In Midlothian, about a half hour south of Dallas, backhoes and excavators are working more than a thousand acres of land in preparation for the opening of DFW's newest amusement park.
But don't start entertaining visions of roller coasters and log flumes. At Texplex, opening this weekend, it's the excavator itself that you'll be paying to ride.
Texplex President Tommy Kehoe moved to Dallas from Pittsburgh a few years ago with his wife for a job at a recycling company. He's embarrassed to admit it, but it was an episode of the Bravo reality show Vanderpump Rules that gave him the idea for his career change.
On the show, a group of guys heads to a Las Vegas park called Dig This, where, for a fee, you can enact your childhood fantasies of operating heavy machinery without getting a license or pursuing a career in construction.
After finding the large tract of land in Midlothian, Kehoe reached out to the founders of Dig This about allowing Texplex to be their first franchise. (The next one will open in New Zealand.)
There are other unconventional attractions at the park, as well. A customized jet boat with a Ferrari engine and movie theater seating will whip you around at up to 40 mph, or you can test your mettle on a 200-acre bike park or the offroad park. The latter consists of 5.2 miles of trail that you can drive yourself, as well as a "thrill ride experience."
There's also a giant event hall, Blaine Stone, on the premises. Texplex is hoping to cater to corporate events and bachelor parties as the "ultimate adrenaline fix."
In late July, it's hosting Giant Bicycles' regional dealer showcase. That's where the company will meet with vendors from across the Southeast. And Kehoe has plans to host all kinds of extreme sporting competitions at his park, like the Ultimate Side by Side Showdown scheduled for July 29.
People with their own dirt and motocross bikes, or UTVs (utility task vehicles), are welcome at Texplex, but if you're a novice wanting a taste, they have pros onsite who will take you on a ride as a passenger, as is the case with the UTV thrill ride.
Last weekend, a handful of Observer staffers visited Texplex to see if it delivers the promised thrills. To get there, head south on Highway 67 toward Cleburne and exit Miller Road. It truly feels like the property is out in the country, although from several attractions, you can see the steel and cement plants that are the bulk of Midlothian's industry.
On one side of the property is the gussied up Blaine Stone, with an attractive pond and fire pits in front. On the other is Texplex, which consists of large tracts of groomed dirt, and shallow, manmade lakes for the various sporting activities.
The first activity we tried our hands at was Dig This, set up on top of a giant sand pit. Kehoe explained that clay isn't very fun to dig out of the earth, so he shipped in sand to replace the clay in this area. Various games were set up around the excavator we drove, including tires to stack with the machine and cones topped with balls for a makeshift game of construction basketball.
We focused simply on learning the limits of the excavator and using it to dig and create a huge pile of sand. And let us tell you, it sounds fun, but it's even more fun than it sounds.
The instructor, David Sisk, gave each person an orange construction vest and a headset identical to his, which allowed him to instruct us step-by-step on how to operate the vehicle throughout the experience. (It's not intuitive.)
Once we were inside and buckled in, he told us to "crank the throttle to rabbit." Childish though it may seem, in these vehicles there's actually a diagram of a turtle and a rabbit on the throttle. By operating two joysticks and a lever in front of the seat, Sisk led us through a series of fun exercises, like leaning the cabin back so we were almost facing the sky, completing 360 spins and creating sand piles.
"Might not want to tell your boyfriends you know how to dig a 6-foot hole now," he joked as we left to move on to the next activity.
Up next was a demonstration of the bike park by two BMX pros who work for Texplex. Visitors are welcome to bring their bikes, but they'll also be available for rent. However, if you want to ride a motorized bike, you'll have to bring that yourself.
The bike park is the most high-maintenance of all of the attractions, Kehoe told us. Once Texplex gets the jumps just how it wants them, they're sprayed with a material designed for makeshift runways during Desert Storm; it makes dirt almost as hard as concrete. Even then, the jumps have to be groomed – sometimes by hand – daily.
The bike park caters to everyone from kids ages 3 and 4 to experts, Kehoe said. If you want to improve, there are attractions that are appropriate for multiple skill levels. On one side of a wooden, multisided bike jump is a giant air mattress called "the bubble" that will ensure a comfortable crash landing. The jumps get increasingly difficult and less cushy from there. This jump was designed in the Netherlands by a company that typically works with ski resorts.
Despite the name and Texplex's location in rural Texas, it's a pretty international affair. On top of the designer in the Netherlands, the employees have traveled from all over the United States to be a part of this new venture. Director of operations Casey Jarzombek, who has many years of experience insuring all types of amusement parks, moved from Seattle for this job.
Texplex isn't even the highest-risk place she has insured. It's safe, she says; the only risks you incur are the normal risks of doing BMX or riding a UTV anywhere. Texplex plans to keep EMT staff on hand for large competitions or events but not during day-to-day operations.
The next of Texplex's activities we tested was the jet boat ride. The park has one boat but there are plans to add more soon. The custom boat only needs 6 inches of water to run, but the manmade body of water it operates in – two small lakes connected by a channel – is about 4 feet at its deepest.
Director of motors Rich Vieira, a former Hollywood stunt man who lives in Keller and has appeared on shows such as Sons of Anarchy and Private Practice – was our driver. After handing us lifejackets and instructing us to take off our shoes and anything else we didn't want to get wet or potentially lose, we hopped into the boat, which has about 10 seats across three rows, all facing the same direction.
Once the boat took off, it headed through the channel and into the second lake, quickly picking up speed at first and then slowing down somewhat as Vieira took it into a powerful spin, which would have ejected us if we hadn't been holding on to the metal bars in front of the seats and planting our feet, as we were told.
It's Texplex's version of a splash ride, and for each boatload of people, three or four of these spins were executed as Vieira drove back and forth from the lakes through the channel.
Lastly, we checked out the off-road course. For this part of the day, a man named Curtis Kirchmeier, who has been racing the vehicles for more than 40 years, was our guide. He runs all kinds of racing events in the DFW area and is in charge of designing the off-roading course at Texplex. His kids, now grown, started racing UTVs as teens, he said.
For this trip, we were just passengers.
"My daughter loves to ride with me," Kirchmeier said. "I've only flipped the vehicle over with her in the car six or seven times."
That might have made some uneasy, but Kirchmeier assured us there was no danger, and he's careful not to drive so aggressively that he risks flipping the UTV when touring people around Texplex. But you won't be able to tell that he's not driving aggressively when he gets going.
"First," he told us, "I'll take you on a ride at 30 percent of my capacity. Then, 70 percent."
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On the first lap, we already caught major air.
"I can't believe that's the one that made you squeal," he said when we were through.
Texplex grand opening weekend, Saturday, June 3, and Sunday, June 4, Texplex Park, 881 Miller Road, Midlothian. For ticket prices and more information, visit texplexpark.com.