Right now, in eight malls spread across three continents, thousands of children are dressed as pilots and flying digital planes from mock cockpits, anchoring news broadcasts in fully functional TV studios, or wearing helmets and extinguishing faux flames with real water cannons.
This is KidZania, a multinational chain of family entertainment centers, where kids try out professions that have been downsized, simplified, and made fun. At these soccer field-size franchises in malls from Tokyo to Lisbon, children play at being adults.
Children can play surgeon, detective, journalist, courier, radio host, and dozens more jobs. They can buy and sell goods at the KidZania supermarket, take KidZania currency that they earn to an operational bank staffed with adult tellers, and be security guards escorting KidZania currency around the park. They can assemble burgers and pizzas, which they can then eat, or give makeovers to other paying children. At the planned KidZania Santiago, Chile, minors will be able to play at being miners. One-size-fits-all costumes supersize the cute factor. The result of all this is mass-produced adorability.
KidZania may seem like a Disneyland of child labor, but the photos and videos that parents have shared online show just how much fun everyone is having in the scaled down cityscape. 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. It’s the sort of fun I would have lapped up as a child.
But at the heart of the concept and the business of KidZania is corporate consumerism, re-staged for children whose parents pay for them to act the role of the mature consumer and employee. The rights to brand and help create activities at each franchise are sold off to real corporations, while KidZania’s own marketing emphasizes the arguable educational benefits of the park.
To put it another way entirely, the candy cigarette has found a rightful heir. And it’s coming to the U.S. within the next two years.
For the children whose parents bring them to KidZania, the core of each activity is the same: listening to the adult supervisors explain what’s going to happen, getting dressed up in suitable outfits or costumes, and then following instructions.
At a construction site activity, for example, children register with an adult, put on safety jackets and helmets, then study blueprints before splitting into teams. One group operates a crane and another team climbs a flight of stairs to direct the crane group with marshalling wands. The teams cooperate to direct a play cement hose hanging from a working crane into a tube to continue the construction of a building I fear will never be completed.
The marketing for KidZania Dubai calls the whole concept “Learn while you play.” The franchise claims that the “diverse learning experiences of KidZania will benefit children in their life at school, home, or when they are out with friends.” The phrase is repeated twice in a short marketing leaflet. The franchise being built in Cairo is promoted by the managing director of the group that owns the commercial space as a place for parents to “educate their children and ensure they are meeting all the most important developmental milestones.”
When the children are learning factory work, it’s in a job bottling Coca-Cola, and when they’re working at a restaurant, that “restaurant” has golden arches.
And kids aren’t just migrant laborers in KidZania. They are KidZanians, citizens of the nation of KidZania. There is a national anthem and a red and yellow flag, the colors split by the letter K. The KidZania logo itself is that same fluttering flag. Each child receives a bank account, an ATM card, a wallet, and a check for 50 KidZos (the park’s currency). At the park’s bank, which is staffed by adult tellers, kids can withdraw or deposit money they’ve earned through completing activities—and the account remains even when they go home at the end of the day. A lot of effort goes into making the children repeat visitors of this Lilliputian city-state. Also, KidZania itself isn’t cheap. Both parents and children are required to buy tickets to enter—a family of four pays $150 to visit KidZania Tokyo during peak hours—and franchises around the world continue to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
Like any good nation, KidZania has its elites, too. Each park has a congress of 14 children. Really, it’s a focus group that meets once a month. The kids talk about what they’re doing at school and, more importantly, what’s going on at KidZania. They go on trips to visit the workplaces of KidZania’s sponsors and visit other parks around the world. KidZania can then ensure that the experience is suited to children’s ever-changing needs and whims. Even the adult management uses governmental titles; the most senior manager of each franchise is referred to as the “Governor.”
In addition to using the lingo of an aspiring nation-state with its own proxy legislature, KidZania has a bill of rights. KidZania grants each child “The Right To Know, The Right To Be, The Right To Care, and The Right To Play.” The right to play is symbolized by the image of a kite. It may seem antithetical to the KidZania concept that a kite is used to symbolize play, when in KidZania the play is work and perhaps a better symbol would be a pair of plastic goggles.
