The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Dangerous Theme Park

As a place where minors could drink alcohol freely and people of any age could be seriously injured, Action Park was doomed to fail. The brainchild of Eugene Mulvihill, a man who was equal parts PT Barnum and Walt Disney, the theme park was supposed to be a place where riders controlled the thrills.

Action Park / Action Park Fire / Johnny Knoxville / Action Park.
Source: Pinterest

However, Action Park in New Jersey quickly became one of America’s deadliest amusement parks. While it was home to one of the first-ever modern waterparks in America, the theme park was better known for the injuries and deaths of its visitors and staff. This is the rise and fall of Action Park.

Off-Season Idea

In 1976, Great American Recreation (GAR) purchased a ski area in New Jersey. Developer Eugene Mulvihill was in charge of the Vernon Valley-Great Gorge ski area, and he wanted to find a way for the resort to make a profit during the off-season. So, he followed the lead of other ski resorts.

A picture of a Surf Hill during the off-season.
Source: Pinterest

Mulvihill came up with the idea to open a pair of 2,700-foot “Alpine Slides” on one of the steep ski trails. Riders would head down on sled-like carts with skids and small wheels, controlled by a joystick. It proved to be profitable for ski resorts all over the northeast.

They Saw Earning Potential

Many ski area owners used the idea of the alpine slides to make a profit from their high-cost facilities when there was no snow. Vernon Valley was the last to open the slides during Labor Day weekend in 1976, and they brought in 4,000 customers each day of the weekend.

A picture of Andy Mulvihill in the theme park.
Photo by Michael J. Le Brecht

Since the cost per ride was $2.50 for adults and $1.50 for children, the income came as a gratifying surprise. Mulvihill realized that the regular 90-day ski season could potentially be expanded to a 300-day joy ride. At first, it was no different than other off-season ski resorts in North America.

Expanding the Park

For the summer of 1978, Mulvihill wanted to expand the park to earn more money. He added two water slides and a go-kart track, calling the collection of rides Vernon Valley Summer Park. Action Park was formally opened on July 4th, with opening day promotions to attract customers.

A photo of The Bailey Ball meant to tumble 360 degrees down a mountain track.
Source: Pinterest

The following year, two more water slides, a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a softball field were added to what became known as the Waterworld section of Action Park. By 1980, MotorWorld had been carved out of the swamplands owned by the ski area, and a wave pool replaced the softball field.

Daring to Be Different

Mulvihill didn’t want to do the same old thing where you get strapped into something, or it swings around. He wanted to take the idea of skiing, which is exhilarating because you control the action, and adapt it for an amusement park. He knew there was an inherent risk.

A picture of kids jumping off the Cliff Dive.
Source: Flickr

He lived the DIY spirit and tried to spread it. Waves of risk-takers started coming to Action Park, so Mulvihill continued to expand. He produced cheesy commercials that emphasized the “live on the edge” atmosphere with kids zooming out of water slides and ramming each other on go-karts.

The Wave Pool Was a Prominent Attraction

When the Tidal Wave Pool replaced the softball field, it quickly became one of the most popular attractions. Switching between white water waves to periods of calm for 20-minute cycles, lifeguards constantly had to haul floundering patrons out of the water. Even strong swimmers struggled.

A photo of the Tidal Wave Pool.
Source: Flickr

Instead of filling it with salt water to make swimmers more buoyant, Action Park used freshwater, which made it harder to navigate the three-foot waves. Reportedly, almost 100 people had to be saved on the wave pool’s opening day. They needed 12 lifeguards on duty at all times.

The First of Many Tragedies

In 1980, a 19-year-old became the park’s first confirmed victim. A park employee named George Larsson Jr. was taking an after-hours ride on the Alpine Slide when he was flung from the sled. He flew about 25-feet and hit his head on a rock.

A picture of people sliding through Alpine Slide.
Source: Pinterest

The ride had no safety precautions like guard rails. While riders could control the sleds, the brakes only worked sometimes. Instead of closing or improving the ride, hay bales were placed on the corners to catch riders flung from the track, which was common.

People Kept Coming

The park’s most profitable years were between the early to mid-1980s. Most of the rides were still operating, and the park’s dangerous reputation had not yet developed. In 1982, two guests died within a week of each other, leading to the permanent closure of one ride.

