Traumatic License: An Oral History of Action Park
By Jake Rossen
In the summer of 1983, Action Park—a collection of water-themed amusement rides installed over a ski resort in the rural town of Vernon, New Jersey—debuted their newest attraction. Dubbed the Cannonball Loop, it seemed to obey the laws of cartoon physics, with a steep enclosed slide feeding a 360-degree turn at the bottom. The idea was that a park attendee would climb into the mouth of the ride some 50 feet off the ground, get hosed down to reduce friction, and then speed through the tube like a chambered bullet, clearing the loop and emerging at the other end into a shallow pool.
Action Park owner Eugene Mulvihill enlisted his teenaged son, Andy, to test it while it was still under haphazard construction by a squad of welders. “There wasn’t really any engineering,” Andy tells Mental Floss. “It was just trial and error.” Andy agreed to test it while wearing his hockey equipment. He was fine. Others were not. “The problem was if the momentum didn’t keep you on top of the wall, you’d fall three or four feet to the other side on your face, breaking your nose or your teeth.”
The Cannonball Loop would be open only sporadically over the next 13 years, a perpetual work-in-progress that mirrored the state of Action Park itself. From 1978 to 1996, up to 20,000 people a day from the tri-state area would flock to Eugene’s oasis, which emphasized a ride-at-your-own-risk philosophy that earned it the nicknames “Traction Park” and “Class Action Park.” Speeding at high velocity down cement slides, boozy guests would try to push their limits—and Mulvihill would let them. Bodies flew off rides like crash test dummies; skin was peeled off in layers. It was not uncommon for guests to see bloody and bandaged patrons being driven across the grass in carts equipped with EMTs and stretchers. A total of five fatalities were reported, creating a mythology that danger lurked around every water-soaked corner.
If you were a reckless guest, sometimes it did. Most all of the rides at Action Park could be navigated safely, but “My dad’s whole idea was to do an amusement park differently, not where you just got strapped in and twisted around, but one where you controlled what was going on," Andy says. "You can have an awesome time, but you can also hurt yourself if you don’t use good judgment."
To understand how Action Park not only survived but thrived with a business philosophy out of Mad Max, Mental Floss spoke to well over a dozen former employees and guests who recalled an environment of fun, sun, and tending to broken bones at the most intense amusement park ever constructed.
I: THE ACTION NEVER STOPS
In the mid-1970s, Eugene Mulvihill and several investors backed Vernon Valley/Great Gorge, a ski resort located in Vernon Township, New Jersey. When Mulvihill became the sole owner, he decided to expand the property’s operations into the summer by building water rides that would take advantage of the steep mountainside acreage and help drive business year-round.
In 1976, two years before the park officially opened, Mulvihill debuted the area’s first summer ride: the Alpine Slide, a cement raceway distributed by amusement operator Stig Albertsson that allowed guests to careen down the mountain in cement troughs while riding a tiny cart that let them control the speed. The Alpine Slide would account for hundreds of injuries over the years.
Jim DeSaye (Park Security): The Alpine was on a big hill, not a little baby hill. It’s basically you on a sled on a concrete track. And there is nothing keeping you on.
Andy Mulvihill: That was one my dad bought from a manufacturer in Europe. There had been a couple installed elsewhere, but not a lot.
Bill Benneyan (General Manager): At that time, the ski industry was going through some tough years. You needed to be able to use your land the other half of the year.
Chris Ish (First Aid): It was really tricky. You had to have skill and balance to stay on the track. If you pulled back on the brake, the cart would kick to one side. If you’re on a flat stretch, that’s no problem, but if you’re coming up on someone and brake too fast on a curve, you’re falling off of it.
Greg Gianakis (Guest): There were these stupid little sleds that had handles for adjusting speed that never did anything.
DeSaye: Basically, people would think, “This is an amusement park. I can’t get hurt here.” And they would go flying down the track, brake too hard, and then fly into the woods or into the rocks.
Therese Mahler (Ride Attendant): The Alpine had the reputation it had because if you fell off the cart and didn’t land on the grass, the momentum would carry you for a while and you’d get these disgusting-looking, oozy wounds from the friction burn.
Ish: The cart would come out from under you and then you’d just slide over this fiberglass track. It was like a rug burn.
Mahler: We always gave a little speech at the top. “You’re responsible for controlling the speed and balance of your cart.” Over and over again.
Corrine Zimmerman (Ride Attendant): When you shifted your weight wrong and went sliding down, it took several layers off your skin and your whole body and the cart would go flying off. We had staff positioned along the track to keep an eye out for that sort of thing. It was harder to spot people when it got dark.
