Action Park was an attraction in New Jersey that, from 1978 to 1996, saw almost 20,000 excited patrons pass through its doors every day. Unfortunately, not everyone who entered was able to leave in one piece. Yes, over the years the park has generated an almost mythic reputation as the most dangerous theme park in the world.
Now, the reputation garnered by the park was the stuff of legend, with several nicknames being made up. “Traction Park” was one. “Class Action Park” was another. You see, it wasn’t unusual for customers to see other guests being ferried through the park by emergency medical technicians, bloodied and bruised.
Actress and comedian Alison Becker frequented the park in her youth, and she told Mental Floss in 2018 that, “You would inevitably see someone get severely injured every time you were there and you just assumed people got injured at every water park. We lived out in the sticks. This was just water slides put on the side of a mountain.”
And Therese Mahler, who worked as a ride attendant, told the website that the park’s reputation reached far and wide. She said, “I was in Mexico at a bar with a friend and a couple came in on their honeymoon. The woman was from Brooklyn and we got to talking about Action Park. She pulled up her shirt and showed me a scar and told me, ‘That’s from the Alpine Slide.’”
In order to unearth the beginnings of Action Park, one must travel back to the 1970s New York Stock Exchange. Gene Mulvihill was a well-known figure on Wall Street at that time and his company, Mayflower Securities, specialised in selling penny stocks. These stocks later became known as “pump and dump scams”, and in 1973 the company was suspended by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
A New York Times article in 1974 stated that the suspension was because Mayflower Securities was, “selling its customers worthless securities in a bankrupt electronics company.” Gene was subsequently banned from working on Wall Street. So in desperate need of a new business venture, he founded a company known as Great American Recreation alongside some other investors.
Following that, the company purchased the Vernon Valley/Great Gorge ski resort in New Jersey, which made lots of money from winter tourism. However, Gene wanted a method of creating income in the summer season as well, and in 1976 he and his compatriots came up with their big idea. They would build a water park.
In a 2020 Esquire essay, Gene’s son Andy Mulvihill explained that, before his father’s brainchild opened in 1978, “he had no experience of any kind running an amusement park. In contrast to Disney’s carefully-conceived fantasy lands, my father pieced together a series of ambitious and often ill-advised attractions on the side of a ski mountain in rural New Jersey.”
However, Gene’s natural charisma and personality helped him convince people that he knew what he was doing. In the HBO Max documentary Class Action Park, financial journalist Mary Pilon said, “It’s not just that he’s a businessman. It’s the personality he’s bringing to it.” Action Park’s operations manager Ed Youmans agreed, saying Gene, “was big and loud and full of ideas,” and that, “He actually made a lot of those ideas happen.”
According to the documentary, the mostly-teenage staff at Action Park were allowed free reign. Unbelievably, they would allegedly smoke marijuana and drink alcohol while on duty and have end-of-summer blow-out parties. There was even an allegation of staff members having sex in a disused shed. Gene was not one for enforcing rules, it seemed.
This freewheeling approach to staff conduct wasn’t the only thing Gene was negligent about. You see, Action Park had no insurance, meaning he couldn’t protect the company from the multiple lawsuits they would face over the years from injured customers. His solution was to create his own, completely fake, insurance company known as London and World Assurance Inc.
In Class Action Park, Youmans described speaking with Gene about his plan, which was clearly illegal. “I said, ‘You can’t do that.’ He said, ‘Why can’t we do that?’ I said because the state says we can’t do that. He goes, ‘Well who the hell are they? They can’t shut us down.’ I said actually, ‘yes, they can.’”
Eventually Gene was caught out, though, and he was forced to plead guilty to multiple state charges including theft, embezzlement, and fraud. Incredibly, despite being forced to give up his control of the park, he eventually found his way back to becoming boss. He even expanded the park and battled on for many years until bankruptcy finally forced him to close it in 1996.
