The View from Diggerland

Big machines for all ages: A photo essay exploring America's first construction-themed theme park.

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In June, West Berlin, NJ, became the home to the country’s first construction theme park, Diggerland. When I first saw the billboard on I-95, I was skeptical, but intrigued. The whole thing seemed like a showcase for JCB construction equipment and a tool to encourage children over 36 inches tall – the height requirement for all the rides – to get interested in a career of labor. But as a photographer, the visual possibilities of the visual possibilities of spinning carnival rides built from big yellow construction equipment seemed endless. So, I bought my tickets. 

Trees line the back rim of the park and aside from the Rope Course – a colorfully painted steel frame of I-beams four stories high like in pictures of the Empire State building’s construction – the park is flat and open. There’s a large pavilion with picnic tables to eat or take cover from the rain. A fresh trail of macadam connects the park’s attractions in an “L” shape while patches of grass remain incomplete in areas. The gift shop, which you must pass through to leave the park, is filled with all sizes of plastic construction trucks, JCB winter jackets, and inexplicably, stuffed penguins wearing sunglasses instead of the park’s mascot Dino the Dinosaur. When asked about the penguins, park operations manager Jamie Blackwell couldn’t really pin down the origin. He believes they were sent along with the other prizes for the arcade but when customers kept asking to buy them, he met their demand.

I expected to have a good time at Diggerland as a photographer – and I did – but I discovered a deeper level of enjoyment. Somewhere among the smell of funnel cake and the recurring Diggerland jingle playing over the park’s speaker system, I found myself thinking of my childhood Tonka trucks. I would fill the dump truck with mulch from my mom’s garden and push it between the bushes and flowers without a clear purpose but with reverence for the powerful, mammoth machines the trucks mimicked.

As a kid, the possibility of actually getting behind the wheel of this massive machinery never crossed my mind. Construction trucks existed in the same realm as G.I. Joe jet planes; a fantasy. For me, a visit to Diggerland would have been a dream come true. Of course, I also grew up (mostly) without the allure of video games (and those were still only 8-bit sidescrollers). For a modern kid, would the choice between operating a mini-excavator for a few minutes with all the safety limitations of real life still beat out the potential of a high-res world of tanks, racecars, and no rules? At least for now, and for the kids and parents at the park that day, it seemed like real life was more than enough.

It’s enough for Diggerland’s employees, too – more than one confessed to playing around with the equipment after the park closed every night. • 19 September 2014

Michael Bucher is a photographer and writer in Philadelphia. You’ll find his work, among other places, on The Smart Set, Table Matters, and at JUMP Magazine, where he is the photo editor.
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