An amusement park that had thrills, chills and more

Summer is fun for families at our nation’s plethora of amusement parks. But this summer? Not so much.

Wearing a mask doesn’t sound like much fun in the sun and heat, but many amusement parks expect patrons to keep them on, except maybe for water rides and while eating.

Standing in long lines at any amusement park will test your patience, but doing so while wearing a mask would make it even more challenging.

Blame COVID-19 and not the amusement parks for the inconvenience. After all, it is what it is.

But setting aside the inconvenience for a moment, let’s focus instead on the amusement park experience itself. I’ve enjoyed going to many amusement parks in my lifetime. They can be a lot of fun, and some of the rides, especially the roller coasters, are exhilarating.

On occasion I wondered just how safe those rides were. I’m sure the safety records speak for themselves and are outstanding, although there have been a few hiccups. If there are too many hiccups, lawsuits would put amusement parks out of business.

That brings us to Action Park in Vernon, New Jersey. I never had the pleasure, thankfully, of going to that amusement park. There are enough stories of bloody noses and chipped teeth to scare even the heartiest of amusement park thrill-seekers.

Jack McCallum wrote a story about Action Park for Sports Illustrated in summer 2019 called “Parks and Wreck.”

In the article, 39-year-old Joe Hession, who began parking cars at Action Park when he was 14, said, “I could never have had as much fun anywhere else. But you have to remember a lot of people got hurt there.” He frowns and shakes his head. “People died there too.”

According to the article, six people died between 1978, when the park was born, and 1996, when it went out of business. And who knows how many injuries occurred, ranging from minor to major?

Action Park also was known by other names, such as Class Action Park, Traction Park, Friction Park, and Accident Park. Sounds like fun, huh?

That’s not to say thousands of people didn’t enjoy themselves. The park was not your typical amusement park, obviously. I’m a little surprised someone hasn’t tried selling some T-shirts online that say, “I played at Action Park and lived to tell about it.” Or maybe, “Action Park: Not for the faint of heart.”

Nostalgic patrons will tell tales of surviving the Tarzan Swing, which swung 20 feet high over a spring-fed pool. If you let go too early, you could fall onto cushions. But you could also fall onto rocks and then roll into the water. If you held on too long, you could scrape yourself on the concrete on the far side. If you hung on and didn’t let go, you would return and tumble back into the woods where you started. Dislocating a shoulder was one of the downsides of the ride if it went badly.

The greatest danger was in the Wave Pool. Rescues are rare at most ocean beaches, but Action Park lifeguards made up to 30 a day.

Most visitors thought more about the daily drumbeat of injuries than they did about the fatalities. Getting banged up was part of the appeal. But it couldn’t last forever.

As lawsuits mounted, Action Park was forced to close its doors.

Eventually the park reopened under the name Mountain Park. There are still rides and water, but the park is considerably more cautious than its predecessor.

The Tarzan Swing closed in 2018. The Colorado River ride requires patrons to wear a helmet. The Wave Pool is tamer – nothing like what came to be known as “the Grave Pool,” at the old Action Park, according to the Sports Illustrated article.

Most of us go to amusement parks not overly concerned about our health. But Action Park is a reminder of what can happen when safety isn’t first. If Action Park were open today, my guess is that wearing a mask would only be one of your concerns.