Action Park was an amusement park located in Northern New Jersey and its heyday was probably the mid-80s to mid-90s. Its appeal wasn’t just that it was 100% waterpark, but that it was almost comically dangerous. (I’m choosing to refer to Action Park in the past tense, because while a water park still operates in the same location, it’s under new name, new management, and has pretty much been neutered.)
What’s stunning about Action Park is not only the fact that it stayed open so long despite a lengthy history of deaths and serious injuries (one wonders if this place would have survived as long in the age of the Internet), but that it seemed to fool an entire region of otherwise sensible parents. My parents, who didn’t even let me drink directly out of a soda can for fear I’d catch some terrible disease or cut my mouth, not only let me go, but brought me there multiple times. I went there once with my church youth group, for crying out loud. Perhaps there was some subliminal messaging in their radio commercials, in which their jingle consisted solely of people barking, “Action Park, Action Park, world’s largest water park!”
You’d enter the park, check most of your belongings in one of those insufficient little lockers, and strut off with your key around your wrist, only pausing for half a second to care about how you looked in your crummy bathing suit and aqua socks. (Apparently that’s where my mom drew the line; I could engage in death-defying activities, but she’d be damned if I were going to do it in bare feet.) Before you stretched an entire day of rides and attractions on which your chance of injury or death was statistically significant.
Perhaps the most legendary “ride” in the whole park, and therefore the one you’d head to first, was the Alpine Slide. Action Park was built in a mountainous area (yes, those exist in New Jersey) and the Alpine Slide, which was so long you took a chair lift to the top of it, was a concrete slide that you rode down in a little sled. Like a luge, only more dangerous because you weren’t wearing a helmet and were an untrained child. The sled had a lever on it, which supposedly controlled your speed, but any teen worth his or her weight in awesomeness couldn’t be seen hitting the brakes. (Not to mention that they didn’t space riders very well; if you went too slowly, you’d risk getting rear-ended by a speed demon behind you.)
Everyone in the tri-state area was only one or two degrees of separation away from someone who took a spill on the Alpine Slide. I remember a kid at my community pool who was missing the skin from most of the right side of his body after leaning just a little too far to the right on a turn. Still, the people who escaped with abrasions were the lucky ones. If you picked up too much speed, you ran the risk of skipping off the track entirely and hurting or killing yourself on the rocks and ground below. And no, none of us ever stopped to wonder what this horrible ride, which had nothing to do with water, was doing at a water park.
As far as actual water “rides,” there was the cliff jump, which was literally just a man-made cliff that you jumped off into a deep pool, and the Tarzan swing, where your tiny, still-developing muscles strained to keep you holding on to the swing long enough that you could drop safely into the icy cold water. Then there was the Colorado River Ride, where you picked up a little inner tube and then walked through a path in the woods, for what seemed like a mile, to the start of the ride. The River Ride was some kind of ungodly combination of a whitewater raft ride and a lazy river. It’s like they looked at a whitewater raft ride and said to themselves: what if we just sent individual people down this thing in inner tubes? Oh, did I mention we weren’t wearing life jackets?
Then there was the looping water slide. Yeah, I know, when you were a kid you used to wonder what a looping water slide would be like, but these people actually built one. I personally never saw the thing open for business, but apparently its entire life was just a series of unsuccessful tests. I’m not entirely sure how this thing ever got green-lit, let alone installed at the park, without being properly tested. It’s honestly like this place was protected by some kind of unseen force field that prevented anyone in charge from being the voice of reason.
Beyond the myriad inherent dangers throughout the park, there was the fact that they sold beer at refreshment stands, they employed underpaid, largely-apathetic kids to keep an eye on things, and that none of the regulatory agencies seemed to be able to muster the energy to enforce any of the many rules that Action Park violated on a daily basis. Again, it’s really stunning when you look back almost two decades later.
So it should come as no surprise that Action Park’s days finally came to an end. Anything that flagrantly dangerous and unbelievably fun could never last forever. The park closed in 1996, and an entire generation of kids knew things would never be the same. Oh, Action Park. I bet you’re still horribly injuring thrill-seekers up in heaven. In the words of Don McLean, “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”