‘Class Action Park’: Film probes death, danger and outrageous rides at N.J. water park
Brian Larsson watches the comments roll in on Facebook.
“I almost got killed on the Alpine Slide,” people say, looking back fondly on their wild memories of Action Park. “I love that place.”
Larsson thinks about responding. He thinks about the spirit in which they make such comments. These people can laugh because they haven’t lost anything.
His brother can’t. His life was cut short as a result of an accident at the now-defunct Vernon water park.
George Larsson Jr. was 19 when he was thrown off a cart on the Alpine Slide and hit his head on a rock in 1980. He died after a week-long coma.
Larsson, who grew up just a short drive from Action Park in Hamburg, was the first person to lose his life because of a ride there. His family settled with the park for $100,000. Subject to a gag order for years, the Larssons are now speaking out in “Class Action Park,” a new documentary that examines various angles of the storied park’s legacy.
The film, directed by Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges, premieres Thursday, August 27 on HBO Max (3 a.m. ET/midnight PT).
Retrospectives of Action Park are often soaked in nostalgia that can obscure the other side of the summertime institution. But Larsson wants people to know about his brother.
He wants them to know that he and George shared a room. That they were just 11 months apart. That George was supposed to be the best man at his wedding days after he died. That George’s death wrecked his family. That they moved to Florida because they couldn’t stand being there anymore.
“He wasn’t out to go there to be a thrill seeker,” Larsson, 58, tells NJ Advance Media, his voice shaking. “He was out there to have a good time on rides … You’re not going out to go get killed.”
For many, the park is a happy relic from their childhood or teen years. For others, an ‘80s and ‘90s curiosity that seems too outrageous to be true. This summer has hosted an absolute deluge of news and media about the infamous New Jersey water park.
Given all the chatter, you might be forgiven for thinking Action Park hasn’t been closed for 24 years. The documentary follows the June publication of “Action Park: Fast Times, Wild Rides, and the Untold Story of America’s Most Dangerous Amusement Park,” a book from Andy Mulvihill, son of park owner Eugene Mulvihill. The book is being adapted for a scripted Action Park TV show in development at 20th Century Fox Television for Hulu.
Action Park opened in 1978. By 1987, five people had died as a result of incidents at the park, two — 15-year-old George Lopez and 18-year-old Gregory Grandchamps — in the Wave Pool. The treacherous attraction had a nickname: the Grave Pool.
Action Park itself was known as “Class Action Park,” “Traction Park” and “Accident Park” for the many burns, bruises and much more serious injuries that the park produced.
Porges, a journalist who made another film in 2013 about the park, remembers traveling to the Vernon destination from Bethesda, Maryland in the ‘90s, when he was 8 or 9 years old.
“You’re drunk off adrenaline when you’re at Action Park,” Porges says (and sometimes drunk off alcohol). “You feel like you’re invincible. Nobody was there to say ‘No.’” Life in 2020 can seem like the “land of ‘No,’“ he says. “Action Park was the land of ‘Yes.’”
“There was the sense of freedom, but also danger,” he tells NJ Advance Media.
Action Park became a place to test your mettle, a rite of passage where some people would go actually try to get saved by a lifeguard. The Wave Pool had an area known among lifeguards as the “death zone,” in part for this very reason.
“We tell the full picture,” says Porges, who also appears in the film as an expert voice. ”This is a place that people got hurt or were killed at. You have to address both sides of Action Park. It’s complex. It’s confusing.”
Scott, 39, hails from New Chapel Hill, Texas and had never heard of Action Park before Porges told him about the place.
“It sounded like fiction,” Scott tells NJ Advance Media. “When I realized that these stories are absolutely real, I was like, ‘This is going to be a hit because we have something better than what scripted projects have.’ The problem was not trying to find stories. The problem was cutting stories out. This could have easily been a five-part series.”
