All the Wildest Stories From HBO Max's Dangerous Theme Park Doc 'Class Action Park'
Stay away from the wave pool!
HBO Max's new documentary Class Action Park, a freewheeling chronicle of the notoriously dangerous Vernon, New Jersey amusement park, leads to some tonal whiplash. Directors Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges clearly want to entertain and shock with anecdotes about bone-breaking water slides, misbehaving teen employees, and fireball shooting tanks. These are the details that have made the now-shuttered Action Park great fodder for lists, books, and even a stunt-filled Hollywood movie with Jackass star Johnny Knoxville. It's hard to believe it really existed.
But there's a darker, sadder side to the narrative as well, one involving deaths at Action Park and crimes committed to avoid legal repercussions. The filmmakers try to square those facts with funny interviews with former park guests, animated sequences, and clips from '80s teen movies. It's a tricky line to walk, but you end the movie with a deeper understanding of this oddball tale of sex, drugs, and go-carts. Here are some of the wildest things we learned from watching the documentary.
Action Park was funded by Wall Street cash
After establishing the nostalgic appeal of Action Park, the movie gives us a crash-course in '80s Wall Street history, including a detour into the rise of "penny stocks." Narrator John Hodgman lays out the connection between the park's founder Gene Mulvihill, who saw an opportunity to convert Vernon, New Jersey into the next tourist destination spot like Orlando or Las Vegas, and "pump-and-dump" kingpin Bob Brennan, who eventually went to prison for his financial crimes. This section of the film, which also notes the establishment of a Playboy Club in Vernon, helps establish the tone of '80s sleaze and greed.
There are tons of bizarre rumors about park owner Gene Mulvihill
According to the talking heads in Class Action Park, Action Park founder Gene Mulvihill was not an easy guy to work with. While the documentary features many employees who reflect on some of his gentler qualities, which helped earn him the nickname "Uncle Gene," he was erratic and manipulative. One story involves using a cattle prod on an employee posing as a customer to scare park attendees trying to ride the lift without the proper ticket. Another employee says they heard he used to keep a machine gun in his desk drawer. Not exactly a Walt Disney image.
The dangerous rides were tested on the employees first
If you know anything about Action Park, it's probably that the rides were feats of bizarre structural imagination. The filmmakers spend a good amount of time digging into the background of monstrosities like the Aqua Scoot, the Tarzan Swing, and Surf Hill. But the Cannonball Loop, which was reportedly drawn up by Mulvihill on a cocktail napkin, gets the most screen time, with a hilarious section of the movie devoted to the testing of the loop, which involved teenage employees volunteering to zoom down the ride in exchange for $100 bills from Uncle Gene. The phrase "teeth stuck in the padding” will be hard to shake.
Action Park didn't care about labor laws
Given Action Park's disregard for the laws of physics, it's unsurprising that the people in charge showed a similar contempt for labor laws. The film notes that the park often hired 14-year-old ride operators when the New Jersey laws at the time stipulated that those positions needed to be filled by employees 16 years or older. Hiring super-young kids meant that the employees often worked themselves up the chain rather quickly, becoming managers before they even graduated high school, and inevitably encouraging the misbehaving atmosphere the park was known for.
Action Park had its own phony insurance company
Mulvhill wasn't just breaking the law by hiring teenagers to operate dangerous rides. He also got in trouble for working around insurance requirements by creating his own phony insurance company, London and World Assurance, Limited, which he used to funnel money through. (This is the part that will set off bells in the heads of loyal Ozark viewers.) Eventually, Mulvhill plead guilty to counts of "fraud, theft, and conspiracy,” but he managed to keep the park open and functioning for a long period through a combination of government neglect, financial maneuvering, and sheer belligerence.
The place was "too nuts" for Donald Trump to invest in
With all connections between the park and '80s political excess -- at one point Hodgman notes that Mulvhill was like a character out of an Ayn Rand novel -- it's no surprise that future President Donald Trump makes a quick cameo in the story. What is surprising is that Trump, who made a visit to the park to look at it as a possible investment, saw the place as "too nuts" and "too unhinged" to get involved with. "Fuck yeah," jokes comedian and park attendee Chris Gethard, who provides some of the film's funniest and sharpest commentary. "Good for Gene."
Some rides never made it past the testing phase
Believe it or not, Action Park did have standards. The film notes that the place often attracted engineers and designers on the fringes of the amusement park world, the type of wild-eyed dreamers who couldn't get their projects approved by places like Disney World or Six Flags. But one of the employees interviewed describes a ride modeled after "zero-gravity" airplanes that simply never made it past the testing and planning stages. Given what did make it through, it's scary to consider what didn't pass muster.
The park had to buy its own ambulances
Especially in the second half, Class Action Park does an effective job of examining the tricky dynamic between a place like Action Park and the actual city of Vernon, particularly the way the two relied on each other. (There are even some hints of local political corruption involving Mulvhill, but those threads go largely unexplored.) At one point, we learn that with all the broken collar bones, ripped skin, missing fingers, and burn lacerations, the city simply insisted it couldn't keep making emergency trips to a park that averaged between "50 to 100" injuries on a normal business day. So, Mulvhill was required to purchase his own ambulances to help ferry injured people from the park to the hospital.
There's no way of knowing how many people were injured
In its final section, the film tells the story of a boy who tragically died after suffering a head injury on the park's notorious Alpine Slide, a particularly dangerous ride involving a sled that guests could control with a break as it flew down a chute built on rocky terrain. He wasn't the only person to die because of the park. Someone was electrocuted. Three people drowned in the wave pool, which was referred to as the "grave pool” by lifeguards who sat in the "death chair" to keep watch.
Unsurprisingly, a morbidness and a heaviness sets in as Class Action Park slows down to tell this part of the story. The interviews with family members who lost a loved one to the park's lawlessness underscore just how reckless and irresponsible Action Park truly was, and, towards the end, Gethard helps sum up the park's dark appeal and its disturbing legacy. For many thrill-seeking kids and rowdy teenagers, surviving Action Park was a perverse badge of honor. But the scars were real.
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