I had hoped that by showing up to Dig World first thing in the morning on a rainy weekday, I would avoid a big crowd—thus minimizing my embarrassment at being the only childless adult visiting Texas’s first construction-themed kiddie park, in the Houston suburb of Katy. But alas, when I arrived at 9:55 a.m., five minutes before the park opened, Dig World’s parking lot was already full of pickup trucks and crossover SUVs. Parents and grandparents were unbuckling ecstatic four-, five-, and six-year-olds from their car seats. I tried my best not to stand out.
“Parking lot” is a slightly confusing term here, because Dig World itself is also just a parking lot. The park, which opened last month and was designed with the help of experts from Texas A&M’s department of construction science, is a cordoned-off segment of the endless pavement outside of the Katy Mills shopping center. “The goal is to get kids excited about the construction industry,” founder Jacob Robinson told Texas Public Radio. The 3.5-acre space has been transformed into a dreamland for the sort of kid who can tell you the difference between an excavator and a backhoe. One of my nieces is like that, and I had considered bringing her with me as cover. But she’s not even three, and far shorter than the 32 inches required to participate in Dig World’s main attraction: riding and operating real-life heavy construction equipment. Having to explain to her why she couldn’t get into a skid steer would have made it harder for me to do what I wanted to do, which also was to get into a skid steer, and operate it by myself, like a big kid.
Dig World has four main stations. At its center are the skid steer tracks, where kids and/or their parents can wait in a long line to spend a few pretty cool minutes driving a stocky, four-wheeled loader that usually has a scooping attachment in the front, but here just had two tires that made the loaders look kind of like bumper cars. Also in the middle of the park is a smaller track on which older kids (those over 48 inches tall) can drive a utility task vehicle (like a golf cart, but for unmanicured landscapes). Along the periphery are two related stations, the most popular of which is home to the mini excavators. These beauties have crane arms with buckets on the end for digging and relocating sand, dirt, or whatever earth stands in the way of your projects. Next to them is a station that Dig World calls “mini ex games.” It also features mini excavators, though these are bucketless, with hook attachments at the end of their arms, that can be maneuvered to pick up cones, bricks, and a variety of other objects.
Upon my arrival, I headed straight for the mini excavators. This area had the longest line, no doubt because excavators are legitimately cool. Who doesn’t want to swing a big crane arm around, at any age? You get to sit way up high and control everything with a joystick, like at the arcade. Though Dig World’s promotional materials emphasize that the park is intended for construction enthusiasts of all ages, I was the only adult in line not paired with a child, and I did my damnedest to project an aura of non-creepiness, especially because another adult woman had allegedly tried to kidnap a four-year-old at Dig World just two days earlier. I waited in line for about fifteen minutes, and when I finally got through I was placed in the machine closest to the gate, which meant I had a nervous teenaged park employee right next to me, making sure I knew what I was doing. Obviously, I didn’t, but I certainly didn’t want him to know that. I don’t perform well with someone standing over my shoulder, even when they’re nice, which this kid totally was. I did not do my best excavating that day. I barely moved any dirt before I gave up and moved on, forgoing even a trip to the “mini ex games,” no longer confident that I had what it takes to compete.
The line for the skid steers was also long, but it flew by. I was less nervous this time, because I made eye contact with another adult woman in a skid steer by herself (she was there with her kid, but he was in another vehicle). I was helped into my machine by a different Dig World employee, though this guy was significantly less nervous. He wore a bright yellow construction vest. He showed me the controls, and then walked backward along the winding track, waving directions for me to follow; together we meandered extremely slowly around a Katy parking lot. When we were done, he offered to take my picture inside the skid steer, since I obviously didn’t have a mommy and/or daddy there to document my big day. I accepted, but he did not get my good side, so these photos will never see the light of day.
There wasn’t much else to do in the park. I opted not to drive the UTV, since the novelty is significantly less exciting for someone who drives a car every day of their life. There’s a gem-mining station, a gold-rush-era fountain thing with a sign reading “Old Gemmy’s Mining Company,” but it requires the purchase of a gem from the nearby concession stand. With gas prices as high as they are, I can’t be throwing around my hard-earned money on fake gems. I didn’t even bother going to the sandbox, because I hate sand, and also I’m almost 36.
Based on my visit, I feel comfortable saying that Dig World is fun for all ages. I certainly had a better time driving the skid steer than I did driving my Toyota RAV4 back to Austin in standstill Interstate 10 traffic. But Dig World isn’t very big, and thus can only really feel like a “world” to those between 32 and 48 inches tall. The kids I saw during my visit could barely contain their glee. Trucks are like celebrities to little kids. For my niece, being in the presence of a living, breathing excavator is as exciting as being in the same room as Sandra Bullock, or Lee Pace, might be for yours truly. Even on a gross, moist Texas morning, in a gray parking lot on the side of one of the most cursed stretches of highway in the nation, a few dozen preschoolers were having the best day of their lives. That’s heartwarming, even for a childless adult like myself.