A general view of a water ride at the park.
Source: Flickr

Shortly after Mulvihill said his park would be greater than Disney World, a 15-year-old drowned in the wave pool, and a 27-year-old was electrocuted on the Kayak Experience. The Kayak Experience was closed, but people continued to come in massive numbers.

The Park’s Fortunes Began to Turn

Fatalities numbers four and five occurred during the summer of 1984. First, a guest died from a heart attack caused by the shock of hitting the cold water beneath the Tarzan Swing. A couple of weeks later, 20-year-old Donald DePass drowned in the wave pool.

A photo from the park’s entrance.
Source: Pinterest

Most visitors thought more about the daily injuries than the fatalities. Almost everyone who visited left with a battle wound to remind them of their time at Action Park. However, the tides turned on the park after the summer’s deaths and Mulvihill’s impending legal issues.

Mulvihill Ran Into Trouble

Mulvihill was an expert at schmoozing investigators to distract them from everything illegal about his park. He even got away with setting up a fake insurance company in the Cayman Islands for a while. However, his actions caught up with him in November 1984.

A photo of Eugene Mulvihill and an Action Park financier.
Source: Flickr

He pled guilty to insurance fraud and accepted a plea deal of three years’ probation. The park had to pay $300,000 in fines. Mulvihill was also notorious for settling things out of court to keep future customers from knowing what was happening there.

The Infamous Cannonball Loop

Allegedly designed by Mulvihill on a napkin, the Cannonball Loop opened in the summer of 1985. The notorious slide was about 100-feet high, and his son Andy was the first to test it. Mulvihill had no engineering experience, which was evident when he opened the looping slide.

A picture of the Cannonball Loop.
Source: Pinterest

Rumors spread that they sent a test dummy down, and it came out with no arm. However, riders tended to get stuck at the bottom of the loop, and there wasn’t an escape hatch. The ride was closed after a month by the state, but it secretly ran anyway.

Many Injuries Weren’t Reported

While the Cannonball Loop was open, 110 people were reported injured, including ten fractures and 45 head injuries. The park had an on-site infirmary, but you wouldn’t go to the hospital unless you had a broken bone. According to former staff, many injuries went unreported.

A photo of a water ride at the park.
Source: Flickr

Teenagers usually treated people who went to the infirmary. If you had a burn or cut, they would spray it with a solution of iodine and alcohol. It was the most incredible pain people ever experienced, and the staff made a game out of it.

“Legal, but Aggressive”

Although he had been under legal investigation the previous year, Mulvihill hung onto the resort and expanded it. He bought a mountain from the State of New Jersey. He admitted that his business practices were “legal, but aggressive.” Unfortunately, he was facing more pressure.

A picture of Mulvihill and his wife at the resort.
Source: Pinterest

A reporter for The New Jersey Herald found that workers as young as 14, hired to do lawn care, were informally promoted to run rides. They had no training or experience. The teenagers didn’t care about people being injured because it was a fun summer job.

He Stopped Paying the Bills

After Mulvihill pled guilty to fraud and theft, he was ordered to give up control of Action Park. However, he came up with the idea to become the worst tenant he could because the state-owned part of the land. Mulvihill stopped paying the bills and didn’t file paperwork.

Mulvihill speaks during a hearing.
Source: YouTube

He did everything he could to antagonize the state. Mulvihill’s scheme worked because New Jersey got so fed up with him that they agreed to sell him the land for $800,000. The state wanted him off their backs, and he got his way.

How Many People Died at Action Park?

By 1987, the death toll was five people. That summer, Action Park claimed its sixth and final victim when an 18-year-old drowned in the wave pool. By this time, there were graphic injury photos posted at the top of the Alpine Slide to warn children.

A picture of people at the Tidal Wave Pool.
Source: Flickr

The wave pool acquired the grim nickname “The Grave Pool.” Meanwhile, the park was called “Class Action Park” because of how many injuries and deaths had occurred in its ten years of operations. Surprisingly, that didn’t stop people from continuing to visit the park.

The Town Needed More Ambulances

While injuries weren’t frequently reported within the park, the director of the local emergency room near Vernon, New Jersey, said they treated five to ten victims of park accidents on the busiest days. Eventually, Action Park bought the town extra ambulances to keep up with the volume.

A picture of ironworkers discussing at the park.
Source: Pinterest

When they built the bungee jump in 1990, it wasn’t very high, but they had ambulances on standby. Like most attractions in the park, there wasn’t much thought about safety. The employees were teenagers who didn’t care, and Mulvihill just wanted to make money.

