Extreme Sandbox: Digging up business

Play with toy bulldozers and trucks as a child? Always wanted to sit at the controls of the real thing? At the Extreme Sandbox, go ahead. Do it.

Mike Stiff always thought running a monster dirt-digger would be fun.

Now he knows. And, yes, it is.

When Stiff, of Woodbury, and his then-fiancée, Ann, heard about the Extreme Sandbox in Hastings, she kept it in the back of her mind.

A week before their marriage earlier this month, Ann surprised Mike with a “pre-wedding” present— an outing together to the 10-acre “sandbox,” where adults who played with toy bulldozers as children get to run the real thing.

And irony of ironies for a guy who grew up on Tonka trucks and a gal who played with Barbies: “I think she had more fun than I did,” Mike said.

Mike and Ann were among the early customers at Extreme Sandbox, which has a bobcat, bulldozer and 19-ton excavator that towers over the “playground.”

The business, founded by brothers Randy and Don Stenger of Farmington, is open Saturdays and Sundays, and weekdays by appointment.

The playground includes an obstacle course with stations where the excavator operator can climb a berm, lift a 3,000-pound chunk of concrete, drop giant tractor tires over posts and fill a bin with dirt.

For a price, customers can “buy” an old car and crush the junker.

Or they can just dig a deep hole.

Idea takes shape

Randy Stenger said he and his brother worked on the idea for a couple of years.

They first approached Ziegler Cat in Bloomington, one of the country’s largest Caterpillar heavy equipment dealers.

Randy Stenger is a retail consultant and Don Stenger is a police officer.

Neither has heavy equipment experience, but the minute a Ziegler salesman let them run a machine, they knew they had a good idea, Randy said.

He said the brothers worked with the city of Hastings on permits to open their business. They lease the land and have a partnership with Ziegler for equipment.

Additional equipment will be on the site for an open house next weekend.

The brothers hired professionals to train them on the equipment.

“For the kind of stuff we’re doing, it’s not that difficult,” Randy said. But he said the learning process increased their appreciation for the skills needed to operate heavy equipment.

Packages start at $195, while a 90-minute deal including instruction and 60 minutes on the excavator or bulldozer costs $295.

Stenger said similar businesses operate in Florida and Nevada, but Extreme Sandbox is the only attraction of its kind in the Midwest.

One pilot’s fun

Brothers Dave and Carl Nowlin said they heard about Extreme Sandbox at the Minnesota State Fair.

They jumped at the chance to “play” when they found a Groupon deal.

“I’ve always said if I hit the jackpot, the first thing I’d do is buy a digger and dig holes,” said Carl Nowlin, a 35-year-old elementary school teacher from Blaine.

“It’s like video games come to life,” he said.

The brothers, who said they played as children with toy replicas of the equipment at Extreme Sandbox, found the learning curve to be pretty smooth.

It’s an especially interesting transition from work to play for Dave Nowlin, 39, of Rosemount, who flies MD-90 planes for Delta Airlines.

On their first visit, Dave drove the excavator and Carl the bulldozer. Controls include levers and joysticks familiar to a pilot, Dave Nowlin said.

“It’s big and heavy like an airplane,” he said, “but that’s where the similarities end.”

Bill Crum • 612-673-7215