The World’s Most Dangerous Amusement Park Ride
Action Park in Vernon, NJ became known as “Accident Park,” “Traction Park,” “Friction Park” and “Class-Action Park” because of the many injuries, accidents and even deaths that occurred there. One of the most infamous was the legendary “Cannonball Loop” – a water slide with a loop that was so dangerous, it was shut down almost immediately after it opened. In this episode, we talk about the park, it’s owner, many of the rides and “Cannonball Loop.” Then we talk with Emmy-Award Winning comedy writer, Joe Janes!
This story starts and ends with Uncle Gene. Gene Mulvihill was an entrepreneur who had purchased a small skiing hill – the combined Vernon Valley and Great Gorge ski park in Vernon, New Jersey. The ski business was great, but he didn’t like the off season. He wanted a way to make money in the summer, so in 1978, he added a couple water slides and a Go-Kart track. He called it “Vernon Valley Summer Park.” And that was the beginning of what would eventually become Action Park.
The name “Action Park” was given and he kept adding rides. Now keep in mind, Gene wasn’t from the world of building amusement parks. He was just playing it by ear and coming up with ideas that he thought would be fun. His son Andy has said about his father, “Gene didn’t want to do the same old stuff, where you just get strapped into something or it twirls around. He wanted to take the idea of skiing, which is exhilarating because you control the action, and transfer it to an amusement park. There’s inherent risk in that, but that’s what makes it fun.”
Inherent risk. That seems to be the common theme of Action Park. It was a wild place. It eventually had 75 rides, 35 of them motorized, 40 water slides and many of them self-controlled. We’re going to talk about one of these rides in particular in a bit, but here are some of the other features of the park.
A pair of diving cliffs that stood 18 and 23 feet from a 16 foot deep pool below. You’d think that the area below would have a blocked off area where swimmers would be kept out and the next person wouldn’t jump until the area was clear. No. That’s what would happen in most other water parks. Not Action Park. In Action Park, it was a free for all. If someone was below when you were jumping off a 23 foot cliff, so be it. Just, you know, look out below. You’re on your own.
Or the Aqua Skoot. Someone had the idea that a regular slide wasn’t fast enough. So they used rollers like you’d find on an assembly line at a factory or a TSA checkpoint conveyor to make it faster. You’d go down on a small sled and hope you don’t have anything that gets stuck in between the rollers on the way down. Of course you’re going so fast that when you get to the bottom and hit the pool of water, the sled stops and you keep going forward, flying off of it onto your face.
The Kayak Experience was a whitewater simulator and riders would try to fare the rapids in a kayak. They often had to be rescued by the lifeguards when they flipped and got trapped in their kayak.
The Colorado River Ride was like the typical rapids style ride where riders are in a tube and it goes down rapids. But it wasn’t typical. Because it wasn’t laid out by professionals. It was common for the tubes to slam into each other, slam into the sides and come to sudden stops.
There were non-water rides that were dangerous too. Like the Alpine Slide. It was a slide that ran down the ski hill under the chair lift. Riders sped down a chute like slide riding on a sled with a brake to control their speed. The brakes often didn’t work. Sometimes one rider would go slow and the one behind them would go fast until the two collided at great speed. The chutes were made of cement, fiberglass and asbestos. The ground outside of the chute – should the rider inadvertently exit the track, was just rocky hillside terrain.
For sometime, there were actually small tanks built to combat on a tennis-court style course with a giant battle cage where they could shoot tennis balls at each other. Sounds awesome until you hear that after hours, some of the employees doused the balls in lighter fluid and shot flaming balls at each other. Okay, that still sounds awesome. But also, very dangerous. And apparently it was pretty common that when teenage park employees would enter the cage to fix a problem, they’d be pelted with Tennis Balls.