But when the children are learning factory work, it’s in a job bottling Coca-Cola, and when they’re working at a restaurant, that “restaurant” has golden arches. The dentist office is sponsored by Crest. The plane fuselage visible from the airport-style departure gate through which you access each KidZania franchise is branded, too. Corporate sponsorship is crucial to the KidZania concept. Companies can sponsor generic job activities, and other jobs are specifically built around the participating brands. Some sponsors fit awkwardly in the park: Selling Chevrolet to children is tough. The answer in these situations is often to put up a few computers in a booth where children can interact with the brand—in the Chevrolet case, by designing a customized Camaro.
Corporate sponsors have been there since the start, providing 55 percent of the initial investment for the first KidZania, built in Mexico in 1999. At KidZania Dubai, these deals account for 35 to 45 percent of the revenue stream; sponsors have paid an initial sum of $2.6 million to be part of the planned KidZania Kuala Lumpur. KidZania is sold to parents as being fun and educational, and marketed as an excellent school field-trip destination for the same reasons. But as is often the case with “edutainment,” educational benefits are hard to prove, but easy to sell. So it might be more accurate to describe KidZania as “advertainment” rather than edutainment.
At KidZania Dubai, there is a university activity where kids can complete various levels of education and then earn bonus KidZos for each subsequent job activity. Kids earn their diplomas through short lessons and exams in subjects such as health and biology, engineering, and IT and electronics. Finishing the “Major” program earns kids two extra KidZos per job, followed by six and eight extra KidZos in salary, respectively, for completing a “Master’s” and “Ph.D.” program. They must choose their courses wisely, as they’ll only get extra KidZos on future jobs if the activity is related to their area of study. The KidZos currency can be used to buy items in the KidZania gift shop or to pay for job activities that are not free.
The overall message is that more education means more money. But KidZania seems to fail to emphasize the idea that education is important for reasons other than as a way to get a better-paid job. “At KidZania University learning compensates!” declares the website for the Lisbon franchise, as if learning only pays off if it pays in cash. It’ll take a little while to pay off that student debt, as the state of KidZania require kids to pay their own tuition fees.
At KidZania, there is little that’s pretend, and the play revolves around following instructions from the adult “Zupervisors.” It is not make-believe but real, and it is not pretend, but branded.
As I was unable to visit KidZania for myself—the franchises haven’t spread anywhere near me just yet—I spoke with Jeffrey Friedl, a parent who has taken his children to KidZania Tokyo many times. He didn’t mention anything on the scale of what KidZania suggests regarding developmental milestones but indicated that the educational benefits were much more specific, with children learning things like “how a newspaper article comes to be, how bread is made, what the driver of a train has to pay attention to, etc.”
This sentiment was echoed by Kaho, who has taken her daughters to KidZania Jakarta. “It is educational in the way that kids know certain jobs exist and get the idea of what they need to do in the job,” she said. The activities could have been better executed to make them more interesting, life-like, and fun, she continued, and if so, it would be “fine” to involve brands, but “I think it’s the matter of execution.” Both parents were clear that KidZania is an inspiring place for children; Friedl went so far as to say “I’m sure that for some older kids it’s been a life-changing event.”
School visits are an important part of the KidZania business model, making up one-third of KidZania’s visitors. Most of the parks’ operating hours overlap with the school day, so class trips are important to keep things busy outside of weekends and vacation times. In Japan, KidZania representatives have even attended PTA meetings to introduce and promote KidZania Tokyo.
Field trips don’t always need to be educational, but it seems dishonest to promote the park on this premise while quietly providing an opportunity for sponsors to market to a captive and impressionable young audience.
In response to an emailed inquiry, Cammie Dunaway, U.S. president of Kidzania, told me, “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.”
When Kaho’s daughter took part in a cooking class activity, Kaho found that “it was about eating chicken nuggets, probably frozen, which I don’t find very healthy, educational, or interesting.” During the activity, TV screens played a commercial for the chicken nugget company on a loop. “It was more about promoting the products rather than creating a fun, educational place for children,” Kaho said.
