Synopsis: Explores the legend, legacy, and truth behind the world’s most insane amusement park.
Stars: John Hodgman, Alison Becker, Chris Gethard
Directors: Seth Porges, Chris Charles Scott III
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I must have been born with an equilibrium that was out of whack because I’ve never felt the need for speed. While my family and friends would count down the days until our local thrill park opened every summer, I would start to nervously think about the number of loops my stomach would make after taking my turn in whatever new upside-down steel contraption I’d get roped into riding. The one area of the park that I always enjoyed was the water park because a waterslide was something I could handle and get some semblance of fun out of. Maybe it was the anticipation that every ride ended with a literal splash and knowing I wouldn’t have to keep my eyes closed to enjoy it, but these created that zing of fun I never felt on any ride that didn’t require a swimsuit.
The best was when my family or summer activity group would make the trek an hour or so out of town to Wild Mountain which was almost exclusively a waterslide park. Over time it would add a lazy river, Go-Karts, and Bumper Boats but when I first arrived it was just a bundle of slides offering various levels of thrills and the infamous Alpine Slide, a dry-ride that you had to take a ski-lift up the mountain to get to. Oh, the days we spent there, going on endless runs down the waterslides before drying off on the chair lift eagerly riding to the top of the mountain for our smooth glide down on the Alpine Slide.
All the memories of my time at Wild Mountain came flooding back watching the new documentary Class Action Park, available to stream on HBO Max. While I enjoyed numerous safe visits to my Minnesota oasis, the dangers of the New Jersey waterpark that was open from 1978 until 1996 is the stuff of lore. Though the tale of the park had previously been loosely fictionalized in the 2018 Johnny Knoxville stunt comedy Action Point, directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III have gathered past employees, visitors, local residents, and others affected by the park’s raucous run to tell the whole truth about what it was really like to have lived through it all. That some lived to tell their story could be seen as a miracle in and of itself.
The brainchild of former Wall Street investor Gene Mulvihill, Action Park was built on the site of two ski resorts and was intended to continue to bring in business during the summer months when resorts were typically quiet. Growing quickly to a sprawling mecca that housed three distinct sections with everything from mini-speedboats to Go-Karts, a rapids ride and a gigantic wave pool – on paper the park appeared to be a paradise for kids looking for a good time. It very well could have achieved what Mulvihill intended, for people pay admission and then be free to create their own entertainment experience within the dozens and dozens of thrill rides offered. Featuring home grown entertainment that you couldn’t find anywhere else in the world, Action Park became known for their one-of-a-kind experiences.
So, how did Mulvihill’s huge amusement attraction earn the nicknames Traction Park, Accident Park, and, yes, Class Action Park over time? For that, we turn to the former employees who recount the various safety measures that were ignored and recall horror stories of guests suffering ghastly injuries thanks to faulty equipment or poorly constructed rides that would literally fall apart. As some of those interviewed who frequented the park remember, it almost became a right of passage to get hurt during a visit, a sign that you had arrived into a pseudo-adulthood. Rides were designed for thrill, not function and would result in frequently dislocated shoulders, lost teeth, and lacerations from bodies scraping against said lost teeth that had become lodged in the rubber slide. Guests would start fights in the middle of rides and finish them in the pool as hapless lifeguards watched, often to young or uninterested to intervene fully. Then there’s the stories of visitors deliberately trying to injure others in bizarre (and, admittedly, hilariously mean-spirited) ways.
A good portion of the film is devoted to the war stories of these individuals yet all seem to consider their tenure as series of fond memories in some strange way. For them, it was their first job and a chance to escape themselves from their own hormonal teenage years. They were free from their parents and enjoyed a wild life when the park was closed. Now parents themselves, it’s interesting to hear their reflections on how they’d react if their own children were heading off for a day at a similar theme park. As is the case with many of these types of memory heavy documentaries, the themes get repetitive after a while but with so many areas of the park to cover and the insane number of unbelievable tales of survival to relay, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome past its short run time.
It’s a dramatic shift in the final twenty minutes that sets the movie slightly off kilter but it’s a necessary area the directors have to go to give a full picture of how Action Park forever changed the lives of its visitors. Interviewing the family of the first person to die at the park, their story and how the park responded to the tragedy stands in stark contrast to the light-hearted tone of the previous hour. It kicks off a somber final lap for the park and the film but in truth that’s the way the documentary was always going to end. I wish there were more opinions gathered from the employees regarding their feelings about the individuals that died but perhaps for legal reasons the subject is only briefly covered and then only in mostly general terms.
Nicely narrated by John Hodgman and featuring good commentary throughout by comedian and former attendee Chris Gethard, Class Action Park wisely uses the majority of its run time to highlight the insanity on display in the New Jersey attraction. We can look back and laugh at some of this now but when the narration details the average guest was often from a working class lower income background, you begin to see the appeal of the risks being taken but further question the morals of those offering it up in the first place. Basically run by teenagers that barely could take care of themselves, how more people didn’t perish is beyond me. As a time capsule of a less serious time, though, when summers were made up of trips to the waterpark mingling with large crowds, Class Action Park stands in stark contrast to the Twilight Zone summer we’ve all been getting through.