At this amusement park, drive the heavy machinery you loved as a kid

Giacomo Fortunato

WORKING THE CONTROLS OF AN EXCAVATOR is a little like flying a helicopter in that it requires the use of both hands independently, as well as your feet. I say that having never flown a helicopter, and having been in an excavator for all of five minutes, but it is definitely more like flying a helicopter than driving a car. When do I get to crush something?

These are the thoughts I’m having in the climate-controlled cab of a 26-ton Komatsu PC210LC-10 idling in a north Texas pasture while Jason Nibbe speaks calmly into my headset via two-way radio. Prior to handing me the keys to this bright yellow beast, Nibbe asked me and another client to watch a brief instructional video demonstrating the basics of operating this excavator, as well as the bulldozer and wheel loader that we would be driving later. Nibbe says I am to ignore the two ­pedals—each of which is paired to one of the machine’s ­independent steel treads—and focus on my hands.

The joystick on the left controls the “stick” and “swing,” while the one on the right controls the “boom” and “bucket.” None of these are useful terms, of course; I’ve never heard them used in the context of a mechanical arm so powerful that it could, says General Manager David Beardsley, “rip out a road before the cops even knew what you were doing.”

That arm is hydraulically powered and has three parts that you can easily equate to a human limb. The boom is the part from shoulder to elbow, the stick is the forearm, and the bucket is your hand. (Swing refers to how you pivot the cab atop its tanklike treads so you can work in a 360-degree circle around the vehicle without moving the tracks.)

Before this excavator, the largest machine I’d operated was a U-Haul box truck. I’ve never driven a Bobcat, nor dug a hole with anything but a shovel. Yet shortly after firing up the PC210, I am confidently maneuvering its 28-foot-long arm, ripping up chunks of thick brown clay, and, of course, spinning the machine’s cab around and around at high speed until I’m so dizzy that the world goes white.

extreme sandbox
The glorious sight of a Texas dirt shower. Giacomo Fortunato

“Are you done yet?” Nibbe asks, as I move the left lever back to neutral, which stops the swinging of the cab. I pause to regain my senses, and then push the stick all the way to the right, causing the cab to spin just as fast the other way.

This is acceptable behavior at Extreme Sandbox, a company founded five years ago precisely so regular people like me can pay to screw around on machines that we’ve fantasized about since childhood. It’s not a free-for-all. Instructors emphasize safety, and mostly the idea is to perform a series of increasingly difficult jobs, but excavator cabs will do infinite 360s—so fast!—and instructors understand that it’s something we students just have to get out of our systems. They all make the same Dad joke about “optional vomit insurance” in the classroom sessions.

The 26-ton PC210 is your middle-of-the-road excavator. It’s neither some wimpy starter machine nor a full-on ­metal dinosaur; mostly you see this digger on a normal ­building site. “It’s not so intimidating for a new operator,” Rich Smith, VP of Products and Services for Komatsu, would tell me later. “It’s large enough to be impressive, but you don’t have to climb an 18-foot ladder to get into the cab.”

Still, it’s big; and it’s surprising how effortless manipulating the massive arm and claw feels. There is virtually no feedback; moving the stick is no more physical than playing an arcade game, thanks to a combination of electronic and hydraulic controls. I expected to somehow experience the weight of lifting a bucket filled with 500 pounds of earth—to sense the strain—but I feel nothing; ditto when I push the claw into clay that’s nearly as firm as concrete.

The controls are so responsive that you have to make small, smooth inputs that aren’t immediately logical to greenhorns (especially male ones), who tend to apply too much force, which makes the entire machine shudder and jerk. Instructors call this “stabbing” the controls. Proper stick work, Nibbe says, should be delicate, “like surgery.”

“OK, Josh,” he says, after I’ve dug two holes, made a pile, and lifted the boom as high as possible to rain a “Texas dirt shower” upon the land. “You’ve been in this machine 10 minutes, and you know as much about excavation as I do.”

Nibbe is exaggerating. What he means is that anyone who pays attention to the classroom instructions and then practices a little can perform basic operations. I can move around, position the arm, dig and dump dirt—but I do so slowly and awkwardly. Experienced operators can do multiple things at once—like dig while swinging the cab. They’re also much faster and smoother.

