isn’t too different from the history of the real park – here’s the true story behind Action Point.
Action Park opened in Vernon, New Jersey in 1978, as part of the Mountain Creek ski resort. It ran for nearly 20 years, closing in 1996 thanks to a combination of effects from regulations and lawsuits. In those 20 years the park grew from a collection of just a few attractions to a sprawling destination of fun and fear complete with multiple themed areas and rides that threatened life and limb.
The park was known not only for dangerous rides, but for an overworked and inattentive – and sometimes drunk – staff. With several bad elements combined, things went wrong at the park, and did so often. Sometimes the effect was deadly.
The first two customer deaths were in 1982; inside of a week, two different visitors died, leading to the closure of one ride. Then two more deaths in 1984 led to a 110-count grand jury indictment, but even that didn’t close the park. Developer Eugene Mulvihill, who inspired Johnny Knoxville’s character in the movie, pled guilty to a few charges of insurance fraud and the gates stayed open.
While people came to the park in droves in the ’80s, the ’90s saw more difficult financial times, in part due to lawsuits over injuries. Rides closed, and fewer people came. Action Park operated without insurance in 1995. Financial woes finally closed the park after the 1996 season.
The three sections of Action Park – Waterworld, Motorworld, and the Alpine area – had dozens of rides, many of which were perfectly safe. But a few became notorious.
Cannonball Loop – This was among the most notorious rides at Action Park, a long water slide tube with a full loop at the end. It looked like the sort of thing a kid would sketch up as an ideal ride or a weird punishment. The slide looked dangerous and unrideable, but there are miraculous videos of people on the slide, seemingly having a good time.
Battle Action Tanks – Visitors could drive small tanks in a fenced-in area, shooting one another with tennis ball cannons. Outside the fence were standing cannons which also fired on the tanks… and on employees who had to venture inside to fix a stuck tank.
Tidal Wave Pool – Most water parks have a wave pool, but the one at Action Park was deeper than most, with higher and more frequent waves. One death at Action Park was in this pool, earning the nickname “the Grave Pool,” and lifeguard rescues were common on busy days.
Aqua Scoot – Visitors rode hard plastic sleds down a steep incline fitted with rollers, at the end of which they shot out into a shallow cement pool. The idea was to skip across the surface of the pool on the sled, but the pool was so shallow that riders could easily hit it at the wrong angle, flying off the sled and right into a head injury.
Alpine Slide – Another sled ride, this time on long, winding concrete and fiberglass chutes on sleds that featured only the most rough speed control. Abrasions and bruises were common, and visitors sometimes flew right off the course, especially on curves. The first fatal injury in the part was on the Alpine Slide, when an employee’s sled went off the track, after which his head struck a rock.
With “attractions” like that it’s easy to understand why the park had a notorious reputation. The injuries and deaths are no laughing matter. Now, even as the park is open again under a new name and with significantly more appropriate safety standards, it’s a wonder that Action Park was ever able to operate at all.
Travel back to the dangerous days when Action Point opens on June 1.