All of this was, of course, my idea.
Nostalgia is one helluva drug. It appears that the cycle of remembrance has dredged up Action Park, the dangerous and rather insane waterpark from the 1980s, for some good ol’ Remembering Some Times fun. For some reason, in addition to being a year of despair, 2020 has been the year of Action Park Content. A best-selling memoir and a 90-minute HBO Max documentary came out just months apart, retelling the story of Action Park to millions of nostalgia-addicted Gen Xers and curious onlookers. A Hulu series is supposedly in the works as well.
Of course, they all stole my idea. Seasoned readers of my diatribes may know that I once wrote a long essay in mid-2019 about my summer as a lifeguard at Action Park in 2014. No, not the famous Action Park of the 1970s and 1980s—I worked at the rebooted knockoff edition that only lasted for two years.
Since many people put on the documentary or got the book for the holidays, I figured it was worth putting my two cents in. I’ve since watched the HBO documentary Class Action Park and flipped through a copy of Andy Mulvihill and Jake Rossen’s Action Park: Fast Times, Wild Rides, and the Untold Story of America’s Most Dangerous Amusement Park. If you wanted the take of a former employee of Andy Mulvihill and a Noted Media Conossieur who lived 10 minutes away from the park, here it is.
This was a bizarre story told in a bizarre way. For one, there isn’t much of a plot to the documentary, which jumps around between slightly awkward interviews with Gen Xers, cartoons of the park, and a John Hodgman narration. It’s clear the storytellers are in a bind. On one hand, they want to revel in the park’s insanity and tell how ridiculous it was. The parties, the crazy rides, the potential for injury, the “rite of passage” for 80s kids…it’s all compelling. However, it’d be rather insane to tell the story without mentioning the six deaths that occurred largely because of the park’s mismanagement. Also, while the insurance fraud and money laundering crimes don’t garner as much attention, those also had real victims and cost people millions.
Action Park is a moral philosopher’s dream concept. You could make a case for and against the existence and details of the park down to each ride using any type of ethical code you wish. The documentary tries to split everything down the middle, which is better than the hagiographic treatment the book gives Eugene Mulvihill. The juxtaposition between marveling at Mulvihill and damning Mulvilhill leads to some rather disconcerting jumps between funereal scenes and bacchanalia that don’t really add up.
In what I’m sure is a rather disappointing development for some people, I’m not going to tear into Mulvihill’s rather insane libertarian “experience as much danger as you want” ideas. Given the sanitized and banal profit-seeking of megacorporations like Disney, there’s actually something mildly appealing about this brand of libertarianism. In this case, the “do as you please” philosophy is a little more valid given the general immaturity and stupidity of teenagers and, frankly, the fun of visiting a waterpark. When dealing with entertainment, paying for a place with no rules and some cool slides is, in some ways, worth it.
I’ve determined that only the most risk-averse killjoys would find Action Park to be evil as a concept. However, the risk-averse killjoys are correct in that the wild incompetence and ineffectiveness of the park’s staff and management portrayed in the film border on evil, to say the least. There are limits to not having rules. The park’s incompetent medical treatment and poor maintenance led to awful consequences. You could argue that rock climbing and white-water rafting are far more dangerous on a statistical basis than attending Action Park, but there’s something…different about dying because you fell off a cliff and getting electrocuted in a pond because someone left unsecured wires in water. Or drowning in a contained wave pool because the settings were too high, the lifeguards were overmatched, and they let too many people into the ride.
I once again would be willing to give Action Park a little credit due to my work experience at the park later on—guests are as stupid and incompetent as they are portrayed in every piece of media; I saw dozens of people jump off a cliff into a pool of water without being able to swim. However, when you’re running a business that’s ostensibly there to give people a good time, killing or maiming them through your own incompetence is lame. And the insurance fraud that prevented anyone from getting damages through Action Park’s negligence was cruel and objectionable.
(Also, as a former employee, the biggest problem with the park that I see in archival footage is ridiculous overcrowding. At least half of the injuries and fights could’ve been prevented if they had any type of line control, a task that took up at least 40% of my time as a lifeguard.)
Overall, I’d give the documentary about a 7/10. It’s clearly trying to cash in on the nostalgia, but the story is told well enough to be compelling. It’s certainly a more compelling story on the results of 1980s Wall Street greed than Wonder Woman 1984.
It must be said that this book is extremely entertaining. For all the destruction, pain, death, and insurance fraud that Action Park caused, there is a current of enjoyable gonzo insanity, especially from the people who worked there. The most entertaining people in the documentary were the former staff, and that carries through to the book, which is written by the King of the Action Park Staff (the owner’s son Andy). In a similar fashion to summer camp, the counselors are far more interesting than the campers.
Of course, the book also has major flaws. For one, Andy skips over the negatives surrounding his family. The fraud. The repeated bankruptcies to avoid debts. The nearly sociopathic level of cynicism and lack of empathy for its “guests”. The nasty and corrupt manipulation of local politics. The greed. All of these things are glossed over. However, when compared to something like the career of Donald Trump or the characters in Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short, which feature unchecked capitalist greed, sociopathy, and political manipulation seemingly for its own sake, Action Park honestly comes off well.
