Action Park: America's First Deadly, Infamous Theme Park
You expect a fun day at your local amusement park to be just that: a fun day. You expect to eat way too much funnel cake before zooming through the loops of a rollercoaster while various safety equipment and employees (mostly) protect you from harm. (The funnel cake is generally an "at your own risk" kind of deal.) One former theme park in New Jersey, however, failed to live up to these expectations. In the twenty-plus years that the part was inexplicably allowed to remain open, six people died and more than 100 were injured during what was ostensibly supposed to be a whimsical outing with families and friends. Let's look at the history of Action Park, the scourge of New Jersey.
From 1978 to 1996, visitors flocked to Action Park. (nytimes.com)
Action Park Opened In 1978
When it first opened in 1978 in Vernon, New Jersey, Action Park was billed as one of the first modern water parks in the country. Its founder and CEO, Gene Mulvihill, had a vision of a futuristic park where patrons could control their own thrill level. That philosophy, however, was often at odds with the laws of physics and the going rate of quality construction.
The Action Park Rides
On the surface, Action Park looked like an ideal place for thrill seekers and young families alike to cool off in the summer heat. There were water slides, a wave pool, a long and winding alpine slide, and a lazy river. But looks can be deceiving. Unbeknownst to visitors, the park's rides and attractions were death traps coated in cheap plastic. Just look at ...
The Grave Pool
Action Park's wave pool was state-of-the-art. In fact, it was one of the very first wave pools in the country. The large freshwater pool was a marvel of engineering that created random tidal waves up to 3.5 ft. tall. It sounds exciting in theory, but the danger of these sudden walls of water soon required the services of as many as a dozen lifeguards at a time, who each rescued an average of 30 swimmers every day, and earned the attraction the nickname "the grave pool." It might not have been so bad if the pool used saltwater, which helps swimmers stay afloat, like most other wave pools. As it was, the "grave pool" was the site of three of the park's six deaths.
The Alpine Slide A.K.A. The Skin Ripper
Visitors who braved Action Park's giant Alpine Slide zipped to the bottom on a little wheeled cart with hand brakes that supposedly allowed the rider to control its speed. However, most of the carts had defective brakes, leaving the rider at the mercy of gravity and momentum. Sometimes, the brakes suddenly stopped working mid-slide, locking up and sending the rider flying off the cart. Even if they managed to hang on, riders could get slammed into the sides of the slide, tearing off any skin that came in contact with the concrete and fiberglass. In lieu of expensive safety measures, park operators just put up warning signs instructing riders to keep their arms and legs inside the cart and hoped for the best. The first Action Park fatality occurred on the Alpine Slide.
The Cannonball Loop: A Coffin-Like Water Ride
Action Park's Cannonball Loop wasn't open for very long, but it earned a notorious reputation in that short time. The narrow, enclosed waterslide sent riders down a steep drop into a tight loop at a breakneck pace. That's not a colorful metaphor: When Mulvihill tested the slide with a dummy rider, the dummy's head was ripped off. Undeterred, Mulvihill offered a $100 bonus to any employee willing to take a ride through the Cannonball Loop, and the poor souls who really needed that Benjamin came back with bloody noses, cuts, and bruises. Mulvihill shrugged and opened the ride anyway, and as anyone with functioning eyes could have predicted, a patron got stuck in the loop pretty much immediately. This finally gave Mulvihill pause, but instead of trying to make the ride safer, he just installed a rescue hatch to make it easier to get people out. Just one month after the Cannonball Loop was unveiled, the Carnival Amusement Ride Safety Advisory Board ordered the park to shut it down permanently.
Death At The Amusement Park
The first death at Action Park occurred in 1980 when a teenage park employee riding down the Alpine Slide on a cart with faulty brakes careened off the track and died of a massive head injury. Although his was the only life claimed by the Alpine Slide, it was responsible for plenty of injuries. Twenty-six people suffered serious head injuries after a bout with the slide, and it caused 14 recorded bone fractures. Three more people were killed by the "grave pool" after they were struck by a giant wave in the 8-ft. water. In 1982, a man on the kayak ride was killed when he flipped out of his kayak into the water and accidentally touched a live electrical wire, and two years later, another man died of cardiac arrest following a ride on the Tarzan Swing. Little more than a rope swing over freezing cold water, patrons often had to be rescued after the sudden plunge into the frigid depths sent them into shock.
A Culture Of Irresponsibility
Mulvihill's flagrant disregard for rules and regulations quickly earned the park unflattering nicknames like "Accident Park" and "Class Action Park," but it was also the reason patrons kept coming back to take their chances. Alcohol flowed as freely as the water at Action Park, whether visitors were over the legal drinking age or not. Teens could get drunk and enjoy the rides without any real adult supervision, as almost all of the park's employees were teenagers themselves. They were also often too busy saving lives to play police for their peers.
The End of Action Park ... Or Is It?
In 1996, Action Park closed its notorious gates for good, but that is not the end of the story. By 2010, Gene Mulvihill had put together a committee to purchase the park from its current owners and revamp the once-popular attractions. Although he died in 2012, the park reopened in 2014, albeit under a new name, Mountain Creek Water Park. Despite this rebranding, the park remains a PR challenge. Its commercials place an unusual emphasis on its adherence to safety standards and certified lifeguards, but a deadly cloud still hangs over the park, and no one wants to visit a water park when it's cloudy.
Tags: 1980s | 1990s | action park | amusement park | death | New Jersey
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