Big toys for big kids — that's the winning formula behind construction-themed fantasyland in New Jersey where giddy adults can get behind the wheel of full-size wheel loaders, bulldozers and a 26-ton (24-metric-ton) excavator.
Diggerland XL is the latest attraction at Diggerland USA, a 14-acre (5.6-hectare) family amusement park in West Berlin, New Jersey, located 20 minutes outside of Philadelphia. Since 2014, kids and their parents have flocked to Diggerland USA to live out their Tonka truck dreams, riding and operating mini excavators, dump trucks, asphalt rollers and skid-steers.
Now mom and dad can get in on the fun, too. For the 2016 season, Diggerland USA unveiled Diggerland XL, an 18-and-over construction playland. After a quick training session by a licensed machine operator, adults are let loose on the construction beast of their choice, although there's a clear favorite.
"The excavator is the winner, hands down," says Ilya Girlya, Diggerland USA co-founder and CEO. "There's just this sheer power that everybody loves. I can appreciate that."
Girlya comes from a construction family. His father owned and operated a general contracting company in New Jersey, and his brother Yan took over the family business before joining Ilya on his amusement park adventures. The brothers first opened Sahara Sam's Oasis indoor and outdoor water park in 2009. Then, inspired by successful Diggerland theme parks in the U.K., they launched America's first construction-based theme park in the lot next door.
The idea for an adults-only section came straight from the guests at Diggerland USA.
"Adults kept asking us if they could drive the bigger, more aggressive equipment," says Ilya. "They said it was on their bucket list — a lifelong dream to be able to drive the big stuff."
And now they can. A 90-minute session at Diggerland XL costs $199 and includes 30 minutes of heavy machinery instruction and an hour of "adult playtime" on one machine of your choice. For $349, you get the training session and 2.5 hours of digging and dumping on two different machines. Admission to the rest of the family-friendly rides and attractions at Diggerland USA is included in both packages.
What type of person shells out 200 bucks or more for a chance to play in an oversized sandbox? All kinds of people, says Girlya. So far he's seen a 50-50 split between men and women, and a mix of office types and blue-collar workers.
"We had an electrician who said that he works around contractors all day but isn't allowed to get on the equipment," says Girlya. "You can't just go out and rent this kind of stuff, and most people don't have a big enough yard to make a mess. This is a way to do it safely where nobody's going to get hurt."
At Diggerland XL, guests wear headsets to communicate with trained machine operators, and operators carry a wireless kill switch in case things get hairy.
The theme park is designed to be a realistic construction experience. Riders aren't just told to go out and dig holes. They're given specific challenges like digging a trench large enough to lower in a drainage pipe, stacking pallets of water, or building up a mountain of dirt and tearing it back down. If you get bored, there's always excavator basketball.