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In Memoriam: Action Park

11.22.2000 | CULTURE

This past summer, Action Park, a water park in the hills of northern New Jersey, reopened with new owners and a new name—Mountain Creek—after a year of inactivity. The new owners insisted that Mountain Creek was safe and fun for the whole family. Many applauded this event. I, however, wept a silent tear, for an institution from my youth that toughened many a kid was no more.

Action Park must have been designed by a Specially Assembled Council of Terrible Ideas. Part of its attraction was not knowing if you would leave the joint alive. Nearly every July, someone would drown in the wave pool or be killed in a freak go-kart accident. Action Park was less a water park and more a complete insult to the evolutionary concept of self-preservation. And yet, despite all the danger, we kids kept going back, tempting fate like Russian-roulette-players.

Action Park's character was defined by the fact that it was situated on the side of Mount Vernon. Not only was it impossibly hilly, it was set almost entirely on concrete and asphalt. So while you shuffled up a 45-degree incline from one whiplash-inducing water slide to the next, you ran barefoot over sole-scorching surfaces and hoped a sudden spurt of friction didn't send your toes crunching under your own feet. And God help you if you were going downhill and there wasn't a bale of hay or little girl to slow your roll.

No amusement park that exists today is as labor intensive as Action Park was. About half of its rides forced the participants to get their own tube or sled at the bottom of a hill from the hands of dazed folks who had just completed their run. This was not easy to do, because the people who had just finished their ride would stumble off in a blind stupor, completely confused and not assured of their place in the universe. Once you got the required equipment, you then had to haul it up several hundred vertical feet to the starting point. You could come home from Action Park having lost 10 pounds of sweat.

The very first ride you saw when you entered Action Park involved a sled and a ramp of metal rollers. You slid down on your sled across the metal rollers, reaching speeds of roughly 300 miles an hour, and skipped thirty feet across the surface of a very shallow pool. The metal-roller ramps had no guardrails on them, so there was always a possibility that you would veer off to the side and fall very quickly into two feet of water. And since there were four metal-roller ramps emptying into this pool in tandem, snarls of sled collisions were constantly occurring, making it look like the Cross Bronx Expressway on a Friday night.

The Colorado River Ride was a water slide involving huge inner tubes that could fit seven people. It tried to approximate a mountain rapid, with lots of bumps and obstacles and so forth. But the most dangerous part of it was the fact that the borders that kept the tubes on the course were criminally short. And just off to the side of the Colorado River Ride was a steep tree-and-pricker-bush-lined hill. It was the perfect demonstration of the Action Park philosophy: Put seven people in a large inner tube, push them down a wet slide, and let the laws of physics handle the rest. People would gather around to watch folks scream their way down, cheering and hoping that a tube would hop the barrier and go careening down the side of the hill. When a large family would come close to flying away, the whole crowd would gasp and then sigh in disappointment, like the audience at the Indy 500 when the Tide car just narrowly misses hitting the Pepsi car and exploding in a beautiful orange ball of flame.

There was an underground slide called the Cannonball, that in theory was supposed to send you hurtling through a tube and into a vat of freezing cold swamp water (for some reason, small portions of Action Park were constructed to involve pools of natural standing water, which were little more than love nests for fungi). In practice, however, the Cannonball usually had too much friction to launch you out into the water like it should have. I found this out the hard way, when I rode it and found myself losing momentum slowly until I came to a complete stop just at the end of the tube. As I sat at the end with my feet dangling ten feet off the surface of the swamp water, I heard the screams of the person behind me getting closer and closer. I quickly hopped my ass off to the side, narrowly escaping being punted in the spine.

Action Park made a valiant stab at appealing to the non-death-loving, but failed miserably. It had an oasis-type area, which was a fake palm tree-lined pool with a concrete beach, where more skittish visitors could splash and romp in peace and quiet. However, situated right above this oasis-type-area was a twenty-foot cliff that people were allowed to dive off of. This configuration endangered both the brave and non-brave alike, since at any moment someone could missile themselves off the crevasse and land on an 8-year-old's head. What is even more amazing is that the cliff above the oasis-type area used to have a water slide. So just in case jumping off a cliff wasn't insane enough for you, you could be launched at turbo speed, tilt ass over tea kettle, and break your skull landing on jagged rocks. Yes, with typical Action Park-logic, the oasis-type area had lots and lots of jagged rocks.

