Class Action Park (United States, 2020)

January 23, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Class Action Park Poster

Growing up in New Jersey, I was of course aware of the existence of Action Park, an amusement park located in the northwestern portion of the state, not far from where my grandparents lived. Nevertheless, I turned down opportunities to visit for a few reasons: (1) it was a waterpark and I generally don’t enjoy water rides, (2) the bigger and more diverse Great Adventure was closer, and (3) Action Park had a bad reputation. By “bad,” I mean that there were constantly stories in the news about people being injured there. The first death occurred in 1982 and it came as no surprise to anyone who had been following the park’s checkered history. Still, one death wasn’t sufficient to stem the tide of visitors.

For many New Jersey teenagers, spending a sun-dappled day at the heavily-advertised (in the New York market) Action Park had become something of a rite of passage and the great majority of those who enjoyed the park’s amenities were satisfied with the experience. During the course of the park’s two-decade existence under the name of Action Park, thousands were injured (some seriously) and five guests died. Yet the poor safety record didn’t cause the park’s demise; it was done-in by financial problems resulting from poor management. In 1998, Action Park was sold and re-opened with the most dangerous rides either shuttered or redesigned under the new name of “Mountain Creek Waterpark.” But Johnny Knoxville didn’t forget. His 2018 comedy, Action Point, used many of Action Park’s most infamous attractions for inspiration.

Class Action Park employs archived footage, home movies, and talking heads to provide a history of the park from its 1978 opening until its 1998 demise, with a special focus on the danger aspect. The movie is of passing interest, although I imagine the fascination may dim for someone who has never previously heard of the place. Co-directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott uncover a few fun nuggets but, even at a relatively short 90 minutes, Class Action Park feels too long, perhaps because it is constantly regurgitating about the same 5-10 minutes of footage.

It would have been intriguing to see how a hard-hitting, 60 Minutes-type approach might have handled this subject, but that’s not on Class Action Park’s agenda. Aside from previously recorded clips, Porges & Scott are unable or unwiling to get face time with anyone really important (for example, the park’s owners or the New Jersey regulators tasked with approving the rides’ safety). Instead, they rely on a smattering of accounts from visitors and ex-employees. Some of the anecdotes are amusing, some are unsettling, and some are downright horrifying. The existing footage is grainy and murky; the shoestring budget didn’t allow for digital clean-ups and sharpening.

Things start to get interesting when the filmmakers delve into the nitty-gritty, providing a list of some of the most notorious rides, detailing the dangers associated with them and recounting the first-hand perspectives of riders. We learn that going to Action Park offered a different experience than what one might expect from any of today’s top-of-the-line vacation spots. It’s not simply that the safety rails were non-existent but the rides themselves were primitive. No roller coasters. No Ferris wheels or merry-go-rounds. Just hard-core opportunities to bruise and bleed (at best).

It’s not a bad documentary but neither does it do anything to warrant a special recommendation. It’s the kind of thing that might cause a pause if one was to stumble upon it while channel surfing but there’s no real point to the movie beyond: “Once, back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was an amusement park where safety rules were constantly flaunted in the name of presenting an authentically dangerous experience.” For those interested only in a visual fleshing-out of a Wikipedia entry, Class Action Park does the job. Anyone hoping for more won’t find it in this unremarkable piece of nostalgia-bait.

Class Action Park (United States, 2020)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Home Release Date: 2024-01-23
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity)
Genre: Documentary
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1