Al Rescinio (Guest): It wasn’t like you were armored going down this thing. You’re wearing a T-shirt and bathing suit or shorts. You didn’t know how unstable these little carts are the first time you go on them.
Thomas Flynn (First Aid): The primary ingredient in those tracks was asbestos, by the way.
DeSaye: People would bounce off. That’s why we called them Gumbys. Down in first aid, at the end of the night, you’d be having pizza and inevitably someone would come in looking like they had a giant burn from head to toe.
Benneyan: It was the Action Park tattoo.
Ish: You wouldn’t want to cover that up because it would just ooze. We’d use a disinfectant spray on it.
Flynn: I remember that ... I can’t believe we used it, actually. It was like 70 percent alcohol and 10 percent iodine. Imagine spraying 70 percent alcohol on a rug burn. We’d spray these dudes down and take bets on who would do the craziest dance. They would run out of first aid like we had just set them on fire.
Gianakis: The Slide was just under the chair lift that took you to the top. People would spit and throw things at the people below them.
Ish: When we’d have collisions, those would be the more severe injuries. You had control of the brakes and could go as slow as you wanted to. You could have a mom with a kid in her lap going down at a slow pace. The only problem was if someone was going fast going behind you. People were catching up to each other all the time.
Gianakis: They’d tell you not to, but my friends and I would make trains. A guy would wait like 100 yards down where the attendant couldn’t see and then we’d just ram into them.
Zimmerman: If someone was hurt badly enough, first aid would come with a sling they could put people in. They’d use the cart to push them down the slide. It was the only way to get them down.
Mahler: We used to have carts we didn’t let guests ride. I don’t really remember why, but it might have had something to do with the brake.
Zimmerman: Those were like an engineering anomaly. For whatever reason, they would go down the hill faster than the others. We kept them because we didn’t want to let customers ride them, and because the staff liked to go really fast.
Mahler: My friend Jason rode down the Alpine and got horrible slide burn over his arms and legs. We took a photo of him in first aid and mounted it on a piece of wood so people would see it. Like, “This could happen to you.” But they were already committed at that point. They had ridden a chair lift up and there was only one way down.
DeSaye: A lot of times people would be too drunk to get on the ride and the attendants would tell them that, and they’d just get belligerent. That occurred daily.
Rescinio: I was 19 or 20 years old. When you’re that age, you laugh it off. It wasn’t until I became an attorney that I realized these rides could be extremely dangerous.
The Alpine Slide eventually lived up—or down—to its reputation when park employee George Larsson Jr. rode it after work hours on July 8, 1980. Flung from the track, he hit his head on a rock, fell into a coma, and died several days later. The New Jersey State Department of Transportation found that nothing was wrong with the ride. “The ride didn't injure Larsson. It was a rock 25 feet away that hurt him,” park spokesperson Wesley Smith told reporters. “This is an action park where people are doing things physically to themselves. Their situation is not totally in our control.”
The accident made local news in New Jersey, foreshadowing the controversy over the park and its relaxed oversight of attendees that would last for nearly two decades.
Benneyan: It was actually the beginning of the water park industry. Gene didn’t think he was inventing the industry, but he was putting together pieces of the puzzle.
Joe Russoniello (Director of Marketing): Gene was way ahead of his time in terms of what we were developing. The Wave Pool, the Tarzan swing, the rapid rides, whatever it was, he was doing it early on.
Flynn: Were the rides engineered for maximum safety like they are today? Absolutely not. They were designed where, as the slogan went, “You’re at the center of the action.”
John Keimel (Supervisor): People called it Traction Park, “Where you’re the center of the accident.”
Benneyan: The whole idea of Action Park in the 1980s was identified in the marketing. You’re in control of the action. That was a pretty out-there concept. It was a really neat fulfillment of all these backyard fantasies.
Alison Becker (Guest): You would inevitably see someone get severely injured every time you were there and you just assumed people got injured at every water park. We lived out in the sticks. This was just water slides put on the side of a mountain.
Mulvihill: I don’t think my father necessarily understood the liabilities of running a park. It was not sophisticated. If he went to an amusement park conference and liked someone’s idea, he’d ask them to build it, even if they had never built it before.
Russoniello: Gene wanted it to be really exciting and wanted to break the rules as much as he could. And there weren’t many rules and regulations to break back then.
Benneyan: Gene was a fascinating guy. He had investments in cancer research. He assembled the largest wine cellar in North America. He worked with partners to build a robotic parking garage. It was all kinds of things. He was always pushing for something new and different.
