Downtime

The Life-Threatening “Ride” That Action Park Actually Decided to Abandon

But not before my father—who ran the infamous amusement park for 20 years—tested it on his employees.

A human in a helmet inside a hamster ball rolling downhill.
This illustration does not depict the actual ride. The real thing was way more dangerous. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by kaisorn/iStock/Getty Images Plus, RossHelen/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash and Lucian3D/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

This excerpt is adapted from Action Park: Fast Times, Wild Rides, and the Untold Story of America’s Most Dangerous Theme Park by Andy Mulvihill with Jake Rossen, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (C) 2020 by Andrew J. Mulvihill.

We all stared at the ball.

The ball was a giant plastic sphere at least 10 feet in diameter. It resembled the kind of thing you stuck a hamster in, except this ball was scaled for a human. A human who would, by virtue of being willing to climb inside, presumably possess an intellect comparable to that very same hamster.

I don’t know how the ball had been transported here. In the spring of 1980, it had been absent one day and here the next. No one thought it unusual. Workers walked by it without comment. In my father Gene’s orbit, the sudden appearance of a medieval-looking contraption in the notorious amusement property he owned and operated for 20 years known as Action Park in Vernon, New Jersey, was simply not remarkable.

As it loomed in front of us, I considered myself fortunate I was still employed as a water slide attendant, not a 16-year-old inspector of giant ball safety.

“Go on and get in the ball, Frank,” my father said.

Frank was apparently an employee of the resort’s wintertime operations. I had never seen him before. Depending on what my father had planned, I might never see him again.

Frank touched the surface as though it were an alien spacecraft made of a strange alloy. He nudged it as though physical contact might reveal its mysteries. The ball wobbled a bit before going still. He slid a hand behind the railing surrounding the exterior. It got stuck, prompting a brief panic. With a sheepish grin, Frank plucked it out.

This would soon be the least of Frank’s problems.

Inside this ball was another ball, one equipped with a seat and a shoulder harness like the kind found in race cars (just not Action Park’s race cars, which were engineered for bone-smashing mayhem). Ball bearings separated the inner ball from the larger exterior ball, which allowed the inner ball to swivel independently and orient itself so the seat always remained upright. Behind Frank, stretching in a zig-zag pattern down the foot of the mountain, was a long track made from PVC piping like the kind used in plumbing, five or six inches in diameter. On the outer surface of the ball were casters and wheels like the ones found on office chairs. With these context clues, I began to understand Frank’s apprehension.

“Once you’re in the ball, Frank,” Gene said, “you’re going to roll along that track …”

“I don’t think—”

“Don’t worry,” my father said, acting as though climbing into a giant ball was routine. “You’ll roll along the track and come to a gentle stop. You get in there and try it out and we’ll take it for a spin when the ride inspectors come.”

Before Frank could protest further, my father handed him a 100 dollar bill. Frank stared at the cash, temporarily placated. He opened a hatch on the ball and peered inside. Charlie O’Brien and Big Al Lazier, my father’s dependable but not strictly sober maintenance men, helped him in. Once Frank was strapped to the seat, the two began rolling him around the grass like they were bored children playing with a toy.

“You’re not gonna find this at Disney,” my father said, beaming.

Rarely did he stop to consider there might be a very good reason for that.

Ken Bailey was the man who came up with the idea for the ball. He called it the Man in the Ball in the Ball. When everyone got tired of saying that, which happened immediately, we just called it the Bailey Ball.

Bailey was a very excitable man who had a childlike enthusiasm for rides. He peddled the ball, his most sensational idea, at the amusement conventions my father frequented. Ken said he got the idea while working as a custodian in a Kmart and accidentally spilling a bunch of whiffle balls on the floor. As they rolled around, Bailey imagined a person inside of each one.

My father enlisted him to build out his track. When he was finished, we gathered at the foot of the mountain—me, my father, Charlie O’Brien, a physician who inexplicably advised on the safety of rides named Doctor Sugar, and Ken. Also present was an inspector from the Department of Labor, who seemed to recoil at the sight of the mountain track. That he was there at all was something of a formality. Normally, the state had little idea how to evaluate my father’s participatory rides and had no clue how to verify their safety profile. The Bailey Ball would nonetheless need to demonstrate some basic regard for human life in order to be rubber-stamped.

My father had wanted to see the ball in action first thing in the morning, hoping to get it open to the public the following day, but the inspector was running late. Because of the delay, Frank had been in the ball and cooking for more than a half hour, during the first day of hot weather we’d seen. He was already at the mouth of the track, 600 feet up the mountain.

When everyone was in place, Ken gave a thumbs-up. Big Al pushed the ball from its starting position down the graded slope. Things went well for the first 15 seconds or so, with Frank remaining upright in the center of the ball. But, on the first turn to go back across the mountain, the ball didn’t remain in the groove. It broke free and began rolling straight downhill.

Ken’s face fell. He had been working up until the last minute, gluing the PVC together, not realizing it was warping under the heat. I could already see gaps in the tubing. Damaged by the hot sun, the plastic was expanding, severing the rail that was supposed to give the ball direction. Now it was free, unburdened by the track. The ball had achieved autonomy.

It gained momentum, tumbling uncontrollably down the face of the slope and picking up tremendous speed. Inside, Frank spun helplessly, unable to stop. He could not abandon the craft, as the door opened only from the outside.

When the contraption made it to the bottom without any visible damage, and Frank still appeared conscious, I exhaled. But it didn’t stop. It began rolling at high speed toward us like the boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark. We scattered, my dad and I scurrying to the left, and Ken and Charlie to the right. Doctor Sugar and the inspector were frozen, each of their faces a rictus of terror.

The ball cleared a small hill, briefly going airborne, then zipped right across Route 94, the two-lane road splitting the park. Cars honked and slammed on their brakes. If there had been opposing traffic, Frank would have become part of a real-life game of Pong, volleying from one bumper to another.

Still in pursuit, we followed the ball toward a small lake in Motor World that had been earmarked for a fleet of tiny bumper boats for children. The area wasn’t open yet, but the empty boats were being tested and floated on the surface. The ball soared over the grass and smashed into several of them, scattering the others with rippling waves from the impact, which launched some of the boats several feet in the air.

Charlie and Ken waded into the water looking for the hatch. After some difficulty, they got it open. Charlie pulled Frank out by grabbing him under his armpits like a baby. Frank crawled up the bank, coughing and sputtering. He splayed across the grass as we all stared at the ball, which bobbed in the water like it was attached to a fishing lure.

We did not ask for the inspector’s report, nor did we ever hear of one being filed. Ken Bailey returned to Canada. The snow-makers cleared away the PVC. Told to dispose of the Bailey Ball, they rolled it into the woods, where it remained for many years.

My father was unbowed. He kept drawing and doodling attractions, telling us about things that were not yet in the park but soon would be. “Just wait,” he said. “Just wait.”

For more entertaining business stories from Slate, listen to Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism.