In 1978, Gene Mulvihill, a Wall Street penny stock scammer, created New Jersey’s infamous Action Park. Featuring insanely dangerous water slides, go-carts, boats and more, which skirted regulations and safety laws, the park added many injuries and some deaths to its roster before closing in 1996. Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott’s documentary, Class Action Park, attempts to marry the zany whiff of nostalgia associated with the latchkey kid era to the harsh realities some families faced when their children did not come home. While not completely successful at either, it’s worth watching for more nefarious reasons.
Combining archival footage, television ads, animation and a variety of talking heads, the first thing one notices about the film is that not a lot of park footage exists. Before cell phones and video cameras, not everything got documented. As such, the film repeats many shots or uses primitive animation to fill in the gaps. Today, of course, every teen would have jammed their selfie sticks down the looping water slide and posted it to their Insta-stories before they crash landed in the way-too-shallow pool. Luckily, the filmmakers strike gold with one particular pundit, comedian Chris Gethard, who not only attended the park, but has the funny/serious perspective to give more depth than the others, most of whom lean in on the hilarity of it all.
In truth, the story of Action Park remains an overwhelmingly sad one. Mulvihill had no concerns for the safety of the park-goers and even created his own fake insurance company in the Cayman Islands to “protect” everyone. Rides, run mostly by teenagers, lacked proper upkeep, defied the laws of physics, and contained so many variables that would never pass muster today. Slides would shoot riders out a tube just to send them falling 10 feet into an ice cold pond. Some of the carts had broken braking systems. The wave pool suffered from so much overcrowding that the lifeguards could not easily see a drowning victim at the bottom. Flying off the tracks, enchanting snake-filled, oil slicked waters, or having molotov cocktails hurled at you from a toy tank seemed like just another Tuesday at Action Park.
Instead of laughing, this film hurt my soul. I could easily tie together Mulvihill’s contempt for regulations to the current state of our country. Even Trump passed as an investor in the early days. Let that sink in. As a teenager myself during Action Park’s heyday, I loved doing crazy things, but I also recognized that many of my peers didn’t care about such things as consequences. Surviving thrill rides endowed someone with a badge of honor as opposed to a true wake-up call. I fear that we’ve been paying the price ever since. Deregulation may help people economically, but it also exposes greed over all else. Human lives amount to collateral damage.
When this documentary takes a dark turn in its last third to explore the deaths, it’s easy to feel guilty for ever laughing in the first place. Admittedly, it’s tough to balance these opposing realities. Chris Gethard proves invaluable in this section, forcing us to look inside ourselves to examine why we like danger and why we flock to somewhat salacious documentaries such as this one. Instead of looking at this era as “the good old days” when children could do whatever they wanted and adults could take advantage of them, for me, it’s better to have more oversight. Have regulators overreached? Perhaps, but having kids get maimed, gouged, impaled, and sometimes killed at an amusement park doesn’t exactly make a case for free rein.
I think many will applaud this documentary’s ability to lure you in with the promise of watching crazy wipeouts and wanting to make America this great again, only to turn far more serious. It made me cry for this country. For the sake of those most affected by the tragedies of Action Park, I would have preferred the filmmakers to have picked a lane, preferably one filled by cars with working brakes.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Class Action Park can be streamed now on HBO Max.