DeSaye: What Gene did was allow a certain amount of responsibility for each person. There were injuries, but ski areas have a ridiculous number of injuries. Nobody was telling you to drink and get on a sled doing 70 miles per hour.
Flynn: There was a high degree of personal responsibility. Individuals needed to make smart decisions on what they did and didn’t do on rides. Gene’s whole idea was: you controlled your own fate.
Benneyan: Gene’s delight was in people having fun. To do that, he wanted to push the limits. And in order to do that, everything was going to be bigger, faster, or some other superlative.
Mulvihill: Gene didn’t ever want to see anyone hurt ... His goal was to build a participation amusement park that was very unique and super fun and where there were certain risks. Individuals needed to be personally responsible for their behavior at the park.
Rescinio: You can ski off a mountain and into a tree if you’re not paying attention. It’s really nobody’s fault but your own.
Mulvihill: The best comparison is with skiing. With skiing you need to be responsible for how fast you go, staying out of the woods, not hitting another person, no jumping in the air unless you can handle it.
Russoniello: Gene wanted something on the cutting edge to bring new and exciting experiences to people. Back then, people wanted that.
Mulvihill: People who had been to other amusement parks were trained to have a certain experience. When they went to Action Park, they could jump off cliffs, drive race cars, and swing on ropes, and I don’t think they could quite believe the freedom they were given.
That sense of freedom was often tested by park-goers, who came from the tri-state area and paid frequent visits to the park's many beer stands.
DeSaye: There were bars throughout the park, which is something when you’re surrounded by rides requiring dexterity.
Ish: The park was not real good about cutting people off.
Becker: My parents were very Catholic and very “safe,” but I remember my mom sipping wine at a picnic table while we went on all these rides, so it was like she was getting a break, too.
Andy Fiori (Guest): You were definitely able to buy beer and walk around with alcohol in the park. It was an open-container policy. Alcohol was very prevalent.
Mahler: If you had three or four beers and you’re in the hot sun all day, you might be judgment-impaired.
Mulvihill: We once had a group of bodybuilders come in and start throwing lifeguards into the pool. We had to call the police. Guys were just aggressive. They were feeling their oats.
DeSaye: The Vernon police were awesome. They were used to it. We once called them to a fight with 20 people here. It was some gang thing that was so violent, people were hitting each other with bricks from the cobblestone walk. They were hell-bent on hurting each other. The cops had to bring the dogs.
Gianakis: They might throw you off a ride, but they would never throw you out of the park.
DeSaye: It was the Wild West. Fights every day. Guys would come in from the city, think we’re bumpkins, and want to take over. I saw a chair lift attendant hit a guy in the head with a shovel because he didn’t like something he said.
Flynn: The park did these Gladiator Games, basically a take-off of American Gladiators. And one of the Gladiators on payroll beat the crap out of one of the patrons using those bopping sticks. So the guy comes back with a dozen friends to fight six of the Gladiators. It was a melee, a riot of 40, 50, 60 people. Everyone responded—food service, lifeguards. It was ridiculous, the amount of wounded we took in from that. People were nuts.
Mulvihill: I can’t tell you the number of people who would jump into the water, start to drown, get pulled out, and then we’d ask if they knew how to swim. They’d go, “Nah, I don’t. I figured the lifeguard would pull me out.” That is just insane.
Gianakis: Basically, there was real Lord of the Flies stuff going on in this whole park.
II: ACCIDENTAL TOURISTS
Although Action Park had its official opening on July 4, 1978—complete with a Dolly Parton lookalike contest and a tobacco-spitting competition—it would be several years before Gene Mulvihill’s resort expansion began attracting a steady flow of attendees. To stir up interest, Mulvihill ordered construction of more attractions, including the park’s most infamous and most mythologized monument: the Cannonball Loop.
Mahler: It was the first thing you saw when you walked into the park. It was open very rarely. Basically, you’d hear people screaming all the way through until they landed in the pool at the bottom. They’d skip a little bit, then stagger around for a second before walking away.
DeSaye: It was a giant metal tube on a tower with a 360-degree loop and people would go shooting out of it.
Fiori: I didn’t really think a person could go through a 360-degree loop.
Becker: It was like a Hot Wheels track with a friggin’ loop in it. No human should do that. I never saw it open. It was like a relic of a more dangerous time.
Ish: It was in operation while I was working there. I’m not sure about the story of the dummy, though.
Mahler: The story was they sent a dummy down and it came out in pieces.
