Dig This is an attraction, where for $250 you can learn to operate a bulldozer or excavator in 90 minutes or less. Originally located in Colorado, it later moved to Las Vegas, putting it within easy reach of anyone who visits that city. I was there this January for the World of Concrete and reserved a 90-minute Big Dig the day after the show.
The “school” occupies a small building at the end of a strip mall that adjoins a large open lot within sight of the Las Vegas Strip. My wife and I arrived 15 minutes early so we could fill out the required paperwork, a release form that listed every terrible thing that could possibly happen and that if any of them did, Dig This was not liable. There's nothing unusual about that; if you ride a roller coaster the ticket says it’s not the amusement park’s fault if the coaster bursts into flames and flies off the track with you in it. But what happened next was kind of different. We were asked to take breathalyzer tests—not because it looked like we’d been drinking but because Dig This (well, probably their insurance company) requires it of everyone who climbs into a machine. We both passed, which was no surprise given it was 9:45 AM and we hadn’t been out late the night before. That’s not the case for everyone, as we learned from an instructor who regaled us with stories of epic fails by people who decided to party before class instead of after.
The 90-minute Big Dig experience began with 30 minutes in the classroom. Our teacher was a grizzled guy who’d spend 35-plus years operating heavy equipment; teaching newbie “operators” in Las Vegas was his retirement gig. He began by explaining how the controls of Caterpillar bulldozers and excavators work. Using a sandbox-like model of the lot outside, complete with a miniature bulldozer and excavator, he then showed us what we’d be doing when we got in the machines. The sandbox demonstration is what I imagine Top-Gun School would be like if instead of flying fighters naval aviators drove heavy equipment—but without weapons and not quite as fast. At the end of the 30-minute classroom session it was time to climb into the machines.
Those of us who were there to drive excavators went off with one instructor. My wife chose to drive a bulldozer so she went off with another. The instructor for each group communicates with his students through headsets, telling them what to do and offering advice on how to do it. We were informed that if anything went seriously wrong—we had a seizure or freaked out and started to drive off the property—the instructor had a remote kill switch and would shut down the motor of the machines.
I won’t try to describe how to drive an excavator other than to say it is controlled by a couple of joysticks and a pair foot pedals that move in both directions. Anyone who is reasonably coordinated and can tell left from right and front from back could learn how to do it after a fashion--though doing it well takes years of practice.
During my time in the excavator I drove around, dug and filled a trench, and moved a bunch of 1,000-pound tires and stacked them in a pyramid. The grand finale involved lifting a basket ball with a bucket and placing it on top of a traffic cone. I'd have been pretty impressed with myself for completing the basketball trick except I'd seen professional operators at The World of Concrete perform much harder tricks in a fraction of the time it took me to put one ball on a cone.
The hour went by quickly and I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice what my wife was doing a short distance away in bulldozer. She said she ran a slalom course backwards and forwards, dug a big trench and filled it in, and then pushed some tires around.
Spending an hour in the cab of a machine did not make me the least bit competent as an operator, but it gave me a sense of what's involved in operating heavy equipment. Of course, I had it easy; there was an instructor nearby and I was in an open field where there was no need to worry about hitting buildings, buried gas pipes, overhead electrical lines, or tradesmen working nearby.
A basic session at Dig This isn't cheap, but then there are plenty of other ways to go through $250 in 90 minutes in Las Vegas. And unlike some of those other activities, you'll remember this one after it's over and won't be embarrassed to tell folks about it.