CLASS ACTION PARK, from co-directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III, is a documentary on the legendary New Jersey water park, Action Park, focusing on everything from its inception to the lawsuits surrounding injuries and deaths that occurred in the park. The documentary features talking-heads from those who worked at the park, to guests, and even a family that dealt with the tragic death of a loved one.
To best describe the plot, I’ll turn to the official Fantasia synopsis: “CLASS ACTION PARK is the first-ever feature-length documentary to explore the legend, legacy, and truth behind a place that long ago entered the realm of myth. To some, New Jersey’s infamous Action Park was the most spectacularly fun amusement park on Earth: A place where unruly 1980s teenagers were given free reign to go gonzo on strange contraptions that seemed to violate the laws of common sense (and perhaps physics). To others, it was an ill-conceived death trap. One thing is for sure: it’s the type of place that will never exist again.”
CLASS ACTION PARK is one of the more fascinating documentaries I’ve watched so far this year. It’s a tale wrought with tragedy but still manages to incorporates a light-hearted tone. Created by Gene Mulvihill and located in Vernon, New Jersey, Action Park opened in 1978 and was considered one of the first-ever water parks. Broken up into three areas: Alpine Center, Motorworld, and Waterworld, the park consisted of poorly designed attractions that screamed “UNSAFE”. Furthermore, the majority of the staff were untrained with many being underage kids. It was a place where rules and regulations barely existed, booze ran freely and guests oftentimes found themselves in physical altercations. That said, it’s one of the most New Jersey-esque stories I’ve ever seen. In its almost 20 year history, the park was hit with multiple lawsuits due to the unending litany of injuries sustained there as well as a slew of tragic deaths.
The documentary features archival footage of the park as well as animation to give a scope of the area and the rides that inhabited it. Throughout the 90 minute runtime, we are given a tour of some of the more well-known attractions in the park such as the Cannonball Loop, The Tidal Wave Pool (which saw the death of 3 individuals), The Kayak Experience (which saw the death of 1 individual), the Colorado River Ride, the Alpine Slide (which saw the first death at Action Park), and more. We are shown the crude design of these rides and the genesis of how they came together, mainly because Mulvihill went with any design that came his way, which makes it shocking that no one tried to put a stop to this type of dangerous nonsense sooner.
Throughout the documentary, we are presented with folks who had their own experiences at the park, such as comedians, as well as New Jersey natives, Chris Gethard (The Other Guys) and Alison Becker (Parks and Recreation). They shared their experiences through a humorous lens to discuss the more unsavory aspects of the park, the injuries that they sustained as well as the fear associated with the attractions. Additionally, there were segments which featured a slew of employees who worked there talking about the lack of leadership or rules which allowed for an insane breeding ground for teenage whims. Additionally, they spoke about how there was a lack of safety for both themselves and the guests. Though most of them had a mixture of positive and negative things to say about Mulvihill there seemed to be an agreement that he was more focused on everyone having fun and less focused on making sure people were safe.
I think the most damning portion of this documentary was the focus on Mulvihill and his inability to accept accountability for his action. The creation of Action Park and the disregard for safety cost parkgoers their lives and left a staggering number of individuals with injuries ranging from cuts and bruises to broken bones and worse. Because of Mulvihill’s previous life on Wall Street, the abundance of money he had he would use to fight each and every lawsuit – going so far as to make sure they went to trial if need be, knowing that most people couldn’t afford the legal fees. In the rare case in which he lost, he just wouldn’t pay the settlement money unless absolutely forced to. He’s a villainous person that doesn’t deserve to be praised for his creation. The only person to really condemn him in the documentary was the mother and brother of George Larsson Jr. Her 19-year-old son passed from a coma after his sled ran off the track of the Alpine Slide due to faulty brakes. The anger and sadness during their segment of the documentary were heartbreaking to watch especially when it came to light that Mulvihill lied about her son’s death.
Overall, CLASS ACTION PARK is a documentary that takes us back to a time in the ’80s and 90s where rules could be easily broken, supervision wasn’t required, and life could be lived more dangerously, especially if you were a teenager. I lived in New Jersey for a short time after college and always heard stories about Action Park from my friends who grew up going there, almost as if it was a badge of honor that they survived. I’m sure if I lived there as a teen, I would have been seduced by the thrill of experiencing all that the terrifying park had to offer; however, now looking back, I’m glad that never came to fruition. Mulvihill may have created a park that will go on to live in infamy, but it’s important to remember he’s not a man to be celebrated.