originally published June 5, 2013
Anyone over the age of thirty probably has the ability to look back upon the playgrounds, waterparks and amusement parks of their youth and remember how incredibly easy it once was to spill a little blood, or break a bone or two in the name of fun. I remember a slide whose shiny surface would heat up to flesh-melting levels in the summer sun, giant spiderwebs of metal for climbing and falling from, and cargo netting strewn in such a way that one’s lost grip could send them careening through a multitude of tinier climbers below.
Those were fun days. And we – at least the ‘we’ I knew personally – survived. Sure, we might hit our head on a non-foam-covered railing or suffer a little whiplash on a hastily-constructed wild mouse rollercoaster in a shopping mall parking lot, but that was a small price to pay for a thrilling summer afternoon.
That said, we had nothing on the brave youth of New Jersey who rolled the dice of their well-being (and even their lives) at Action Park (1978-1996) in Vernon.
It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly made Action Park such a notoriously dangerous park, earning it colorful nicknames like ‘Traction Park’ or ‘Class-Action Park.’ It may have been the staff, which was comprised of teenagers the same age as most of the park’s guests. Also, the copious amount of alcohol that was served up at kiosks inside the park gates might have been a contributing factor. The staff was frequently inebriated, as were the riders – no one was all that strict about checking ID’s. And these were not the sort of rides that allowed one to sit down and drunkenly experience the giddy thrills. These rides required attention, control, and an active effort to avoid death.
Some rides were operated by minors, and a number of incidents went unreported, which makes the actual injury toll that much more impressive. The rides were built cheaply and poorly maintained. Action Park representatives would state (often through their attorneys during one of their many lawsuits) that they were one of the first water parks ever, so the parameters for safety and proper ride engineering simply weren’t in place.
However you look at it, Action Park sounds like a laceratingly bodacious recipe for family femur-fracturing fun!
There’s the Alpine Slide, a series of concrete and fiberglass tracks upon which insane people ride wheeled sleds. Don’t worry – the speed control lever will make sure you don’t pick up too much momentum on the way down. Except you will. The lever gave the sled two speeds: enamel-strippingly fast or terrified crawl, which may have meant someone who had chosen the other speed could come flying up behind you.
The first fatality at the park occurred at the mercy of the Alpine Slide in 1980, when an employee’s sled slipped off the track, sending him down an embankment where his head was introduced to a sharp rock. Riders were only given helmets and kneepads after the park was sold in 1998 – before that, a lot of people who were also there to enjoy the waterslides were careening down the ride in no more than their bathing suits.
Go Karts are always a great way to send your kids to the hospital via a slight detour through momentary fun, especially when you’re talking about the Super Go Karts at Action Park. Sure, you could be a pussy and drive around the track at about 20mph like everyone else, but if you knew how to shove a tennis ball into the engine so it would circumvent the speed governor, you could crank that baby up to 50mph – almost highway speed – and really do some damage. They didn’t really keep these babies fine-tuned either, so chances are you’d be coughing up gas fumes for a while.
Or you could try out the LOLA cars, which looked like mini-Indy cars and could be doctored to drive even faster than the go karts. Drunken employees (there was actually a microbrewery on site) would take the LOLA cars onto Route 94 after hours. Fun!
If you’re looking for a little water-based amusement, you can’t go wrong with a wave pool. The Tidal Wave Pool – or “Grave Pool” as locals called it – might have been the most dangerous body of water in the northeastern United States. A 15-year-old boy drowned in this pool in 1982, followed by a 20-year-old in 1984 and an 18-year-old in 1987. The waves were only 40-inches high, but people underestimated their bodies’ buoyancy in fresh water and got exhausted easily. There were twelve lifeguards on duty at all times, and where most lifeguards might have two or three lifesaving incidents in an entire season at a normal pool, these people routinely had to perform as many as thirty in a single weekend.
Looking for the thrill of white-water kayaking? How about large underwater fans thrashing at the water for a good simulation? If your kayak gets capsized, just try not to step on the live wires near the fans, or you’ll be electrocuted to death like the 27-year-old Long Island man who took a mis-step in 1982, just a week after the first death in the Grave Pool.
You could always take your chances with the Tarzan swing. Just fly over and drop into the spring-fed water below. The very cold spring water. So cold, in fact, a man suffered a fatal heart attack from the shock of the frigid temperature.
Not far away were the Diving Cliffs – literally cliffs where you could dive into deep water. The water below was not fenced off from the other parts of the park though, so guests who happened to think they were having a recreational swim away from the bloodshed and mayhem elsewhere in the park stood a chance of having a diver land on them unexpectedly.
There were boats too – speedboats that could zoom through the water at up to 40mph. No way to rig these up to move faster, but that didn’t stop kids from using them like bumper boats and smashing into one another. Oh and the pond where the boat attractions were located was infested with snakes.
Then there were the waterslides. The Cannonball Loop, pictured above, was a real thing. And it was almost never used. It opened for one month in that crazy summer of 1985 before the state swooped in and closed it down. There were rumors that test dummies sent down that waterslide were dismembered. Apparently one rider got stuck in the loop because the water pressure was awful.
The Loop was opened sporadically over the years, but never as a regular attraction. I wish I had time to detail all the other spectacles at Action Park: the river raft ride that more often than not smashed park-goers into a rock wall, the vertical wind tunnel that shut off suddenly, allowing riders to slam against the floor, or the plastic-sled water slide that routinely sent riders’ heads colliding with the concrete below.
The injuries at Action Park were so frequent, the park eventually purchased extra ambulances for the town of Vernon, just so they could keep up with the flow of patients to the Emergency Ward.
We fought for our fun when we were kids. We bled for it. Some of us died for it. For those who conquered Action Park and lived to tell the tale, I salute you.