Did you ever go on a theme park ride and wished you hadn’t?
Maybe something went wrong. Maybe you got stuck at the top of the Wild Mouse at the Canadian Nationa Exhibition back when you were ten and had to walk all the way down on the side of the metal support structure. Maybe 18 Space Food Sticks just aren’t the best thing to cram down right before getting caged into “The Zipper.”
Well, that’s nothing compared to the sheer hell depicted in the 90-minute documentary Class Action Park, now streaming on HBO Max and Crave.
Directed by Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges and narrated by John Hodgman, the documentary begins with a clip of Jimmy Kimmel, who, as a fearless young tyke, visited “Action Park” in Vernon, New Jersey. His nickname for the notorious playground? “Traction Park.” We learn, as well, that some of the rides later provided inspiration for kamikaze stunt dude Johnny Knoxville.
The place, which opened in 1978 and quickly rose to infamy in the ’80s, was the brainchild of Gene Mulvihill, a sketchy, maverick millionaire who seemingly lived to break rules. The former penny stock swindler acquired some land that used to be two ski resorts and wasn’t going to let anyone tell him he couldn’t build an amusement part ride based on his wildest hunch. He got kids who worked at the park to test them out, and if they survived, the attraction was a go.
One such guinea pig was his son Andy, who, as a 16 year old, was first to ride the 360 degree “Canonball Loop.” Andy lived, and survives to this day as one of the documentary’s main storytellers.
A lot of other talking heads from back in the day chip in. The tone is all over the place, with testimonials ranging from former patrons and employees who chant “Awesome, dude!” to teary-eyed reports from parents who saw their kids get badly hurt or even die from taking one dangerous ride risk too many.
Some water rides were basically concrete slides where kids rode broken, brakeless sleds that could and did easily carom off track, hurtling youngsters onto hard, jagged rocks. Others were giant water pipe-like slides towering several meters above an ice-cold pond. Riders were spat out like so much sewage. Still others scaped skin clear off of arms and legs and tucked bathing suits way up into regions where they remain to this day.
And those were the kiddie rides. Others exposed patrons to electrocution and drowning. Six people died at the park in the ’80s.
Vintage TV commercials promoting the park — featuring several park employees — are especially hilarious. Think Marineland ads without that brain-numbing ditty but with actual shark and piranha rides.
Many 15-year-olds were hired and quickly became supervisors and untrained lifeguards. Several former staffers tell wild tales of booze-fueled double and triple shifts. Alcohol was served right on the grounds in a cheesy Bavarian beer garden.
Mulvihill’s brazen stare-down of State officials, furious parents and the law is about as hair raising as any of his rides. His determination to never settle eventually discouraged the kind of class action suits that would have quickly put him out of business today. He even cooked up a phony insurance scam that was absolutely criminal.
I never got anywhere near this park but did work as a bus boy for three summers at Ontario Place when it first opened in Toronto in the early ’70s. The rides there were gentle and tame but the sense of freedom and adventure that came with putting on a dirty red shirt to clear public tables in the sun felt familiar. As the doc points out, the ’70s and ’80s were a time where parents seldom hovered and society seemed less lethal. Innocence is relative but there were advantages to not growing up with social media, cell phones or Fentanyl.
I did learn many colourful Greek words from the restaurant manager. This generally well-lubricated gentleman blindly trusted 98 pound 15-year-olds to wheel flat carts stacked high with heavy metal beer kegs along a narrow, steep foot bridge — the only way to get supplies in past the front gates once visitors were allowed into the park. Me and Jimmy Lasher nearly killed several kids when 20 or so kegs broke free and barrelled furiously downhill towards park visitors. Somehow no one was struck and the kegs came to a crashing halt against the side wall of the Edelweiss tavern. Said manager then instructed us to cart the dented metal kegs now filled exclusively with foam and take them to another West Island establishment where he owed somebody beer.
Best job I ever had.
At Action Park, the Dented Metal Beer Keg ride would have had an hour-long lineup. Visitors went because it was dangerous, proudly showing off scars the next day at school. That those were the lucky ones is swept a little too quickly under the astroturf throughout the documentary. Still, like an accident at the side of the highway, it is very hard not to look at Class Action Park.
UPDATE (Sept. 3): HBO PR reports that Class Action Park has been the #1 movie on HBO Max since it premiered August 27. It is also the most popular program across the entire HBO Max catalog among new subscribers, and ranks #3 among all subscribers behind the hit HBO series Lovecraft Country and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.