The KidZania concept was developed in Mexico in 1997 by Xavier López Ancona under the name La Ciudad de los Niños, The City of Children, or Kids City. Luis Javier Laresgoiti had the initial idea to open day-care centers that stimulate kids by letting them try a variety of professions, and approached his school friend López for help with a business plan. López undertook the venture in his spare time while working as a manager for General Electric’s Risk Capital department. López eventually quit his job to work on KidZania full-time. The first KidZania-branded park opened in Mexico City in 1999.
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.
“I wasn’t going to quit my job for a day-care center; it seemed crazy. But then I looked at the business plan and changed my mind,” López told the United Arab Emirates newspaper the National last year. In 2004, Laresgoiti launched a similar park concept in Fort Lauderdale called “Wannado City,” and sold his ownership interest in KidZania.
While López was assessing the viability of international franchises before diving into the U.S. market, Laresgoiti had jumped the gun. After years of struggle, Wannado City closed on Jan. 2, 2011, never breaking even. The ticket prices were steep, due to a lack of commercial partners, but like KidZania, Wannado City did have sponsorship amounting to an initial $4 million. The Miami Herald sponsored the journalism activity in the park; it was, of course, the Herald that reported on the park’s ultimate demise.
KidZania, meanwhile, became a profitable, award-winning, and thoroughly successful business. There are franchises in Dubai, Portugal, Indonesia, and South Korea, two in Japan, and two corporate-owned parks in Mexico. The United States must be the biggest target for future expansion, with hundreds of potential locations, thousands of potential corporate sponsors, and more than 50 million children—and their parents—to aim at.
In November, KidZania hired Cammie Dunaway from Nintendo of America, where she was executive vice president of sales and marketing—one step away from president of the Mushroom Kingdom. Soon after she was hired as U.S. president and global chief marketing officer at KidZania, Dunaway told VentureBeat that the first U.S. franchise of KidZania will open by 2013; in my later email exchange with her, she said, “The brand is so rich and popular globally, the timing is perfect for a bold U.S. entry. The team is on track and very excited to be able to share more soon.”
The Tokyo park was the first to open outside of Mexico. It attracted nearly a million people in its first year, and making reservations is recommended, as it was fully booked through its first three years. The park has expanded most aggressively in Asia, with four of its eight existing parks in the region; it currently has franchises planned for Turkey, Chile, Brazil, Malaysia, India, Egypt, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and China. Founder Lòpez told CNBC, “Because of this one-child policy in China, a lot of attention, investment is poured into one kid. And because KidZania is educational, not only fun but educational, I think Chinese parents are going to be willing to spend some money to take them there.”
KidZania’s corporate mission statement requires the company and its franchises to work to “provide the best family edutainment through fun, realistic role-playing activities.” This is great, because role-play is something that child development psychologists increasingly consider to be an effective way to improve a child’s executive function—the ability to focus and think straight. Developing such self-regulation at a young age can help children thrive intellectually can be a good indicator of future academic ability.
These self-regulation skills are what child development scholars Dr. Deborah Leong and Dr. Elena Bodrova were focused on when they created the Tools of the Mind curriculum, which stresses role-play and is taught to around 18,000 students at kindergarten and pre-kindergarten, toward the lower end of the KidZania target age.
KidZania also is about role-play, but the firefighting hose and fast-food restaurants are real, albeit scaled down. Dr. Bodrova told me that these sorts of props can work as building blocks, as a first step, but that children must ultimately be given the opportunity to create their own worlds. “When you have the restaurant or grocery store that is fully equipped with everything there is no room for children to generate something using their cardboard box,” she explained.
“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.”
Studies show that kids in the tween bracket, bang in the middle of KidZania’s target audience, are spending substantially less time engaged in free and unstructured play. The amount of time that 9- to 12-year-olds spend doing creative play has declined by 94 percent in a decade, according to data gathered by Sandra L. Hofferth, University of Maryland, for a study about changes in how children spend their time.
At KidZania, there is little that’s pretend, and the play revolves around following instructions from the adult “Zupervisors.” It is not make-believe but real, and it is not pretend, but branded. Dr. Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, told me that “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.”
