Human beings are intelligent creatures who are capable of reexamining situations and, when something goes wrong, learning from the experience and figuring out how to prevent the same problem from ever reoccurring. In many ways, people learn most effectively through trial and error and so it is understandable that the earliest attempts at a particular goal are the ones that are most likely to lead to disaster. Occasionally, legends are born from early attempts that somehow misfire and result in mishaps, misadventures and mayhem.
Action Park was a waterpark that was located in Vernon Township, New Jersey. The park opened in 1978 on the grounds of a ski resort and it was one of the first waterparks in the United States. Hence, much of the technology, ride planning, and basic design that goes into modern-day waterparks was unknown during the formation of the attractions at Action Park. As a result, many of the rides were poorly designed and were, by default, fundamentally unsafe. Making matters worse, the park was known to be underfunded. Cheap labor, corner cutting on safety regulations, and failures to report hazardous conditions was the norm.
Over the course of its history—that stemmed from its 1978 opening until its closing in 1996—Action Park became notorious due to the numerous injuries that its patrons sustained. In fact, six people are known to have died at the park as a direct result of its unsafe conditions. Action Park sold alcohol and was notorious for being lax on ID requirements. Subsequently, a good deal of underage drinking occurred at the park which greatly heightened the chances of accidents. Numerous reports also indicate that employees (most of whom were teenagers) frequently drank alcohol while on duty. An abundance of alcohol combined with a very poor security presence directly resulted in rambunctious and raunchy behavior. For example, displays of exhibitionism were common on the “Tarzan Swing” attraction and those riding up to the Alpine Slide openly spat at the people who were actually riding the attraction below. The sense of lawlessness at the park made such behaviors seem acceptable—even encouraged—and the park started attracting rougher and rougher crowds every year.
Under-aged, under-numbered, and under-trained staff only accelerated the problems at Action Park. Some employees were only fourteen years old and were put into positions of ride operators—jobs that, by law, are only supposed to go to those who are sixteen and older. The pay was low and the working conditions were harsh, leading many park employees to simply do the bare minimum and show little to no concern for the wellbeing of the park goers they were supposed to be protecting. However, some attractions (like “The Wave Pool” and the “Alpine Slide”) were so infamously dangerous that the employees were required to put extra emphasis on safety.
“The Wave Pool” was responsible for three of the deaths at Action Park since the water was very deep, often extremely crowded, and the waves were very high and continued for twenty minutes at a time while the calm water/rest periods were very short (about five minutes). It was common for even strong and capable swimmers to get exhausted in the currents and those who were poor swimmers (as were the majority of Action Park attendees) usually failed to realize that they were in over their heads until it was too late. Twelve lifeguards were on duty at all times around the wave pool and they frequently rescued 20+ people a day from the currents. Despite these safety measures, at least three people still perished in the pool.
“The Alpine Slide” was one of the oldest rides in the park dating back to its opening in 1978. The Alpine Slide was the park’s most infamous ride even though it was not a water attraction. The Alpine Slide stood on top of a tall hill and riders had to take a ski-lift to access it. Once riders got to the top of the hill, they were given a plastic sled to ride down the slide. Yet the ride was not well maintained and the sleds’ “safety stick” was usually either permanently stuck up (meaning that the sled would fly along at intense speed) or stuck down (meaning that the sled would creep along slowly—which usually resulted in the slow rider getting into collisions with those on fast sleds racing down behind them). Moreover, the slide was made out of concrete and fiberglass and riders who had the misfortune to fall off their sleds (apparently a very common occurrence) would suffer serious skin abrasions due to lack of any kind of protective padding (it was worse if the park goers happened to be in swimsuits—which many frequently were). Sleds jumped the track so often that the park staff placed hay bales on the sides to cushion the crashes—unfortunately these did not always work and/or were knocked down too frequently to be efficiently replaced.
According to hospital emergency room reports, the Alpine Slide was responsible for fourteen fractures and twenty-six head injuries in the years of 1984 and 1985 alone (it was also the ride that produced the park’s first fatality in 1980). Those who recall the ride remember seeing the wreckage of sleds lying along the tracks as they headed up the ski-lift. Staff members were instructed to display gory photos of maimed individuals to riders (prior to them going down the slide) in order to illustrate “what would probably happen” if they dared to stick their arms or legs out during the descent.
Ultimately, Action Park evolved into a major destination with 75 rides consisting of 40 waterslides and 35 self-controlled (sometimes motorized) rides. Several of these rides were known to be unsafe. The go-karts, which were supposed to reach top speeds of no more than 20mph, were often tinkered with by staff and riders could sometimes drive them as fast as 50mph. Furthermore, because these rides were not well maintained, fumes frequently dizzied and sickened riders. Patrons who rode the motorized water boats also complained about fumes…and the fact that the natural pond where the water boats floated was infested by dozens of large and aggressive snakes.
