A Deep Dive into the World’s Most Dangerous Water Slide
It’s not often that I am truly haunted by an image.
I’ve watched a lot of unpleasant stuff in my time, a lot of those needlessly hardcore horror movies that basically serve as litmus tests for how much you can handle, but none of them – none of them – have burned themselves into my brain the way this picture has. Are you ready? Hold on to your guts:
This is a picture of the Cannonball Loop water slide in Action Park, New Jersey. The park itself is already a pretty notorious part of theme park history – a veritable Final Destination opening accident in waiting, Action Park opened in 1978 and ceased operation in 1996. In those eighteen years, the part earned the nickname Class Action Park from local residents, famous for the hundreds of injuries and half-dozen actual deaths caused by various attractions and rides. Two people drowned in the Tidal Wave Pool – nicknamed the Grave Pool – and a man was killed after sustaining an electric shock after coming into contact with exposed wires on the kayak ride. The
Similarly dangerous was the iconic Alpine Slide, a 2,700-foot near-vertical chute that guests would ride on small sleds, whose speed was controlled by the rider. The sleds, made of a mixture of fibreglass and asbestos, had two speed settings: slow, and one described by a former employee as “death awaits”. The sleds would regularly jump the tracks, crashing through the hay bales meant to cushion the impact, and into the rocks beyond. In 1986, a local newspaper reported more than 110 injuries at Action Park over the course of the previous year, with nearly ten percent being head injuries.
But it was in 1983 that the park’s most audacious ride was began construction: the Cannonball Loop. An enclosed water slide, it was similar to several other attractions at Action Park, apart from one thing: a vertical loop at the bottom. Dropping from about forty feet high from a forty-five degree angle into a vertical loop around fifteen feet in diameter, shooting the rider out into around four feet of ice-cold water if they made it through the loop and out the other side.
Testing for the Cannonball Loop began audaciously: two crash-test dummies took the inaugural trip around the loop, and ended up dismembered and decapitated. Undeterred, though, park management allegedly began offering staff $100 to test the slide themselves; the $100, according to one employee, “did not buy enough booze to drown out that memory”. The first person to ride the loop in person did it in a full set of protective hockey gear. But, despite the horrors of the Cannonball Loop, the ride was opened in the summer of 1985 to the thronging New Jersey crowds.
What followed was a month of carnage. Despite safety measures inconsumerate with the park’s other procedures (Action Park, at the time, had the beer tent positioned next to the Go-Kart track), the ride proved inconceivably dangerous. Bloody noses and smashed teeth were common for early riders, along with back injuries caused by getting stuck in the loop or dropped out of it due to insufficient speed. Those who did make it all the way around the loop would often come away with abrasions on their skin, thanks to the dirt and sand that pooled at the bottom from other guests. As this was, of course, a water park, many guests entered the Cannonball Loop in nothing more than swimwear, leaving themselves virtually defenceless against this veritable assault course of a fun day out.
When a number of guests started emerging with lacerations across their bodies, investigation was conducted into what was causing the injuries, and the cause was soon located: teeth, knocked loose from the mouths of previous riders and embedded in the tubing of the slide, was tearing chunks out of other hapless would-be adventurers.
In 2014, some contemporary footage was uploaded to YouTube, showing Action Park-goers riding the Cannonball Loop – you’ll notice that they’re being hosed down with cold water before being allowed in, part of the safety precautions taken to stop the guests getting jammed halfway around the loop:
The loop itself, an undeniable insult to God and all things carnival safety, boggles the mind: a documentary on the park released in 2020 included analysis from a Navy physician about the impact of actually going through the loop, which he suggested exerted up to 9 Gs of acceleration on riders. For reference, the UK’s main high-G training centre uses a centrifuge that exerts the same amount of acceleration on those training to fly Hawk, Typhoon and new F-35 Lightning aircraft. Making it through the loop, you would emerge the opposite way round to how you went in – head first if you went in feet first, and vice versa (also depicted in the video above). Some riders described being unable to stand up properly due to disorientation for a short time after their trip round the Cannonball Loop.
And that was, of course, just for the people who actually made it through. Due to the set-up of the Cannonball Loop, many people weren’t heavy enough to gain the speed to actually make it around the loop. Several people got jammed in the top of the loop, requiring a safety hatch to be installed for extractions, and others described suffering back and head injuries when they lost momentum and dropped into the bottom of the slide.
The slide’s grand opening, though, was soon bought to an end: a mere month after it opened it’s spurious doors to the world, Action Park faced intervention from the New Jersey Advisory Board on Carnival Amusement Ride Safety, who ordered them to shut it down (which does beg many questions about why this one was where they drew the line, given the other issues at the park, but I’m sure that’s another issue for another time). Though the slide did briefly re-open again in the summers of 1995 and 1996 – each time only for a few days, before a series of injuries punished humanity’s hubris once more – it remained mostly shuttered until the park’s closure in 1996.
For what it’s worth, loops have been innovated and perfected for use in various water slides since the Cannonball Loop – Swiss company Klarer Freizeitanlagen AG created the AquaLoop, a slightly inverted loop as opposed to the vertical one used at Action Park, which allows riders to pass through safely and without having their backs grated open on old sand in the process (though people still get stuck in the loops frequently enough that an escape hatch is built in to rescue trapped riders). You can get an idea of what they look like and how they function here, and why Action Park’s take on this idea was such a disaster.
Action Park’s Cannonball Loop was far from it’s only disaster, but it’s the one that has haunted me since I found out about it – and I hope this article has gone some way to exorcizing the demonic presence of That Thing from my mind. If you had an encounter with the Cannonball Loop, I would love to talk to about what it was like – drop a comment and let us know what your experience was!
Sources (and further reading/watching on Action Park):
Blood Sport: Revisiting Traction…Er, Action Park – Weird NJ
Behold: The Water Slide So Dangerous It Was Shut Down – Gizmodo
People Were Bleeding All Over: America’s Most Dangerous Water Park – The New York Times
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