You get the idea. It seemed like everything at Action Park was just like a normal water park, but faster, taller, with less rules and regulations. There weren’t proven professionals building these rides. They made do with what they had. Uncle Gene and whoever he could find to design and build them. The park was meant to be a little scrappier, a little more transgressive. Which was perfect for Northern New Jersey. This was the closest water park to New York City. And it became a legendary hang out spot. It was a time before intense regulation kept these kinds of rides safe. Gene Mulvihill was more concerned with giving kids a place to have fun. And with that unregulated fun came risk. And in this case, risk meant LOTS of injuries. Most of these injuries never made headlines. They were broken bones, cuts, scrapes, sprains and bloody noses. But unfortunately, reports of worse injuries at the park became more frequent. Between the years of 1978 and 1996, there were 6 deaths and numerous serious injuries.
The first death happened on the Alpine Slide. This slide had resulted in 14 fractures and 26 serious head injuries. In 1980, 19-year old George Larson Jr. died when his sled flew off the track and he hit his head on a rock.
The other 5 deaths all happened in the Water World section of the park. In 1982, Jeffrey Nathan flipped out of his boat on the Kayak Experience and stood on the unprotected electrical wires for one of the fan units and was electrocuted.
Two years later, a man died of cardiac arrest on the Tarzan Swing, a rope swing into a pool of water. This wasn’t your typical water park water temperature. It was only 50 degree water and was fed naturally from the mountain. This shocked the man into a heart attack.
The other three deaths ALL occurred in the tidal wave pool. Now most water parks have a tidal wave pool. But the one at Action Park was always more crowded and more dangerous. One of the reasons that’s often cited for the danger here was that it uses fresh water instead of sea water and people who are used to being in ocean waves are used to the buoyancy that salt water provides. Of course with fresh water you don’t have that. Another reason is inexperienced swimmers. This was an affordable park for people from the city who maybe didn’t get a lot of chances to swim. So drowning was a huge risk in the tidal pool. Around 30 people a day were rescued at this attraction. Over a period of several years, 15 year old George Lopez, 20 year old Donald DePass and 18 year old Gregory Grandchamps all lost their lives from drowning in the Tidal Pool.
Over the years, Action Park was given nicknames like “Accident Park,” “Traction Park,” “Friction Park,” and – the title of a 2020 documentary about the location, “Class Action Park.”
“How did this place even get insured?” you might ask. I’ll tell you how. Gene Mulvihill made up a fake insurance company and insured the park himself. Yes, that’s fraud. But it’s how he skirted regulations and stayed open for so long.
But there’s one particular ride that’s legendary. Partly because it was so dangerous, it was only open for a month. It was called Cannonball Loop.
Loops on a ride can be problematic. For a high speed roller-coaster, they’re no problem. The rollers of the train keep it on the track, but the centripetal force also keeps it on the loop. So theoretically, if you’re going fast enough, you wouldn’t even need the train cars to be connected to the track, they could just glide on top of it and the centripetal force would be enough to keep it from lifting up. The same goes for the rider and the safety belt. The safety belt is great, but theoretically, it’s the increased gravity that keeps you in your seat.
In the 2000s, the Kings Island amusement park had a roller coaster called “Son of Beast,” which boasted that it would be the first wooden roller coaster to include a loop. It ended up being a disaster. Now the loops itself was steel, but the rest of the roller coaster was wooden. And in order to get up to the amount of speed to get through the loop, the coaster had to go way faster than what the wooden hill could support. They had to add tire-drives to the track to get the train up to the 62.3 miles-per-hour it needed to complete the loop. And to make the loop, the trains were made to be heavier, which further made the ride super rough. The entire construction would sway, violently shake the riders and many described it as the roughest roller coaster they’d ever ridden. In 2006, the track supports weakened so much, a couple of the supports snapped and it caused a giant jolt in the track. It would have been like hitting a pothole at 60-70 miles per hour. 26 riders were sent to the hospital with head and neck injuries.
I tell you that story to give an idea of why it’s so important to consider all of the physics and ride design when sending someone through a loop. At Action Park, they didn’t need physics or expensive engineers designing the ride. Cannonball Loop was more of a gut thing. Let’s build a water slide with a loop, said Uncle Gene, so they did. He brought in a guy from Switzerland on a one-week visa to help design it.
People who experienced Cannonball Loop say it looked like it was just thrown together with spare water slide parts that they had laying around. The rider would enter at the top, get hosed down with water to help them through the loop and then begin the 45% drop through the slide. After dropping 20 feet, they’d get violently thrown into the loop portion and then spit out into a pool of water at the bottom. Riders who had zippers or buttons couldn’t ride. They’d get caught on the many seams of the ride. The thing was essentially just small pieces of drainage pipe bolted together, so there were seams every few feet.
Once the thing was built, it needed to be tested. The rumor is that Gene sent down a few test dummies that exited the loop missing heads and limbs. Next, people had the idea of putting on hockey pads to enter the slide. Finally, the thing was tested with a bribe. Gene Mulvihill offered $100 to any employee who would go down it. And he stood at the bottom with $100 bills, handing them out to the bravest teenagers. After a few rides, they realized they needed a pad at the top of the loop. Remember the centripetal force we talked about? Well the 20’ drop didn’t give riders enough, so rather than being stuck to the outside of the loop by gravity, you just sort of shot straight up to the top of it, banged against it, and then fell down the other side. They added the padding, but then riders were coming out with cuts and scrapes. It was then that they figured out the padding was cutting them. It was filled with the teeth of previous riders, embedded in the pads. They also figured out they needed to cut a hatch near the loop to rescue riders who didn’t weigh enough or have enough speed to get through it.
When Cannonball Loop opened in 1985, it was shut down after one month. New Jersey’s Advisory Board on Carnival Amusement Ride Safety said “you can’t do this.” It turns out, some people who went down the loop were experiencing 9 Gs. That means 9 times the force of gravity. For context, the craziest rollercoaster at your nearest theme park probably pulls – at most – 4 or 5 Gs. The Blue Angels Navy Flight Demonstration team does crazy acrobatic moves that top out at 7 Gs. 9 Gs is almost deadly. And it only happened if the person weighed the right amount and achieved the right speed. For other people, they weren’t experiencing enough Gs to even get through the loop. This ride was a cool idea, but an absolute disaster. It was dismantled soon after.
You can find video of the ride on the Internet. And along with it, lots of comments from people who claim they rode Cannonball Loop. It turned into sort of an urban legend. Here’s the testimony from one person who claimed to have been one of the unlucky few:
“I vividly remember the sensation of my feet going up as I realized ‘Here comes the loop!’ I remember being ecstatic when I had cleared the pinnacle of the loop, however the worst was yet to come. Apparently my sub 100 lbs. body was not heavy enough for the ride and rather the sticking to the slide on the back end of the loop, I actually fell to the bottom of the loop. I smacked the back of my head on the slide and was nearly knocked unconscious. It was then I saw light as I sputtered out of the exit of the tube […] I was able to orient myself enough to get to my feet and smile with pride as the stunned crowd cheered for the little kid who just went down the most dangerous water slide of all time. It was closed again within minutes and although I went to the park a dozen times after that day I never saw that slide opened again.”
Eventually Gene Mulvihill got hit with 110 counts of fraud against the park and the 9-related companies he had made up, including the fake insurance company. Even though that happened in 1984, the park remained open until 1996 when the uninsured park finally ran into so much financial ruin that it couldn’t remain open. For awhile, it reopened with many of the original attractions removed as “Mountain Creek Water Park,” but has switched names a few times since then between “Action Park” and “Mountain Creek.” Gene’s own son Andy ran the park for a time. Currently, the park is open under the name “Mountain Creek Water Park” and the dangerous rides and attractions are long gone. The memory of going to a water park that may hurt you is probably a thing of the past. But lucky for us, there’s tons of evidence and memories on the Internet – memories of Action Park – there was no place in the world like it.
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