Each Diggerland location typically has three or four backhoes and an equal number of dumpers for driving around a course, four or five skid steers and as many as 15 excavators of various sizes.
“Our seven-year-old, who I would not let near a hair dryer at home, was able to drive a [9 t] JCB 3CX Turbo by himself. He did have a qualified instructor in the cab with him (and an only slightly nervous dad as a passenger).”
The foregoing account was lifted from a newspaper story titled, “Boys Just Can’t Get Enough of These Toys,” which appeared in a recent edition of The Northern Echo in Darlington, England.
The allusion to “boys” seems spot on in talking about seven-year-olds. But calling 9-ton backhoes “toys” would seem to be a stretch, regardless of how much pleasure that job site operators find in working with the machines, day in, day out.
Yet the appeal of these “toys” is undeniable and universal, especially among “boys” of just about any age. An enterprising equipment rental company in the United Kingdom has capitalized on this apparently fundamental desire to get behind the wheel of a skid steer or work the levers of an excavator.
Eleven years ago, H.E. Services Ltd., a Kent-based equipment rental company — which bills itself as the largest supplier of construction machinery in Europe and “world leader in digger hire” (excavator rental) — sponsored an open house for company employees and their families. Various pieces of construction equipment were lined up in the parking lot at Kent.
H.E. Services Board Chairman Hugh Edeleanu soon noticed how fascinated the children were with the machines. The boys (and, presumably, girls) sat in the cabs, fiddled with levers and steering wheels, and probably imitated diesel roars as they fantasized. Thus was born Diggerland, a theme park dedicated to operating, driving, riding on, and otherwise interacting with construction machinery.
Popular and More Popular
It began as a weekend attraction set up in the company’s Kent parking lot. Soon a restaurant and gift shop were erected on the grounds to cater to swarms of intrigued visitors. Seeing that the appeal wasn’t waning, Edeleanu decided to expand. He set up similar weekend facilities adjacent to company equipment depots in Devon and Durham. When growth in Kent no longer was feasible in the company parking lot, acreage was acquired 3 mi. away on the Medway River and the original Diggerland relocated there. In 2007, a fourth theme park was opened on 70 acres in Yorkshire.
Because the venue targets children, Diggerland parks mostly operate on Saturdays and Sundays, when school is out. However, the parks are open during school holidays and every day throughout the summer recess.
These parks are, of course, of an entirely different order than the typical theme park of, say, Disney. Those monster parks most often are predicated on fantasy or, at least, on glamorization of reality. Think of Universal Studio’s The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, built on another British creation, which cost more than $200 million to create in Orlando, Fla.
A Diggerland park is a tribute to the mechanical wizardry of engineers and manufacturers of construction equipment. It is a relatively low budget response to the human impulse, mostly male, to climb into a machine and put it through its paces. A construction equipment park is, in fact, a perfect enterprise for a company like H.E. Services, which has sitting in its equipment yards precisely the “toys” that people want to get their hands on.
Rather then contract out the building of fantasy rides costing millions of dollars apiece, Edeleanu simply expanded his fleet of skid steer and dumpers, slightly modified a few of his excavators, and situated the equipment on pleasantly landscaped acreage — which, of course, he could landscape himself using his own equipment. Consequently, each Diggerland opened its gates at a cost far less than hundreds of millions of dollars.
The numbers of equipment pieces at each park varies somewhat. But each usually has three or four backhoes and an equal number of dumpers for driving around a course, four or five skid steers for driving (or racing) around a course, and as many as 15 excavators of various sizes. In addition, smaller carnival-type pedal cars are set up for the youngest children, several carts are connected to a dumper to form a Diggerland train, and a few Land Rover SUVs are configured for adolescent operation.
To enter one of the four parks, most guests pay 17 British pounds, an amount currently equivalent to about 28 U.S. dollars. Wee tots — which is to say, children under about 3 feet tall — are admitted without charge and anyone older than 65 pays half price. The admission price allows unlimited riding / operating of the construction equipment, and access to such non-mechanical attractions as pedal cars, inflated play areas and a sandpile.
A Short Standard
The 35.4-in. height standard is key to the Diggerland experience. Anyone meeting that standard — regardless of age — can climb into the cab and ride nearly all the main mechanical attractions, from JCB skid steers to medium-sized excavators. If the top of a child’s head reaches 44 in., operating the machinery is within reach, sometimes with a qualified operator in attendance, sometimes not.
This means that an average 5-year-old guest of Diggerland can clamber into the cab of a compact excavator, say, a JCB 8020, and play Skittles by knocking down pins with the end of the swinging arm, or dig for treasure using a similar excavator with a bucket on it. These excavator games use equipment ranging on up the scale to 50 plus horsepower “giant digger” models with full size buckets at the end of the boom.
So what happens if, say, a 3- or 4-year-old reaches the 44-in. standard? The child qualifies to use the equipment, “but will need an adult to help them,” said Casey Holland of the Diggerland public relations department.
She added, reasonably enough, that in the case of SUVs used in “safari” trips around Diggerland, “children must be at least 9 years old to drive themselves. They really need to be tall enough to reach the pedals.”
Other mechanical attractions include something called Spindizzy, a ride similar to ordinary carnival rides. However, the Spindizzy is not a custom carnival rig. It is a JCB excavator with a long-reach boom, at the end of which is attached a wide, specially-constructed bucket fitted with eight seats and podium handholds.
