Book review: At 'Action Park,' danger was the main attraction
"Action Park," by Andy Mulvihill with Jake Rossen (Penguin)
An early survey of visitors to Action Park, a Vernon, N.J., theme park that opened in 1978 and operated for nearly two decades, asked guests to list what they "didn't like" -- and collected the following answers: "Bees." "Lost my teeth." "Rides are scary." "Almost drowned and lifeguards laughed." Having a great summer, are we?
The bees tended to gather around the overhang at the bottom of the Aqua Skoot -- a ride that sent guests clinging to plastic sleds shooting down a slide made of metal rollers (the kind on airport conveyor belts), into a shallow pool -- and they would swarm disoriented riders as they exited, like an omen that came too late.
Lost teeth prompted at least one lawsuit after a swimmer in the park's Wave Pool -- which pummeled densely packed guests with 40-inch waves -- had his pearly whites shattered by a waterlogged buoy tossed out in an effort to save him. The attraction's lifeguards averaged 10 saves a day, compared with the one or two per season typical of the job.
Disembodied teeth also ended up lodged in the 60-foot-high Cannonball Loop, an enclosed waterslide resembling a twisted party straw, complete with a 360-degree loop. Two riders emerged with abrasions caused by scraping against the embedded teeth at brain-sloshing speed. But at least they emerged, unlike the many guests who got stuck in the loop, leading eventually to the installation of an escape hatch. Still, either scenario was preferable to the fate of a test dummy that came out decapitated.
The lore of the place -- the scars and stitches, the wipeout tales, and the sheer notion of a theme park so slapdash, unregulated and deserving of nicknames like "Traction Park" -- has inspired oral histories, a documentary and a movie helmed by no less a connoisseur of bodily harm than Johnny Knoxville of "Jackass" fame.
But the truest version may be the latest: "Action Park: Fast Times, Wild Rides, and the Untold Story of America's Most Dangerous Amusement Park." It is the account of Andy Mulvihill (working with co-writer Jake Rossen), a longtime park employee and the son of Gene Mulvihill, the bombastic owner who built the park as a way to make money from his Vernon Valley ski resort in summer months.
Gene, who died in 2012, fancied himself "the Walt Disney of New Jersey," Andy writes, conceding that "inevitably, some people will forever think of my father as a berserk Willy Wonka." The analogy is apt. Was Wonka a gentle genius, intent on instilling delight and wonder? Or was he a sinister con, employing questionable methods in pursuit of marvelous chaos? And which was Gene?
"Understanding what motivated my dad was important to me," Andy tells The Washington Post. "He just got such a kick out of seeing people have a really good time. That's what drove him."
Like Wonka, Gene is at times the pioneering visionary of his kingdom and at times the obstinate antihero. He insisted that "people are tired of passive experiences," and Action Park was his proof: a grand experiment "where you control the action," no matter how dangerous.
He swelled with pride at the mountainside installation of the 2,700-foot Alpine Slide -- only the second of its kind in the country -- featuring an asbestos-filled chute through which guests careened in tiny carts with semi-functional brakes. On the Alpine, guests could control not just the action but also their speed and risk level. It was the site of hundreds of injuries - employees started mounting foreboding photos of riders' concrete burns -- as well as the first of the park's five fatalities, when an employee who'd taken the ride dozens of times flew off the track.
"Action Park" isn't exactly flippant about the tragedies and suggests that Gene wasn't either. Yet his laser focus on expansion and upping the thrills made him a paragon of "stubborn insistence and myopia."
He tried for years to get the Cannonball Loop, which was never operational for more than a couple of weeks at a time, to work. He had riders hosed to reduce friction. He had them weighed to ensure that they were within loop-clearing range. He refused to consider the possibility that his design for the ride, which he'd sketched on a cocktail napkin, was simply absurd. "There was no engineering back then for waterslides," Andy proffers, "so this was all trial and error, and we couldn't quite get it right." He adds: "I have to say, it wasn't the most fun ride to go on. It pulled your stomach through your throat, and you'd come out all disoriented. It was a ride more to be survived than enjoyed."
Gene had little time for pesky things like the laws of physics -- or laws at all, for that matter. He was nabbed eventually for insurance fraud, when it was revealed that his liability nightmare of a theme park was insured by a fake company and that he'd been paying injury claims out of pocket. "He really didn't think he did anything wrong," Andy says. "He thought he had a clever way of reducing his cost for insurance [but was] sloppy in the way he executed it. I can tell you, he did not stay awake at night worrying about lawsuits. My dad was not a worrier, he was a doer."
If "Action Park" portrays Gene as a blustering tycoon, it attempts as often to humanize him. He was frequently motivated by sentimentality, erecting in the park an authentic German brewery, a money-losing venture, to re-create his experiences at Oktoberfest. And he built Roaring Springs, an eight-acre attraction with a grotto and cliff dives that recalled a waterfall-bedecked swimming hole he had visited as a Boy Scout. Citizen Kane does Adventureland.
Beyond painting a compelling portrait of Gene Mulvihill, "Action Park" captures the frenetic energy of a place very much a function of its time: parental supervision and safety precautions -- low; teen hormones, illusion of infallibility and recklessness -- high. In keeping with pop culture's romanticizing of the 1980s, Hulu has a chance to bring the book to life after winning the rights in a 10-way bidding war. If the studio, indeed, attempts to faithfully re-create Gene's empire, let's hope it has legitimate insurance.