Growing up in Las Vegas in the early aughts, the only option for a summer outing that wasn’t in a casino was what my family dubbed the “Fun Pool” — a simple community recreational pool. There, flotation devices were required, lifeguards kept watchful eyes at every angle and the worst “injury” you could get was chlorine in your eye.
But once my younger brother and I got a little older, we began to spend part of our summer vacation with our mother in her hometown of Pittsburgh — which was a lot more exciting for us because it came with a small taste of the same freedom she’d had as a kid. We could walk to the 7-Eleven without parental supervision; there wasn’t a curfew when spending time with friends down the street.
Yet, when it came to the local water parks, she was as cautious with us as though we were home in Vegas.
Whether we were at Sandcastle or Settlers Cabin Park Wave Pool, she’d warn us to be careful about the wave pools’ supposedly rough currents or high slides — a warning this acrophobic child heeded without argument. But when my mom’s high school friends were with us, I would watch as they leaped off a 10-meter diving board without breaking a sweat.
It wasn’t until I watched HBO Max’s documentary “Class Action Park” and witnessed the antics of her generation at New Jersey’s Action Park that I started to put more of the pieces together and understand both her concerns and her friends’ lack of caution.
Prior to the doc, the park had been the subject of several written features, including Sports Illustrated’s 2019 deep, historical dive and several smaller New York Times stories; both publications dubbed it "America’s most dangerous" amusement park.
Operating from 1978 through 1996, it was apparently a place of semi- or uncontrolled chaos for kids and adults alike to run amok; six deaths and an undetermined number of serious injuries occurred amid the amusement and loose regulations at the time.
Action Park was eventually hit with several lawsuits and debt wound up bankrupting the park, prompting its first official closure.
It’s clear watching the documentary that Gen X kids (and even some early millennials) lived by a different set of principles than those instilled in my generation: They weren’t limited as much by either their parents’ fears or their own. Instead, they seemingly sought out certain kinds of group thrills to separate themselves from what they saw as their baby boomer parents’ stiffness. With age, faded bruises, healed bones and stories to tell, however, they also understood (perhaps a little too well for their children) the consequences of childish behavior that could go too far.
Some of those teenagers who had once dared to backflip off Action Park’s Tarzan Swing or take road trips to Atlantic City without telling their parents eventually grew up to raise their own kids to avoid the wave pools entirely. The kids who were relatively free to come go as they pleased and trusted to occasionally make it back before curfew wanted to know their own children’s every move and taught us it was safer to tell them where we were, as well.
My hometown of Las Vegas didn’t see a waterpark resurrection until 2013, just as I was approaching my high school years. But between its inflated admission costs and the transportation required to get there, it never became a hot spot for local teens when I was one. (I only went once — maybe twice — to ride the slides in the summers.) By the time it was built, we preferred to spend hours after school carpooling to the local mall or In-N-Out.
Even after I moved to New York City for college and Coney Island became a place I loved a lot, it was the touristy boardwalks that drew me in, rather than bombastic rides.
Maybe I missed out on whatever childhood experiences makes one into a “thrill-seeker” or “adrenaline junkie”; I’ve chickened out of roller-coasters at Six Flags — partly due to the “scary-but-true” stories my parents told growing up about the accidents. Yet, now living in a time during which there’s no way to hop on a coaster at Coney Island, jump off a diving board at Sandcastle or zip down a slide at Action Park, “Class Action Park” made me somehow nostalgic about freely doing something — anything — adventurous in a mask-free era during which I wasn’t even alive.
It also makes me think about all the fun, nondamaging risks I could’ve taken as recently as last summer, had I just known that something as simple as summer vacation would be essentially stripped away because of this pandemic. Instead, I’m currently back in university for the fall, watching the months fly by again as I listen to classes on Zoom.
I don’t need to have broken a bone, but now I wish I’d at least risked a good nose full of chlorine and a scraped-up knee in a wave pool. Maybe next year.