Bodrova, though, suggested that we must do a better job of teaching children how to be creative and how to undertake mature role-play. Adults can then, she says, “step back and children can take over and do role-play on their own.” Dunaway explained that KidZania takes the role-play experiences very seriously. “An immense and constant amount of thought, planning, creation, and maintenance is put toward the experience being as real life, yet as imaginative as possible,” she said.
On a playground or in a play-park, children may play at being cops and robbers, but the focus in KidZania is on security services and police. At KidZania Jakarta, it’s a staff member who plays the criminal. Corporate sponsors presumably don’t want their logo on a swag-bag or emblazoned on a getaway vehicle. I wouldn’t expect children to be told to hold up the KidZania bank or hijack a plane, but that’s beauty of play—free-flowing chaos resembles the real world far better than a toddler-sized Starbucks franchise does.
Children do not create their own stories at KidZania. The story that some children are tasked with writing for the journalism activity at many franchises is a report on the how great the police are. Meanwhile, in the painting activity at KidZania Dubai, they do not paint their own picture but color in a picture of one of the KidZania mascots.
Bodrova says it’s hard to appreciate the pros and cons of KidZania without close study, but that “the danger is that a lot of times those kinds of situations mostly draw children’s attention to things, and kids would be really fascinated with the things … but really good role play is about people, and the relationships between people, and how people feel towards each other, and how people relate to each other.” She sees little problem with commercial sponsors being involved, saying that kids are “already exposed to all this kind of commercialism from all possible directions” but that problems arise if “there is nothing left for the imagination … like if they want to make their own pizza that doesn’t look like one from Pizza Hut.”
ProMexico, a Mexican government initiative to promote Mexican commerce, says in its literature that, “KidZania emulates the positive aspects of capitalism.” Linn, though, said, “I don’t see what’s positive about [KidZania]. The more kids are immersed in commercialization, 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.”
The second part of KidZania’s mission statement requires the company to strive to “constitute an effective interactive publicity medium for our partners, firmly committed to the enhancement of our community.” With sponsors contributing almost half of KidZania’s revenue, this is a big part of the business plan. Dunaway told me, “The partner sponsors are key to the KidZania parks and the intention by all, and we think successfully done, is to provide the best learning and most entertaining hands-on [experience] that can be had.” KidZania is confident in the power of the marketing, noting on its website, “Research has sown [sic] that people consume/want the same brands and products that they are surrounded by.” These thoughts were echoed by Linn, who said, “Endeavors like KidZania embed these brands in children’s brains, to have them associate the brands with fun, to encourage children to nag their parents for these products.”
Advertising is not a necessary component to edutainment, and it definitely isn’t required in order for kids to have a good time, but parent Jeffrey Friedl suspects that “without the support of the big-name brands, a place like KidZania would not be a financially viable business.” He further emphasized, though, that brands added a lot to the realism of the experience for his children. Linn sees things differently, explaining that concepts like KidZania “serve to convince kids and parents to depend on the things that corporations sell for enjoyment, not on what the children themselves can bring to an experience.”
Sponsorships in KidZania are likely not taken to just shore up the finances, but to increase corporate revenues. Marketing that targets children accounts for around $15 billion a year in the U.S., but that figure must be considered alongside the fact that 87 percent of adults feel consumer culture undermines attempts to encourage positive values in kids, according to a New American Dream survey. Even Hermann Behrens, chief executive of the Brand Union marketing agency, told the Emirati National that he was uncomfortable with the idea of unhealthy brands such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola being marketed to children at KidZania.
Using the imitation of maturity and the promise of adulthood to market brands and unhealthy food to playing children is problematic, just like it is with the candy cigarette. KidZania’s tagline reads, “Prepare for a better world,” but if we look past the cute coordinated role-play activities, we can see it’s just a scaled reflection of our own world.
Childhood is plenty commercialized before we do anything to help train a new generation of consumers to be as greedy, materialistic, and self-centered as we adults are. Instead of supporting free play in the fresh air, or role-play that comes anywhere near teaching empathy or compassion, KidZania teaches children the importance of the next paycheck. It’s incredible that they can get it all so wrong. After all, it’s child’s play.