Action Point, the latest bone-breaking comedy from Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame, centres on the ultimate death-trap theme park. With minimum safety comes maximum fun at Action Point, a decrepit amusement park that decides the best way to compete with a mega-corporate sponsor is through near suicidal attractions that would send the average insurance agent into a cold sweat. The film looks set to promise the usual Jackass shenanigans, but now with a plot, as was the case with the surprisingly successful Bad Grandpa (remember, that film got an Oscar nomination).
While many of us will be wondering how the hell Knoxville’s body can withstand all this terror at the age of 47, what you may not know is that the film is actually based on a true story. Yeah, this place existed! Granted, the circumstances were different, but for over 20 years, New Jersey was home to possibly the most misguided amusement park on the planet. Action Park was given an array of nicknames during its notorious times - Traction Park, Accident Park, Class Action Park - and dark spectres hang overhead thanks to multiple injuries, endless lawsuits, and several deaths. The park was reopened in 2016, now with a safer makeover and less risk of serious head injuries, but it’s in the past where all the scandal lies.
Action Park originally opened in 1978, as a way for the ski resort to entice customers during the Summer season. A 2700-foot-long alpine slide was constructed down the ski trails, and over the next couple of years, various attractions like water slides, a racecar track, and swimming pool were added. Eventually, the park had over 40 water slides, and at least 35 other attractions, like a skate park, a monorail, mini golf, and speedboats. At one point, the owners claimed it was the largest waterpark on the plant.
For many years, especially during the 1980s, Action Park was highly popular with customers. It was reasonably affordable, had a wide array of activities for all ages, and was especially popular with low-income households. It also helped that the park sold beer, and for a brief period had set up their own microbrewery. This was also the 1980s, and frankly, safety regulations weren’t what they would become. Given the sordid history of the park, it’s surprising to discover that they were only fined once for violating state rules.
So, how bad were things at Action Park?
Buckle up and put on your helmets, because this is going to get wild.
It’s hard to single out just one ride that caused all the problems, because Action Park was a smorgasbord of class action lawsuits and rib fractures waiting to happen on every attraction. Of the six people known to have died, directly or indirectly at the park, the first happened on the Alpine Slide. The attraction that started the park was one that a former member of staff claimed was responsible for about 40% of all documented accidents. Users were given a sled with a stick to control speed, but it seldom worked as designed. Either you went extremely slow or at a speed that would make Lewis Hamilton jealous. Many riders were also coming to the slide straight from the water slides, so imagine falling off a concrete track while you’re wearing nothing but your swimming costume. In 1980, a teenage employee was riding the slide when his car bounced off the track. His head hit a rock and he died, aged 19.
The waterpark was where the lion’s share of minor casualties occurred. If you’re a teen on Summer holiday who’s snuck a couple of beers in, there’s nothing more exciting than going in a tidal wave pool, launching yourself down slides called the kamikaze, leaping from 23-feet-tall diving cliffs, or swinging from the Tarzan swing, a 20-foot cable that sent you into a fauna-surrounded pool. But imagine doing all that at a park mostly under-staffed by under-qualified teenagers, none of whom have the appropriate life-saving training. The tidal wave pool could hold up to 1000 people and was 8-feet deep. Three people died in it during the decade, thanks to the overwhelming nature of the waves, which were turned on for 20 minutes at a time. Even proficient swimmers struggled with these. No wonder staff nicknamed it the ‘grave pool’.
(Image from YouTube)
If you preferred something more easy-going, perhaps the kayaks were for you. This artificial version of a whitewater course used electric fans to fake the sensation of flowing water. As you can imagine, the safety regulations in place here were especially lax, and in 1982, a man died after tipping out of his kayak and stepping on some live wiring for the fans.
There were other sites of frequent injury: The diving cliff pools were not blocked off from the rest of the swimming areas, so unsuspecting swimmers could find themselves colliding with visitors jumping from 7m overhead; the super speed water slides were unusually steep and the cause of various accidents; people leaping from the Tarzan Swing were likely to go into shock from the freezing cold temperatures of the pool (one man died from a heart attack in 1984 after experiencing this swing, and others were said to fall unconscious from the shock); the skate park was described by an employee as being ‘responsible for so many injuries, we covered it up with dirt and pretended it never existed before we even thought of grander ways to hurt people.’
But the most infamous invention of Action Park was the Cannonball Loop.
Action Park wanted a big scary ride to attract new visitors, and for a tiny period, they had it in this ride.
Look at it. Just fucking look at it.
Someone pitched that idea! Then that guy’s boss had to approve it, then someone had to design it, then people have to build it. Of course, people also had to test it. Apparently, the park offered $100 to employees who were brave enough to try it out. Test dummies sent down the slide would come out the other end in pieces, like something out of a Saw movie.
Shockingly, this ride didn’t last very long, but the mere image of it is a twisted symbol of folly and madness that can only be found in the world of theme parks. Walt Disney could never.
The park claimed that its injury record wasn’t all that bad considering the high attendance numbers they had in their prime. That didn’t stop them from buying extra ambulances for the local town hospital to keep up with the volume of accidents. By 1986, the reported annual accident toll was somewhere around 110, with 45 of those being head injuries of varying degrees of seriousness. While the owners were keen to avoid lawsuits and pay-outs, eventually the costs began to mount, and rides began to close throughout the 1990s. Still, it wasn’t legal troubles that sank the original Action Park: It was good old-fashioned economic problems. The debts piled up, insurance premiums unsurprisingly skyrocketed, and by 1996, the park had closed for the season and didn’t reopen as planned the following Summer. Nowadays, you can still go to Action Park in that location, but it’s called Mountain Creek. If the owners were hoping there’d be nostalgia for the olden days of suicidal Summer shenanigans, they thought wrong.
For some New Jersey natives of a certain age, Action Park holds fond memories and hard lessons learned. Comedian Chris Gethard called the park ‘a true rite of passage for any New Jerseyan of my generation.’ You haven’t lived until you’ve risked death in a tidal pool or seriously considered going on a looping water slide, apparently. Call me old-fashioned, but I like my skull unfractured.