The start of SEC media days unofficially kicked off college football season, traditionally three months of despair in the lives of Vanderbilt fans. 2010 will be another tough year; the best coach the school has seen in the modern era got so frustrated with the game that he quit the sport entirely. More depressing? The fact that the best coach Vandy has had in 40 years posted exactly one winning season (7-6 in 2008). And while new coach Robbie Caldwell has shown he’s got the chops to handle the media, major questions continue to swirl about what he can do to this team on the field.
So, to help Commodores across the nation deal with the pain of fresh losses and the lingering memories of historic ones, we’re instituting a new feature; Schadenfreude Fridays. The aim here is to comfort Vanderbilt’s faithful by presenting train wrecks even worse than the past 35 years of Commodore football. Schadenfreude is pleasure taken from the suffering of others - and since this year’s football season holds all the promise of a thousand awkward prom nights, the joy of watching others fail may be one of the few highlights of 2010. These don’t necessarily have to be football related or even sports related - just something so spectacularly terrible that it makes Vandy fans a little bit happier to be cheering for their lovable group of three-star recruits with high GPAs and even higher 40 yard dash times.
This week’s failure spans across the lines of terrible into awesomeness, and immediately veers into a world of terror and disappointment upon closer review. Readers who grew up in New Jersey during the 80s and early 90s will no doubt recognize it as a rite of passage, and those fortunate enough to experience it will no doubt have a wealth of amazing stories related to the terrible and occasionally amazing things that happened inside its gates. Today we look at Action Park, New Jersey’s most badass, haphazard, poorly-planned, and awesome theme park.
The idea for this week’s entry came to me thanks to Noah’s Ark waterpark in Wisconsin, which boasts “America’s first looping waterslide.” This claim is a lie. Perhaps they meant “America’s first relatively functional looping waterslide” or “America’s first looping waterslide designed by people who graduated from junior high school.” Regardless, that original claim belongs to Action Park, a now-defunct theme park that stood in Vernon, New Jersey until closing its doors in 1996. That picture above - that marvel of engineering and misunderstood intentions - is truly America’s first looping waterslide. And, like the rest of the park, it was a god damned disaster.
The Cannonball Loop, as it was known, was just one of many horribly planned rides at Action Park. Thanks to its considerable down time for maintenance, it also could have been regarded as one of the safest experiences in the park simply because it was rarely open. Horror stories abound from those who worked at the park at the time; talk of bribes for employees just to test the slide and tales of crash test dummies getting thrown down the tube only to come out dismembered on the other side. The ride employed a perfect-circle loop at a time when roller coasters had perfected the teardrop shape in order to reduce the physical effects of looping and, you know, NOT injure their riders. Somehow even worse was the fact that there wasn’t even a pool at the bottom of the ride - just a vaguely damp tarp. A tarp which, if researching Action Park has taught me anything, probably sends riders skidding off into a forest, or lair of shrieking cannibals, or pack of rabid dogs, or something equally insane.
That is, if they came out intact at the end.
However, Cannonball Loop is just one of the many spectacular and awesome failures that makes me wish that I had grown up in North Jersey in 1986 (also big in North Jersey in 1986? Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet and having sex in the cramped quarters of a Camaro. This is what John Hancock had in mind when he signed the Declaration). Safety measures were non-existent at Action Park, and injuries were not only commonplace, but expected. The rides themselves alternated between actual waterpark rides and concepts dug out of a rural fishing hole. Where do we start?
How do you possibly make a commercial look so very unsafe?
The Alpine Slide - a testament to irresponsible design. The slide was a track that wound down the mountainside, a structure of skin melting concrete and fiberglass traversed by bathing suit-wearing teenage patrons in one-person sleds controlled only by a crappy handbrake. Once on your way, your only options were to go so quickly you’d fly off the tracks, or so slowly that you’d be slammed into by someone going so quickly they otherwise would have flown off the tracks. According to WeirdNJ.com, at least 14 fractures and 26 head injuries were reported on the Alpine slide between 1984 and 1985. The ride was also responsible for the park’s first - but not last - death.
The Aqua Scoot - a slide made out of rollers with the intention of shooting patrons, who sat on a small sled, out over the water as if they were skipping a stone across a lake. However, with no safety restraints in place, poor instructions from the crew, and a positively uninformed populace (more on that later), the Scoot was a recipe for disaster. Falling off the sled on the rollers usually led to cuts, abrasions, and for people with long hair, occasional scalpings. Those who made it all the way to the bottom were then shot off into the water in random directions, leading to an approximate 1 in 8 chance of slamming into another person.
