Amusement parks remain a popular American pastime, and among them was the legendary Action Park. A family business, the park brought in a million people annually and stayed open for nearly twenty years. Andy Mulvihill, son of park founder Gene Mulvihill, was there for every moment. In his new memoir, ACTION PARK: Fast Times, Wild Rides, and the Untold Story of America’s Most Dangerous Amusement Park (Penguin Books; Trade Paperback Original; $17.00), Mulvihill takes readers on an almost impossible-to-believe ride through the history of this iconic landmark.
Imagine the perfect day at an amusement park. You zoom down a waterslide unlike any other, 60 feet high and featuring a 360-degree loop. You might get stuck in the middle, or you’ll be so dizzy afterwards that you’ll have to lie on the ground to recover. After that, it’s onto the Alpine Slide (be careful not to fly off the tracks and into the trees), the Battle Action Tanks (which shoot tennis balls 100 miles per hour), or the Human Maze (where you could get lost for up to nine hours). Then you top it all off with a dip in the Wave Pool, where the current is so strong the lifeguards have been known to pull out a hundred people a day. Though it may sound like an absurdist nightmare, this was just an average day at Action Park, the infamous New Jersey theme park that promised thrill-seekers “you’re the center of the action!”
Ask almost anyone who grew up in the tri-state area during the 1980s and they will have a story (and probably a scar) from Action Park—or, as it was often known, “Class Action Park” or “Accident Park.” But for Andy Mulvihill, Action Park was the family business, it was home, it was the place where had his first job, his first crush, and met lifelong friends. He rose up through the ranks from ride tester to head lifeguard to eventually helping run the whole park. And he has plenty of crazy stories to prove it, like the time the Bailey Ball (a ride eventually deemed too dangerous) went off track during its trial run, rolling into oncoming traffic on the interstate—with a human inside. Or the slide that had its own spectator booth, since it was prone to removing people’s bathing suits. Or the snakes that could be found in the hay bales of the maze. Or the radioactive soil that was almost buried across the street.
Mulvihill’s story is equal parts entertaining and moving, chronicling the rise and fall of a uniquely American attraction, a wild and crazy 1980s adolescence, and a son’s struggle to understand his father’s quest to become the Walt Disney of New Jersey. Armed with ride ideas sketched on cocktail napkins and a “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach to business, Gene Mulvihill simply wanted to monetize a ski resort for the summer, but became an unlikely pioneer in the amusement industry. Action Park placed no limits on danger or fun, a monument to the anything-goes spirit of the era that left guests in control of their own adventures—sometimes with tragic results. As Mulvihill writes in the introduction:
Unlike most theme parks, Action Park did not strap in patrons and let them passively experience the rides. A roller coaster, thrilling as it may be, asks nothing of its occupants, each ride is the same as the last. My father seized upon the idea that we were all tired of being coddled, of society dictating behaviors and lecturing us on our vices. He vowed that visitors to Action Park would be the authors of their own adventures, prompting its best-known slogan: “Where you’re the center of the action!” Guests riding down an asbestos chute on a plastic cart could choose whether to adopt a leisurely pace or tear down at thirty miles per hour and risk hitting a sharp turn that would eject them into the woods. They decided when to dive off a cliff and whether to aim for open water or their friend’s head. They could listen when the attendants told them to stay in the speedboats, or they could tumble into the marsh water and risk getting bit by a snapping turtle.
It was not long before our visitors reworked our advertising to better reflect their experiences: “Action Park: Where you’re the center of the accident.”
The risk did not keep people away. The risk is what drew them to us.
Though it closed its doors in 1996, Action Park has remained a subject of constant fascination, an establishment completely anathema to our modern culture of rules and safety. YouTube videos – including the Cannonball Loop in action – have millions of views, the Wikipedia entry has been designated a “best article” by Longform, and celebrities like Jimmy Kimmel, Judd Apatow, Zach Braff, and Billy Eichner have shared their memories of the park. ACTION PARK is the first-ever unvarnished look at the history of this DIY Disneyland, a reckoning with its legacy, and a poignant, unforgettable coming-of-age story—just in time for the start of summer.