Rogers: They filled up one of those maintenance man jumpsuits with sand bags and the first one came out with no head.
Keimel: It seemed like a crazy thing to try. It was so vertical. What happens when someone gets to the top of the loop and doesn’t go all the way around?
Benneyan: You could look at it and know there was something iffy about it.
DeSaye: What happened was, they sent employees down it. The first one smacked his face and his teeth got knocked out. The second person came out all cut up. When they went in, the first guy’s teeth had gotten stuck inside and cut the second guy.
Ish: It was completely dark in the tunnel. You had a sensation of being upside-down and right-side up and then the next thing you know, you’re on your back in the shallow pool looking up at the sky.
Mahler: We had to weigh people at the bottom to make sure they weren’t too light or too heavy. They wouldn’t get enough speed to clear the loop. We didn’t want an Augustus Gloop kind of situation.
Ish: The problem was that people would sometimes get stuck and no one thought to put an escape hatch in it. So people wound up crawling in a couple of times to rescue someone until a hatch was put in.
Mahler: It was just so obvious something could go terribly wrong here that I think it got a level of scrutiny from management that other rides didn’t get.
Mulvihill: We operated it for a couple of weekends and then shut it down. Then we’d leave it alone for a year or two and try to reopen it, and it just never worked. Maybe one in a 100 people would smash their face, but that’s too many. Maybe if it was one in 1000.
DeSaye: We called it a monument to stupidity.
Although the Loop was a bust, Action Park continued building out, offering three distinct plots—Waterworld, Motorworld, and Roaring Springs. The turning point, according to Andy Mulvihill, was buying commercial ad time on television in and around New Jersey. Suddenly, the park and its rides—including the Wave Pool, a mechanical wave machine that could produce a 40-inch tide that was introduced in 1981—were filling up. That year, park attendance exceeded 1 million people paying $14 million in admission fees.
Mulvihill: The first couple seasons were so-so, and then we discovered commercials. The market really responded and we couldn’t handle all the people coming in. It was getting packed.
Fiori: I still remember that commercial. “The action never stops at Action Park!” They were kind of like used car commercials: not very well-produced, but very recognizable.
Mahler: There wasn’t really anything else to do in Vernon. We were 45 minutes from the nearest mall.
Gianakis: It was the place to go. My friends and I would come from Long Island, leaving at four in the morning, getting there when the park opened, and leaving at night. It was like taking your dog to the dog park. As soon as the car pulled up, the doors would be flying open before you even parked.
Ish: The Wave Pool was commonly overcrowded. They didn’t limit the number of people in the pool. It was just a sea of heads bobbing up and down.
Mulvihill: We bought the Wave Pool from guys who had built them before and provided us with filters, chlorination, and told us capacities. They were as expert about it as you could be.
Fiori: The pool would encourage body-surfing and stuff like that, which doesn’t help when there are a bunch of people crashing into each other. You’d go through cycles of small waves, then bigger ones.
Gianakis: I used to be a really good swimmer, and even I couldn’t deal with the Wave Pool. I remember it being huge at one end, almost like a beach, and then it got deeper and deeper where the waves were. You’d be afraid to get too close to the massive fans underwater.
Flynn: Part of the problem was depth. The very shallow end was fine, but the further out you went, it probably got to be about 12 feet or so. And there was the unpredictability of man-made giant waves. That plus the size of the pool created a recipe for disaster.
Mahler: The Wave Pool had like eight or 10 guards on duty at all times. I think they would log like 30 saves a day.
Flynn: If you wanted to become a good lifeguard, you got a job at the Wave Pool.
Mulvihill: This was the New York market, and people did not know how to swim. We’d pull hundreds of people out in a weekend.
Gianakis: I cracked my head on the ladder [trying] to get out one time. I was bleeding all over the place.
DeSaye: The problem with the Wave Pool was that it had people screaming for help who didn’t need it. And then when someone really needed help, they’d be under water for five minutes.
Ish: It was harder than swimming in a pool. You’re swimming uphill on the back of waves. It could easily catch people off-guard and tire them out faster than normal.
Mulvihill: With the Wave Pool, we could not see the bottom because the water wasn’t clear enough. We kept adding chlorine. The question became: Why operate it if you can’t see the bottom? Well, you can’t see the bottom of a lake or ocean where people swim, either. It doesn't mean you shouldn't let people go in the ocean.
Ish: We had a big problem of people taking the attitude that they bought an admission ticket and should be able to go on any ride and then get in over their head because they can’t swim.