The documentary, which is 89 minutes long, is narrated by John Hodgman and features former park employees as well as those who visited the park, like comedian Chris Gethard, who grew up in West Orange. Action Park was a place where people would “try to die for fun,” he says in the film.
Gethard got hurt on the Cannonball Falls waterslide, and remembers the echoing screams of people bound for the dramatic exit.
“You’re at minimum 10 feet in the air,” he says in the film. “It shoots you out the side of the mountain. You’re just in the sky.”
The documentary gives a play-by-play of each ride.
By far, the most dangerous one — by sheer volume of injuries — was not a waterslide at all, but the Alpine Slide. The ride’s punishing track was made from asbestos, fiberglass and concrete. People would shoot down a mountain on the course in sled-like carts with wheels that had brakes that were not always reliable. But if you couldn’t brake, it was a near-guarantee that you’d be thrown off the ride.
The resulting gruesome skin abrasions, known as friction burns, were so commonplace that staff sprayed the injured with an orange solution (iodine and alcohol) that burned people even more.
After noticing this summer’s wave of interest in Action Park, Kenneth Enge told NJ Advance Media that his world was turned upside down after he was seriously injured on the Alpine Slide in August 1979. When someone stopped on the ride in front of him, Enge, then 28, pulled the brake and lost his balance. He broke his leg in five places after it got stuck in a hole between the track and the ground. Enge, a resident of Lancaster, Pennsylvania who formerly lived in Brooklyn, filed a lawsuit against the park.
“That sort of changed our whole life,” says his wife, Maryann Enge.
Kenneth had been up for a city sanitation job before he was injured. Afterward, he couldn’t pass a physical. The couple was in danger of losing their new home because he couldn’t work.
“He was in a cast up to his thigh for seven months,” she says. “He had pins in his leg.”
The Enges say the park offered them $25,000 to settle, but they went forward with the lawsuit and were eventually paid $180,000.
After Enge got hurt, the park posted a sign showing photos of injuries as a warning to other riders. He still suffers from symptoms stemming from the accident, and recently underwent ankle replacement surgery.
“They should’ve had helmets. They shouldn’t just let people go,” says Brian Larsson, George Larsson Jr.‘s brother, who now lives outside Orlando, Florida.
When George was thrown from the Alpine Slide, spokesman Wesley Smith denied that it was the park’s fault.
“The ride didn’t injure Larsson,” Smith told media at the time. “It was a rock 25 feet away that hurt him.”
In his book, Andy Mulvihill, vice president of the state Board of Education, writes that he found this response “cold” and said his father was “shaken up” by the death. Afterward, the park released overdue accident reports showing 95 people had been treated for injuries at the park, more than 40% from the Alpine Slide.
Mulvihill writes that he was told Larsson had been dangerously trying to increase his speed before the accident, but parts of Mulvihill’s account — like the assertion that it was nighttime and raining when the accident happened — are disputed by an archivist in the documentary. Action Park had also referred to Larsson as a park employee, but in reality he never worked there. He had only been a ski lift operator at Vernon Valley during the winter.
Matthew Wain, an air conditioning technician who went to Dumont High School, tells NJ Advance Media that two people he graduated with filed lawsuits against Action Park because of incidents on the Alpine Slide. Today he wears an Action Park T-shirt featuring the Grim Reaper and several tombstones.
“A lot of things always look rosier in nostalgia,” says Wain, 41, who now lives in Westchester. “Now it almost kicks in more, like, ‘Yeah, that was nuts.’ We didn’t realize how crazy it was.”
Dentist Doug Bush remembers fracturing his wrist in 1977 at a skateboard park that would become Action Park a year later. It was the weekend before he started dental school. He had to enter the program with a cast on his arm, but that didn’t stop him from eventually becoming an Action Park regular.
“You’re in charge of your own fun,” says Bush, 65, of Long Valley. “I really liked it because you could do what you want to do.”
