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excerpt > Scott Loring Sanders > Surviving Jersey

Where You Control the Action

The most insane waterpark ever created

was located in a small town in northern New Jersey: Action Park. Action Park was like the Wild, Wild West of waterparks, except instead of guns and saloons and prostitutes, there were water rides and wave pools and alpine slides with little-to-no supervision. Action Park didn’t really have rules; laws didn’t exist within its boundaries. There were no strict or significant safety measures in place, at least none adhered to. It’s been referred to as The Most Dangerous Waterpark in the World, a moniker the owner and founder, Gene Mulvihill, was apparently proud of. From 1980-1987, there were six confirmed fatalities—from drownings to electrocutions to head traumas, along with hundreds (if not thousands) of annual injuries.

How Action Park ever opened in the first place is still a mystery. How it was allowed to remain open is an even bigger one. The grounds were home to a ski resort in the winter and a waterpark in the summer. Teenagers openly drank beer and smoked inside the park, and many of those were employees. As a preteen, I was far more scared of the clientele than I was of the rides themselves, worried I might get picked on or ostracized or beaten up. But as a teenager, it was one of the greatest, wildest, craziest places on Earth. If the film Caddyshack had been set at a waterpark instead of a golf course, that might offer a glimpse of what it was like. Except Action Park wasn’t fiction, Action Park was real.

The park was composed of countless death-defying rides, the majority of which would be illegal today. Part of the reason they were so dangerous was because the patrons were in control of their own fate. Action Park’s motto was, “Where you control the action.” Imagine giving teenagers free rein to do whatever they wanted, and then hire another set of teenagers to operate the rides. The result? Potential disaster mixed with extreme and unlimited fun. For example, the Tarzan Swing was the equivalent of any classic rope swing. It was a long waterskiing rope attached to a horizontal post (a gallows might be a fair comparison) where participants swung out and dropped twenty feet into a freezing, spring-fed pond (one of the confirmed deaths occurred when a man had a heart attack after plunging into the frigid water.) If a person on the Tarzan Swing panicked—which happened often—and didn’t let go, there was no safeguard preventing them from swinging back and slamming into the platform. Others slipped or didn’t have the upper body strength to hold on until they reached the apex. These mistakes often resulted in face-plants or belly-flops.

But the physical repercussions of a mishap were nothing compared to the mental. It was commonplace for spectators on the boardwalk to surround the Tarzan Swing with the sole intention of loudly mocking those who had accidents. Their only job was to offer scorching ridicule. And it didn’t matter how old the swinger was. The crowd was as ruthless to a ten-year-old girl as they were to a twenty-something man. As a young kid, it was terrifying. I was once there with a friend who was overweight, one of those guys who always wore a t-shirt when swimming to mask his belly fat. His hands slipped off the handle shortly into his descent, and he scraped against the wooden platform before awkwardly tumbling into the pond, ass-over-head. The crowd went nuts, screaming fat slurs. He’d only been twelve years old, but no one offered mercy. No one really gave a damn. He broke down in tears, humiliated, and I felt horrible for him. But I had to suck it up quickly, as I was next in line.

Another ride was the Cannonball, essentially a padded sewer pipe. Halfway through the tunneled slide, the pipe elbowed forty-five degrees. The water source was provided by a garden hose that had to be stepped over before entering the dark maw. That was the level of sophistication at Action Park—a garden hose. The drunk or stoned operator would say “Go ahead” and off you’d shoot. If you wanted to go backwards, the operator didn’t care. Tandem? No problem, dude. There was no mat or carpet or other riding device; it was just you, sliding down the steep decline of a pitch-black tube, having no idea when you’d hit that elbow. Once there, you’d pinball side-to-side before seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, literally. When you reached that light, you’d be launched through the air until you landed in another freezing pond. No chlorine in that water, by the way. No safeguards against bacteria or urine. No nothing. Just a frigid pond you might land in feet first, face first, belly first, or back first. I don’t recall a lifeguard on duty. There must’ve been, but I was far more concerned with the jeering crowds than I was with drowning.

Perhaps the most dangerous ride of all was the Cannonball Loop. Extraordinarily short-lived, it had the same premise as the Cannonball, except there was a 360 degree loop at the end, similar to a rollercoaster. But while a rollercoaster used chains and tracks and electrical power to thrust patrons upside down and around, the Cannonball Loop depended on nothing more than the weight of a rider’s body and centrifugal force. In other words, it was virtually impossible. The ride only lasted a month because people kept smashing their faces, breaking their noses, and injuring their backs. One rumor claimed that when the Cannonball Loop was first constructed, homemade dummies were thrust down the tube, emerging from the other end dismembered or decapitated. Later, employees were offered a hundred dollars by Mr. Mulvihill if they’d test ride it.

