You know what they say: it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.
Nothing rings more true than the story of Action Park, the legendary New Jersey entertainment venue that’s been affectionately known for decades as the “world’s most dangerous amusement park.” During its heyday in the 1980s and 90s, Action Park was a rite of passage for local teens, and many proudly wore the battle scars (and bumps and bruises and broken bones) to prove their toughness. The documentary “Class Action Park” weaves together grainy video footage, documents, and old recordings to expose just how unsafe — and how thrilling — this playground really was.
Directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III tell the rest of their story through charmingly unrefined animation, accompanied by casual talking heads who were former guests and employees of the park. The interviews feel like you’re sitting down with old friends to spin some yarns about the good old days. You never know who is recounting actual facts, who is spreading a tall-tale urban legend, and who is relying on a fuzzy memory that idealizes the craziness that went on inside the admission gate.
Like the crazy story about finding human teeth embedded in the physics-defying Cannonball Loop water slide. Or that one time when a bunch of liquored-up kids raced the park’s fleet of go-karts on the adjacent major highway. Or the overnight drug parties in the storage cabin. Or the countless broken arms that resulted from young men being taunted and called chicken before they jumped feet first into frigid water from a too-high cliff.
Many of the film’s subjects have similar stories to tell, so you know most of this stuff has to be true.
“It was something between Ayn Rand and ‘Lord of the Flies,'” snorts one. Another laughs, “the average customer at Action Park was insane.”
Doesn’t sound like either is wrong in their assessment.
The lawless, “Wild West” atmosphere at Action Park was exacerbated by a culture that thumbed its nose at rules and regulations. There was a limited regard for safety, both from the park’s owner and the inexperienced staff of 16-year-olds who found themselves in charge of out-of-control patrons. Dangerous rides were being operated by a careless workforce who lacked safety training and common sense. Adding fuel to the fire were gangs of riled-up kids, high-risk attractions, and free-flowing booze. The film makes it sound like the coolest place on Earth, before the park’s list of serious injuries and deaths is finally exposed.
This nostalgic trip back to the carefree summers of decades past is a hoot until you realize that people actually died here. That’s what gives “Action Park” a unique, darkly humorous tone. The film grows somber when Esther Larsson shows up. She’s the mother of 19-year-old George Jr., the first park guest to die on one of the rides. George died in 1980 after a horrific accident on the 2,700 foot long concrete track of the Alpine Slide, and his parents are still filled with so much anger towards the place 40 years later.
Things get more shocking when it’s disclosed that park founder Gene Mulvihill tried to cover up the death by lying and claiming George was an employee so he wouldn’t be required to report the incident to the state. It’s damning and infuriating stuff, and it’ll make you feel guilty for giggling at the rambunctious stories about the park’s rides just moments before.
There’s a lot of heavy material towards the end of the documentary, but the film is a reminder of how far we’ve come in relation to safety requirements at water parks. You may grow wistful with the collective walk down memory lane, but the story ends with a tonal shift that’s a real gut-puncher.
By: Louisa Moore