Slow or not, I’m having fun. And, apparently, I’m being safe. If I had done something stupid or dangerous, Nibbe would have hit the kill switch that every instructor carries.

“OK,” he says. “You wanna go pick up a car?”

wheel loader
The wheel loader should get a “born to pile” bumper sticker. Giacomo Fortunato

THE HISTORY OF EXTREME SANDBOX IS SHORT and sensible. Back in 2009, when he was still a manager for Target Corporation, company founder Randy Stenger drove by a construction site with his 9-year-old son. The boy stared at the heavy equipment rolling around in the dirt and asked, “Wouldn’t it be fun to go drive those things?”

“Yes, it would,” Stenger answered, and the thought stuck. Later, over beers, he mentioned it to his brother. They spent the next year turning the idea into a business, and nearly another year looking for space. They finally opened the first Extreme Sandbox, three rented machines on a leased 10-acre lot outside Minneapolis, in April 2012.

At first, Stenger taught the sessions himself, after getting a crash course from his equipment dealer and practicing for hours. Clients assumed he had a background in construction. “Absolutely not,” he’d tell them, with a smirk that he often deploys. “Does that give you a feeling of confidence?”

The business took off. Stenger hired help—including Nibbe, a former heavy-equipment operator—leased more machines, and built a 6,400-square-foot facility to serve as offices, a classroom, and storage for the equipment. ­Every month was busier than the one before.

This doesn’t surprise me. Who hasn’t felt the urge to hop the fence of a construction site and hijack a crane? My 6-year-old son, Charlie, loved excavators even before he could talk, and throughout his toddler years, he would search for them obsessively out of car windows, screaming “DIGGER!” every time he saw one. His 2-year-old brother, Nicky, is partial to dump trucks and bulldozers.

I’ve read them Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site probably 800 times, and I know I have company. The author, Sherri Duskey Rinker, used to watch her own son get too worked up reading about trucks at bedtime. She made up a calmer story about how diggers and dump trucks and cranes slow down and sleep after dark. Her book earned the No. 1 slot on The New York Times Children’s Picture Books Best Seller list, bought by millions of parents like me.

If it seems like we’re hardwired to love machines, it’s ­because we actually might be. “There is a deeply ingrained attraction to tools that initially evolved long ago with anthropoid primates for object manipulation, and which evolved more dramatically in our hominin line,” says Thomas Wynn, professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado, and one of the world’s foremost experts on early tool use. “Humans like to fiddle with tools,” he says.

Rob Shumaker, director of the Indianapolis Zoo and a specialist in animal tool use, agrees. Using implements to dig, pound, and hammer, he says, “is universal in great apes, which includes humans. Tool use is fundamental. It’s at our core.” Obviously, there’s a big difference between a rock and an excavator, Shumaker says. “But I think our attraction to this stuff is almost primal.”

That’s the sense I got from Tony Roberts, a retired Navy chief who now teaches aircraft maintenance in Fort Worth and whose wife bought him an Extreme Sandbox experience for Christmas. Roberts spends his days tearing apart airplanes. He flies them, from Cessna single-props to DC9s, for fun. But he was so excited about the prospect of driving bulldozers around an old horse pasture that he’d barely slept the night before and arrived an hour early. “I really joined the Navy just to run equipment,” he admits.

an excavator picking up a car
Picking up a car with the excavator takes as much effort as eating a ghost in Pac-Man. Giacomo Fortunato

IN 2015, STENGER COLD-CALLED A PRODUCER from Shark Tank and got on the show. Both Mark Cuban and Kevin O’Leary immediately embraced the concept. They decided to go halfsies on a $150,000 investment in exchange for 15 percent of the company.

Stenger isn’t even alone in this space. His primary U.S. competitor, in fact, beat him to market by five years. That would be Las Vegas-based Dig This, founded by Ed Mumm, a fence contractor who drove an excavator for the first time while building his own home, and went nuts for it. “I realized that if I enjoyed it this much, what about all the other people who never get the chance?” he told me. Mumm looked around to see who else had the idea and saw only some failed one-offs and the U.K.-based Diggerland.

