Making construction appealing to the next generation is critical to helping the industry overcome a significant worker shortage. It’s also the central idea behind Diggerland, USA, the nation’s first full-fledged construction-themed amusement park and waterpark in West Berlin, New Jersey.
Diggerland features real-life construction equipment that has been made safe for children and adults to operate and explore. The rides are designed specifically for the park, with safety features that make it appropriate for young children.
Diggerland’s CEO, Yan Girlya, and his brother, Ilya Girlya, worked in the construction industry for 30 years, learning the ropes from their parents, who owned a construction business that focused on public works and schools. After graduating from Drexel University, Yan worked for the company as a superintendent, progressing to project manager and, eventually, general manager. Because of the state of the economy and other factors, the brothers decided to close down the construction company and focus on entertainment.
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“In the early 2000s, when we joined the union, we started our own civil division in the company, and we bought heavy equipment. As the downturn of the economy happened, we saw less and less work on our end,” Yan said. Believing that they couldn’t compete against larger equipment rental companies, they started exploring where else they could put this machinery to use.
Inspiration from abroad
The brothers came across several Diggerland theme parks in the United Kingdom. They thought if it worked across the pond, it should be an easy transition to bring it to America.
“We reached out to that owner, and it took us literally two years for him to convince us to work with him to bring it to the United States,” Yan said. Even though the economy wasn’t great at the time, “we decided to take a chance because that is what we do as entrepreneurs: we plow ahead.”
Though there have been several other construction-themed amusement parks since Diggerland USA opened in 2014, at the time there was nothing like it in America.
The brothers saw New Jersey—their home state—as a natural fit for the park so they could work on the business hands on. They already owned an indoor water park in West Berlin, so when an adjacent parcel of land became available, they bought it.
The brothers originally used the construction equipment from their former construction business to create Diggerland XL. “Diggerland XL was a one-one-one experience using large excavators, dozers and wheel loaders for an adult experience. This program ended in 2022 to make room for an expansion,” Yan said. That year, they doubled the size of the water attractions and added more amusement rides. To date, the park contains more than 40 attractions.
All of the features in Diggerland include brand-new, special-ordered equipment. The goal was to replicate the same functions with all of the attractions. All of the machines have hydraulic and/or electronic limiters that provide for safe operation. In certain equipment, if one system fails, there is a second system that automatically takes over.
One of the newest attractions is the Lumberjack Claw, a hydraulically driven log loader machine that, in the real world, handles timber before it goes to the mill. Children can operate the rig with a joystick to simulate how this machine functions on an actual construction site. “We modified this ride where anyone can use it,” Yan said. “We worked with our local mechanical engineers to make it safe and did testing. They ran calculations and made a foundation for the unit. Months later, it was set in place, and we worked with a hydraulic manufacturer to make a custom-made hydraulic pack unit.”
In addition to the well-received Lumberjack Claw, one of the most popular attractions is the Spin Dizzy, a 48,000-pound excavator with a custom-made bucket that seats eight people. “When the customer enters the gondola, each one puts on a seat belt as well as a lap bar. Once everyone is secure in their seats, the ride operator raises the boom and arm of the excavator and rotates the machine five times in one direction and then five times in the opposite direction. Hence the name Spin Dizzy,” Yan said.
Other rides include Crazy Cranes, enabling children to use a tower crane from the ground level, with the ability to move objects with joystick controls, as well as the Mini Dig, allowing children to use the arm of a JCB 8018 mini-excavator with a hook to pick up shapes and drop them into matching holes.
Even the water park, The Water Main, is construction themed. It includes two pools, Bulldozer Bay and Jackhammer Bay, with water spraying through jackhammers; a zero-depth entrance wave pool, Claw Hammer Cove; and a three-story body slide, The Pipeline, with closed and open flumes. An obstacle course pool, Carpool Lane, has construction lily pads, a mesh crossing rope and overhanging water cranes.
One of the biggest challenges the brothers faced when recreating Diggerland from the original UK version were differences in rules and safety regulations between countries. “What was done in the UK and is done in the US is day and night,” Yan said.
It was also difficult adhering to state regulations. For each ride, they hired third party crash engineers to ensure the equipment is safe. “Our machines are limited to four ,five miles an hour, so the engineers come out and take our vehicle to verify the impact on the human body,” Yan said. This data is then submitted to the state of New Jersey, which will grant permits once approved.
By pairing amusement with construction, one of the underlying goals of this park was to introduce construction equipment to children in a fun way that might inspire them or plant a seed for a future career. Despite the male-dominated construction industry, Yan said about 40% of park attendees are girls. In addition to introducing children to construction equipment—and, by extension, the construction industry—it teaches and enhances hand-and-eye coordination. Yan said, “Driving the machines is thrilling while providing a sense of direction and full control. It gives younger kids a hands-on experience and a boost of confidence that they, too, can do it just like the people who operate the equipment for a living.”