October 22, 2020

‘Action Park’ Looks Back in Amusement and Terror

In 1980, when he was 16 years old, Andy Mulvihill stood at the top of a water slide called Cannonball Loop at Action Park, the beloved and notorious New Jersey amusement park founded in 1978 by his father, Gene Mulvihill. The Cannonball Loop included an “improbable” 360-degree vertical turn near the finish. Andy had been enlisted as the first living creature to test the safety of the experience. Previously, “someone had tied off the ankles and sleeves of an old janitorial jumpsuit, stuffed it with sand and fabricated a head out of a plastic grocery bag,” Mulvihill writes in his new book, “Action Park: Fast Times, Wild Rides, and the Untold Story of America’s Most Dangerous Amusement Park.” “The makeshift dummy cleared the loop but emerged decapitated.”

As Mulvihill writes a little later on, “an illusion of risk” is the “backbone” of amusement parks, but at Action Park, which closed in 1996, “risk has never been an illusion. If something looks dangerous, that’s because it is.” Many injuries and even several deaths earned the place nicknames over the years, like Class Action Park and Traction Park. Below, Mulvihill talks about people chased by snakes, his fearless father and more.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. So many stories are retold between family and friends, and they’re so good it just seemed it would be a shame to keep them to ourselves. Many people have an Action Park story or two, but I have hundreds. There are many stories out there, and some are exaggerated or just plain untrue. I wanted to put the real story in writing, from someone who lived through it.

Everyone asks: How did this place exist? What motivated Gene to pursue it? The park has become this internet legend, and it’s fun to share wipeout stories, but there was a much larger story about ambition and this little guy — little relative to the corporate theme park business — carving out a place for himself by being bold, brash and different. Gene building it is one thing; that it attracted millions of people despite having a reputation for being hazardous says something about our culture, and I wanted to explore that.

About two and a half years ago, what prompted me was that I saw Johnny Knoxville was going to do something inspired by Action Park, and I thought: “Andy, come on. Just do it.”

Credit…Michael J. LeBrecht II

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

I knew my father was a risk taker, but I never really understood the size of the risks, and the sheer tenacity and confidence he possessed to take them on. He was fearless.

I look back on the incredible number of crazy ride ideas and the inventors he’d back to develop those ideas, and it just blows you away. Some of them never worked out, but the ones that did were incredible. He didn’t rely on market research or long-term planning; he acted on gut instincts. Contrast it with the bigger parks and all of their exhaustive analysis.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

I wanted to tell the Gene Mulvihill story, and an editor at Penguin, Sam Raim, convinced me to tell it from my perspective as a young person growing up at Action Park. I really just had a bunch of stories to tell. It was my co-author and wordsmith, Jake Rossen, who wove the individual stories into a tale, into the bigger story. I’m not a writer, so I really leaned on other people. My writer’s a younger guy, my editor’s younger, and they were telling me what to do. I’ve been around a while, but you have to size people up and decide if you should listen to them, and I can’t tell you what great guidance I got from the people at Penguin.

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

My father. He was a creative genius and a driven entrepreneur. It’s one thing to have dreams and ideas, it’s another to execute them. He never took no for an answer — whether from an investor, regulator, inspector or government official.

He invented the water park and participation rides where you controlled the action, where you were in control of your own destiny. He was really the precursor to extreme sports and the X Games, only he did it at an amusement park. He wanted to show people something they’d never seen before. He never settled for mediocrity — that was boring. If you’re going to do something, go all out. Shoot for greatness. Do not check the box, blow it up. I’d like to think I’ve led my life embracing that premise.

Persuade someone to read “Action Park” in 50 words or less.

My father built a place where you could do whatever you wanted. There was a joy and freedom in that, even when people were getting enemas from the water slides or chased by snakes in a human maze. The book’s a way to visit Action Park without risking your health.

This interview has been condensed and edited.