Zimmerman: Someone once dove into one foot of water. That is not the fault of the park.
Flynn: The first season I was there, we used to do rotations with a staff of six. And I started seeing wristbands in addition to the regular admission wristband, a pink wristband with “CFS” written on it. I go to the top of two big cliff jumps and talk to one of the lifeguards who is letting people jump off, and say, “Hey, man, what’s with the pink CFS wristband?” He told me it meant, “Can’t F***ing Swim.” They jump 30 feet in, sink, get dragged from bottom, and tagged so they didn’t jump in again.
Ish: The problem was not the lifeguards. It was asking them to guard an overcrowded pool.
Zimmerman: My friend that worked with me on the Alpine was also a scuba diver and he eventually got switched to Waterworld. He had to go diving for bodies in the deeper water set-ups.
DeSaye: I witnessed a couple accidents there. It wouldn’t be a good day when it happened. The police would come and inspect the ride and there would always be an investigation. It’s no different from someone drowning in a pool.
Ish: The lifeguards were always very shaken up by it.
Mulvihill: I pulled a dead guy off the bottom of a pool once. I heard over the radio there was a code red, which is life or death, and showed up a minute later. The lifeguards were doing a search of the pool at Roaring Springs. Sometimes guys would jump off and swim underwater and make it so you couldn’t find them. There were a lot of false alarms, but the lifeguards seemed convinced someone went down. EMTs were there and tried resuscitating him, but it didn’t work. The guy didn’t know how to swim. Why he jumped off without knowing how to swim, I don’t know. It goes back to personal responsibility. I was 17. I was shattered.
The drownings led to increased scrutiny by local media over the park. In 1986, the New Jersey Herald reported [PDF] that 110 injuries were logged for the summer 1985 season, including 45 head injuries and 10 fractures. That figure grew to 330 for summer 1986. The paper’s reporter, Evan Schuman, also charged that the park was allowing teenagers under the age of 16 to supervise rides and asking those [who were] underage to go home when inspectors from the Department of Labor came. The park denied the allegation.
DeSaye: The local papers hated the place.
Ish: I never saw any of the stuff from the paper. Where I think the confusion comes in is that we had kids working there but they weren’t lifeguarding or operating equipment.
Zimmerman: There were kids working there, sure, but they couldn’t operate rides. On the Alpine, those guys would be putting carts onto chair lifts or fixing carts. They weren’t able to have any interaction with the lift itself.
DeSaye: We hired 14-year-olds for general services. No way did they supervise anything. But I can’t tell you if there was or was not a time when 20,000 people were in the park and someone went, “Crap, we don’t have enough employees. Take these kids and give them shirts.”
Rogers: Kids basically ran the park. It was high school. The seniors were their bosses.
Mahler: It was like any place that hires a bunch of teenagers. There were a percentage of people who were lazy, lackadaisical, and not paying attention to what they should be paying attention to. But I really feel that aspect of it was exaggerated. I do remember incidences of people being kind of drunk at work, but as soon as someone in authority found out, they put the kibosh put on it and it was not allowed to continue.
Rogers: I don’t really think any of the employees were drinking. If they did, I don’t think they were wasted.
Flynn: One thing that doesn’t really get covered is how the park would take advantage of low-cost overseas labor, basically flying in kids to take summer jobs from Europe. These kids would live in little hovels, little condos, party like rock stars every night.
Keimel: Yes, there was a large contingent of foreign workers; people from the Dominican Republic.
Flynn: The kids did the best they could. When you are 16 or 17 years old and given minimal training, and it’s summertime, you’re interested in a bit more than just letting people go down a slide. Safety protocols could be little lax at times. But most people would be doing bone-headed things, like going down slides backwards.
Rescinio: I went there and like any kid, I didn’t file a report when I got injured. For every injury they reported, there were probably 10 or 20 that weren’t.
Mulvihill: I would say I am a guy who is not a big believer in over-regulation by government, and neither was my father. So when they would put various regulations out there in reporting injuries, we would be very careful about complying.
DeSaye: The inspector would come in and say, "You don’t have enough lifeguards, blah, blah, blah. We’ll give you a warning this time.” They’d be there for a while then go and things would go back to normal.
Flynn: The complexion of clientele, maybe 20 to 35 percentage of the patronage were non-English speaking. Were they fully and adequately informed of the risks? Probably not. There was probably an opportunity to improve a certain population’s awareness of risk.
Ish: It’s a rural area. The local fire and ambulance is volunteer. They were not happy to show up a couple of times a day to get people and take them to the hospital. The park decided they were right and so they bought an ambulance to use themselves.
Mulvihill: We absolutely owned an ambulance. We also made donations to the town. We donated one ambulance. We would strain their services and we wanted to have a good relationship with the town and so we’d try to help them out.
DeSaye: For the most part, it was people doing stupid things they shouldn’t have done. And even after they’re warned, they keep doing it again and again. And eventually that comes back to bite you.
Mulvihill: We had a good relationship with a doctor in town and would bring him certain types of injuries without going to the hospital. It was sort of an early urgent care center.
Ish: We had maybe 100 calls on a busy weekend day. Maybe three or four of those were something serious. It was not as many as the newspaper articles would have you think.
Keimel: They had these little propane-powered golf carts that the medical personnel would ride in. You could fit a stretcher on the back.
Gianakis: They were like little mini-ambulances.
Becker: I remember seeing a kid in the golf cart who was busted open and gushing blood. Someone was holding a towel to his head.
Ish: If something was serious, like a cut or something we bandaged, we’d fill out an accident report and forward it to the liability people. Anything from a sprain on up. We’d put people into splints for X-rays, but true broken bones were not that common. It was more sprains and dislocated shoulders.
Ultimately, the park would log a routine series of injuries and a total of five reported fatalities. In addition to the 1980 death of employee George Larsson Jr. on the Alpine, 15-year-old George Lopez drowned in the Wave Pool in 1982. On July 30, 1982, Jeffrey Nathan, 27, died seemingly after being electrocuted and suffering cardiac arrest during a trip through the White Water Kayak Experience. The state's Department of Labor found no fault with the ride, although there were “intermittent” electrical shorts noted.
On August 25, 1984, 20-year-old Donald DePass drowned in a pool in the park’s Roaring Springs area. And in 1987, 18-year-old Gregory Grandchamps died in the Wave Pool, with a Park representative alleging that Grandchamps had “food in his mouth” when he was retrieved from the water. The estates of Larsson, Nathan, and Lopez received six-figure settlements. While the incidents were in line with the inherent danger of any given water park—from the 1980s to 1997, 176 total deaths were reported in 125 parks across the country—Action Park seemed to garner more notoriety than the rest.
Keimel: We were always surprised there weren’t more lawsuits, but the word was Gene had good lawyers and made things go away.
Mulvihill: We fought everything tooth and nail to make sure no one was filing frivolous lawsuits.
Rescinio: They defended everything very aggressively. Their stance was that people assumed all responsibility when they chose to go on the rides. That was their basic defense, assumption of risk. That is a legal defense.
Mulvihill: Like my father, I believe in personal responsibility. People get hurt or die skiing all the time.
Rescinio: You go down a slide and assume the risk. OK. You may get hurt. I would argue you do not assume the risk the ride is improperly designed and will throw you in the air and on your tailbone.
Benneyan: There are 20,000 people in attendance. People are going to have injuries. You’re in control of what you choose to do. Disney’s perfect? Disney’s not. They have their own ambulances. It’s not uncommon to have first aid staff.
Russoniello: We did a number of surveys, and what people liked was the thrill and excitement. They felt they were participating in the park instead of just sitting on a ride.
Rescinio: I represented a woman who went down the Alpine Slide in 1988 and got injured. And they have signs that say “Ride at your own risk,” but what if [the riders] don’t understand what those risks are? If the rides are not properly designed, is that a risk you’re willing to accept?
Litigating personal injury lawsuits became an operating expense for Gene Mulvihill, who found that fighting allegations of park malfeasance or offering small settlements was manageable. Unbeknownst to most people, however, was the fact that Mulvihill had actually been “insuring” himself, telling state regulators that the park was covered by a phony firm called London and World Assurance, Limited. Mulvihill entered into a plea agreement in 1984 and received a suspended sentence for the deception [PDF].
DeSaye: They were self-insured, to their own detriment.
Rescinio: I was always suspect about the self-insurance thing, in the sense it was not financially-backed in the way a real insurance company would be backed. If they really got hit, they wouldn’t have the reserves to pay it. Geico has billions, maybe $500 million in case something happens. They can weather it.
Mulvihill: I think my father tried to hire really good lawyers to defend the company and to minimize costs. He got insurance with a shell company, effectively self-insurance, which people have moved to today, but he got in trouble for that [at the time].
DeSaye: Most of it was minor. Road rash. Concussions. Some broken bones. Of course, there were the deaths.
Rogers: Someone died on the kayak ride, and that’s when my mother told me, “You’re not working down there.”
