As a child, I lived for the safe thrill of an amusement park. I loved a rickety wooden rollercoaster that sounded like it would break at any second, a local church fair Gravitron, a Jersey Shore Pirate Ship that looked tame from the sidewalk but was terrifying when experienced. But it wasn’t until I got older that I realized that amusement parks, whether it’s Disney World or your local waterpark, are absolutely reckless places with little to no federal oversight in America. Deaths and life-changing injuries have haunted successful parks for decades, but they don’t keep excited children and their parents from buying tickets.
Class Action Park is a tribute to a water park beyond dangerous. The HBO Max documentary tells the tale of Action Park, a legendary Vernon, New Jersey-based water park that garnered a reputation for its lawlessness, rowdy teenage crowds, and physically impossible water slides. There’s a cartoonish loop-de-loop waterslide that kids would get stuck and banged up inside of, burning asphalt tracks that came with broken slides that couldn’t brake properly, and Tarzan-style rope swings where goofy park-goers would flash the crowds. A tiny park with such a dangerous reputation, Action Park’s legacy has spawned not just a feature film but now this documentary, which attempts to capture what made the park so thrilling for a generation of tristate-area ’80s kids. But in reaching for a poignant framing for the park’s chaos, Class Action Park feels more like a collection of nostalgic, folklorish stories than what could have potentially been a deeper interrogation into the park’s creation and legacy.
The documentary interviews former lifeguards, ride workers, security persons, and a handful of attendees about their experiences growing up going to the park (including comedian Chris Gethard, who the documentary is perhaps too enamored with given how often he’s quoted during the film.) In between old footage and commercials of the park’s attractions, those who were in the trenches tell stories about guests’ drunken antics and their fearful experiences braving rides that could very well have killed them. Despite the variance in voices, the ensemble still feels small compared to how popular the park seemed to be from the time it opened in the 1970s to its closure in the 1990s. I found myself craving the input of more attendees who weren’t privy to the park’s behind-the-scenes chaos.
The documentary lays out how the park, built in the 1970s, was the vision of the eccentric “Uncle Gene” Mulvihill who abhorred rules. He so adamantly refused to settle with anyone who got hurt or died at the park that he went so far as to set up a fake insurance company in the Cayman Islands so he could pretend the park was adequately insured. And yes, I just said that people died in this park—six people in total. The bulk of Class Action Park feels like a fun trip down memory lane with interviewees telling crazy stories accompanied by crude animations. But the moment the documentary strays from its campfire tale quality and confronts the elephant in the room for the movie’s first three-thirds—the deaths that occurred at this supposedly fun waterpark—Class Action Park misses an opportunity to tell a bigger story.
The movie interviews just one family on record who lost a son to Action Park in the 1970s, a death that was misreported in the press as an employee accident rather than that of a paying park-goer. And while it’s a brutal segment, it’s merely a somber detour for a movie that would much rather go back to talking about the good ole’ days. Revelations about how Mulvihill antagonized families hurt by his park or journalists covering his actions, and how the town may or may not have supported this antagonism because of the tourism it brought to Vernon, seem far juicier than stories about flailing lifeguards, but they’re just sort of tossed out.
Action Park, in the minds of the kids who grew up going there, wasn’t just a fun childhood attraction but a reminder of how different youth was in an era where helicopter parents, cell phones, and social media didn’t exist. But while Class Action Park is, at times, a charming tribute to a local legendary summer attraction, it fails to capture how completely fucked up this park was far beyond the rides.