MotorWorld Was for the Evening

Most people who worked at Action Park knew that Waterworld was for the daytime. Then, as it got later in the day, the adults would have fun in the bar and make their way to Motorworld. The beer tent was next to the go-karts, so they would usually drive drunk.

A photo of visitors at the go-karts.
Source: Flickr

Some people would drive off the track, and the employees figured out how to make the cars go 50 to 60 mph. The employees would also take the go-karts onto the highway that ran through the middle of the park. No one wore helmets or seatbelts.

Alcohol Was Widely Available

At the peak of the park’s popularity in the ‘80s, the legal drinking age in New Jersey was 18. In keeping with the park’s wild reputation, many guests spent their time getting drunk, and employees rarely checked IDs. Alcohol was always available, even to minors.

A picture of teenage visitors at the park.
Source: Pinterest

Action Park’s rules were lax about alcohol consumption, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. The mix of alcohol and dangerous attractions didn’t help the injury statistics, but it took almost 20 years for the park to shut down for good.

The Pond Had Snakes

While many amusement parks had bumper boats, Action Park had full-on speedboats that guests treated like bumper boats. Some slithering friends were hanging out when people went tumbling into the murky pond filled with leaked gas and oil. Employees knew there were snakes in the water.

Visitors slide with boats through a water slide.
Source: Flickr

People would be driving the boats and see big black snakes slithering into the water. Motorworld had lagoons and swamps with four-foot snakes that scared everyone. The employees said that if you had to lifeguard the speed boats, you were in trouble for something.

Trying to Sell the Park

Mulvihill was supposed to sell the park in 1984 after he pled guilty to insurance fraud, but he worked his way around that decision. However, in 1989, Mulvihill negotiated a deal with International Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) that would result in the sale of Vernon Valley/Great Gorge and Action Park.

An aerial shot of the park.
Source: Pinterest

IBC, based in Minneapolis, agreed to purchase the area for $50 million. The corporation owned the Globetrotters and the Ice Capades. Unfortunately, the sale fell through when IBC realized the site was not suitable for their needs upon further inspection.

Things Weren’t Looking Good

In an effort to make some extra money, Great American Recreation petitioned the township committee to put a referendum on the November ballot. If passed, the park would have legalized the operation of games of skill and chance. The effort failed, and it wasn’t passed.

A promotional image of the speedboats at Action Park.
Source: Pinterest

As the park’s dangerous reputation spread, some of the rides were closed and dismantled due to costly settlements and rising insurance premiums. The park’s attendance started to suffer because of the recession in the early ‘90s, but Mulvihill was still pushing advertisements.

The Beginning of the End

It comes as no surprise that Action Park and Vernon Valley/Great Gorge operated without liability insurance. Mulvihill thought it was more cost-effective to go to court instead. However, GAR ultimately purchased insurance to cover Action Park and the ski area in May 1995.

A promotional shot of girls on the bumper boats at Action Park.
Source: Pinterest

Unfortunately, it was too late as GAR’s financial woes accumulated. First Fidelity Bank, which lent GAR $19 million, filed suit against them to begin foreclosing on the debt owed to them. GAR negotiated a deal with another bank to purchase the debt, temporarily fending off inevitable foreclosure.

Remaining Optimistic

Things looked bleak when the creditors who had taken on GAR’s $14 million debt petitioned to force them into bankruptcy. But Mulvihill remained optimistic that GAR could regain financial footing within a year. The park closed at the end of the 1996 season, hoping to reopen the following summer.

A picture of visitors waiting in line for a water slide.
Source: Flickr

They launched a website where visitors could find information about rides, directions to the park, lodging, and enter a lottery for park tickets. As the 1997 season approached, GAR planned to open the park on June 14th but continued to delay it.

When Did Action Park Close?

Action Park closed in 1997 after years of bad press, lawsuits, and citations for safety violations. GAR could no longer keep the park afloat, and they went bankrupt. Mulvihill wanted to reopen for the season, but the massive layoffs during ski season and their financial woes didn’t allow that.

A shot at the current abandoned park.
Source: Pinterest

Following the demise of GAR, Praedium Recovery Fund acquired Vernon Valley/Great Gorge resort and Action Park for $10 million. The investment group put Angel Projects in charge of managing the resort with the goal of upgrading and remodeling the ski area and water park.

Changing Owners

Although Praedium planned to invest $20 million to upgrade everything, Canadian resort developer Intrawest purchased the property in February 1998. They invested millions in renovating the Waterworld section of Action Park so that it would be ready in time for the summer.

A video still of visitors at the bumper boats.
Source: YouTube

The company demolished the MotorWorld and Alpine sections of the park. By the summer of 1998, the water park was ready to reopen, but as a very different park than the one people had visited for the past 20 years. Safety was their top priority.

Where Is Action Park?

The new water park, Mountain Creek, opened in Vernon, New Jersey, where Action Park used to stand. Intrawest’s Mountain Creek Waterpark knew that it had to differentiate itself from Action Park. Safety regulations were strictly enforced, but alcohol was still available.

A current picture of a visitor in Action Park.
Source: Flickr

During the Intrawest era, there were bilingual signs advising guests about each ride, the water depth, what ages should ride, and state regulatory ID numbers. They didn’t want to deal with another Action Park situation. Unfortunately, Intrawest went bankrupt in 2010 and had to sell the park.

The Mulvihills Are Back

After Intrawest went bankrupt, the company sold Mountain Creek to Crystal Springs Resort, owned by the Mulvihill family. They had made many mistakes with Action Park and wanted to redeem the legacy of their original vision. The name was changed back to Action Park in 2014.

Andy Mulvihill posts a picture of himself on social media.
Source: Reddit

Although they retired the Action Park name again in 2016 and reverted back to Mountain Creek, there are still reminders of the original park. Many of the rides from Action Park are still up and running but have been upgraded with safety features.

Reminders of Action Park

Some attractions still working in Mountain Creek are the Colorado River, the Tidal Wave Pool, Roaring Rapids, and the diving cliffs. While they have all been upgraded to be much safer than the original rides, people still remember the chaos that once ensued.

A photo of park-goers hanging out at the renewed Tidal Wave Pool.
Source: Pinterest

The Alpine Slide was the original attraction at Action Park, but it was torn down for safety reasons. However, in honor of the ride that started it all, Mountain Creek introduced the Alpine Coaster, which combines elements of an Alpine Slide and a roller coaster.

Eugene Mulvihill’s Legacy

Mulvihill’s love for Action Park never wavered, even after his company went bankrupt. When his family purchased the property back from Intrawest in 2010, they schemed to restore the park’s glory. However, the magic was gone, and so were Mulvihill’s investors.

Eugene Mulvihill and an Action Park financier take a picture in Action Park.
Source: Pinterest

Sadly, Mulvihill passed away in 2012. He went out with a bang as his funeral coincided with the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. His death was big news in Vernon and northern New Jersey. After his death, the park was sold to the Koffman family, one of the original investors.

Who Is in Charge Now?

Surprisingly, Mountain Creek’s CEO is Joe Hession, who patrolled the lot at Action Park when he was 14. His claim to fame is that he completed the entire Cannonball Loop. He wanted to preserve Mulvihill’s original vision with safety added to the equation.

A general view of water slides in Action Park.
Source: Flickr

Hession understands the charm that Mulvihill had and said, “There will never be another water park that looks like his water park.” Mulvihill is the only one who could have pulled off the idea of Action Park because you have to be a little cooky.

Fire at Mountain Creek

On June 15, 2021, a fire tore through a Mountain Creek water slide. The park had not yet opened for the summer season when the High Anxiety ride went up in flames, heavily damaging the attraction. Luckily, no one was injured in the incident.

An image of the park on fire.
Source: YouTube

The park opened for the season according to schedule, but the popular ride remained closed throughout the summer. Surprisingly, this never happened in the Action Park days. Mulvihill would have put some duct tape on it and let people continue to ride.

Johnny Knoxville Made a Movie About Action Park

Known for his wild stunts in the Jackass franchise, Johnny Knoxville has done some wild things in his day. Therefore, when he heard about Action Park, he knew he had to create a movie about it. Based entirely on the park, Action Point gave Knoxville more injuries than any of his Jackass exploits.

Johnny Knoxville slides on a promo shot for the film.
Source: YouTube

Knoxville recreated the Alpine Slide for his film, and as he went down it, there was an ambulance on standby. Knoxville flew 20 feet in the air and got a severe concussion and a blowout fracture. He said the film was all for nothing because it barely grossed $5 million.

The Documentary Did It Justice

In 2020, HBO Max released Class Action Park, a documentary about the history of the park and all its untold secrets. The film features former Action Park guests and employees reflecting on the park’s dangerous rides, such as the Cannonball Loop, the Kayak Experience, and the Colorado River.