The excavator sits unmoving on its tracks while seat-belted riders are raised 40 to 50 ft. in the air and spun quickly in tight circles, first one direction and then the other. To produce extra sensations, the bucket is periodically dropped abruptly from its maximum height to a point just above the ground. This ride is one of the most popular for the same reason carnival rides everywhere have long lines.
Each Spindizzy operator presumably must present two credentials to operate the excavator: proficiency in controlling the excavator and immunity from the effects of the dizzying whirl experienced at the hub of the spin.
Other Diggerland treats include operating a JCB Robot skid steer machine.
“They are fun, easy to use, and suitable for almost everybody,” Hollands said, pretty much summarizing the appeal of the machines that were created 50 years ago in Minnesota.
While the invention was conceived as a nimble scooper of turkey manure and propagated as a do-it-all materials handler in various industries, its do-over as a theme park ride might open up a whole new market.
The Diggerland “groundshuttle” is a JCB lift that has been outfitted with a 15-passenger module at the end of its boom. It is driven around the park with the seated passengers leading the way.
Diggerland’s “dirt-diggers” would seem to be a natural fit for a child-centric park, being an activity rooted in sandbox play and adolescent treasure hunts. To sit in a comfortable excavator seat, move a few levers, and see a hinged boom adroitly scrape up a bucketful of dirt obviously satisfies a childish desire for power. Or to put it another way, it is fun.
“I think it is appealing,” said Holland, “because participants really feel like professionals when they get to use the larger machines to dig.”
Dumpers manufactured by Thwaite — small, four-wheel-drive, articulated haulers — also attract young drivers. The machines appear to have a relatively high center of gravity, but the operator’s seat has a rollbar curving above it and a governor on the motor allows a maximum speed of 4 mph. The dumpers creep along, through sunken water-filled ditches and around sharp corners, with charmed, pre-adolescent drivers at the wheel.
Is It Safe?
In the United States, the idea of a 5-year-old being allowed to operate a skid steer or excavator is fairly farfetched. The United States generally is one of the most litigious societies in the world and various state and federal agencies exist to ensure that safety mandates are followed to the letter.
In terms of amusement and theme park rides, those safety standards generally bear fruit. According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, some 300 million park guests took some 1.8 billion rides in the United States in 2007 (the latest data). Based on those figures, the association concludes that the chance in the United States of being injured enough on a ride to require overnight hospitalization is 1 in 9 million. The chance of being fatally injured is 1 in 270 million.
Diggerland executives are guided by national directives, as well, particularly safe-practice regulations for amusement park operators. But none of these regulations seem to stipulate age standards for guest riders and operators of park rides. Rather, minimum ages are determined using pediatric growth charts.
The resultant height standards result in pre-kindergartners routinely riding carnival whirling dervish machines designed to shake them up. The difference between one of those carnival mechanical devices and a Diggerland skid steer is that the Diggerland pre-kindergartner is operating the machine, not just riding in it. Furthermore, the Diggerland machine was designed to move construction material, not to amuse children.
Be that as it may, Diggerland — which is operated by an H.E. Group auxiliary called AllSafety Limited — has a sparkling track record.
“As far as Diggerland is concerned, safety is, and always will be, our number one priority,” Holland said. “We keep the standards exceptionally high.”
She said there is no record of an accident occurring at any of the parks.
Some precautions taken include, of course, seatbelts and the aforementioned governors on dumpers and skid steers to limit their speed. Additionally, adults called “marshals” monitor the rides, carrying electronic equipment that can shut down all dumpers or skid steers on the track in the event one of the operators gets into trouble.
Some excavators have their drive mechanisms disconnected; the machines are bolted to steel plates so that, in the words of Holland, “you can’t dig a hole and then drive forward and fall into it!” The excavators also have been modified so that if a boom is swung too far left or right, the machine shuts down. Within these constraints, digging ensues more or less the same as on a work site.
A safety video is shown to guests immediately upon admission to the park. Marshals reiterate the information at the various equipment stations and visitors are on occasion sent back to the video center when it seems appropriate to do so.
Men Have Fun, Too
As noted, not all the “boys” who visit the park are pre-adolescent. Probably the most popular adult group activity at Diggerland is the racing of the JCB Robot skid steers. As many as 28 people can sign up for a race, which is conducted in heats, presumably with governors either removed or set to allow a higher maximum speed.
“This is a fun, fast-paced activity that groups of people can enjoy if they want to do something together,” said Holland. “It is especially popular with bachelor parties. It is also the least expensive activity and therefore more accessible for average Joes who want a fun night out.”
Asked if creation of the parks has resulted in recruitment of equipment operators, Holland said, no. The company provided some initial equipment training to people who expressed interest in learning to run the excavators, just enough to whet their desire to pursue the vocation. However, legal prescriptions interrupted that program and it is no longer offered.
“Diggerland did not set out with the intention of attracting people to the construction profession,” she said. However, she added that some adults “who started off with weekend jobs as marshals at Diggerland still work in the construction side of things, or for the hiring team or sales.”
It is too early to see the impact on the 5-year-olds of the early exposure to construction equipment.
Edeleanu, the godfather of Diggerland, still hopes to open more parks elsewhere in the United Kingdom as well as abroad, but there are no immediate plans to do so, according to Holland. An earlier expansion move into the United States — specifically to 295 acres purchased in 2006 in the Richmond, Va., area — as well as into Dubai, United Arab Emirates, stalled after the international financial crisis exploded three years ago.