However, to fully understand Action Park, first-hand accounts of the dangerous attractions built there are a prerequisite. Arguably the most infamous was the Cannonball Loop, a huge tube slide complete with a 360-degree loop. And it accounted for countless injuries over the years and was often closed to the public. However, this didn’t stop Gene from periodically re-opening the ride to try again, with predictably disastrous results.
In 2018 Mahler spoke to Mental Floss about the incredibly hazardous attraction. She said, “It was the first thing you saw when you walked into the park. It was open very rarely. Basically, you’d hear people screaming all the way through until they landed in the pool at the bottom.”
What’s more, park security officer Jim DeSaye said, “It was a giant metal tube on a tower with a 360-degree loop and people would go shooting out of it.” Then Becker remarked incredulously, “It was like a Hot Wheels track with a friggin’ loop on it. No human should do that. I never saw it open. It was like a relic of a more dangerous time.”
In the development stage, Gene and his supervisors had the park’s workers test the ride. The tests did not go well. DeSaye told Mental Floss, “What happened was, they sent employees down it. The first one smashed his face and his teeth got knocked out. The second person came out all cut up. When they went in, the first guy’s teeth had gotten stuck inside and cut the second guy.”
Then Andy Mulvihill, who at the time was a teenager, agreed to test the ride for his father. But he did insist on wearing hockey equipment for protection. He said, “The problem was if the momentum didn’t keep you on top of the wall, you’d fall three or four feet to the other side on your face, breaking your nose or your teeth.”
Chris Ish, an action park first aider, described the experience of the Cannonball Loop. He told Mental Floss, “It was completely dark in the tunnel. You had a sensation of being upside-down and right-side up and then the next thing you know, you’re on your back in the shallow pool looking up at the sky.” Moreover, Ish noted that people would get stuck in the tube, which initially had been constructed with no escape hatch.
Andy added, “We operated it for a couple of weekends and then shut it down. Then we’d leave it alone for a year or two and try to re-open it, and it just never worked. Maybe one in 100 people would smash their face, but that’s too many. Maybe if it was one in 1000.” However, DeSaye had the final word, telling Mental Floss, “We called it a monument to stupidity.”
Another attraction that would injure hundreds, and lead to one tragic death, was the Alpine Slide. It was a cement raceway that gave guests the chance to ride down the side of the Vernon Valley/Great Gorge mountain in small carts. And one of the selling points of the ride was that the guests were theoretically able to control the speed of their own cart.
Ish revealed to Mental Floss, “It was really tricky. You had to have skill and balance to stay on the track. If you pulled back on the brake, the cart would kick to one side. If you’re on a flat stretch, that’s no problem, but if you’re coming up on someone and brake too fast on a curve, you’re falling off of it.”
Ish continued, “The cart would come out from under you and then you’d just slide over this fiberglass track. It was like a rug burn.” DeSaye even stated that some people would fly off their carts and into the nearby woods or rocks. Tragically, this was what happened to George Larsson Jr.
You see, on July 8, 1980 Larsson became the first person to die at Action Park, when the 19-year-old was thrown from the Alpine Slide and hit his head on the rocks. He fell into a coma for several days, before dying in hospital. Amazingly, the New Jersey State Department of Transportation declared the ride didn’t cause his death, as there was nothing wrong with its construction.
At the time, Wesley Smith, a spokesperson for Action Park, told the media, “The ride didn’t injure Larsson. It was a rock 25 feet away that hurt him. This is an action park where people are doing things physically to themselves. Their situation is not totally in our control.” This insistence on distancing the park from culpability was indicative of Gene’s tactic in any legal matters.
Even so, George Jr.’s mother Esther was interviewed in the Class Action Park documentary. And she expressed her fury at how Gene had refused to take responsibility for his part in her son’s death. She said, “It was a place where death was tolerated.”
And first aider Thomas Flynn explained Gene’s philosophy to Mental Floss. He said, “There was a high degree of personal responsibility. Individuals needed to make smart decisions on what they did and didn’t do on rides. Gene’s whole idea was ‘you controlled your own fate.’” DeSaye’s opinion was, “There were injuries, but ski areas have a ridiculous number of injuries.”
