#79) Back in action: Rebooting the world’s most dangerous amusement park

Long-time readers of this blog know that I can be a bit of a roller coaster geek when I want to.  Recently I was doing some geeking out on the subject with a friend of mine who grew up on Long Island and told me about an infamous venue that had somehow been off of my radar: Action Park in Vernon, NJ, which operated from 1978 to 1996.  Of course, I had no choice to Google it when I got home – and I was interested to learn that Action Park is coming back this summer.

Notorious for poorly designed and unmaintained rides, inattentive and sometimes inebriated staff, being its own insurance carrier and at least six confirmed fatalities, Action Park has achieved what might be described a cult status in the years since its closing.  According to a documentary, any who grew up in the area considered visiting–and surviving–the park a rite of passage.  While changes in the amusement park industry will require the park to be more stringent about safety when it re-opens, the idea just might be crazy enough to work.

Though it was badly executed, Action Park’s business model was in fact ahead of its time.  In addition to being often credited as being the first modern water park, Action Park’s concept was to allow the guests more involvement with the ride experience.   In the late 1970s, the various Six Flags, Disney and Sea World franchises were becoming dominant; it’s perfectly understandable that there would have been a market for a rawer, less polished amusement park experience; perhaps a nod to the “Golden Age” of roller coasters such as the Crystal Beach Cyclone, which supposedly had a nurse stationed outside the exit to tend to fainting riders.

Fast forward to 2014.  Disneyland has recently received bad press for running out of Frozen merchandise and for raising its ticket prices to $96 for guests ages 10 and up; Action’s new admission prices are less than half that.  It’s not just about cost, though.  This is the world of “Throwback Thursday” (I’m sorry, #TBT); it’s inevitable that when people find information about a long-lost institution, they’ll geek out over it.  Nostalgia never goes out of style and when one gets a chance to actually revisit a place of their childhood–albeit likely a different version of it–it seems likely that they will take advantage of it.

Perhaps Action Park–the promised safety renovations not withstanding–might also find an audience in parents who feel as if the world has become too safe for their kids.  Michael Follett of UK’s Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) says, “[Kids] need to fall over, they need to cut themselves, they need to have bumps and bruises…if [parents] over-protect, [kids] don’t learn resilience.”  According to an article in Pediatrics, “Fixed playground equipment that meets licensing codes is unchallenging and uninteresting to children.”

There’s also the growing CTFD method of parenting (the C stands for “Calm” and the D for “Down.)  I’m not suggesting that parents should disregard their kid’s safety; I’m just speculating that Action Park might be a venue where parents could practice the CTFD method.  After all, with fewer restrictions, likely shorter wait times for rides than bigger theme parks, kids may be able to burn off more energy, helping incubate a CTFD environment on the ride home.

Will these factors make the new Action Park a success?  We’ll see; perhaps–for better or worse–Action Park will put New Jersey on the map this summer for something other than Pauly D.

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