Gianakis: They had electric fans underwater making rapids so you can use the kayak, and exposed electrical wires were under the water. The guy falls under the kayak, steps on the wire, gets electrocuted.
Mulvihill: One day there were a few people in there, and a couple of them passed out. One of them didn’t start breathing and there was talk of shock. The guy who died did nothing wrong. He didn’t have a heart attack, though we had a lot of those. The state seized the pumps and could find nothing wrong. The guy did nothing wrong.
Zimmerman: That was the only one that felt like the stupidity of the park. To shield ourselves from the horror of that, we called it the Fryak.
Fiori: I would say some of us were kind of blissfully unaware of that. I would hear things like that, like an urban legend, but it only makes it cooler at that age. You don’t wrap your head around the consequences. It could’ve easily been you stepping on a loose electrical wire in water or hitting your head on the Alpine.
Zimmerman: It gets back to people taking personal responsibility for their own actions. Before you paid admission, you saw a sign that said, “Participate at your own risk.” People didn’t take it seriously. That’s not the fault of the park. It’s your arrogance thinking you won’t get hurt.
III: A SLIPPERY SLOPE
Action Park’s headlines did little to dissuade visitors from making the trip. Attendance remained strong into the 1990s, bolstered by a number of attractions in which no fatalities were reported but the morbidly appealing risk of bodily injury remained in play.
DeSaye: There was a whole big section called Roaring Springs with cliff-diving, man-made rivers, rafts, speedboats. Of course, people got hurt. I put you in a little speedboat with 20 other speedboats and you’re going to crash into the docks or into other people. People would bump into one another and gas would go into the water.
Keimel: There was a sheen of oily residue over the water.
Gianakis: If you freaked out and shut down the throttle, the front of the boat would just dive in. Water would be flying over the top and fill where you’re sitting. I’m surprised more people didn’t sink.
Keimel: The Tarzan swing was just in the middle of the woods. They put a dam in a ravine and made a pool out of it.
Fiori: It was like a 25-foot drop. If you didn’t let go, you’d just swing back and fall into the woods.
Gianakis: They had these tubes you’d go through. They were pitch black, like slides. And in the middle of the tube, there's a right angle you don’t know is coming. Your head would just smash against the far wall. Then the tube just dumps you out, 20 feet above water. You don’t know what’s going on.
Ish: In the Springs, they wanted to maintain the natural aesthetic of a swimming hole and made the decision not to paint the bottom of the pool. It was clear water, but the bottom was dark, and you couldn’t see a person if you had to. It was eventually painted white.
Benneyan: People would be at the edge of a cliff, bragging about jumping, and then suddenly realize they don’t want to do it. They’re stepping forward, backward. There are hundreds of people there, all screaming. It was like being in a football game.
DeSaye: Roaring Springs came from these gorgeous spring-fed streams from the top of the mountain, but the water was ice cold. But in Motorworld, it was a giant swamp. There were fish and snakes in the water. You did not want to tip over.
Ish: There were never any snake bites. They never swam after people. They kept to themselves.
Keimel: There were snapping turtles. When the sign said to stay in the boat, it meant stay in the boat.
Flynn: There’s one ride that doesn’t get a lot of attention. It was the Aqua Skoot. It was probably a 40-foot high slide, with the slide itself made of metal rolling pins. The patron would bring a heavy plastic cart up five or six flights of stairs and then the attendant pushed you down and you’d shoot across the water kind of like a skipping stone.
Keimel: If you go to a warehouse and see people pushing crates down rollers, that’s essentially what it was. There were these rigid plastic sleds that went down meat rollers. We called them that because people were the “meat.”
Gianakis: I remember one time there was a hornet or wasp’s nest underneath the thing at the top. Four of us in a row ended up getting stung by wasps, freaking out, and going down in the carts, sliding down on our asses on metal rollers which are hot beyond belief because it’s summer. But they didn’t care and I didn’t care.
Keimel: They had these grand prix racers, and the mechanics would take them off Motorworld and race around the park. I even heard stories of them taking the grand prix cars on some of the roads, which I never witnessed, but you’d see on the ground where they left rubber marks.
Flynn: The cars were not terribly unsafe by themselves. But you mix the line for the ride with a beer stand and suddenly you have the ingredients for major motor vehicle accidents.
In the summer of 1997, employees were disheartened to see that Action Park had shuttered for the season. The problem: Gene Mulvihill’s expansive business interests had forced his Great American Recreation portfolio into a bankruptcy filing so complex it took up 20 feet of a shelf in a New Jersey court storage room. Action Park would be a casualty of unrelated real estate deals that had gone sour. Great American Recreation was $47.9 million in debt, including $3.8 million owed as a result of lawsuits against the Park.
