— -- Deep in the heart of South Texas, visitors are getting the chance to fire a real-life war machine.
DriveTanks.com has set up shop at an 18,000-acre ranch in Uvalde, Texas, about two hours west of San Antonio, where people can take control of real tanks on battlefield courses set up with special effects to recreate scenes that seem right out of “Saving Private Ryan.”
The company is the brainchild of Todd DeGidio, a former Houston police officer and Green Beret.
His collection has tanks from various countries, including the United States, Germany and Russia, as well as “big guns,” such as anti-tank guns, a Howitzer and a few mortars, and machine guns all from different wartime periods, including World War II and the Korean War.
“We have all kinds of guns from around the world from every period,” he said.
The company’s crown jewel is the 1944 Sherman tank, the same model that Brad Pitt drove in the movie “Fury.” It’s a working tank that shoots live ammunition, meaning participants can launch a solid steel, 14.5-pound projectile at over 2,500 feet per second.
DeGidio gives new participants a quick run-through of how to drive the tanks -- they are stick-shift -- and then guides them through the courses.
John and Patti Albritton brought their tank-buff son Josh and his pal Ethan, both 12 years old.
“[Josh] loves tanks. He loves World War II history, any kind of history, so here we are,” said his mother Patti Albritton.
DirveTanks.com offers various packages, none of which are cheap. Shooting the Flamethrower is $300, but driving a tank over an old car runs about $1,000. Firing the Sherman tank costs about $3,000. DeGidio said one group spent a full day and over $30,000 on the experience.
“That’s everything we had and shooting everything we had,” he said. “It was even hard for us to keep up with them.”
Frank Wong and his family came from Katy, Texas, about three hours away, for the opportunity to drive a British Chieftan tank, and got a chance to roll over the top of an old Audi sedan.
DeGidio said they have hired security to make sure no one comes in and tries to steal their machines.
“We have armed guards that are within 30 seconds from the building [where the tanks are parked],” he said. “We make sure that this stuff is all secure and approved magazines, explosive bunkers, stuff like that ... we do an over and beyond on that department.”
DriveTanks.com says they have “no set age limit” on who can drive or shoot on their courses, leaving that decision “entirely up to the parents and the capability of the kids to follow instruction,” according to the website. They say they have had kids as young as 8 years old shoot and as young as 12 years old drive.
Josh got his chance to pull the Sherman’s trigger -- slicing right through an old minivan. Both he and his friend Ethan cheered when they hit their target.
“I’ve seen amusement parks and roller coasters and stuff, but this is nothing compared to that,” Ethan said.