Another ride, the Super Speed Slide, gave those who tried it their “first colonic,” Gethard says in the film. And when bathing suits weren’t flying off people after they jumped from the Tarzan Swing, insults were being shouted by onlookers to criticize subpar swing maneuvers.
“There were no rules, and for a lot of kids, that was heaven,” actress Alison Becker says in the film. (Becker, who grew up in Allamuchy, played reporter Shauna Malwae-Tweep in NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.”)
Andy Mulvihill did not participate in recent filming for the documentary, but filmmakers did use interviews with him from 2013. His father died in 2012.
“Guys would come to us, and no matter what the idea was, my father would try it,” Andy says of the park’s dicey rides in one clip. But Gene Mulvihill’s favorite ride designers also included himself. The Cannonball Loop, whose 360-degree turn has become emblematic of the adrenaline-junky vibe of the park, was the result of the park owner drawing on a cocktail napkin.
Employees were offered $100 to test the waterslide. In initial runs, people came out with bloodied mouths. Then riders emerged with lacerations. It turns out teeth were embedded in the slide from the earlier group. Mulvihill brought in a Navy doctor to assess G-forces, who found that those riding the slide experienced 9 Gs, much like an F-14 pilot.
The park, which inspired Johnny Knoxville’s 2018 film “Action Point,” was also home to Surf Hill, a kind of giant Slip ‘n Slide, and Roaring Springs, a tube ride where someone “basically got impaled” on an exposed bolt, according to an employee in the film. Gethard and others also recall the Colorado River Ride, a group rapids ride (which this writer remembers all too well) that swished people around as if they were clinging to pieces of soap in a giant, craggy sink.
When lifeguards slapped a “CFS” wristband on someone it only meant one thing — “can’t f—ing swim.” Well, that and the fact that they may have already gotten saved by one lifeguard that day.
The teens who ran the majority of the park recall the worrying quirks of the place, like how they were told to rehydrate stale hot dog buns with vapor before serving them (”How did we not kill people?” one asks), and how employees too young to operate rides routinely did.
The scripted Action Park series in development for Hulu is supposed to be an inside look at these employees. The fact that staffers scraped together money found in the park’s pools to throw parties seems to lend itself to that premise. So does the notion of hazing being a routine practice and staff watching as people raced cars in the park’s Motor World “after a few beers.”
But a good portion of the documentary, especially its tail end, focuses on Gene Mulvihill and the way he conducted business. The film says Donald Trump reportedly considered investing in Mulvihill’s park, but wasn’t swayed by the premise of riders controlling their own thrill level.
Mulvihill, who built up the park and the Vernon Valley/Great Gorge ski area after leaving Wall Street, pleaded guilty to fraud after claiming to be insured by London and World Assurance, Limited, a phony offshore company of his own design based in the Cayman Islands. He was fined and received a suspended sentence.
The owner of Action Park was a divisive figure in the local area. He once suggested that Vernon be divided into two different towns, one half with attractions like Action Park and Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club, and the other half reserved for quiet, bucolic living.
Jessi Paladini, a former reporter for the Vernon News, says in the film that she was fired after Mulvihill made a call to her boss. She says he alleged that local officials wouldn’t approve his projects unless she was gone.
Mulvihill reached six-figure settlements with the families of those who were injured or died at the park. Action Park, which closed in 1996, is now occupied by Mountain Creek Waterpark.
Esther Larsson, George Larsson Jr.‘s mother, says in the film that she and her husband George celebrated when Mulvihill, 78, died in 2012.
She recalls intentionally walking out in front of a truck in 1980 when she realized her son was beyond saving.
“I was thinking I couldn’t live with that kind of pain,” Larsson says. “It just hurt so much.”
Why, she asks, were more people allowed to die at the park after her son lost his life?
“One is too many.”
Thank you for relying on us to provide the journalism you can trust. Please consider supporting NJ.com with a voluntary subscription.
Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at [email protected]. Send a coronavirus tip here.