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A trip to New Jersey you'll totally dig

As the mother of a boy who loved construction equipment in his pre-K days, I can’t imagine an amusement park with more kid appeal than Diggerland USA. Equally unimaginable is a more challenging amusement park than the grown-up section, Diggerland USA XL.

West Berlin, New Jersey, is home to the only such theme park in the country, and after I came across it online a year ago, I enlisted my friend Brittany for a trip last fall.

The children’s section looked exactly as I expected—plenty of moving parts and heavy on the construction-yellow hue that’s guaranteed to rev anyone's engine. I could easily imagine having bought a season pass if we’d lived in southern Jersey. It has the fanciest, most colorful ropes course I’ve ever seen; a rock-climbing wall; a turbo-charged Sky Shuttle to view the park from 50 feet above; the Spin Dizzy ride in an excavator bucket; the Greased Beast—a steel demolition trailer that simulates dumping its ticket-paying load; off-road Kubotas; the Soaring Eagle Zipline; and a playground with all sorts of kid-size equipment.

The XL section, however, felt a lot different than I’d anticipated. As Britt and I were led up a gangplank (OK, I’m projecting) to where we’d drive a real hydraulic excavator, anxiety swept through me. Our college-student guide, Ryan Lopez, was as reassuring as possible, telling me more than once: “I have a control and can stop the digger if I have to.”

But I still wasn’t convinced I’d remain upright. There were left and right joy sticks to move the arms, open the claw and dig. An idle switch was at my thigh. And there were two track handles. Operating all of this in concert seemed beyond my skill set. Testament to that was a loud, shaking noise that let me know when I pushed things too far.

One of the first things I was told to do was turn the digger in a tight circle, fairly fast, and I managed that pretty well. A dizzying success. Then I was given step-by-step directions for digging a hole, scooping the digger claw down and toward the cab then moving it to the side and releasing the dirt into a pile. The first couple scoops went fine, but as the hole got deeper, panic set in with the certainty I’d be taking a nose-dive. Finally, with every upper-body muscle clenched, I was ready to give up. Too much stress. So, Ryan came to the cab and said, “I’m not going to force to you continue, but are you sure you want to quit?”

I was. But he wasn’t done.

Ryan looked off to the side and said, “Would you rather go pick up that tractor tire and drop it in the hole?” Hey, yeah, that sounded like fun. I drove over, lifted the tire, took it back and dropped it in with a thwump. Piece of cake. Then I had to pull it out, take it back, and refill the hole for Britt’s turn.

She was such an old hand at heavy machinery (who knew?) that Ryan and I chatted throughout her half-hour at the controls, then he declared hers the deepest hole he’d seen anyone dig in all the time he’d worked there. For me he had a kind but slightly less enthusiastic observation: “At least you finally got it. Some people who come here…it’s like the longest hour of my life.”

The excavator isn’t the only machine you can try; also available are a wheel loader and bulldozer. A one-hour experience, which includes training and operation, runs $129. For an extra $395, you can add your very own car to smash.

More to explore

This is a pretty compact area, so we didn’t limit our trip to Diggerland. Friends had suggested we check out the nearby Berlin Farmers Market. It’s part farm market, part flea market, and part pole-barn mall. The latter was open, so we wandered its 75 stalls. Had we needed them, we could have bought tires, a vacuum cleaner, cheesecakes, human hair braids, a couch, upholstery, Uggs, wine, art glass, and more. There’s also an arcade and, if we’d wanted a break from strolling the concrete, a line of foot-massage chairs awaited.

Not too far from there are the Chocolatrium (complete with an informational tasting tour), Amazing Escape Room and Garden State Discovery Museum (for the 10-and-younger set).

The communities closest to the hotel where we stayed were Moorestown, Collingswood and Cherry Hill. We enjoyed Moorestown’s downtown the most because of the beautiful tree-lined brick sidewalk, nice shops, aromatic bakery and brick architecture that included Long & Foster Real Estate, Moorestown Community House and Moorestown Friends School.

If you eat anywhere here, it pays to know that this is a dry town—so BYOB. We ate dinner at Maurizio’s Bistro on Main Street and enjoyed the stuffed ravioli.

The next day, before heading to Diggerland, we conducted our own bakery tour across the area. If sweets are your thing, don’t miss the French macarons at Miel Patisserie Café in Cherry Hill. We found the most tempting variety of sweets, though, at Dulce Artisanal Pastry in Collingswood, and we bought an assortment to sample that evening and on our way back to Western New York. The pecan mousse cake and habanero s’mores tarte were delicious, but the stout brownie was what merits a return trip. n

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