Seemingly every ride at the park had some sort of serious safety problem. The first ride that was closed was called the “Kayak Experience” which invited guests to “kayak” in a boat along a waterway…that's waters were made rough via electric fans. In 1982, a man stepped out of his jammed boat, was electrocuted, and died. The ride was closed and never reopened thereafter. “The Cliff” enabled visitors to jump off a 20-foot cliff into the wave pool—which resulted in many jumpers colliding with unsuspecting people swimming below or hitting the water and sinking to the bottom, unaware of how deep the water was in that section of the pool. Worst of all was the “Looping Waterslide,” an attraction that was built by a ride designer with questionable credentials. The Looping Waterslide was a slide that had a 360 degree loop at its end, suggesting that those who slid down the slide would turn upside down akin to a rollercoaster loop-the-loop. Poor designing made this ride incredibly dangerous since, instead of successfully going over the loop, most riders simply got stuck halfway up, badly bruised, or broke their noses. The ride was only open for one month before it was closed to the public. However, for several years, employees would be offered $100 if they agreed to go down the slide and try to help figure out what, exactly, was wrong with it and how to fix it. However, the kinks were never worked out and the ride was never reopened to the public.
In the mid-1980s the park decided to expand its customer base and started airing Spanish-language television commercials around the New York and New Jersey areas. Unfortunately, many of the people who were tempted to come to the park as a result of these commercials did not speak or understand English. Meanwhile, the vast majority of employees at Action Park did not speak or understand Spanish and there were absolutely no signs indicating warnings or rules available in Spanish. Hence, language barriers and miscommunications were cited as being yet another reason that accidents intensified at Action Park in the mid-80s.
Additionally, Action Park had cheaper entry fees than other waterparks (such as Long Island’s Splish Splash) and so it attracted a lot of lower-income urban families whose members had little to no knowledge of how to swim. Since many of Action Park’s rides emptied out into deep pools, near drownings were commonplace and, on at least three occasions, fatal drownings actually occurred.
Yet Action Park continued to rake in profits (and turn out many injured patrons). Eventually its notoriety for its nearly non-existent safety conditions overshadowed its purpose as a family-friendly waterpark. Action Park’s safety record was so dismal that the staff at a nearby hospital recalled treating, on average, between five to ten victims of park-sustained-accidents every day. In fact, Action Park eventually agreed to pay the town of Vernon to acquire at least two ambulances for the sole purpose of transporting severely injured park goers to the hospital for treatment. The outrageous level of possibilities for sustaining various types of injuries at the park resulted in it garnering the nicknames: “Class Action Park,” “Traction Park,” and “Accident Park.”
Needless to say, as a result of all the injuries sustained there, Action Park proprietors were forced to handle a number of personal-injury lawsuits. These suits ultimately bankrupted the park and it operated without insurance for the last several years of its existence. Making matters worse, Action Park’s insurance history was dodgy, at best. In the mid-1980s, Action Park’s owner, Gene Mulvihill, plead guilty to five counts of insurance-fraud related charges. These charges stemmed from a grand-jury indictment that cited his operation of an unauthorized insurance company that was based in the Cayman Islands. In essence, Action Park claimed to have its “own” insurance that was both illegal and unrecognized in the United States. Even more damning was the fact that, despite numerous and repeated safety violations, state regulators took little legal action against the park. Some people speculate that Action Park was paying off the regulators which, if true, would add political corruption to the park’s already-infamous history.
In 1996 Action Park finally closed after filing for bankruptcy as a result of abundant personal injury lawsuits mounted against the organization. In 1998, the land was purchased and reopened as a waterpark that was renamed “Mountain Creek Waterpark.” Interestingly, some of the original Action Park rides still operate at Mountain Creek although, at present, much more emphasis is put on safety regulations and Mountain Creek has a much more favorable reputation than its predecessor.
To anyone who reads about the vast reports of all the injuries and deaths that occurred at Action Park, the entire situation seems alarming, depressing and bleak. Yet—incredibly—the legend of Action Park has actually become a topic of hilarity for many people…especially those who grew up near the park, went to the park, and were astounded by what they witnessed first-hand. The blasé attitudes of the staff and the generally poor conditions of the park have since become the makings of comedy and legend rather than the subject of scorn and ridicule. Even those who were injured at the park tend to look back on their time there fondly.
Action Park might be one of the best modern-day examples of a “gallows humor” producing situation. Gallows-humor refers to a brand of dark humor that finds comedy in otherwise bleak or desperately serious situations. Action Park’s outrageous history turned it into more of a joke than a disgrace and it is currently regaled as “The Most Insane Amusement Park Ever.” In fact, a documentary by that very name was recently produced and widely promoted on websites like “Weird N.J.”
Action Park is also an excellent lesson in business ethics and morals—specifically in teaching those who are interested in running a business what NOT to do, how NOT to treat patrons and why it is a bad idea to totally disregard safety and legal regulations. Action Park is an urban legend that actually existed and, as unbelievable as it sounds, the stories about it are based on documented facts (via lots of medical reports and lawsuit filings). The strange history of the park illustrates how out of control situations can become but it is also testament to how people can use humor as a psychological reaction to abnormality. It is also interesting to study as a means of deciphering how latter parks managed to avoid making the same mistakes that Action Park—by all means a pioneer waterpark—did. Hence, it is an excellent topic of history for business students to look into as an exercise in pinpointing what went wrong and how such issues could have been corrected by making positive changes.
To see the documentary about Action Park called “The Most Insane Amusement Park Ever” see here: