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Diggerland USA – The Earth Moves at Sahara Sam’s, NJ

Diggerland is a construction-themed adventure park where kids can drive and operate earth-moving machinery. There are already four Diggerland Adventure Parks in the UK. Now, for the first time, the owners of Sahara Sam’s Oasis have opened a Diggerland in the US. It is next to their waterpark and is called Diggerland USA.

Situated in West Berlin, NJ, Sahara Sam’s Oasis has already garnered industry acclaim for its steady year-on-year evolution and successful capital expansions.

Blooloop spoke with Ilya Girlya, CEO and owner of Sahara Sam’s Oasis and Diggerland USA. he spoke about their new attraction and the decision to bring this quintessentially British concept to the US.

Diggerland USA – The Earth Moves at Sahara Sam’s,  NJGetting the Amusement Mix right

“Sahara Sam’s is the biggest freestanding waterpark in New Jersey. It has over 70, 000 square feet under a roof, and we also have our two-acre outdoor waterpark as well, ” explains Girlya. “It’s open year round; we’ve been around since early 2009. We cross-promote and drive traffic to both Sahara Sam’s and Diggerland. We’re the only free-standing indoor waterpark in the United States.

“We’re not attached to a hotel and we’re not a resort.  Sahara sam’s is a destination where you can come for an hour or two a day.  You can also buy a membership – we’ve been very successful with that. We’re very happy with the success of Sahara Sam’s and the expansions we’ve done year after year.”

Girlya’s background is not in the amusement industry. He grew up in the family’s real estate and construction business.he admits that he’s always been a bit of an entrepreneur.

“That led me to different opportunities including building Sahara Sam’s Oasis. Then it led to expanding that further into building Diggerland. We added our amusement mixture. Growing up in construction, I had a pretty diverse background in heavy machinery since we owned quite a big fleet.  I was always intrigued and thought it was unique that perhaps, one day, we could make it a bit of a theme park.”

Diggerland USA – The Earth Moves at Sahara Sam’s,  NJ

A unique difference

He stumbled across the Diggerland concept many years ago but knew he was likely to face a number of challenges if he wanted to bring it to the United States. The biggest hurdles would be the US’s stringent safety laws and regulations in relation to amusement parks.

“But I was ready for the challenge, ” he says. “So, I decided to reach out to the folks over at the UK location and form a relationship. That relationship took us to where we are today, which is Diggerland USA.”

Girlya points out that the US interpretation of the concept diverges to an extent from the British one.

“We have a relationship with the UK folks. We are, I’m going to say, uniquely different in what we do and they do. We’ve got a lot more different non-digger attractions that we’ve added, from a ropes course to rock walls – just expanding a bit on some of the equipment mix we have. But, for the most part, it’s a very similar concept. We’ve just expanded it and incorporated our expertise in theme parks to make it a little more exciting.”

Health and safety “an education curve”

Complying with the US Health and Safety laws was challenging, as the theme park centres around the notion of small children interacting in a hands-on way with heavy construction machinery. Girlya’s team spent a little over three years negotiating with the New Jersey regulatory authority.

“It was really an education curve. There were a lot of engineers’ drawings. We hired additional third-party engineers. They provided the assurances that the health and safety guidelines were met. As a result, both children and adults could drive the diggers and maintain a safe distance.  It was about a safe experience, ultimately, that worked.”

Diggerland USA – The Earth Moves at Sahara Sam’s,  NJ

Diggerland USA covers fourteen acres and is sited centrally between Sahara Sam’s indoor and outdoor waterparks. It features more than twenty-three different attractions, mainly comprising modified JCB heavy digging and construction machinery that can be operated, driven or ridden by both children and adults. Most of the machinery has either been rendered stationary for excavation in specially designated areas, or modified to drive on a course.

