“Breaking news: The situation at the Pink Flamingo hotel is now out of control, as the two story building is on fire. The fire lasted for about 10 minutes before it was successfully controlled by the firemen of Fitters Fire Station …” – starts one of the numerous news reports from the entertainment center KidZania. What is interesting is that it’s announced by a kid.
Do you remember when what you wanted to be when you grew up? We often used ‘materials at hand’ to create our own imaginative worlds, so that for just a little while we could pretend to be adults. Remember impersonating doctors with toy stethoscopes, shop assistants with tree leaves instead of money, and teachers with wooden pointers? Looking back and comparing then to now, our games look ‘amateurish’ compared to KidZania, the chain of day care amusement centers which this article is going to tell about.
KidZania is a family entertainment center, a miniature replica of a real city, where children (aged 2 to 15) get an opportunity to function as adults and mimic their activities through role-playing. KidZania has its own currency (KidZos), it has banks and ATMs, a police station and a government, a hospital, a university, and almost every other facility found in a real city.
Kids are offered more than 100 different occupations in more than 60 establishments. They can choose to be anyone they wish: they can perform surgeries on plastic mannequins or save ‘lives’ being firemen; broadcast as news anchors or be factory workers. They can work at a spa salon or a bakery, or simply make hamburgers at McDonald’s or pizza at Pizza Hut. If kids choose to go to the university, after completing the course of study, they receive a certificate, which, if they continue working in their specialties, will give them higher salaries. Everything works the same way it does in real life. And as in real life there is a fun part to it: once you’ve earned KidZos you are free to spend them however you want: you can buy souvenirs at the gift shop (for 11000 KidZos you can become the happy owner of an Xbox), go to eat, or buy something at a grocery store. As Cammie Dunaway, U.S. president of KidZania, commented in an interview with Mike Dery Smith: “KidZania puts child education and inspiration at the top of their list. The goal is to provide a great, real-life experience for the children, and inspire them to dream big in their lives and know that they can do anything they want if they set their sights there.” The extra bonus of KidZania is, of course, one size fits all working outfits for every profession, that bring extra cuteness to the whole thing.
Originally known as “La Ciudad de los Niños”, KidZania was founded in 1996 by Mexican entrepreneur Xavier López Ancona. The first ‘city’ was opened in the Mexico City suburb of Santa Fe in September 1999, and since then the number of centers, operating around the world on the franchise model, has grown rapidly and does not plan to stop. Today parents can drop their kids at KidZania Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea, Mexico, Chile, Japan, Portugal, and Arab Emirates. Ancona plans on further expansion in, of course, the U.S.A., Russia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, India, Turkey, and the U.K. Today, KidZania is a billion dollar company with growing numbers of customers and companies fighting to get a spot in one of these fully developed cities for children. But it wasn’t always like that.
As Ancona told Exceptional magazine, 15 years ago, when it all began, it was extremely hard to start this kind of business in Mexico, as potential investors one after another declined to risk their money. No one had done anything like KidZania before and it apparently didn’t sound safe to Mexican companies. Although up until today there are very few entrepreneurs in Mexico, back in the day, Ancona said “there were no seed capital investors in Mexico. It was really hard to find financing for the project.” Luckily for Ancona, bakery products giant Grupo Bimbo came through followed by American Airlines, Nestle, and Coca-Cola, ending up with 55% of investment coming from corporations. What started as an idea for a day care center, ended up as “a profitable, award-winning, and thoroughly successful business” that makes children’s dreams of growing up faster come true, meanwhile freeing their parents from their ‘burden’ for a few hours. “Joy, wonder, and deep concentration are evident on these kids’ faces, whether they’re operating on robot dogs or constructing a 25-foot tower using hoists and harnesses—very appropriate for KidZania Dubai.”
Ticket prices range from $15 in Mexico City to around $45 in Tokyo. To enter the city, children go on a plane, receive a passport and a credit card with 50 KidZos to start. As a security measure (since kidnapping is a very serious issue in Mexico for instance) every child gets an electronic wristband, to monitor his location. Then everyone goes to the job information center, which will help a kid to determine what profession would be the most entertaining for him. After that, the kid is free to go and live and act in a simulation of regular adult life, surrounded by around 40 well-known brands. It is this last item that parents are concerned with, although KidZania denies the advertising and consumerist side of the project. As Lopez insists in a Bloomberg Business Magazine article: “KidZania is not an advertising medium.”
Nevertheless the entire time children spend in KidZania they are surrounded by monitors and brand logos, tasting their products, and, perhaps, getting used to them. As Dr. Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, commented for The Morning News: “I don’t see what’s positive about [KidZania]. The more kids are immersed in commercialization and prepackaged fun, the less experience they have of making their own fun, of using their own imaginations, and the more they are dependent on corporations to supply their fun for them.” If a kid is a factory worker, he works on a Coca-Cola bottling conveyor; if he chooses to be a photographer he uses Sony; car mechanics are introduced to Chevrolet etc. As KidZania authorities admit themselves, it’s a known fact that people tend to consume products of the brands that surround them throughout their lives, especially during childhood when a child’s brain is easier to manipulate.
A lot of parents and psychologists note another downside to a center like KidZania as it takes the magic of imagination and self-creation away from already short childhoods. KidZania is based on the principle of role-playing. The unavoidable problem is that before children can act on their own, they are guided and instructed by special professionals, known as “Zupervisors,” who are always around and regulating the process. As Dr. Lynn noted: “child-driven, hands-on creative play is the foundation of learning, creativity, constructive problem-solving. When adults drive children’s play, those benefits are removed.” On the other hand, Ph.D. in Developmental and Educational Psychology Elena Bodrova insists that at KidZania a lot of “thought, planning, creativity, and maintenance are devoted to an experience that mimics real adult life, yet as imaginatively as possible.”
In the end, it’s up to parents to decide what to do with their kids. Along with unsatisfied and critical families, there are thousands of those who are very satisfied with the fact that their children now have a chance to get an education in an entertaining way. Moreover, it’s undeniable that for older citizens of KidZania a trip to this simulated world became a high point in their experience. Children receive a chance to be independent just for a while and, already at a young age, create social connections and live three dimensional lives. Remember yourself as a kid, what else did you really want? Perhaps, nothing but to grow up faster!
Youth Time Editorial office is encourages you, dear readers, to have a discussion of KidZania. Do you think it is right to organize children’s activities through labor and monetary relations or should childhood remain as it used to be? Please send your comments to email@example.com