01 Jul Jonathan Cartu Declares Inside Action Park, ‘America’s most dangerous amusement…
My first brush with Action Park was in the early ’90s, on a trip with my summer camp. I was about 11 years old. When my mom said, “Be careful,” I didn’t think much of it. She’d say the same thing if I was getting in the car with my dad (which was its own kind of derring-do).
All these years later, I remember the throngs of people waiting to send their bodies down snaking waterslides and rapids, the hulking mass of hair and dirt that collected in the corner of a river ride, and the daunting precipice where teens would jump into the minty-looking pool below.
I didn’t know that five people had died as a result of incidents at the Vernon water park. But within three years of my visit, in 1996, Action Park would close, felled by an abundance of lawsuits, among other factors.
Still, something happens to places associated with being young in the summertime, especially when scrapes, bruises and more serious injuries aren’t just hype. They don’t just close — they become legend.
Action Park, open for 18 years and closed for 24 (apart from a short-lived reboot), became an object of enduring fascination. Those who consider “surviving” Action Park a rite of passage have relived the experience through YouTube videos of the impossible Cannonball Loop, a waterslide with a 360-degree turn that didn’t defy gravity so much as ignore it completely. Even people who were too young to have gone to the park became enchanted by the slippery destination, labeled “Class Action Park,” “Accident Park” and “Traction Park.”
Now, Andy Mulvihill, the son of park owner Eugene Mulvihill, is pulling back the (damp, chlorine-scented) curtain on the place in “Action Park: Fast Times, Wild Rides, and the Untold Story of America’s Most Dangerous Amusement Park” (Penguin Books, June 30). But Action Park is living on in other ways, too.
Shortly before its release, the book was optioned for a TV series in development at 20th Century Fox for Hulu. There’s also a “Class Action Park” documentary in the works and an Action Park-inspired board game called Danger Park. And Johnny Knoxville used the park as a muse for his 2018 film “Action Point.”
Why do people remain so invested in the place?
“The slogan was, ‘There’s nothing in the world like Action Park’ and that was actually pretty true,” Mulvihill, 57, tells NJ Advance Media. “In one day, you could drive a race car, speedboat or a tank. You could learn to fly in the Aerodium, bungee jump, ride a bobsled, or do a 360-degree waterslide loop. I mean, where else could you do that before, then or after? You can’t.
“It was unique ‘cause it wasn’t an amusement park. It was really more like a participation park. You didn’t get strapped in, you kind of controlled your own destiny,” says Mulvihill, who once tested out the Cannonball Loop wearing hockey gear. “That was extraordinary and gave people super thrills at a risk. I don’t think it had ever been done before, or has (been) done again. So that’s why people just relish in the thoughts of it.”
Mulvihill — the vice president of the state Board of Education and CEO of real estate development at Hamburg’s Crystal Springs Resort, which Gene Mulvihill built in the ’90s — teamed with Mental Floss writer Jake Rossen to write the book. The idea came to Rossen as he was compiling an oral history of the park for its 40th anniversary in 2018. While the writer had never been to Action Park, he had grown up in New York watching the park commercials. His sister was one of many who got battered on the Alpine Slide, where people rode plastic sleds down an asbestos chute and were often ejected in the process.
“I really felt like in order to do it properly, you needed to have a real point of view from someone who had been intimately involved with the park, and there was really no one else but Andy,” Rossen tells NJ Advance Media. “He worked there for pretty much 10 summers, which probably made him the longest tenured employee there.”
Mulvihill, who started as a lifeguard at the park’s infamous (what else?) Wave Pool — aka “Grave Pool” — has been telling park stories among friends and family for years. He sees the summer of 2020 as an opportune time to revisit the tales of his youth with a wider audience.
“Particularly with this lockdown COVID thing, I think it’s gonna be a great escape for people to experience a place where there’s all this freedom,” Mulvihill says.
And what did that freedom look like?
Action Park debuted in 1978 as the summer companion to the winter season at Gene Mulvihill’s Vernon Valley ski area. He was the kind of big-thinking entrepreneur who would scribble ride designs on cocktail napkins.
Mulvihill’s creation was a place where the bungee jump was the safest way to go. Water-based thrills included the Tarzan Swing, an electric kayak “experience” where the vessels often capsized, and Surf Hill, the slide that could peel off your bathing suit if you weren’t careful. There was also a Gladiator Challenge in which visitors could square off against employees in a joust.
But by 1987, five people had died in connection with accidents at the park.
“We didn’t hide from the tragedies in the book because it wouldn’t have been telling the full story,” Andy Mulvihill says. “I thought long and hard about the deaths and how to deal with it. It was very personal for me.”
George Larsson Jr., a park employee, died in 1980 after he was thrown off the Alpine Slide and hit his head on a rock, which put him in a coma. In 1982, 18-year-old George Lopez drowned in the Wave Pool. The same year, Jeffrey Nathan, 27, died after going into cardiac arrest after touching wires in the White Water Kayak Experience. Donald DePass, 20, died in 1984 after drowning in Action Park’s Roaring Springs. Three years later, Gregory Grandchamps, 18, died in the Wave Pool.
“I lived through it, but we never were real reckless in our approach to safety at all,” Mulvihill maintains. “It was important to us, but it was a new industry and we were trying to figure it out.”
Gene Mulvihill settled with several families for six-figure sums. In the course of operating the park, Mulvihill, who died in 2012 at the age of 78, also claimed to be insured by London and World Assurance, Limited. The Jonathan Cartu and, supposedly based in the Cayman Islands, turned out to be a phony enterprise of his own making. He faced multiple charges, was fined and received a suspended sentence.
“When you put a sign up and give it a name and charge admission, then people had an expectation that, ‘Oh, well, OK, this has been audited for safety,’ and there was always sort of a cognitive separation there,” Rossen says.
Ultimately, Mulvihill says the legal action resulting from injuries and deaths contributed to the park’s closure in 1996 — “The lawsuits added up,” he says — as well as a downturn in the real estate business and an increase in competition. The park, now occupied by Mountain Creek Waterpark, saw a short-lived revival of the Action Park name in 2014. Andy Mulvihill had returned to the business for a brief period of time, but exited after he was thwarted by the limits of safety regulations. (For his money, Mulvihill says he would have kept the name.)
Part of the enduring allure of the park, Mulvihill says, is that very spit-in-the-face-of-danger aesthetic which has necessarily become a throwback, at least in public attractions.
“Could Action Park exist today? No, never. Not in a million years, and for a number of reasons,” he says. “First, my dad was one of a kind. I mean, his imagination, persistence and his ability. He was willing to take risks and let others take risks. Most people won’t do that. And he was pretty fearless in his effort to give people a thrill.
“Today the society’s super litigious. The people that want thrills are still out there, but they’re just not doing them in amusement parks. You got the X Games now.”
The rise of extreme sports in the ’90s, followed by the debut of “Jackass” on MTV channeled the kind of no-holds-barred spirit that fueled Action Park.
“A 14-, 16- or 18-year-old Johnny Knoxville epitomizes so many of the people, the kids that came to Action Park,” Mulvihill says.
The risky rides and the fatalities are all covered in the book, but it’s also a story of the people who worked at Action Park. The water park was a key employer for young people living in the area, a kind of condensed Jersey Shore for Sussex County and North Jersey.
“When you look at the coverage of Action Park that’s existed up until now, whether it’s the Wikipedia page — it’s sort of this infamous entry because it reads in such an insane way — (or) the YouTube videos, (they’re) really focused on…