Diggerland had four locations around the U.K., but it was too family-focused, in Mumm’s estimation. It featured mostly mini machines and gimmicks—like excavators converted to rides for kids. He wanted bigger equipment. Mumm opened first in Colorado, then moved to Las Vegas with a marketing slogan he’s still very proud of: “There’s a new way to get dirty in Las Vegas… even your wife will like it.” One pleasant surprise: Almost half of his clients have been female. “I also didn’t expect so many engineers,” Mumm says. “They’re just fascinated with this kind of stuff…. A lot of us never really grow up, I guess.”

So far, Stenger and Mumm are friendly rivals, but that might change when the second Dig This location opens in May—in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. Los ­Angeles will follow that. (Diggerland now has a U.S. ­location too, in Philadelphia’s New Jersey suburbs.)

Being in Vegas, Mumm attracts lots of bachelor ­parties, as well as corporate groups in town for conventions. Groups are huge for Stenger as well, making up about half of his business. They follow a different program than individual clients, typically doing some kind of team-building exercise or competition after the standard instruction. In Texas, there’s an entire back pasture with boulders and dirt piles where instructors set up courses. A team might have to build a “garage” out of dirt and rock, and move a wrecked car across the field and into it, using “roads” that the instructors have destroyed. So before a team can start building anything, it might have to move boulders or fill holes. The point is to use all of the equipment.

“When we first started, HR people got nervous,” Stenger says. They pictured desk jockeys drunk on diesel, unleashed upon expensive machines—all on the company’s dime. “I told them that this is safer than bowling. We use very large equipment on a very solid base. It is virtually impossible to flip one over. You couldn’t do it if you wanted to.”

wheel loader tire
Wheel loader tire smash. Giacomo Fortunato

THE NEWEST MACHINE IN TEXAS IS A WHEEL LOADER—a vehicle with a huge bucket on the front to move dirt and other material around a job site. It works almost like a car, with a steering wheel, an accelerator, and a brake—plus a joystick on the right that controls the bucket. It replaced a much smaller machine, a skid steer loader that weighed only around 3 tons. Stenger made the swap after recognizing something counterintuitive: People are much more dangerous in a small, nimble machine. “We had more close calls on the skid steers than any other vehicle.”

While the original concept of Extreme Sandbox was that it would be a “bucket-list” thing, some customers want to come back. One way to encourage that is to introduce new toys such as the loader. Stenger’s got a firetruck in Minnesota now, and has at times offered a road grader and a combine harvester, thanks to a local farmer. Texas had a giant, articulated, off-road dump truck for a while. How about a crane? That’s the machine my 2-year-old son screams at the most. “I would love it,” Stenger says. It’s one of the few pieces of heavy equipment that requires a license, but he swears he’s “working on it.” Lately, Stenger says, he’s been lusting after those house-size dump trucks.

The thing that really hooked O’Leary on Shark Tank was the prospect of crushing a car, which any customer can do for an additional $500. Extreme Sandbox gets (mostly) intact cars from junkyards and lets you go at them with an excavator. Sadly, that wasn’t in my budget, but I do get to pick up a junker with the excavator and move it to a new “parking” spot, as well as push around an old minivan and an F150 with the wheel loader and bulldozer, respectively.

Two cars flattened by a corporate group a few days earlier taunt me from the cockpit of the bulldozer, which rumbles like a war machine. I suppress the urge to make a slow turn toward them. What I really want, though, is to drive across the lot and straight through the side of the trailer that’s serving as office and classroom until Stenger can build a permanent structure. That would be satisfying.

Joy Frick, another sandboxer, runs the bulldozer. Giacomo Fortunato

Stenger laughs when I mention this later, and says I’m not the first to suggest it. He’s thought about getting some old RVs for people to crush, but they’re filled with plastic and foam, and are, he says, “a nightmare to clean up.”

He’s got all sorts of ideas for the future. He’s even ­fantasized about how cool it would be to partner with ­demolition contractors—guys who get paid to tear down houses—and arrange for his customers to do their work. “I have people who will pay to do it,” Stenger says.

I’d be down. I bet Matthew Frick—who came out to the Sandbox with his wife when I was there—would be too. ­Toward the end of the day, I run into the two of them in the office, already plotting their return. They both loved the excavator, but it was the bulldozer that stuck with ­Matthew. “Until you get in it and feel the torque and ­power at your fingertips, you don’t know,” he says. “I’m still ­coming off the power trip from that bulldozer.”

This article was originally published in the May/June 2017 issue of Popular Science.