Dec. 6, 2011 -- As childhood dreams go, they don't get much more down and dirty than this.
Rich Pepe is chief engineer at a major aerospace company. Today -- thanks to a gift from his wife -- he's about to embrace his inner "Bob the Builder."
"I mean, he's in charge of 500 people in his job … and all he wants to do is come and dig a hole," said Pepe's wife.
He's not alone. Which is why New Zealand transplant Ed Mumm created Dig This -- a heavy-duty playground of sorts -- on a lot in Las Vegas.
"We get a lot of bucket listers," said Mumm, who has invested more than $1 million in this adult-size sandbox with big-boy Tonka toys.
It's no cheap thrill. Sessions go from about $200 to more than $700, depending on how many hours you want and how many machines you want to try.
That may be why this is probably the only place you'll see a woman in Prada flats operating an excavator.
Another woman tried to explain the appeal. "I wanna play with dirt. … I grew up playing Barbie dolls, but every once in a while you gotta, you know, go out of your comfort zone," she said.
Each visit starts with a brief lesson indoors featuring a toy-tractor-on-sand demonstration – and, of course, the signing of safety waivers.
Customers can choose a bulldozer or an excavator, both huge. The machines do all the heavy lifting: Cabs are air-conditioned, and the controls are a couple of joysticks and pedals. And instructors are always on head-set, for when visitors inevitably get confused.
Participants often start as any child would, by digging a hole. Then, as they master the controls, they move on to building a pyramid of thousand-pound tires.
Next comes using the excavator claw to pick up basketballs -- without popping them -- then dropping them into tire holes.
Along the way, there's a chance to park on a slope and spin around in the excavator's cab. It feels like the machine is about to topple over, but it doesn't. The result? Pure fun.
At the end of the day, Rich Pepe declared his session "awesome."
"You realize how little dexterity you have when you have to do three things at once," he said.
And then there's this observation: "Women are typically a lot more relaxed, and they really enjoy the moment," said Mumm. "Guys are a little bit more intense, 'cause they really wanna do the job right. Typically women are actually better operators, because they listen, and … they don't put a lot of stress upon themselves to get something completed."