I survived Action Park … although my marriage almost didn’t.
I grew up in Wildwood, New Jersey, and because my boardwalk-anchored town was already populated with roller coasters, Ferris wheels and go-karts, I wasn’t terribly interested in visiting amusement parks.
Once I became a professional journalist, however, my Wildwood pedigree started to mean something. After all, shouldn’t I know something about amusement park life and, therefore, be the right writer to do stories on such attractions? At least, that was my pitch. I liked to do travel stories, and such excursions got me out of the office.
Long story slightly shorter, I weaseled my way into a magazine assignment that included a visit to Action Park, reputed to be the most dangerous amusement park in America. And because it would be fun (right?), I took my newlywed bride with me to the legendary North Jersey spot … whose legend will likely be growing thanks to the HBOMax documentary Class Action Park, which premieres Thursday on the streaming service.
Class Action Park succeeds in capturing the jaw-dropping audacity of Action Park, which inexplicably operated from 1978 to 1996. The documentary does an often hilarious job of explaining how such jaw-dropping rides as the Cannonball Loop (yes, a water slide that includes a full loop in the dark) came to be and how folks saw nothing wrong with a place where brutal bruises, ripped-up shins and dislocated shoulders were the norm.
Oh, about that Cannonball Loop: It was designed and constructed by the park folks and not by a company that actually tested its creations. The owner gave a $100 bonus to employees who were willing to try it after test dummies were mangled.
Action Park was about as un-Disney as you could get. Go-karts were used as bumper cars. Battle Action Tanks were vehicles armed with shootable tennis balls (which employees would sometimes soak in motor oil and light ablaze). Diving Cliffs were, well, low-concept places where you could just jump and drop 20 feet.
Without adequate supervision, these already-dangerous spots became exponentially more damaging to the humans who took the challenge. Injuries weren’t just frequent, they were expected. And for some of the primarily teen and twentysomething visitors, Action Park bruises and torn flesh were rites of passage.
The film’s first half vividly tells these stories as well as the park’s baffling history, which involved political corruption, a bogus offshore insurance company and a hefty amount of denial. Where period footage isn’t available, fun animation — and overused interview subjects — fills in the gaps.
Things take a more serious turn when the park turns deadly. That’s an essential part of the story, of course. But the filmmakers stumble in delivering it. The film turns chronologically sloppy as we hear about these gruesome deaths in brief before going into detail on one, only to be told that it’s the first death in the park. Things get muddy, too, when toward the end of the film, a newspaper editor who has critically covered the park suddenly speaks about the owner’s positive side without our being privy to any of her reasoning. And a cinematic drone shot at the end is wildly out of place.
A fair amount of redundancy could also have been trimmed and a greater variety of voices might have helped. We hear Jimmy Kimmel talk with Johnny Knoxville in a talk-show clip but it would have been better to hear them talk to the filmmakers. And there’s no mention of Knoxville’s 2018 film, Action Point, which was inspired by the real-life park.
Still, the film — like the park — is a memorable experience. One I’m glad I had.
As for my adventures there, well, my wife and I took the ski lift to the top of the hill. She opted out when she got a look at the steep incline and feeble sleds with questionable brakes on the 2,700-foot Alpine Slide. And she passed as I slid down a series of rollers on a sheet of plastic and then skidded across a too-short pool on the Aqua Skoot. But she agreed to ride the Colorado River Ride, which attempted to simulate Class 4 rapids.
As far as I know, Class 4 rapids are dangerous — but they don’t involve sliding vertically up a fiberglass wall and having another raft of New Yorkers ram into you from behind, spinning you as you careen further up the side to a point where a significant part of your raft is no longer in contact with anything but air.
I can still hear her screams.
Or maybe they’re mine.