Some of you may know that my husband is a bit of an amusement park enthusiast…and that is putting it lightly. I, however, do not share this passion. I have been on one roller coaster in my life and it resulted in pure panic and an asthma attack. Ever since then, I steer clear of the experience. Saying that I was apprehensive going into this viewing is accurate. But for the sake of my marriage, I put on my big girl pants, lowered the lap bar, and prayed for survival. I’m glad I did.
First of all, those of you that grew up in the 80s deserve some respect. You all obviously lived through some shit and therapy probably isn’t a bad idea. One of the most shocking things about this documentary is the fact that parents actually let their children go to the park alone even after severe injuries and deaths were reported. The park continued to operate for well over a decade after the first death. As someone who grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, the attitudes of the teenagers and their parents at the time this park operated is almost unfathomable.
From a technical aspect, the documentarians did a very good job cultivating memorable personalities to help tell this story. They were able to track down people who went to this park as kids, former employees, former administrators, and the family of a child who lost his life at the park. Each one of them has a unique perspective on the park and how it was run. And in retrospect, each has their regrets. This story is so unique that it could only be told by those that grew up with these experiences.
And those experiences are all thanks to one man, Gene Mulvihill. Mulvihill was the genius, or should I say twisted mind, behind this park and used his influence and money to creatively play the system the entire time he owned Action Park. The biggest problem is that he didn’t have anyone to tell him no. When Gene had an idea, he would hire people to execute it. The people around him just made this idea happen and never questioned it until it was far too late. The management of this park put everyone in danger: the patrons, the employees, and the community as a whole.
As an outsider, the story of Action Park is flat out unbelievable. But for the people of Vernon, New Jersey it was an experience that shaped their lives. The amount of negligence exercised by the state of New Jersey and the local government changed many young lives, and certainly not in a positive way.
I think anyone who spends enough time at amusement parks and carnivals has a story or two about a time when the illusion of danger that thrill rides provide crossed over into actual danger. I’m no exception. I recall being in the Wisconsin Dells at age 15 and getting in line for the back seat of a roller coaster that was legendary for ejector airtime in that particular seat midway through the ride. I didn’t realize there was a state law saying anyone under 18 was not allowed to ride in the back seat, and apparently the ride operator didn’t either (or he assumed by my appearance that I was 18). As the train plunged 70+ feet during the ride’s signature moment, my ass was ejected from the car to the extent that, for a couple moments, I was sitting on the back of the car rather than in the seat. I was not a small 15 year old, mind you, but the buzz bars were flexible enough that the force of the drop threw me out of my seat and nearly out of the car. I was pumped. I had never experienced anything like that on a roller coaster before, and kept getting back in line for the last seat until a shift change occurred and an employee informed me of the state law and told me to pick a different seat.
In retrospect, I should be alarmed by the negligence shown by park employees that could have caused me, and very likely many other underage guests, injury or death. Yet my rides in the back seat of that roller coaster in summer 2005 are something I recall fondly, because I survived. The lap bars on that roller coaster has since been altered so that anyone can sit in the back seat safely. I now have bragging rights for experiencing something unique that visitors to the park will never have the option to. I bring this all up because the way I feel about this experience is how former guests and employees of Action Park describe their wild teenage years at the nation’s most dangerous amusement park. Ultimately though, Class Action Park isn’t just about a dangerous amusement park. It’s about how being a child and a teenager has changed. It’s arguably a little safer now, but also a little more boring.
Consequently, one of the film’s weaknesses is how the aforementioned sense of nostalgia guides viewers’ introduction to the park. For nearly the first two thirds of the film, the tone is comedic and light-hearted. That is understandable to some extent. Some of the things the park’s owner built, like a water slide with a loop at the end, are so ridiculous and so clearly terrible ideas that laughs are inevitable. Of course people were going to get hurt on that. It all gets less funny when you realize that the park cost six guests their lives and injured countless others. When the film does transition to the horrific accounts of these deaths, it does so effectively. I liked that the film starts off humorous and then gets darker. It helps the viewer understand the park’s appeal, and how that is something that made it even more dangerous, but that structure also creates an imbalance in tone. That said, the filmmakers deserve praise for the selection of interview subjects and the variety of individual stories that are shared here. They also back everything up with extensive B-roll footage from the park and, where B-roll can’t explain how dangerous a particular ride experience was, animation is used to provide viewers with vivid visual detail.
Class Action Park tells a fascinating story that also asks what we’re willing to let businesses get away with in the name of a healthy economy. Though the focus in this story is on a local economy, Directors Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges draw parallels between the corruption and negligence practiced by Action Park Owner Gene Mulvihill to that of other key business figures. I’ve noticed that some other reviews of the film have included this tidbit in their headline, so it’s not really a spoiler when I say that Donald Trump, currently the Republican’s greatest champion of deregulation and letting businesses run wild, even thought Action Park was too much.
Class Action Park is streaming now on HBO Max.