“Honk your horn if you’ve told someone an Action Park story and people have doubted you,” Seth Porges told an audience that had just watched his new documentary about New Jersey’s deadliest, most storied amusement park.
There were honks aplenty, because the rides at “Traction Park”– during its ignominious run from 1978 to 1996– were so notoriously dangerous that they’ve inspired an oral history, a mini doc, and even a Johnny Knoxville movie that injured him worse than Jackass ever did. Class Action Park, the first feature-length documentary, was shown at the Rooftop Films Brooklyn Drive-In on Saturday and comes to HBO Max on Aug. 27, at pretty much the perfect time. During this moment of crisis when regulations are, understandably, tighter than ever and New Yorkers can’t even ride the Wonder Wheel (not to mention, hang out outside of their cars at the Brooklyn Drive-In), there’s no small amount of catharsis in all the archival footage and cartoon reenactments of boozed-up, half-naked people throwing risk assessment to the wind as they hurtle down– and sometimes off of– Action Park’s death-defying rides. Unfortunately, the rides didn’t always defy death. The six fatalities associated with the park are touched on by the parents of one of victims as a reminder that unfettered fun– whether in the form of alpine slides or quarantine raves– can come at a price.
During Saturday’s Q&A, Porges said he didn’t see Eugene Mulvihill– the park’s laissez-faire owner, who eventually copped to running it with fraudulent insurance– as either a hero or a villain. Mulvihill, described as a sort of PT Barnum meets Donald Trump, was “the kind of person that embodies a lot of the duality of our country, and the traits that we both run from and are attracted to about our country,” Porges said. “I think Action Park is this sort of hyper-distilled version of America, of this unbridled freedom, both the good and the bad, in especially the ’80s.”
Porges made the movie (with co-director Chris Charles Scott) because, after going to Action Park just a couple of times as a kid, he was haunted by visions of “looping waterslides and impossible machines and bodies flying and things that really didn’t [conform] with my version, as an adult, of what reality is, and how the world is supposed to work.” He wanted to know: “Were my memories real?”
Turns out, many people have similar memories. Those of comedian Chris Gethard, in particular, feature heavily in the film. And after Saturday’s screening, some former Action Park security workers shared stories that didn’t make the cut. Here they are, in the order they were told, slightly edited for readability.
The Runaway Car
One of the posts you had to work, that everybody hated, was the Sand Hill Crossing road. There was a parking lot across the street and at the end of the night you had to wait until there was like 10 cars left before you could leave your post. One night I’m there and there’s about 10 cars left and one family loading their kids and stuff into the car. The father starts the car. One of the kids must’ve hit the gear-shifter and the car takes off. It’s flying across the parking lot. He’s chasing the car. It slams into the side of a van at the other side. And if that’s not enough, the father runs down there and they were all in the van smoking weed. They jump out and this guy’s got a big bowie knife. He starts chasing the father around the parking lot with his bowie knife. So I get on the radio. We had these different codes, I don’t remember what they were but it was basically just “send everybody down here.” So we had security down there, we had Vernon PD down there. I think we even had an ambulance down there at some point.
The Giant Celebration[Porges:] When the Giants win the Super Bowl [in 1987] they celebrate at Action Park and what do you do when you celebrate at Action Park? You get drunk and you start fights and you throw people off the cliffs and you throw ride attendants into their rides.
[Former security worker:] We got this call. Ron, who was the manager [of Action Park], grabs me up, grabs two other security guards: “Come with us.” Unbeknownst to us, the Giants were up there for the day celebrating. Well, it started getting late in the day and they were getting a little wild so we’re going to throw them out, unbeknownst to them. So Ron comes up to them and instead of being like, “Can you guys leave?” he just starts screaming on them: “You’re a bunch of assholes…” Listen, I saw my life flash before my eyes, because these guys were gigantic. All props to them, they didn’t give us any problems, they were like, “We’re sorry,” and we escorted two busloads of them out to the parking lot. They all got on their buses and I was able to breathe again.
The Bloody Butt
In the movie they talk about the shack at the top of the alpine slide that was 90,000 degrees. People were smoking weed, having sex in that thing, but the cool thing that they didn’t mention was we used to have these carts that were only for employees of the alpine slide. We filed down the runners on these carts; the less contact with the slide, the faster the carts went. Two tracks actually ran right next to each other, so you would race down these tracks and we would get at insane speeds. If you took a bank the wrong way, the thing would flip over. It would go through your shorts, through your boxers and through your first three or four layers of skin and you would get up and blood would just be running down the bottom of your ass. Then you get to the bottom of the lift and guys would actually give you shit because you flipped over and now you’re bleeding. You were some type of inferior employee because you couldn’t race down the slide at these high speeds and not die. I’m surprised more of us didn’t be maimed or anything like that, it was an insane place to work.
The Broken Bodybuilder
It was a super hot night. It was about 10pm. We’re down in the first aid room– we used to call it the compound– drinking beer and having pizza. All the sudden the doors fling open and there’s this guy who was a bodybuilder. He was a mountain. He walks in and we’re like, “Where did this guy come from? The park’s been closed for like an hour.” And he’s holding his neck. He had no neck, he’s just all muscle, and he goes, “Man, I think I broke my neck.” We’re half-drunk and we just started laughing. We’re like, “Haha, go sit over there on the cot, we’ll get right to you.” I walk over with one of the first aiders and she lifts his head up and his neck is sideways, like totally broken. We’re like, “Oh. My. God.” We just laid him down, put him on a backboard, shipped him out in the ambulance immediately, and sure enough he broke his neck. The only reason he wasn’t paralyzed is because he was so musclebound, he actually held together. He flipped off the alpine slide all the way at the top of the mountain in the dark and walked down for like an hour down the mountain by himself. Nobody knew; the ride was closed, everybody was gone. He just happened to make it to first aid or god knows what would’ve happened to him.