The news started to spread in early April: Action Park, a defunct New Jersey waterpark beloved by former patrons despite six deaths and numerous injuries during its 20-year run, would reopen this summer. And when it did, headlines celebrated its return with macabre superlatives: “The World's Most Dangerous Amusement Park Opens Its Gates Again,” said Mashable. “The dangerous return of the world’s most insane theme park,” trumpeted the New York Post, with each piece trotting out Action Park’s almost actionable nicknames (“Traction Park,” “Class Action Park”). The park, which achieved cult status following a 2012 documentary (The Most Insane Amusement Park Ever), now sells “I Survived Action Park” T-shirts. And many park-goers like to reminisce about leaving bruised and bloodied, missing skin and teeth.
The headlines were misleading, though: Action Park shuttered for only one season, in 1997, after its founders sold the 35-acre amusement to a Canadian ski resort company called Intrawest due to legal problems. Intrawest operated Action Park under the name Mountain Creek Waterpark until it realized running a waterpark is quite different from running a ski resort and leased it to a third-party management company. In 2010, yet another management company, which included some of Action Park’s original backers, purchased the recreation area. In 2012 new owners decided to run the park themselves, declaring “The Action Is Back” in a subtle nod to the site’s storied past. Over the next two years, they put in five new rides and attractions before officially reopening it as Action Park again this spring.
For many, Action Park represents a vision of lost American childhood, when kids weren’t kept inside by overprotective parents or personality-leaching electronics. The thing that made Action Park different from other water parks was that you could “choose your action.” Take the Cliff Jumps and Tarzan Swing—what management calls its “signature attractions.” The former involves jumping off a precipice into a chlorinated lagoon; the latter involves swinging from a rope into a chlorinated lagoon. There is a river rapids ride and wave pool and many a slide, along with “spraygrounds” for the under 48-inch crowd. For all these attractions, you are not passively along for the ride.
Kitsch also plays a role in Action Park’s comeback. The owners’ decision to reuse the original Action Park logo—a bubbly, rainbow design that’s helplessly 1970s—plays to nostalgia. The map and decor and souvenirs, which make ample use of the Comic Sans typeface, as well as mildly ironic jeux de mots, further tug at the heartstrings of vintage-minded millennials. T-shirts designed in the style of Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl (“I DON’T CARE! I’D RATHER SINK—THAN CALL BRAD FOR HELP!”) read: “YOU DIDN’T JUMP THE CLIFF? IT’S OVER…” and “I’M LEAVING YOU FOR ACTION PARK.”
There’s even a menagerie of sorts. On weekends visitors can enjoy a nature show by Niall McCann, a.k.a. “Urban Tarzan,” an exotic animal handler and relocator from the Bronx with his own Spike TV show. During a recent visit McCann, who legally changed his name to Urban Tarzan, could be found in a cage playing with a black bear cub named Rasper. Sporting a denim shirt with the sleeves cut off and long heavy-metal tresses, McCann (Urban? Mr. Tarzan?) explained that the captivity-born Rasper would not be released into the wild, as “he’s a workin’ bear.”
“Be careful with the hair,” McCann said to Rasper, who repeatedly tried mounting his handler’s head. “It’s under contract.”
Bill Benneyan, Mountain Creek president, tried to explain the appeal of the Action Park name. Though there were approximately 10 million visitors over the years who left the park relatively unscathed, its rep as a wild place where kids would get dropped off by their parents in the morning and left to their own devices until getting picked up at night goes back to a time when parents not only encouraged their children to play outside—they refused to allow them inside the house until supper. “I try desperately not to be a helicopter parent,” Benneyan says, but “that’s the way the world is.” He adds that he’s “perfectly comfortable” letting his 12-year-old roam Action Park without supervision.
When the park’s current owners started testing ads with the Action Park name, 74 percent of the people who saw them had fond memories, “including kids who were too young to have ever gone to Action Park, but heard about it from their parents,” Benneyan says.
Sasha Gaer, who frequented Action Park as a kid in the mid-1980s, was one of these parents.
During Newsweek’s visit, Gaer could be found with his wife, Jolene, and their three children, ages 6, 8, and 11. “It was crazy,” he recalls. “There weren’t too many rides. You could do what you wanted. It was very unsafe,” he said, before reminiscing about specific rides. “I left some skin on the Alpine Track—a couple feet of it, probably. I almost drowned a couple of times in the wave pool. It was fun. I kept coming back.”
“Back in those days,” he adds, “it was OK to get hurt, OK to get bumped around. It builds character.”
It was unclear whether his 8-year-old Julia, who tearfully declined to do the Tarzan Jump, was enjoying the character-building. “I was a little disappointed she chickened out,” her father says. “You can’t jump off a Tarzan rope any time.”
Asked what she wanted to do most at the park, the hazel-eyed girl says she was “looking forward to the wave pool” because “there’s nothing your parents can yell at you about.”
Gaer, with the sad tenderness of a kind father whose good intentions didn’t land as expected, says, “You know I wasn’t mad at you, right?”
The little girl nods at her dad. Her tears dry, the family heads for the next ride.