One feature of Action Park, more than any other, indicated that the owners of the place were not merely stupid, but probably homicidal maniacs. For years, situated tantalizingly far away from most of the water park, was an unfinished water slide. This slide consisted of a tube that started a good fifty feet in the air, and turned itself into a 360-degree loop before continuing its descent. Any sane mind would consider the flexibility of the human body, crumple up their blueprints, and start all over. Not Action Park. Not only did they conceive of such a class action lawsuit-magnet, but they went as far as to start building it. It was never completed to the point where a pool was constructed to catch the people who would spill out of the end of the monstrosity. I'm not convinced that they ever would have built a pool, either, because anyone who would have gone through it would have had their necks snapped long before they emerged from this death trap.

So why was Action Park so popular? Many people—lily-livered parents, mostly—think that children are fragile, tissue-paper stick figures who must be kept in bubbles at all times, lest this harsh world tear them asunder. The truth that no one wants to admit is that kids love risking their lives, because it is inconceivable to them that they might die. Plus, there is something in the soul of every kid that wants to get tossed around, beaten up, and ripped to shreds. After all, being a kid is not fun. You get told what to do all the time, usually for no other reason than adults are allowed to tell you what to do. You need to do something to make you feel big and bad ass, and smacking your fellow kids around and getting smacked around (good naturedly, of course) is sometimes the best way to do it. Most kids are tough, and the ones that ain't get tough pretty quick once they start getting hurt. I defy anyone who actually remembers being a kid to prove me wrong.

Case in point: When I was about 10 years old, I fell off the Alpine Slide at Action Park (for the unfamiliar, an Alpine Slide is a concrete track you go down riding a plastic sled with very slick wheels and a completely ineffective brake). While going down the hill, all of a sudden I noticed that the sled that used to be under me was rambling down the grass to my left. For some reason, I had no modesty this day and had decided to attack the Alpine Slide shirtless. So lacking a sled, I slid down the concrete on my shoulder until my scraped-up skin stopped my momentum. And you know what? I got up, dusted myself off, and picked up my sled so I could ride the rest of the way down. That four-inch-diameter open wound on my shoulder? Just a scratch. I walked it off like a kid. Not like a man, because a man would cry and whimper and tug at his white hat like a security blanket. I still have a huge scar on my right shoulder from this incident, and I wear it proudly, as I'm sure all the veterans of Action Park do.

Action Park was done in by its own love of danger. After the millionth fused vertebrae, no reputable insurance agent in the world would dare cover the place anymore. The gates stayed closed for an entire season, while the owners looked for someone to bail them out of bankruptcy. For once, firecrackers outpaced inner tube rides as the leading cause of summertime injury in the area. Then, new proprietors opened Mountain Creek in its stead, a pale imitation of the old Bataan Death Park.

I regret that, if I have children some day, I won't be able to toughen them up by taking them to that hallowed battle ground. Nothing acquaints a person with the harshness of reality faster than zooming down a water slide, laying on your stomach on a 10-millimeter-thick foam mat, accelerating to Mach 5, and hitting two inches of slimy liquid. Action Park made adults of a generation of Tri-State Area kids who strolled through its blood-stained gates, by teaching us the truth about life: it is not safe, you will get hurt a lot, and you'll ride all the way home burnt beyond belief.

About the Author
Matthew Callan blogs daily at MSN Sports Filter. He has contributed to the NY Press, NPR, and "Excelsior You Fathead", a biography of Jean Shepherd. His Freezerbox piece "The Lemon Pledge" was given honorable mention in the 2003 edition of "Best American Non-Required Reading," and his fiction has been shortlisted for contests in Zoetrope: All-Story, Bomb magazine, and other publications.
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