The Perfect Amusement Park: Thrills, Chills, Spills and the Occasional Death

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Visitors slide down water slides into pools at the Action Park in Vernon Valley, New Jersey in 1996. Kelly-Mooney Photography/Corbis

The Vernon, New Jersey park that recently re-opened has far from an unblemished safety record, which is why when Newsweek reporter Victoria Bekiempis ventured there earlier this summer, she did so with a measure of trepidation.

Although six people died at Action Park during the 18 years of its first incarnation (1978–1996), ownership claimed that number was "statistically insignificant."

MORE: Action Park Is Back To Take Your Breath, if Not Your Teeth, Away

The first death occurred on July 8, 1980, when a 19-year-old park employee's cart jumped the track on the Alpine Slide—a high-speed concrete and fiberglass slide that was so long and steep riders had to take a ski lift to get to the top of it. Not surprisingly, this ride was responsible for the most injuries at Action Park. According to hospital reports, the Alpine Slide was the site of 14 fractures and 26 head injuries in 1984 and 1985 alone. The most common injuries on that ride were abrasions and torn skin. Park patrons recall that gruesome photos were posted at the bottom of the slide, warning riders that what had happened to their predecessors "could happen" to them.

On July 24, 1982, a 15-year-old drowned in the Tidal Wave Pool. The pool eventually was nicknamed the "Grave Pool," after the same fate befell a 20-year-old in 1984 and an 18-year-old in 1987.

Within a week of that 15-year-old's death, a 27-year-old man was electrocuted on the Kayak Experience ride. He was tipped from his boat, and his bare foot touched a metal grating, which had been electrified by an exposed wire. He went into cardiac arrest and died. Two members of his family were also hospitalized for electrical shocks. An investigation by the New Jersey Labor Department concluded that no safety laws or ride regulations had been violated, but the park drained the Kayak Experience and shut it down.

The sixth fatality at the park was in 1984, when a guest had a heart attack on the Tarzan Swing—a 30-foot swinging cable from which patrons jumped into the frigid spring water below.

In 1986, there were 110 reported accidents at Action Park, including 45 head injuries and 10 bone fractures, and in 1987, the emergency room director of a nearby hospital said he saw "five to 10" park guests in the ER every day. In response, Great American Recreation purchased additional ambulances for the town of Vernon, New Jersey.

The tottering monument to Action Park's infamy is its most poorly designed attraction, the Cannonball Loop. Only open for a month in 1985, this narrow water slide had a 360-degree vertical loop, and emptied out into a slip-and-slide-like kiddie pool. The New Jersey Advisory Board on Carnival Amusement Ride Safety paid Action Park a visit shortly after the Cannonball Loop was opened and demanded it be shut down immediately.

In 1996, Action Park's founders finally caved under the combined weight of costly settlements with injured patrons, rising insurance premiums and the early 1990s recession, and closed the park. With a new name and ownership, it reopened a year later.