A still from the documentary.
Source: YouTube

Many critics have praised Class Action Park for pointing out the dark side of the park and the people who died at the park. They didn’t glorify the park’s nostalgia. It also gave a better idea of who Mulvihill was and how he opened Action Park.

From Stockbroker to Park Owner

Mulvihill embodied Wall Street in the 1970s. He ran a brokerage firm called Mayflower Securities at the height of penny stocks. However, it wasn’t long before Mayflower was suspended and kicked off Wall Street for selling worthless securities in a bankrupt electronics company.

A picture of Mulvihill and Joe DiMaggio at the park.
Source: Pinterest

There was no rhyme or reason behind his decision to purchase two ski resorts in Vernon, New Jersey. Mulvihill came from one failed business and tried to reinvent himself. Unfortunately, he brought the same ideals that he used on Wall Street: get rich quick without thought.

No Planning

People should have known that Action Park was doomed from the beginning because they were designing everything on the fly. Some things stuck, and other ideas didn’t work out so well. When Action Park opened, it looked like a child had designed the rides.

A dated portrait of Eugene Mulvihill.
Source: Flickr

When people got there, they saw rides like Cannonball Loop and realized all the rumors about Action Park were true. Ride designers rejected by Disney or Six Flags would come to Mulvihill and present their wild ideas, which he usually allowed them to try out.

The Design of the Park Was Questionable

Questionable design decisions weren’t limited to the rides. The park was paved in asphalt, so you had to walk around on the hot ground that absorbed all of the sun’s heat everywhere you went. If you didn’t have a pair of shoes, you would be limping around.

A dated picture of the original park.
Source: Pinterest

It was also jagged and poorly paved, making it even more dangerous. People would run from one place to the next just to get off the burning pavement. No one considered that this would be a bad idea or advised people to wear shoes while walking around.

Action Park Was Like a Social Experiment

Many people have a lot of opinions and nicknames for Action Park, but it was basically one big social experiment. It was as if Mulvihill thought, “What happens when you take a bunch of riled up teenagers, a bunch of alcohol, a bunch of dangerous rides, and put them into a place without rules?”

Mulvihill family members and staff discuss plans for the park.
Source: Flickr

If you worked there for more than a year, you got promoted to a supervisor position. There were 16 and 17-year-olds managing most of the park. Hazing was part of being an employee at Action Park, and former employees admitted that what happened there was wrong.

The Food Wasn’t Even Safe

While many people wanted to believe that Action Park was a family-friendly place, not even the food was safe to eat. According to former employees, everything in the kitchen was outdated, and the bread was stale. They would steam the old bread to make it moist again.

A dated photo of the park staff.
Source: Flickr

It was surprising that no one got food poisoning or died from the food. Guests may not have known this at the time, but there wasn’t a single safe aspect of Action Park. It’s genuinely shocking that they managed to stay open for 20 years.

Where Were the Adults?

Although people knew that adults owned the park, they were rarely seen. It was as if a group of teenagers got together to open an amusement park. Everyone wanted to work at Action Park because you always got hired, and you could work unlimited hours.

An image of a young visitor jumping from a cliff / A photo of an ambulance.
Source: YouTube

There was no such thing as child labor laws at Action Park. Some people worked 46 hours, and they were just 16 years old. No one was in charge of giving the employees rules because none of the owners cared.

Mulvihill Sent the Tone

Action Park’s free-for-all atmosphere was inspired by Mulvihill’s disdain for rules. The employees called him “Uncle Gene,” and he was friendly with all the teenagers. However, he didn’t mind the parties and drinking after hours as long as he made money the next day.

An aerial shot of the park.
Source: Pinterest

In Vernon, New Jersey, people didn’t like Mulvihill because he disturbed the beautiful town with his resorts. The residents didn’t know how to handle him, and he suggested they create a new city out of his park. Despite the hate, he wasn’t bothered by people’s opinions.

It Was a Different Time

Anyone involved in Action Park was a product of a different time when risks weren’t thought through. Today, it wouldn’t last a week before being shut down. Laws are much stricter, and people don’t let their kids run free as they did at Action Park.

A picture of park-goers sliding to the water.
Source: Tumblr

People would go to Action Park just to start trouble. People would start fights with everyone, even in the middle of rides. Anything could happen, and police said that most of their calls were from the amusement park during the day.