A construction-themed amusement park answers the question, "Can you dig it?"

My son Japhy, 5 years old, still falls spontaneously from his chair from time to time and shakes on his pedal bike, but at Diggerland Un...


My son Japhy, 5 years old, still falls spontaneously from his chair from time to time and shakes on his pedal bike, but at Diggerland United States, a construction-themed amusement park in southern New Jersey, we gave him control of a 7,092-pound JCB excavator. He sits high in the cabin on his father’s lap, moving the digger’s huge boom arm to scoop up dirt and dump it.

This was the founding ideal of Diggerland: For families, to experience the pleasure of using real construction machines.

The park was opened in 2014 by Ilya and Yan Girlya, Moldovan American brothers who worked for their father’s construction company and opened Sahara Sam’s Oasis indoor and outdoor water park in the 2000s in land adjoining this which became Diggerland. At Diggerland, owners have worked with construction equipment manufacturers like JCB and Ventrac to modify dozens of models for safe use by children from 36 inches tall (some rides require children to be 48 inches, but all children can be lap passengers).

Engines have automatic shutdown, cabs have rollover protection, machine tracks are fixed in place, and turn adjustment on excavators is limited, so short operators cannot start or become thugs. It’s a yellow and black playground where dumpers, tractors, backhoes, rollers and, of course, excavators crawl on fixed courses or plod through their designated spot in the ground. By design, the park looks half-finished, a 21-acre arena of concrete bollards, storm fencing and construction offices selling neon pink, yellow or orange safety vests, assorted construction hard hats and hot dogs.

There are also rides grafted together from various hydraulics, like the Dig-a-Round, a dangling yellow claw carousel; the Sky Shuttle, in which guests are lifted 50 feet toward the sun in welded seats on the scoop of a telehandler (a giant version of a forklift); and a ropes course designed to look like high-rise scaffolding. At the back of the park, the Water Main offers a wave pool and various slides and paddling pools as a tribute to the plumbing infrastructure. For the Girlya brothers, the park embodies the possibility their parents saw leaving the USSR in 1979 to “create a life for the family with the freedom to be whatever you want and take advantage of all the opportunities that America can offer without any fear of persecution,” Ilya Girlya said in an email.

The attraction for children is obvious. Like Tony Stark inside his Iron Man suit, they gain superpowers as they grip the levers with their hands, their minds taking control of a gigantic exoskeleton. “All tools and engines on earth are but extensions of the limbs and senses of man,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps in anticipation of childhood. leaning to drive cars.

Entering the park on a recent Sunday, I saw a staff member working vigorously to correct the wild steering of a child navigating a Roxor all-terrain vehicle which, unlike excavators, operates on an open course. Elsewhere, guests strapped to chairs in the shovel of a JCB JS200 excavator spin in a blur of centrifugal force known as Spin Dizzy. Throughout the day, a call rings out over the public address system: “Caaaaan youuuu dig it?”

My 7-year-old daughter Scout takes a ride on the lift station, a scissor lift, then Japhy jumps into a small barrel car towed by a Ventrac tractor – “the one with the sunglasses and a smiley face” , recalls Japhy. Later, they take turns steering a 1,310-pound Terex diesel dump truck around a course with my foot on the gas pedal. Scout adds to the thrill of commanding this beast by taking her hands off the wheel and letting her ‘drive herself’ towards the barriers, a reminder of why we do not have let kids drive on open roads since the early 1900s.

We head to the somewhat temperamental Mini Diggers, each of which weighs as much as a newborn humpback whale, and which have been modified so that the operator uses the arm to knock down pins or hook foam ducks to a small pond. Just as we were about to drop a pin, the machine stopped. Fortunately, no major infrastructure project depended on our skills. In the line, a father gives me a knowing look. “I wonder if they ever open the park to adults only,” he asks. (No, but next door Diggerland XL offers an adult-only experience driving full-size gear through a course, advised by a staff member via two-way radio.)

There are also coin-operated Micro Diggers, while the JCB 8030 ‘Big Diggers’ are the largest of the diggers.

Moving dirt with the JCB 8030 is kinda sublime. “I feel like Tony Soprano,” my husband said, airborne in a state of flux, just him, our son, and the work to doas he operated one.

Humans big and small seem dazzled by the mechanical arms and legs. There “Good night, good night, construction siteThe children’s book series has sold over 5 million copies to date, and experiences like Diggerland XL have mushroomed in recent years for fun-seeking kids and adults alike.

Dig this Las Vegas allows children and adults to pay to drive large construction machines like bulldozers, just like does Extreme sandbox in St. Paul, Minnesota. For an additional fee at Extreme Sandbox, you can add Car Crush: “Destroy a perfectly good car.” Less focused on building experience is Tank Town United States in Morgantown, Georgia: “Why drive a tank when you can crush a car with one?” – now with machine guns.

Dennis Nierzwicki, creative director of Diggerland USA, said continuous innovation at the park usually starts with an idea sketched out on paper by Ilya or Yan. In the case of the Greased Beast, a steel demolition truck with seat belts that pop up at one end, “they wanted to know, you know, how do we make people feel like they’re thrown out of the truck?”

They are set to open a fleet of small tower cranes this year in which drivers will sit and use a joystick to move blocks around.

We preferred the Big Diggers. You sit stacked in the cabin, two minds focused on the same goal: moving dirt. You operate two levers that shunt the claw from side to side, up and down, in and out, whoomph, plunging the claw into soft earth that seems bottomless. Looking at the pile of dirt when you’re done makes you feel like you’ve achieved something.

At the end of the day, the workers regrade the earth for the next day’s operators.

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