It’s abundantly clear, to me at least, that the Mulvihills didn’t do all of this shit solely to screw people over and make a quick buck, unlike many, many people in American society. This is clear in the book as Mulvilhill describes how having fun was pretty much the core of the experience. The documentary also says the same thing: they delivered on what they promised. Action Park wasn’t some Fyre Festival ripoff. Eugene Mulvihill may have been a con man, but it wasn’t something that defined every part of his existence.
That doesn’t mean anyone should be blind to the flaws and mistakes of Action Park. The book is definitely looking through rose-colored glasses, but it’s not blind. While some people have criticized this book for mindless shilling, at least the shilling does occasionally to grips with the consequences of one’s actions. If you read any corporate megastar CEO’s memoir, you’ll find that they don’t give a shit about the people they stepped on as long as you follow their hackneyed advice. Andy Mulvihill isn’t doing that here. He’s just putting down his wildly entertaining memories and trying to protect his father’s legacy while coming to grips with his own past. I can honestly say that this book has far more value from a literary and historical perspective than Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike or How Google Works by Eric Schmidt. It’s a testament to just how ridiculous the stories in the book that it can almost entirely wipe out Andy Mulvihill’s shady bankruptcy deals that essentially stopped him from paying millions to the government, both in my memory and on Google searches.
It’s also interesting because this is definitely an interesting Son of the Father story, which is somewhat rare. Take the film Ford vs. Ferrari: nobody is out here telling the story of Henry Ford II (the Deuce), the grandson of Henry Ford, for good reason. Due to various Oedipal complex issues, famous sons often tend to flee their father’s shadows (like Dmitri in The Brothers Karamazov), get completely sucked into pleasing their dads (like Donald Trump Jr.), become a joke (hello, Northwestern grad Chet Hanks and your awful patois accent), or somehow combine all three. Mulvihill keeps an uneasy balance between these three outcomes. On one hand, he clearly idolizes his dad. Then again, he presents stories that make his dad look like a lunatic. He did try to rebuild Action Park and “return to the legacy” (consequently employing me, by the way), but then he sold it off and gave up for a much more satisfying life selling books and serving as an irate parent on the New Jersey Board of Education despite not attending many public schools (that Newark Academy to Stanford track, yo). He also still runs the Crystal Springs Resort, which is likely printing money as rich NYC folk look to escape COVID hotspots.
(It should also be noted that I’m also a private school acolyte from the Hudson Valley area so I’m a complete hypocrite for passing too much moral judgment here. I’ve been to the Crystal Springs Resort and was even briefly a member of the country club portion. As a patron and former employee of Andy Mulvihill, I think I can safely say that he is perfectly content to relive his 80s memories than recreate them. Action Park was not turned into a madhouse during his tenure as owner.)
For example: Andy Mulvihill did go back to having lifeguards to do ride testing, one of the infamous things his father used to do. I tested one of the slides after-hours and had a highly uncomfortable trip on a very bumpy slide. However, they never actually opened the ride, and that test was rather unremarkable.
Ultimately, I’m not sure what the 80s nostalgia of the book is supposed to achieve outside of simply being nostalgic. In my previous essay on Action Park, I drew links between the so-called “Service Revolution” that has taken over the American economy, the Hegelian-Marxist dialectical shift in labor it has created, and some guy’s tooth falling out. This was to highlight that the plight of the cogs in the service economy has been papered over by appeals to an America that no longer exists. None of this has really changed; all the fun of being an employee of Action Park in 1985 was replaced by boredom in 2015. And, by the way, this is mostly the fault of modern capitalism, not some idiotic takes about how my generation is “softer”. There’s nothing “soft” about being the victim of wage stagnancy, a race-to-the-bottom service economy, and vulture capitalism.
Anyway, here’s what I wrote about Andy Mulvihill, owner and CEO of Action Park while I worked there:
“This was all to satisfy the whims of Andy Mulvihill, who never appeared once at the business he owned. He was Big Brother. Any problems with HR, staffing or hours, we blamed the Mulvilhills. Bad people being hired? Blame the Mulvihills. Water's too cold? Blame the Mulvihills. He was all-encompassing, diabolical, clueless, profit-hungry, and "sometimes a nice guy" all at once. After two years of trying to rebuild his father's legacy with "Action Park", the name changed back to Mountain Creek. Oh, and he got sued. Many times.”
I think this is all still true. It’s not like capitalism in the 21st century is getting any better. In many ways, Mulvihill recognizing the 80s are gone in his business life is also an admission that he can be just like everyone else and screw people over in “normal” ways. However, even if he’s not a good CEO and likely needs to work some stuff out in therapy, I can’t really begrudge him his romanticization of the past. It’s not like I’m headed for a different fate: I’m just waiting until someone lambasts “The Oral History of Inside NU” for its author’s obfuscation of facts and heinous lack of stories about the unfairness of college athletics.