Dig World is the only construction theme park in Texas specifically targeted to young children. It aims to attract kids to an industry that desperately needs more workers.
But would anybody really pay to let their kids operate construction equipment?
That's the question Jacob Robinson asked himself. He's the co-founder of Dig World in Katy, Texas, just outside Houston.
When he first opened the park, so many people showed up that the small park was overwhelmed, and visitors waited for a long time.
Robinson realized he had to think bigger. He and his partner decided to shut down, buy more equipment and try again.
“So we made the tough decision and said, 'Hey, listen, we're going to press pause right now.' We refunded all the tickets to people that had purchased tickets already and said, 'come back at a later date.' We offered them to reschedule as well,” he said.
On opening day, Dig World had three mini excavators. They bought a dozen more.
Four years in the making, the park offers kids an opportunity to operate construction equipment like excavators, skids, steers and ATVs.
Excavators are machines with a bucket at the end of a long arm. They can dig, demolish, lift and move heavy objects and more.
It may seem dangerous to some parents to let children operate big machines like that. But, Robinson explained, Dig World's excavators, by far the most popular ride, have limited movement for safety reasons.
“They're completely stationary, and they only go certain degrees to the right and the left, certain degrees up and down," he said. "So no matter how little Timmy tries to maneuver the machine, most of it has been disengaged and so they can't move it around.”
Although kids are the primary focus, adults seem to enjoy playing on the machines as well.
“I had a grandma explicitly tell me at the front gate that she had no intention of riding the machines, and then 30 minutes later I helped her on an excavator. She had the time of her life,” he said.
But it’s all not just for fun. Dig World has teamed up with Robinson’s alma mater, Texas A&M University.
“When we have kids here for field trips and different events, we are going to be teaching them the curriculum that those students and professors at A&M (Department of Construction Science) have developed,” he said of the agreement.
“We have a development partnership with the mayor's office in Houston right now to bring in all these schools so that we can teach them this curriculum, then get them on the machines," he added. "So our park during the school year is only open on weekends so that we can be flooded with field trips during the week. The goal is to get kids excited about the construction industry."
Robinson said he wants to use the park to familiarize kids with the construction experience, to break down any stigmas about being a construction and to inspire them to explore the industry's many options to these future workers.
There is a shortage of construction workers, and Robinson said that issue even affected the building of Digg World.
“I mean, this project got delayed because we couldn’t find certain subs to do the job right. And so the irony here is we're building a construction theme park focused on construction. We had a shortage in the construction of the space, right? It's a nationwide issue,” he said.
One construction industry publication earlier this year estimated that the U.S. needs more than a half million construction workers above its current pace of hiring in order to meet demand.
Future plans for Dig World include a program with a local Caterpillar dealer where people could come and get certified on construction equipment. Dig World also has a long term goal of building ten similar parks across the country.
Robinson said he expects about 100,000 visitors in Dig World's first year of operation.
For now, Robinson said, the park's best payoff is when he sees kids' eyes light up. “Watching kids operate these machines, their eyes get big and they're really behind the controls. It's a blast,” he said. Copyright 2022 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.