Again, that was the level of sophistication at Action Park. Their methods weren’t much more advanced than how my friends and I used to build bike ramps in the neighborhood, using loose stacks of bricks and flimsy plywood. It was easy to imagine the “architects” of these rides as nothing more than a bunch of drunk guys sitting around a table, brainstorming while they got wasted.

“Dude, what if we made a waterslide that did a loopty-loop?”

“Oh, man, that would be fucking awesome.”

So they built it, what the hell, with no knowledge of physics, engineering, or apparent regard for human life.

Another attraction was the Wave Pool, one of the first of its kind, which was always filled with white kids and black kids and brown kids and yellow kids. Kids from rural Jersey, inner-city Jersey, from Brooklyn and the Bronx, all packed into a calm, giant swimming pool that slowly started moving. And then the waves would grow larger and stronger until kids bobbed in water that resembled a churning ocean. It was a manmade tsunami, where visitors were slammed and tossed into each other like lottery balls. Those who attempted to escape by climbing out the sides usually didn’t fare well. They’d be pounded into the concrete walls, then sucked back into the water like buoys in an unforgiving tide. On its inaugural day, the waves were so strong and lasted so long that more than one hundred people had to be rescued. The Wave Pool was responsible for more deaths than any other attraction in the park.

The most infamous ride of all was the Alpine Slide, which wasn’t even a water ride. Its concrete track, similar to a luge, wound its way down the side of the ski slope. Park goers had to take a chair lift to the top of the mountain to get there. No helmets, no gloves, no knee or elbow pads. I don’t even think shoes were required. A longhaired teenager often wearing a Black Sabbath or Yes concert T, with a cigarette hanging from his lips, distributed plastic sleds with steel wheels. The only means for braking was a rudimentary handle that poked between the legs (a potential disaster for boys) and when pulled back on, scraped against the concrete. In other words, the rider was in charge of his speed, following Action Park’s core principle. The Black Sabbath guy didn’t have a walkie-talkie to coordinate with the operator at the bottom, and there were no spotters at various points to make sure the flume was free and clear. If somebody crashed half-way down and was stuck on the track, there was no way to know. Collisions with fellow riders were inevitable.

Two separate tracks ran next to one another, snaking down the hillside like parallel mountain streams. When it was your turn, you scooted to the edge until gravity took over. And then you were off, screaming down the side of the mountain with no one in control of your destiny except you. It was total freedom, as exhilarating as it was frightening. People sometimes flew off the tracks and into the weeds if they entered a turn too hot. There were no pads or cages or nets. If you went too fast, you risked serious injury or death. The first documented fatality at Action Park was a nineteen-year-old employee who hit his head on the surrounding rocks after being tossed.

Think about all of that for a moment—you are a teenager on a tiny cart ripping down the side of a mountain with nothing to regulate your speed. You have a teenager’s brain, a teenager’s reasoning, and a teenager’s inhibitions. Or lack thereof. You are allowed to go as fast as you damn well please. That was an actual ride at Action Park.

Scrapes and cuts were commonplace. People finished the Alpine Slide bleeding, the result of bare skin skidding across rough concrete at twenty miles per hour. You often saw friends at school or a party with friction burns on their knees or elbows. If you asked what happened and they replied, “Alpine Slide,” no further questioning was necessary. Everyone in Jersey knew what that meant. The wounds and scars were worn like badges of honor.

Action Park was debauchery at its finest. I know it probably seems like I’m exaggerating. It sounds like one of those instances where the myth, over time, tends to outgrow the reality. But Action Park was not a myth. Or exaggeration. It was a real place, and real people got injured and even died there. It shut down in 1996 although a safer, tamer version recently opened, called Mountain Creek. Of course, because of safety regulations and our ever-growing litigious society, it will never be the same as the original. Which is probably a good thing, at least if the preservation of life is important to you.

And I need to be clear about something. As scary and dangerous as Action Park was, it was also amazing. Where you could be as hedonistic as you wanted without fear of repercussions (other than severe bodily injury, of course). Gene Mulvihill was way ahead of his time. He created something unlike any other place on earth. During that small window of history when Action Park existed, my friends and I took full advantage. We were lucky enough to experience true and glorious freedom. No rules. No authority. No restraints. Just running amok in Jersey, raw and wild.

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Scott Loring Sanders has had short fiction and nonfiction widely published and anthologized, including work selected for Best American Mystery Stories and chosen as Notable in Best American Essays. Sanders has published two novels, a collection of short fiction, and was the Writer-in-Residence at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France. Read a Q&A with Scott and his "Argument with Myself On How To Write A Competent Essay," and learn more about Surviving Jersey.

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