The Tarzan Swing - a rope swing that dropped visitors from a cliff into a spring-fed pool. Again, there were no safety harnesses and the end of the ride dumped you into the murky lake, yet it was still one of the most popular rides at the park. Action Park spawned long lines of paying customers to do something that rednecks had perfected several years before. Though the goal was to swing across the lake and release the rope at its highest point, many patrons failed to do this and instead crashed into the padding below before tumbling into the water. Additionally, the combination of long lines of onlookers plus general New Jersey sensibilities made this ride a stage for lewd behavior. Reports of young men swearing, flipping the bird, or pulling down their shorts before plummeting onto the last person to use the swing before them in the water below were commonplace.
The spring-fed lake was also approximately 20 degrees colder than the rest of the pools in the park, leading to several incidents of shock and even one heart attack.
The Diving Cliffs - just a couple of ledges stationed above a 16 foot deep pool for patrons to dive off of. However, the pool itself wasn’t marked in any specific way, allowing people to swim in the deep water before being bombed by a jumper from two stories overhead. Despite this process happening repeatedly several times an hour, victims were will commonplace. It seems like a sign would have probably saved everyone a lot of trouble. After a few years, the bottom of this pool was painted white so lifeguards could better see bodies beneath the surface.
The Tidal Wave Pool - a wave pool seems harmless enough, until you realize that most of the attendees of Action Park - a water park - could not actually swim. This attraction required 12 lifeguards on duty at all times, and these teenaged swimmers would have to make up to 30 saves per day, ensuring that there was absolutely no down time once the waves were turned on. According to Wikipedia, the average pool lifeguard makes one or two saves per year at a public pool. For their efforts, Action Park’s lifesavers likely made minimum wage.
This is only a smattering of the danger presented at Action Park, but it was compounded by the ground’s almost entirely teenaged staff. Though some members of the medical staff were EMTs in training, many were still high school kids working their summer jobs. As a result, most medical incidents went unreported, either through a willingness to make the park look better through a low reported accident rate or through the sheer laziness of high school kids not wanting to fill out 300 medical forms every day.
Oh, and you know what else this park needs? Fucking snakes. That’s right, employees and guests often complained about the abundance of snakes on park grounds, meaning that not even the miniature golf was safe. Think about that one again - this park was such a deathtrap that you couldn’t even walk around holding a putter and minding your own business without getting attacked by something. Its as though a Nobel Prize category for “Most Inventive Way to Present Injuries to the Populace” was created in 1981 and the Action Park executives - coked out of their minds - decided that they needed to wear that award as a medallion during their next key party.
Perhaps I’ve left out the best part of this magical faerie wonderland. The X-Factor that helps explain why so many Jersey folk were willing to stupidly risk their lives and run to rides with a safety record similar to Billy Joel’s driving experience. The booze. Yes, Action Park had beer stations across the grounds and was known for its lax carding procedures, making it a watershed moment in the drinking lives of thousands of young Bon Jovi fans. This probably also explains the lack of hospital visits from injuries, since we all know that “walking it off” is the best possible cure-all after drunkenly losing a finger on a rope swing.
Sadly, the park closed down in 1996 after only six deaths, hundreds of thousands of injuries, and millions of amazing stories. Its very existence, however, has made me anxious to build a time machine with some of my most irresponsible friends in order to take a trip and see who can get horribly mangled first like a waterpark game of Russian Roulette. The fact that this place hadn’t been sued out of existence before closing is either a testament to or a detriment of the American way, and I can’t decide which.
Today, its legacy is carried on in YouTube clips and articles like this, either one draws former patrons out of the woodwork simply to discuss how unsafe the park was. Action Park is the thing legends are made of, a beast that, 40 years from now, will be explained to grandchildren who won’t possibly be able to comprehend such an irresponsible feat of engineering. The park was a testament to childlike wonder and a willingness to never think things through; and for that, we salute you. Truly, Action Park was a bigger, and somehow more injury-prone, trainwreck than Vanderbilt’s offense.
For more reading on Action Park, I highly recommend WeirdNJ’s entry, which contains testimony for those unlucky enough to have ever been injured that. It’s brilliant.