If you grew up in New Jersey, summer wasn’t summer unless there was a visit to Action Park involved. It can’t be helped. The commercial started around mid-May and teased and taunted hopeful thrill-seekers all summer long. Mention Action Park and you’ll undoubtedly find someone who visited — even more likely is to find someone who was injured there.
Action Park– Noun. New Jersey’s most infamous water park
Example: “See this scar? I got it at Action Park!”
Do You Feel Lucky?
Action Park opened in 1978 and was one of the country’s first modern water parks. The place promised good family fun with a side of action in the form of user-controlled rides and what turned out to be pretty dangerous attractions. The place became something of a legend — so much so that Johnny Knoxville is starring in a movie based on the park for Paramount.
By the time it officially closed in 1996, Action Park developed the reputation of being the most deadly water park in history, with six deaths total. After reopening and closing, then reopening again and closing, the park finally became (the much safer) Mountain Creek Waterpark in 2016.
Dubbed ‘Accident Park’, ‘Traction Park,’ and ‘Class Action Park’ by locals; Action Park was created by Eugene Mulvihill, something of a PT Barnum when it came to theme parks. He hired a boat load of teenagers to run the place … and they weren’t exactly the most conscientious employees.
One of the most popular rides was the Alpine Slide. The ‘slide’ was really a winding half pipe made of concrete. Riders would straddle a plastic sleigh-like cart and zip down with nothing but a joystick securing their safety. See the joystick – which was broken on most of the carts – controlled the brake. Basically, you were going way too slow, or way too fast. Inevitably, the two riders would meet mid-track and one would go flying into the nearby rock-filled field. The Alpine Slide gifted riders with scrapes and scratches that would ooze all day long like a bloody badge of honor. Celeb Clinton Kelly dedicated a whole chapter in his memoir, I Hate Everyone Except You, to his teenage half-day visit to Action Park and nailed the after effects of the Alpine Slide perfectly.
“I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that one-quarter of the people mulling around Action Park did so with a moderate to severe case of road rash, which the first-aid team would cover liberally with Mercurochrome, a bright-red antiseptic that made bloody wounds appear even gorier,” he wrote. “One might assume the management of Action Park would forbid, or at the very least discourage, people with fresh cuts and scrapes from entering a communal water ride. Nope. They might as well have posted signs reading, SKINNED HALF YOUR ARM? DON’T BE A [BABY]. JUMP RIGHT BACK IN THE POOL WHERE EVEN MORE OF YOUR BODILY FLUIDS CAN MIX FREELY WITH THOSE OF PERFECT STRANGERS. WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER!”
Another rider-controlled gem was the speed boat ride. Since underage kids were operating the rides at Action Park, they generally didn’t care if other underage kids had some fun, too. To get on the boats you had to have a driver’s license. Turns out, an academic reward worked too. At least it did for Sean Cullinane, a New Jersey native who sweet talked his way into the driver’s seat with nothing more than an honorable mention certificate from a poster contest when he was 12.
“I only went to Action Park once, but it was glorious,” he said. “You had to have a driver’s license to operate the speedboats as they went like 35-40 mph, tremendous power for an 80 lb. 12-year-old who had never driven anything. I had recently been issued an honorable mention certificate by the NJ State Police for their poster contest, where I drew a boating safety poster (didn’t have a boat, just felt like it). Anyway, it had a state police seal and the words ‘certificate’ and ‘boating safety’ on it so that was good enough for them!”
After illegally driving the boats, Sean cliff dove — another no-no for young kids. “I jumped with my arms out and the undersides of my arms smacked against the surface of the water, hurt for hours. And the crazy fast water slide where you had to cross your arms like a casket and your legs so you ‘don’t get ripped in half.’ It was one of the best days of my life. Aside from my wedding and birth of my kids.” We feel you Sean, we feel you.
Only a select few got to experience the Cannonball slide — a loop-de-loop slide made of rubber inner tube that involved riders climbing the top of a building, jumping in and hoping the water pressure would be strong enough to get them through the loop, but not too strong that a head injury on the loop part resulted. Legend has it that Mulvhill sent a dummy through the thing to test it. When it came out without a head he enlisted the help of park workers; bribing them with $100 bonus if they tried it out before the park opened.
The ride lasted a month before being shut down.
The Main Event
The true gem of Action Park had to be the wave pool, though, dubbed the ‘Grave Pool’ after the first of several guests drowned in 1984. Put bluntly: The thing was insane. The waves were way too strong and they lasted way too long. Swimmers were thrown this way and that and the few ladders on the side were the only hope of survival. Imagine that wooden door Rose rode on in Titanic but with more swimmers clinging to it for life. Sure there were life guards. But they were 14-year-old kids too busy reading dirt bike magazines to pay attention to the chaos below.
Action Park. It was the best of times; the worst of times; and the most injury-filled of times. Car rides there were full of excitement and hope; but the ride back was always silent, save for the sniffle of stifled crying and yelping at scrape burn. If you experienced it and came out okay, there’s nothing you wouldn’t trade for another day at Action Park. If you haven’t, consider yourself lucky and unlucky at the same time.
Improve your Garden State vernacular and learn the New Jersey lexicon with NJ Vocabulary: The Series.