For as long as Vanda Bayliss can remember, every time she’s gotten near a bulldozer, her curiosity forced her to stand on her tiptoes and peek inside.
Maybe the driver accidentally left the keys behind, she hoped secretly.
Over the years, she’s become so fascinated that she’s even considered bribing workers to let her into the driver’s seat.
However, no mischievous acts were necessary for Bayliss to fulfill her bulldozing dreams thanks to a new — unique — East County business.
People at Play is a 21-acre, undeveloped heavy equipment playground that offers packages for adults to run bulldozers, excavators and skid steer loaders in a fun, construction-site environment.
And in January, Bayliss, 59, found her self behind the sticks of a CAT 315 track excavator — a Christmas gift from her son and daughter-in-law.
Bennett Contracting owners Jason and Alisa Bennett devised the idea for People at Play in August 2007 after they invited a group of engineers for a cookout. One by one, they brought out the machines.
“They tried them out and had the best time of their lives,” Alisa Bennett said. “We knew we were totally onto something, but we didn’t have the right location.”
The Bennetts revisited the idea again in 2010 and finally opened at their site just east of U.S. 301 in the East County Dec. 1.
Alisa Bennett said the business’ goal is two-fold: Create a fun environment for customers and also show them how much talent it takes to work in construction.
“Most people say, ‘There’s construction in my way again,’” she said. “I want to bring a little respect to those guys working all day.”
People at Play offers three packages. The operator position includes time operating a CAT 315 steel track excavator; the foreman position is a half-day program that includes the operator program plus the opportunity to run a skid steer loader on an obstacle course; and the superintendent program includes a full day of Operator and Foreman programs as well as the CAT track type bulldozer. The company also customizes events and team-building programs for corporate and social groups from six to 36 people.
Bayliss reported for work Jan. 22 as an operator at the People at Play job trailer. For the first time in her life, she punched in with a time card, strapped on a construction helmet and orange visibility vest and completed a safety briefing. Then, she was ready for the machinery.
“The first thing is getting into it,” Bayliss said. “That’s the only part that takes any strength or really seems tricky at all. Guys act like it’s such hard work, but it’s not physical. After that, you’re just sitting in a seat moving the gears. It takes coordination to do it the right way, but you can definitely start scooping dirt as a beginner.”
The excavator, which runs on tank tracks, works by using two joysticks. Each has two functions — forward and backward and side-to-side.
“I remember when my son was a toddler, and we would go to Arlington Park’s dirt pit,” Bayliss said. “They had an arm with a scooper and manual levers. He’d sit there for hours and scoop.”
After digging, scooping and dumping dirt in her own dirt pit, Bayliss anxiously awaited the subsequent part of her adventure: the timed obstacle course.
“When they told me I was going to bring the bucket down and give it a little swing to knock a tennis ball off of a construction cone without topping it over, I thought, ‘Yeah right!’” Bayliss said. “But it was really surprising because it shows you how accurately and precisely you can move the bucket to do different tasks.”
Although she used the bucket to push a concrete pipe in a straight line like a champ, her biggest challenge was picking up the massive industrial tires.
“The bucket has sort of a snaggletooth on it, so you can pick the tires up and put them over a post,” Bayliss said. “That was the trickiest because it would get stuck on the post as you tried to drop them down. If I ever quit practicing law and take up driving one of these machines, I’ll have to be the pipe-mover,” Bayliss said.
When Mary Carnahan agreed to spend her vacation in Sarasota, her aunt, Virginia Carnahan, sprang for a fantastic surprise: a trip for two to People at Play.
The 22-year-old stepped right up into the excavator’s driver seat and began digging. But it wasn’t until she got to the obstacle course that she really began to shine.
“I’ve worked at Home Depot, and we’ve had fork lift wars to see who can put the pallet up faster,” Mary Carnahan said. “When my aunt told me what we were doing, my first thought was that she was joking. My second thought was that my dad is going to be jealous.”
After nearly perfecting the first four parts of the obstacle course, Carnahan put the excavator in park and got ready to bowl. Little did she know she’d give the bucket such a good swing that she’d be the first customer to split the bowling ball perfectly in half.
“Jason (Bennett, co-owner, People at Play) told me to ‘rear back and whack the hell out of it!’” Carnahan said. “That was absolutely my favorite part of the course — it was thrilling!”