The New Jersey Theme Park Where Kids’ Backhoe Dreams Come True

Can kids in bulldozers cure the construction worker shortage?

Photographer: Ryan Collerd/Bloomberg; Animation: Marisa Gertz

There is probably only one place in America where an eight-year-old can ride a carousel whose seats look like excavator buckets, then swipe at bowling pins with a mini-digger—where, for a ticket price of less than $40, he or she can operate a backhoe, drive a drum-roller, and ride the telescoping arm of a construction lift 50 feet into the air to admire the Philadelphia skyline.

That place is a small theme park in West Berlin, N.J., called Diggerland USA.

Diggerland opened for the season in March, but even on a recent visit when the park was closed, its discordant appeal was obvious: Small children get to climb into the cabs of heavy-duty construction equipment.

(l-r) Yan and Ilya Girlya.
Photographer: Ryan Collerd/Bloomberg

In the food pavilion, off-road vehicles were stashed bumper-to-bumper with skid steers—akin to a Bobcat—that had been modified to let 36-inch-tall children climb onto their parents laps to handle the controls. The Spin Dizzy, a 22-ton excavator repurposed to function as a Gravitron, sat motionless atop a small pedestal, where it’s visible from the road.

On busy days, park employees get behind the controls of construction equipment and perform a dance of the diggers, a muscular ballet in which operators tilt giant machines onto their side wheels, or use the hydraulic arm of an excavator to lift all four wheels off the ground.

The idea of Diggerland, say its owners, is to scratch an itch for anyone who’s ever passed a construction site and wondered what it would be like to get behind the controls of a crane or bulldozer. “We’re taking a piece of real-world equipment and making it kid-friendly and snack-sized,” said Ilya Girlya, who owns and operates the park with his older brother Yan. "You’re supposed to drive the machines and experience what it’s like."

The Girlyas didn’t set out to groom future generations of construction workers, but if that had been their purpose, they would have started at the right time. When they opened the park in 2014, the U.S. construction industry was facing a labor shortage that has yet to abate. According to one recent survey, 82 percent of homebuilders expect labors costs and availability to be a top challenge this year.

Federal jobs data tell a similar tale. In December 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the construction industry hired 180,000 workers, leaving 43,000 unfilled positions—meaning firms were able to fill four out five open positions. In December 2016, the industry added 231,000 jobs, a sign of more robust business that could have been stronger but for 140,000 jobs that went unfilled, 38 percent of total openings.

“You may not be able to document it, but word on the street is that guidance counselors are telling kids, ‘Don’t settle for something dirty,’” said Ken Simonson, chief economist at Associated General Contractors, a trade group. “We have to counteract this notion that young people need an indoor job to get ahead.”

Photographer: Ryan Collerd/Bloomberg

Getting dirty comes naturally to the Girlya brothers, however. As boys, they immigrated to the U.S. from what is now Moldova, landing in Philadelphia in 1979. Their father Samuel, who had been a civil engineer in the Soviet military, got his first job in construction after volunteering to work for free to make up for his lack of English. A few years later, Samuel and his wife Betya started their own general contracting firm. In their spare time, they flipped old houses.

“On the weekend, Dad used to go to the construction sites, and we used to tag along,” recalled Yan Girlya. “It was something interesting to do; we knew we could tinker around. Legos were just not enough for us.”

The Girlya boys were expected to hustle. “It was like, ‘Here come these Russian big boys running through the neighborhood with their paper route,’” said Yan. In the fall, they raked leaves. When it snowed, they shoveled driveways. “The other kids were like, ‘$20,’ and we were like, ‘We’ll do it for $7,’ just banging out driveways.” They ran a landscaping business in high school, then sold off those routes so they could spend more time working on the family construction business.

After college, Yan took on a growing role in the Girlya contracting business while Ilya started moving the family into other concerns, including an indoor water park—called Sahara Sam’s Oasis, after their dad—that he opened in 2009.

He was thinking about repurposing some of the family’s old construction equipment for the water park when he stumbled upon a small chain of British amusement parks called Diggerland, which offered kids a chance to operate real construction machinery. He booked a flight to visit the parks, purchased equipment from the UK operators, and started persuading New Jersey regulators that three-foot-tall children can safely operate machines powerful enough to hoist thousands of pounds.

Photographer: Ryan Collerd/Bloomberg

The Girlyas opened Diggerland in 2014 and quickly doubled down, selling the waterpark the next year and spending more than $5 million on 80 pieces of machinery. What began as a project to modify big machines so small children could safely operate them became a quest to turn construction equipment into fun for everyone. Now they plan to expand the Diggerland business, first by building out more of their current site, then by scouting out new locations.

Last year, more than 200,000 people visited the park, and the Girlyas opened a new park area in which adults can crush old cars with an excavator, or shift thousands of pounds of dirt. “Driving a bulldozer will be the closest you come to being invincible,” reads the marketing copy on the park’s website.

That idea isn’t entirely unique. An attraction in Las Vegas, called Dig This, invites adults to operate an excavator and squeeze off rounds from a machine gun. Diggerland’s newest ride, on the other hand, is one of a kind: The Greased Beast, unveiled over the weekend, uses an industrial-size dump truck to dangle kids 34 feet above the ground.

Inspiration for the ride came to Ilya and Yan on a slow day in the fall of 2015, as they were staring at the hydraulic dump truck they use to move equipment around the park. The truck bed was equipped with a rumble-switch, used to shake loose material out of the back, and the brothers wondered it would be like to sit in the truck bed with the trailer jacked perpendicular to the ground and the vibrator on.

To find out, they welded a seat to the truck bed, strapped Ilya into a harness, and tested it out.

“It had the sensation that the seat was going to rip up and fly off,” said Ilya. “It was actually stupid fun.”

Photographer: Ryan Collerd/Bloomberg