There's something slightly seedy about even the best amusement parks, as anyone who's accidentally glanced down the wrong alley at Disneyworld and witnessed Buzz Lightyear trying to console Goofy through the meth shakes can attest. That's why everyone cherishes a sincerely terrible park, like the kind where they don't bother holding up a privacy tarp while hosing blood off the bumper cars. And the most fabled of them all was Action Park -- the humble water park that became a beloved New Jersey institution with nothing more than a positive attitude and a complete disregard for the sanctity of human life, alcohol licensing laws, and the concept of gravity itself.
Even today, locals speak of Action Park in a whisper, and not just because most of them had their tracheas burned out by chlorine fumes from the wave pool. Almost everyone who grew up in the New York metropolitan area in the '80s has an Action Park story, usually with an accompanying scar. Frankly, if you can't brush back your bangs to reveal an ear severed on the Aqua Scoot and incorrectly reattached by a 17-year-old park medic in the back of a moving golf cart, then you didn't enjoy the full Action Park experience and your childhood was the poorer for it.
"Nothing in the world like Action Park!" is a catchy jingle, but also what UNICEF is working very hard to achieve.
But, there was a time when even Action Park went too far. And we're talking about a park that saw no problem with building a water slide out of metal rollers or ending another slide by skidding riders across a small puddle into a wall. Yet, even by those standards, what Action Park created in 1985 was so dangerous, so terrifying, so obviously wrong, that even the park employees who built the thing can't quite seem to believe it. In fact, the water slide we're about to show you is such a Lovecraftian abomination that your brain may take a few seconds to process it. Behold: The Cannonball Loop.
Yes, that is a water slide with a loop in it. Not a rollercoaster, or any kind of motorized ride, but an individual-sized water slide. As you might expect, there were some design flaws. If a slider didn't get up enough speed to clear the loop, they would simply slide back down to the bottom, leaving them trapped in a tiny, pitch-black tube, with no way to get out, no room to move, and a rising fear that the next customer might come shooting down at any moment. The park eventually had to install a hatch at the bottom of the slide to pull out any newly-minted claustrophobes.
Other riders reportedly made it to the top of the loop, only for gravity to take over and slam them head-first into the bottom of the slide. And even if you did build up enough speed to shoot through, you'd still have to contend with the pile of sand and dirt that would collect just before the loop and lacerate all the skin off your back. You couldn't even count on a nice cool pool at the end; just a rubber mat sprayed with water. It's rumored that the first crash test dummy they sent down emerged without a head, while the park owner's son says he only agreed to try it out wearing full hockey gear. Other park employees were paid $100 to test it, which sadly "did not buy enough booze to drown out that memory."
The Cannonball Loop was only open to the public for a few weeks before state regulators made a tearful plea for mercy and managed to get it shut down. But how did such a thing come to exist in the first place? Well, to understand that, you have to understand Action Park. This innovative early attraction helped to pioneer the modern water park, much in the same way that the Donner Party helped to pioneer Californian cuisine.
In 1978, TV stations in New York and New Jersey were suddenly plastered with ads promoting "Action Park: Where You're Center Of The Action!" It was a godsend for the local kids, who had previously been restricted to traditional Jersey pastimes like standing on the overpass throwing batteries at cars, or playing "guess which abandoned oil drum has a dead mobster in it." The park quickly became a huge success, despite having the same approach to child safety as a 19th-century coal mine. The locals quickly nicknamed it, "Traction Park: Where You're Center Of The Accident," then "Class-Action Park: Where You're Center Of The Lawsuit," and finally "Splashy Bad Place No Go There," since repeatedly slamming headfirst into a shallow pool will slowly degrade your ability to make puns.
Local businessman Gene Mulvihill founded the park after he noticed that his ski slopes weren't making any money in summer. Fortunately, the steep hillsides were perfect for water slides. Unfortunately, Gene brought skiing's bone-mangling safety ethos along with him. From his perspective, people had to take responsibility for their own choices. Just like a skier could lose focus and accidentally shoot off a cliff, so a 13-year-old from The Bronx could try to do a handstand on an unstable plastic sled and end up catapulting right through a hot dog stand. It wasn't his problem! He also had a deep enthusiasm for thrill-seeking water rides, which translated into buying a series of untested rides from sketchy European guys at theme park conventions. As a result, Action Park was the rare theme park where you had almost total control over your actions: no lines, no rules, and no guarantee you'd leave with your knees intact.