Rescinio: They were successful for a long time because they had done calculations that showed, hey, leave the park as-is, bring in the money, defend the cases, have a good attorney, and rely on the odds that more often than not they’re going to win. [Rescinio’s client, who suffered injuries on the Alpine in 1988, lost her case on appeal.]
Flynn: In 1996, it seemed as busy as it ever was.
Mulvihill: My father was in and out of a million different businesses. He got caught up in real estate, got funding from a hedge fund, then the hedge fund went broke in six months. He wound up selling the park to Intrawest, which got rid of half the rides and made it safer and smaller.
Benneyan: Intrawest’s big focus was real estate. They were not in the water park business. They got an operating management contract and we became bystanders.
DeSaye: I think the world just changed around it. From 1982 to 1990, though, that place was the sh*t.
Ish: There was a comradery. People would get together after work.
DeSaye: The more I think about it, the more fond I am of it.
Flynn: After hours, there was tons of drinking. We’d have big end-of-season parties by the lake.
Becker: It was fun to see people wipe out, get rug burns. I think it’s a product of being from Jersey, liking that kind of humor.
Flynn: If you saw the movie Adventureland, you’ve seen Action Park. It was exactly like that.
Mahler: I’m in my mid-40s now and made some of my best friends there. Some of them are still close friends and we still laugh about some of the things that happened. We spent all this time together at work and then we hung out afterwards. You met people from other high schools. I was kind of an arty kid, and without the internet, it was harder to find your people. That was one of the places I started to find them—other arty weirdos.
Today, Action Park is no more. After Gene Mulvihill spearheaded a reacquisition of the property in 2010, he passed away in 2012. In 2015, Andy Mulvihill and his family sold their remaining financial interest in what is now known as Mountain Creek, with several of the rides either shuttered or redesigned with mandatory safety equipment. Over the years, the contrast between today’s sterile amusement park experience and Gene’s renegade approach to thrill rides has made Action Park an urban legend.
Mahler: The place had this reputation for being completely lawless, and that’s fun to talk about, but it wasn’t really the case.
Mulvihill: The guys currently operating the amusement park, the guys that bought us out four years ago, lost three rides that had been there for 40 years. The state said they’re not safe. Why say that after 40 years? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just knowing how to manage bureaucracy that wants to control people’s lives.
Ish: It appealed to your sense of adventure. You could get some bumps, bruises, and scrapes and talk about them. People would come out sore. It was an active day, and sometimes people would later translate that into a dangerous experience.
Flynn: It was the 1980s and the amusement industry was in its infancy. It was an organic experience.
DeSaye: There was never any malicious intent on the part of the people who ran the park. Never.
Benneyan: Gene had the best of intentions. He wanted to show people a really good time.
Russoniello: People in the industry would go, "Oh, Action Park. Scary." And those same people would come up and ask to try the rides—especially the Alpine.
Fiori: There was no waiting in line. You just ran around and went right on the rides. As a kid, you could do it all multiple times a day.
DeSaye: If you went to Action Park more than once and didn’t get hurt, you weren’t doing Action Park right.
Mulvihill: You’d just see crazy stuff as a kid in Vernon that you’d never see any other time. Guys smooching with their girlfriends in the woods, someone beating someone up. It made life exciting.
Becker: I think a lot of it is this pre-internet mythology. No two stories kind of line up, so people really are chasing the truth. There was a very small group of people who experienced this very odd thing, and now it kind of lives on as this living, breathing rural myth.
Mahler: I was in Mexico at a bar with a friend and a couple came in on their honeymoon. The woman was from Brooklyn and we got to talking about Action Park. She pulled up her shirt and showed me a scar and told me, “That’s from the Alpine Slide.”
DeSaye: It was the one place to really push your limits. Ninety percent of my friends have scars from the park, a broken arm from the park. It’s like a medal of honor. You had a sense of bravado, like, “I went there, I did this.” People would go there just for that.
Mahler: I’m being 70 percent serious when I say it was the best job I’ve ever had in my life.
Gianakis: It was the greatest park ever. I’ve been to Disney, I used to go to Great Adventure, I’ve been to Magic Mountain, and nothing has ever compared to this park. You knew what you were in for and it delivered. And as beat up as you got, as many bandages as you had on, as soon as you got back in your car, you went, “Oh, I can’t wait to get back here.”