It was fun. It was innovative. It was kind of scary. Opened in 1978, Action Park went on to become America’s most infamous amusement park.
It all started in 1976 when the owners of the Vernon Valley/Green Gorge ski area in Vernon Township, New Jersey, northwest of New York City, installed a concrete alpine slide, also known as a summer toboggan. Other ski areas around the country had installed them as a way to increase revenue during the summer months. The alpine slide at Vernon Valley/Green Gorge, though, was slightly different from those others in that rider safety wasn’t a priority in its design or installation.
Two years later, two water slides were added, as well as a go-kart track, and Action Park was officially open for business. More slides were added the following year, as well as a deep water pool. In later years, bumper boats, boat races, and several other water-themed attractions were built, which made Action Park one of the nation’s first modern water parks.
The Motorworld area came along in 1980 as a series of traditional rides joined the park’s line-up to the delight of crowds that flooded into the park, as it were. At its peak, the park 75 rides and 40 water slides spread across three different themed areas. However, the park started to develop a reputation for being unsafe as injuries became a daily occurrence.
Action Park was divided into three areas: Alpine Center, Waterworld, and Motorworld.
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This area was built around the park’s first non-wintertime attraction, a perilous, 2,700-foot strip of concrete that gave riders two speeds at which to descend; crawl and insanely fast. The latter naturally caused multiple injuries and, occasionally, death. The park's first fatality occurred when an employee's sled left the track, sending him hurtling down an embankment where he hit his head on a rock.
“My dad and I went one summer day in the late seventies,” recalled Tim Hanlon, host of the sports podcast Good Seats Still Available (above). “The debate still rages on in our family as to who left more bloody scraped skin on that winding cement track. Despite the scrapes, though, it was awesome!”
This was perhaps the most dangerous of Action Park’s three sections and was home to many, some would say, ill-conceived water slides, as well as the somewhat treacherous wave pool.
Officially called the Tidal Wave Pool, it was 100 feet by 200 feet and could hold up to 1,000 people. Unlike modern wave pools, Tidal Wave featured a drastically slanted floor. Waves were 20 minutes on, 10 minutes off, and could reach heights of over 3 feet, making contemporary wave pools look like a common bathtub. It was not uncommon for the dozen lifeguards to rescue up to 30 people a day.
The Tarzan Swing was just what the name implied. It had the bonus of featuring very cold water into which guests dropped. The resulting shock made it difficult for many to swim. If that wasn’t dangerous enough, one could try the Acapulco-style diving cliffs. Though not nearly as tall as their Mexican counterparts, these 23 and 18-foot tall cliffs were above a pool where non-divers could swim, some unaware that bodies were raining down from above.
There was also a kayak water ride that tried simulating a fast river current using electric fans. A rider perished on this attraction when he fell out of his boat, tried climbing back in, and stepped on a live wire. Roaring Rapids was similar in concept but much rougher. The Colorado River Ride has the same level of insanity as Roaring Rapids but could accommodate up to four riders at once.
The Aerodonium was an early skydiving simulation ride, much like the ones in use today, only without most of the modern-day safety measures.
In an apparent attempt to make the most dangerous water ride possible, the park developed the Cannonball Loop, a water slide with, you guessed it, had a loop. It worked out about as well as you might have imagined.
Land, water, and air rides were the focus of this section of Action Park. The most popular being the action battle tanks. For this ride, guests sat in small tank-like vehicles and fired at other tanks using an attached tennis ball launcher. Hitting a particular target on an opposing tank would disable it for 15 seconds.
Motorworld also had two go-kart attractions, one called super go-karts, and one called LOLA cars, which today might be called LOL cars were they not so dangerous. The vehicles used for both were susceptible to being tampered with by park employees, who discovered hacks to make them go much faster. Like the Alpine Slide, injuries were common.
There were also two water rides in Motorworld: Super Speed Boats and Bumper Boats. The speedboats raced around a pond that also happened to be infested with snakes, while the bumper boats were confined to a small pool. The latter’s craft was often too small to accommodate guests comfortably, leaving legs dangling over the side which, of course, led to many injuries.
The two so-called air rides were Space Shot and Slingshot. These rides were relatively safe, likely because they were purchased from third-party, experienced, amusement park ride manufacturers and not developed by the park directly.
Over the years, the park developed several not-so-flattering nicknames such as “Traction Park” and “Class Action Park,” the latter a reference to the many lawsuits filed against the facility. For a time, the park operated without liability insurance, reasoning it was more cost-effective to simply go to court to settle claims. So common were ambulance runs, the park bought Vernon Township new vehicles for paramedics to more efficiently handle the injuries. To add to the dangerous nature of Action Park, guests, including the occasional minor, were able to buy alcohol at an authentic German beer garden.
Despite all of the accidents (a half dozen injuries a day, and six deaths over the park’s history), Action Park was only fined by regulators once. This was largely due to the fact there were scarcely any regulations for the park to follow. Odd in a state where, to this day, motorists can’t even pump their gas. Go down a water slide with a loop? Go for it! Pump your gas? Whoa, whoa, settle down daredevil!
Today, attractions similar to the ones that dotted Action Park can be found at water parks across the country, though in much safer versions. “There’s nothing in the world like Action Park,” one TV commercial stated, and that statement was accurate.