For example, take the Bailey Ball, which was designed by a Canadian janitor Gene Mulvihill bumped into one day. The guy mentioned he had an idea for a ride where people shot down a 600-foot slope inside a giant plastic ball. He'd apparently come up with the idea after spilling a bunch of Wiffle balls on the floor at K-Mart. Gene told him to get down to Action Park and start building it immediately. When the famously lax local safety inspector came to check it out, a semi-willing park employee was shoved inside to act as a guinea pig. Unfortunately, the ball quickly jumped off its track, which zigzagged carefully down the mountain, and began shooting down the nearly vertical slope at incredible speed, heading straight for Gene and the stunned safety inspector, who dove out of the way at the last second.
By this point, the employee inside the ball was screaming hysterically, but the plastic ball masked the sound, so stunned onlookers could just see a silently screaming face zoom by with every rotation. The ball shot all the way through Action Park's parking lot, ramped a small hill, and flew by a stunned construction crew, then bounced right across the Interstate, bringing traffic screeching to a halt. It eventually crash-landed in a pond, sending boats flying into the air with the impact. The hysterical tester was dragged out covered in blood. The ball did not pass its safety inspection.
The rides that did pass inspection quickly attracted hordes of customers, mostly kids from urban New York and New Jersey, who possessed limited swimming skills, but a teenager's sense of invulnerability and a robust attitude to authority. Most people probably wouldn't respond to being pulled from the bottom of a pool and resuscitated by telling the lifeguard to "eat a dick" and jumping straight back in, but that kind of thing happened all the time at Action Park. New Jersey etiquette also required customers to respond to safety instructions by nodding a bunch, then yelling, "Haha, screw you asshole!" and jumping down the slide headfirst. Things were helped along by the numerous beer stands scattered throughout the park, which, according to numerous accounts, employed an extremely relaxed attitude to checking ID.
Possibly also not helpful to the relationship between customers and employees was the park's famed Gladiator attraction, where guests competed to knock a series of "gladiators" off pedestals into the pools below. Successful entrants won a chance to be brutally beaten by the king gladiator on the tallest pedestal of all. Gene recruited the gladiators by trawling the local bodybuilding gyms for the most muscle-bound unemployed people he could find. On at least one occasion, a humiliated local lunkhead came back with a dozen friends and tried to fight the gladiators. But by that point, the park employees had been forged into a grizzled band of brothers and charged in to join the fight, prompting a "riot of 40, 50, 60 people" as gladiators, lifeguards, and catering staff came together to whale on the troublemakers.
That wasn't even a particularly remarkable occurrence. An oral history of the park compiled by Mental Floss includes fond recollections like, "I saw a chair lift attendant hit a guy in the head with a shovel," along with, "People were hitting each other with bricks from the cobblestone walk ... the cops had to bring the dogs," and, "There was real Lord Of The Flies stuff going on in this whole park." Employees took to eating lunch at the bottom of Surf Hill, an eight-lane slide where customers raced on rubber mats since the seventh lane had an unusually steep drop dubbed, "The Backbreaker," which virtually guaranteed the chance to see a guest badly injure themselves.
We don't even have space to get into this pitch-black death tunnel, which contained a sudden 45-degree turn, just to ensure everyone slammed their head into the wall on the way through.
Another popular spectator spot was the Tarzan Swing, where guests could swing from a rope before dropping into a pool. Since the pool was usually surrounded by people, it was common for guests to briefly yank down their suits and expose themselves while swinging. Although they should have been paying attention to the rope, which had a tendency to swing too far, and either slam you into a rock wall or hurl you back into the surrounding woods. There are many occasions when flying through the air with exposed genitals sounds exhilarating, but heading straight for the rocks probably isn't one of them.
The Tarzan Swing shouldn't even have been a dangerous attraction, but the whole place was afflicted with some weird curse that ensured Action Park couldn't even do tame little rides right. A calm lake for boating was both infested with snakes and covered in a sheen of highly flammable gasoline from the leaking boats. There are perfectly harmless skate parks all over the world, but Action Park's blood-soaked death-skate arena lasted less than a year before they had to literally bury it and pretend it never existed. Meanwhile, the Aqua Scoot, a ride built from skin-pinching metal luggage rollers, was for some reason attracting swarms of bees, who would attack disoriented patrons as they emerged from the water. To be clear, Bees do not normally do that, but it's not even a rumor, it's in the freaking Washington Post! What the hell was going on at this park?!
Not all the attractions were water-themed, which brings us to the Alpine Slide, a 2,700-foot dry asbestos chute which terrified guests careened down in plastic sleds. The sleds theoretically had brakes, but they often didn't work, meaning sleds would end up shooting down and capsizing at Olympic luge speed. Even worse was when the brakes did work, since braking too hard on a corner tended to flip the sled right out of the chute, leaving you tumbling down a rock-strewn hillside. The chairlift to the top of the hill went right over the slide, meaning you had to descend through a light rainstorm as your fellow guests tried to nail you with spit from overhead. Of course, they would then get on the ride and be pelted with sky-loogies themselves. That's just the circle of life.
