Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
I was tickled to see some reminiscences of Action Park show up in my Facebook feed this morning. Do any UR readers remember Action Park? You probably need to have grown up in the New York/New Jersey area during the ’80s to have a recollection of the place. Basically, it was a water park, though it had several non-aquatic components, such as an enormous bungee platform and a luge-style sled course that ran on concrete rather than ice. It was a fun place. But the fun was kind of secondary. It was the sheer outrageousness of Action Park that made it memorable. Built on some old (or still occasionally in use?) ski resort, the park was like a landscaped field of stone and concrete over which pressurized torrents of water had been spewed for the enjoyment of half-drunk parents and their unruly children. It was unpredictable, it was stress-inducing, and they sold beer out of the refreshment kiosks. To a kid of the time, Action Park meant danger.
Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a little. But there were urban legends circulating at the time that made the place sound like a cross between Pleasure Island in “Pinocchio” and a particularly nasty hazard from the movie version of Stephen King’s “The Running Man.” It was said that you could be electrocuted on virtually any of the water rides. That drownings in the way-scarier-than-it-sounds Tidal Wave Pool were a regularity. That a man had died from shock just by touching the arctic-cold water in the pool below the infamous Tarzan Swing — and that was after he’d managed to survive the swing part, which everyone knew was apt to kill you all by itself, especially if you let go too late and slammed into the stone wall on the pool’s opposite side. And then there was the dreaded Cannonball Loop, a water slide with a loop built into it that seemed designed by people who’d never heard of either physics or broken collar bones. Who knew how many adolescents had been decapitated upon working up the courage to slide down it? It stood there in silence as you entered Action Park. Ominous. Overgrown. It was always closed, presumably because someone had just died on it. Someone had always just died on it.
People called it “Traction Park.” You’d know your friends had recently enjoyed a visit to Action Park when they showed up to Little League with the skin torn off their limbs and regaled you with stories of crashing on the Alpine Slide, then continuing down the concrete track sans sled, their bodies driven forward by momentum and the force of other riders, who were always coming on close behind, cursing the bruised and bloodied guts of the crashee for daring to spoil their rides. These stories were both horrifying and fascinating, like watching a bullfrog being blown apart by a firecracker. And when you went to Action Park you couldn’t get them out of your brain. The blood and cut-short lives were right there in your consciousness as you neared the front of the queue and looked out at the dreaded jumping-off point. And woe be unto the loser who wimped out at the last second. The crowd wouldn’t hesitate to boo you – a rude, Jersey-sounding boo. Sometimes, the stoned-looking guy pretending to oversee the attraction would spray you with a hose until you either shit yourself or closed your eyes, made peace with your god, and resigned yourself to making what might well be the last decision of your short life. It took balls to succeed at Action Park.
There was a drama to the place that existed outside of its “action.” It was a psychological drama, worked up over time from tall tales, visible scars, and peer pressure. The park seemed designed to encourage it. Take the Alpine Slide: It was accessible only by chairlift, and as you rode that lift you had no choice but to look down at the Slide’s current victims – a few of which hadn’t yet crashed. The slowpokes were perhaps more daunting than the casualties. Mostly girls and fat kids, they’d gotten on their sleds, realized how scary the fucking thing was, and then proceeded to inch . . . down . . . ever . . . so . . . slowly. They were disgusting. From your lordly perch above the fray, you could throw things at these kids, jeer them, even spit on them. Faced with such ignominy, some slowpokes simply abandoned their sleds and ran back down the grassy slopes, content to go back to mom and her station wagon and the smooth ride home. But what if you were, at heart, one of them . . . a slowpoke? You couldn’t tell until you got up there, until you made yourself go.
The great thing about Action Park was that it let you control the experience. No planned-and-controlled, Disney-style rides at Action Park. The shit there was participatory, unpredictable. Kids on the Roaring Rapids attraction could paddle themselves into backwaters or onto the manmade riverbanks and thereby extend their rides to infinity. It was common to see groups of mangy boys leaping back and forth between rafts or intentionally capsizing those of newly made enemies, like gangs of half-naked pirates staking claim to the surf. No one in an official position at Action Park seemed to care. They were probably just as drunk as the patrons.
They closed the place down, of course. In the ’90s. How could such a place survive the ’90s, the decade of CD warning stickers, of designated driving, of bicycle helmets? I learned today that its owners just barely kept it running through the ’80s, and then only by doing things like establishing their own insurance company (based out of the Cayman Islands, natch) and buying a fleet of ambulances for the surrounding town of Vernon, so its hospital could keep up with the park’s constant stream of ER cases. Or are those urban legends too?
- Newly unearthed video of people actually sliding down the Cannonball Loop.
- A fun documentary on the place: Part 1 and Part 2.
- A super-informative Wikipedia entry on the park. Turns out, that guy really did die of shock from the water below the Tarzan Swing — or at least of a heart attack.
- Nice write-up (and reader comments) on Weird NJ.