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Unsafe at any speed - ‘Class Action Park’

August 31, 2020
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For many people, some of their most beloved memories are of amusement parks and the rides available there. Whether we’re talking about Disney World or the local carnival or anything in between, there’s a joy that comes from the combination of fun and fear that springs from a well-made ride.

But if the ride ISN’T well-made? Well, that’s where legends are born.

“Class Action Park,” a documentary by Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges currently streaming on HBO Max, tells the story of Action Park, a notoriously wild and unsafe amusement park that operated in New Jersey from the late 1970s into the mid-90s. The film explores the park’s origins and the unsupervised dangers that turned it into both THE summer destination for New Jersey teens and the subject of numerous lawsuits for injuries and even death.

Combining (frankly terrifying) archival footage with interviews with those who worked at and/or enjoyed Action Park during its heyday, the film – narrated by John Hodgman – paints a vivid and occasionally shocking portrait of what happens when you allow hordes of teenagers to run rampant on a collection of poorly-engineered rides with inexperienced employees and zero accountability.

It all started with one man’s dream. Eugene Mulvihill, a former finance guy with a bit of a shady past, took possession of a New Jersey ski area. In an effort to monetize the summertime, Mulvihill created what would become Action Park. It started with an alpine slide, but soon metastasized into something far more, featuring water slides and go-karts and many other attractions.

Safety was not a concern. At all.

Rides were poorly-engineered – mostly because Mulvihill insisted on having input into the designs. Waterslides with loop-the-loops, deep water wave pools with too-strong currents, cart tracks with sharp curves that almost ensured carts would fly off … the list goes on and on. Injuries were abundant and there were even some deaths.

That omnipresent danger is obvious in just about every frame of archival footage. Over and over again, we watch as oblivious teens on ramshackle rides skate right up to the edge of catastrophe. The majority came out mostly unscathed. Quite a few wound up with significant scrapes and bruises. Several times a week – sometimes more in the height of the season – someone was carted off in an ambulance (there were enough of those trips that the park ultimately needed to get their own). And a handful of times over the life of the park, someone literally died.

Nevertheless, trips to Action Park became almost a rite of passage for young people in the 1980s. It was the place to be in the summertime, and for teenagers of the time, the danger was a feature rather than a bug. At its peak popularity, over one million people walked through the turnstiles every season, each hungry for the anarchic lawlessness of the place.

Suffice it to say, parenting was a little different in the ‘80s. The ides of a place like Action Park even existing, let alone thriving, in today’s climate is absurd. Such a thing would never be allowed to exist. But back then, kids were more free-range, set loose on the world and largely expected to fend for themselves. For those kids, Action Park was a great shining light.

“Class Action Park” speaks to people who worked at the park, letting them share their stories of what it was like to be handed the keys to such a rickety, unsavory kingdom. We also hear from a handful of famous faces who took some trips to the park in their younger years – Chris Gethard and Alison Becker both have a LOT to say about Action Park and their experiences there, what it meant to be a Jersey kid in that time and place. And we hear from at least one parent who pulls back the curtain on the dark side of the park, sharing their pain following the needless loss of their son.

What Scott and Porges manage to do is strike the delicate balance between their own obvious nostalgic affection for the place and the headshaking after-the-fact understanding of just what an unsafe death trap it was. That juxtaposition is the fundamental spirit of Action Park, with thousands of kids walking the fun/fear terminator with help from a blend of peer pressure and the implied immortality of youth.

But of course, that sense of immortality was an illusion. People literally died at this amusement park due almost entirely to the nonchalant negligence of the man in charge; one could place some blame on the employees, but they were literally kids themselves. And yet, even with that knowledge, so many still have genuinely fond memories of the place.

That seemingly counterintuitive dichotomy is at the center of “Class Action Park.” The film serves as a time capsule of sorts, a look back at a specific time and place that could only have come to be in that brief period. Action Park is a reflection of its era – a reflection that appears in the mirror that is “Class Action Park.”

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 31 August 2020 08:55

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