Some people probably did find the sky spit quite soothing, since flipping over on the asbestos track while in a swimsuit would produce horrible friction burns. These wounds were described as "oozy," but luckily, Action Park employees were happy to point any "gumbys" (as unlucky riders were dubbed) in the direction of the first-aid hut. There, the park's teenaged medics would spray their full-body abrasions with a "disinfectant solution" that was basically just rubbing alcohol. As you can imagine, patients tended to run out of the hut screaming and doing weird little pain-dances, much to the entertainment of the medics. Staff eventually took to plastering the entrance to the ride with photos of the worst injuries in an attempt to deter shenanigans, which only added to the park's legend.
The Alpine Slide was responsible for numerous severe injuries and one death, which occurred when a park employee was hurled from the track and struck his head on a rock. But even the Alpine had nothing on the terrifying life-or-death struggle of the Wave Pool (or "Grave Pool," as it was quickly dubbed). Now, you may actually have been in a wave pool, which are quite common attractions at water parks. Trust us when we say it had nothing in common with the Action Park wave pool, which was a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen. Every single person who ever got in this thing can deliver a monologue just as chilling as Quint's speech from Jaws. If you've ever seen The Perfect Storm, imagine that, except that you're bobbing in a little rubber ring instead of a fishing trawler, and there isn't even a chance George Clooney might show up and take his shirt off.
The Action Park wave pool had no capacity restrictions, meaning that people would pack in like sardines, but with way worse swimming skills. Like sardines, the guests were also covered in oil (mainly suntan rather than soybean), which left a thick sheen on the surface of the water, making it almost impossible for lifeguards to see the bottom of the pool. There was also no designated entrance, so guests tended to look for a group of their friends and then try to jump in on top of their heads. The waves were huge, and Gene Mulvihill refused to turn them down, declaring, "I'd make them even stronger if I could." On busy days, the tightly packed mass of people tended to close over anyone who went underwater, making it difficult to resurface. You couldn't have designed a better deathtrap if you were planning to lower James Bond into it.
The park's lifeguards, including Mulvihill's son Andy, fought a heroic battle against the waves, experimenting with stronger and stronger chlorine concoctions in a desperate effort to keep the bottom of the pool visible (which meant that guests tended to emerge with alarmingly red eyes). They were hampered by some of the younger patrons, who tended to fake drowning to mess with the lifeguards, as well as their own buoys, which tended to suck up water and become as hard as a brick. On at least one occasion, a lifeguard threw a buoy to help a drowning guest and shattered his nose with it instead. Struggling swimmers tended to claw frantically at the lifeguards, who emerged at the end of each day covered in scratches and occasionally had to punch a valued customer repeatedly in the face to calm them down. They eventually started writing "CFS" on the wristbands of people they saved, marking them as somebody who, "Can't fucking swim."
Three people drowned in the wave pool over the years, as well as the death on the Alpine. Another death came when a kayak overturned on the Kayak Experience and the rider stood on some exposed electrical wiring under the water (the very best location for exposed electrical wiring). It's frankly a miracle that there weren't more, which brings us back to the Cannonball Loop, Action Park's most blatant crime against both gods and men -- which you'll be unsurprised to learn was designed by Gene Mulvihill himself on the back of a cocktail napkin.
He refused to accept that this rigorous design process could be flawed and made repeated attempts to reopen the slide over the years. Despite his best efforts, it was never open for more than a few weeks at a time, before it was either closed by regulators or stolen by demons and rebuilt in hell for the delight of Lucifer Morningstar (depending on which account you believe). Mulvihill himself eventually pled guilty to fraud after it was revealed that he had set up a fake insurance company to hide the fact that his park had no coverage because, of course, it didn't.
The original Action Park closed in 1996, although Gene bought the property back in 2010. Sadly, he died two years later, without ever achieving his dream of building a ride so terrifying it would crack open the Lament Configuration and end our puny world. But his legacy lives on as one of the greatest auteurs of the 1980s, who successfully built a sprawling wonderland in his own terrifyingly laid-back, survival-of-the-fittest image. Who else could have built a park that, in its very first year, attracted complaints ranging from "bee attacks" to "I lost my teeth" and "I almost drowned and the lifeguards laughed," and then changed absolutely nothing for 18 years?! To further understand the blood-stained wonderland he created, you can read a new book by his son Andy, or simply watch this extremely rare footage of the Cannonball Loop in action:
Or if you're sick of crazy rides, simply jump to 3:14 for some of the finest dancing the 1980s ever produced.
Top Image: Action Park