Class Action Park is a terrifying thrill ride through the negligence and corruption of one of the world’s most dangerous theme parks.
Built in 1978 and located in Vernon, New Jersey, Action Park was one of the world’s first water parks. Built adjacent to a ski slope, Action Park both delighted and maimed young residents for two decades. The brain-child of Gordon Gekko-ish Gene Mulvihill, a grifter thrown out of Wall Street for selling penny stocks, the park was a rule-free summer haven whose willful negligence lead to a number of deaths. Yes, plural. More than one person lost their life at Action Park.
Directors Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges pepper their HBO Max documentary with interviews of former staff members and visitors who recount Mulvihill’s PT Barnum-esque personality and drive to build a park that one former staffer describes as “Ayn Rand meets Lord Of The Flies”. It’s no wonder the park served as the inspiration behind the Johnny Knoxville movie Action Point.
Mostly designed in-house, Action Park’s infamous rides are the stuff of legend, like the looping water slide that caused so much bodily harm teenage staff members were given $100 if they dared run the gauntlet. The slide, like much of the park’s attractions, weren’t designed by engineers but created by staff who didn’t seem to understand even the basic principles of physics. Earning its nickname “Traction Park”, the number of injuries was so vast the park had to hire and operate its own ambulance because the frequency of calls to injured visitors left no medical staff for the rest of the town.
Nothing in Action Park was remotely safe. Not the 60 mph go-karts located next to the Oktoberfest beer tent, the picturesque waterfall jump that had non-swimmers plunging onto crowds below, the tube ride that causes concussions, the boat race ride where someone was electrocuted, the wave pool which claimed more than one life, and the concrete Alpine Slide that claimed the life of a young athletic teen in 1980. None of these injuries or deaths led to the immediate closure of Action Park which was allowed to continue operating until 1996.
Part of the reason Mulvihill was allowed to continue operating his park is because he was a fraudster who had created his own insurance company based in the Cayman Islands in order to insure himself. The city of Vernon wanted him out, but always a grifter, he managed to dig in his heels until his exhausted opponents gave up.
While Mulvihill’s background of bribery and possible connection to the mob is briefly explored in the documentary, the filmmakers could have taken a deeper look at his ties and connections. Instead, they only touch on his ties to blackmail schemes by presenting redacted phone call recordings with a journalist who believes his influence led to her firing.
In one telling moment, the film explains that Donald Trump, an acquaintance of Mulvihill, was once interested in backing the park only to decide it was far too outrageous and dangerous for him.
Though Mulvihill died in 2012, his son as used as one of the talking heads through interviews recorded in 2013 talking about the legacy of the park.
The majority of Class Action Park is dedicated to the nostalgic memories of a shared experience in talking-head interviews peppered with home video footage and crudely-drawn animations showing just how dangerous the rides were. The last chapter is the family of the Alpine Slide victim, the first, and sadly not the last person to lose their life at Action Park.
Capturing what is best about true crime documentaries as it weaves between the “is this for real” outrageousness of Tiger King and the sobering reality, however, especially near the end of the film, the tonal shifts don’t quite work. It’s unclear overall if Scott and Porges are going for a wave of wild Gen X and Millennial nostalgia or trying to shame those involved for allowing the recklessness to continue for so long. Either way, you’ll never look at an amusement park the same way again.
Class Action Park is part of Fantasia’s 2020 virtual line-up and debuts on HBO Max on Aug. 27.