Spin Dizzy is “thrill-ride of the theme park”

“We have an assortment of various diggers of different sizes. These range from mini-diggers to giant diggers. These seem to be the most popular with kids because different age brackets can drive those diggers, ” explains Girlya. “Certainly the Spin Dizzy is the number one attraction. Essentially, it’s the thrill-ride of the theme park.”

Spin Dizzy is the star attraction of Diggerland USA. It is a 20 ton JCB JS220L excavator. It has been converted into a thrill-ride. Eight passengers are harnessed into the modified bucket attachment and are lifted up and down on the end of the spinning boom. Other attractions include a ropes course, train rides, a swamp buggy attraction, an arcade, rock climbing, the Kid Zone for younger visitors. There is also the Sky Shuttle, a JCB 540 Telehandler capable of lifting 15 small guests at a time 5 storeys high.

Girlya adds: “Our ropes course is phenomenal, it does very well. It’s the tallest in New Jersey – a staggering 66 feet and four storeys high. Our backhoe ride, which is essentially kids driving the backhoe, is very, very popular, only because it’s such a unique ride. And, we’ve added a few other things including a military adventure ride where kids are driven round a course in the back of a military truck.”

Line management

So, how is the queing handled?

“At Sahara Sam’s we’re capacity based. We sell a certain amount of tickets so we feel comfortable we can handle capacity and still deliver a good experience. We actually do the same thing at Diggerland USA. There is an optimum number that we don’t want to exceed. Otherwise the queue lines get out of hand and it creates a bit of frustration.

“So, we control capacity simply by limiting the amount of tickets we release online. And, then we also obviously do a good job of advising people about the busiest days; what time of day they might like to come and visit; whether it’s a holiday or not – so we sort of manage that through social media and our live chat sessions. We spend a lot of time on technology.”

Diggerland USA – The Earth Moves at Sahara Sam’s,  NJ

Admission and access control is handled at both Sahara Sam’s and Diggerland by Alvarado“Their turnstiles and proprietary software have integrated exceptionally well with our POS provider, ” Girlya comments.

A Strong First season 

Girlya says the first season’s performance at Diggerland USA has been strong. The new attraction has been well-received and well-liked by everybody across the board.

He adds: “I still think we have a lot of work to do, since we opened towards the latter part of June.  Inevitably, there is still quite a bit of work to be done to drive more traffic and more people but, overall, I’m very happy with Season One.”

As a brand, JCB is not as popular in the US as it is in the UK: people are more accustomed to John Deere and Caterpillar as the home-grown brands.  Therefore, the Diggerland concept is something of a learning curve for the public.

However, Girlya comments, “we’ve been very successful in educating the consumer. We have a great partnership and we’re selling a lot of JCB branded toys.” He adds: “Funnily enough, the toys come from the UK and have a little bit of a UK accent when you push some of the buttons, so I believe visitors enjoy the comedy of that and it really sort of ties the whole experience together. But, JCB is a really huge manufacturer here in the U.S. and we’ve been to their plant several times. We love what they’re doing and they like what we’re doing. I think we’re helping each other grow popularity in the US right now.”

Diggerland USA – The Earth Moves at Sahara Sam’s,  NJ

Diggerland USA Expansion

Despite the fact that Diggerland USA is scarcely half-a-year old, Girlya and his team have plans for future expansion. They intend to roll out another JCB ride at Diggerland in the next few months as soon as the final inspection process is satisfactorily concluded:

“That’ll be a new attraction to add to our 2015 mix. And, then, we’re working on two other rides as well. As you can appreciate, these rides take a bit of a challenge with the authorities to get them approved and engineered and all the health and safety issues addressed. We’ll be announcing our new ride for 2015 over the next month, hopefully, and we may be adding a second one in 2015 as well – we’re working closely on that and tracking the progress of those documents.”

It is a repeat of the formula that has made Sahara Sam’s Oasis successful. A process of continuous expansion keeps things evolving and the experience fresh. And the visitors returning to Diggerland USA time after time.

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