However, Andy Mulvihill admitted, “I don’t think my father necessarily understood the liabilities of running a park. It was not sophisticated. If he went to an amusement park conference and liked someone’s idea, he’d ask them to build it, even if they had never built it before.” And Joe Russoniello, the park’s former director of marketing, also conceded that, “there weren’t many rules and regulations to break back then.”
Astonishingly, by 1984, four more deaths had occurred at the park. A 15-year-old and 20-year-old drowned in the Tidal Wave Pool, while another guest suffered a fatal heart attack when they landed in the freezing cold waters underneath the Tarzan Swing. And a 27-year-old man was given an electric shock during the Kayak Experience, which led to a cardiac arrest.
As a result, the New Jersey Herald published an expose about the sheer number of injuries happening at the park. In the summer of 1985 alone, they reported 110 injuries, 45 of which were head-related. The following year, in the summer again, there were an astounding 330 injuries. Furthermore, the newspaper claimed that the park employed teenagers under 16 to supervise the complicated, dangerous rides.
But DeSaye responded to Mental Floss, “The local papers hated the place. We hired 14-year-olds for general services. No way did they supervise anything. But I can’t tell you if there was or was not a time when 20,000 people were in the park and someone went, ‘Crap, we don’t have enough employees. Take these kids and give them shirts.’”
Mahler’s take was, “It was like any place that hires a bunch of teenagers. There were a percentage of people who were lazy, lackadaisical, and not paying attention to what they should be paying attention to. But I really feel that aspect of it was exaggerated.” Flynn said, “The kids did the best they could,” adding that much of the young workforce had minimal training.
Shockingly, Andy Mulvihill told Mental Floss that interactions between the young staff and rowdier elements of the New Jersey clientele could become quite antagonistic. He said, “We once had a group of bodybuilders come in and start throwing lifeguards into the pool. We had to call the police. Guys were just aggressive.”
DeSaye agreed, saying, “It was the Wild West. Fights every day. Guys would come in from the city, think we’re bumpkins, and want to take over. I saw a chair lift attendant hit a guy in the head with a shovel because he didn’t like something he said.” Guest Greg Gianakis added, “Basically, there was real Lord of the Flies stuff going on in this whole park.”
And Mulvihill believed the attitude toward safety shown by the customers of Action Park was just as questionable as that of his father. He said, “I can’t tell you the number of people who would jump into the water, start to drown, get pulled out, and then we’d ask if they knew how to swim. They’d go, ‘Nah, I don’t. I figured the lifeguard would pull me out.’ That is just insane.”
Unsurprisingly, Action Park no longer exists in 2020. Gene died in 2012, and in 2015 Andy and the Mulvihills sold their final remaining stake in the business. Despite the shocking number of serious incidents, though, most who worked there or visited seem to remember Gene’s hair-raising approach with fondness.
Ish said, “It appealed to your sense of adventure. You could get some bumps, bruises and scrapes and talk about them. People would come out sore. It was an active day, and sometimes people would later translate that into a dangerous experience.” And DeSaye agreed with this assessment, saying, “It was the one place to really push your limits.”
Also Mahler added, “The place had this reputation for being completely lawless, and that’s fun to talk about, but it wasn’t really the case.” Becker agreed, reasoning, “I think a lot of it is this pre-internet mythology. No two stories kind of line up, so people really are chasing the truth.”
Furthermore, Gianakis was certainly shown a good time by Gene’s crazy vision. He is convinced, “It was the greatest park ever. I’ve been to Disney, I used to go to Great Adventure, I’ve been to Magic Mountain, and nothing has ever compared to this park.” Mahler added to Mental Floss, “I’m being 70 percent serious when I say it was the best job I’ve ever had in my life.”
Overall, DeSaye maintained, “There was never any malicious intent on the part of the people who ran the park. Never.” General manager Bill Benneyan said, “Gene had the best of intentions. He wanted to show people a really good time.” However, as Andy Mulvihill told NJ.com in 2020, “Could Action Park exist today? No, never. Not in a million years, and for a number of reasons.”