At Play in a Grown-Up World

With a mannequin for a patient, Katlyn Jones, 5, left, Rebecca Shipman, 6, and Connor McLane, 5, learn about dentistry at the Wannado City theme park in Florida.
With a mannequin for a patient, Katlyn Jones, 5, left, Rebecca Shipman, 6, and Connor McLane, 5, learn about dentistry at the Wannado City theme park in Florida. (By David Adame For The Washington Post)
By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 23, 2005

SUNRISE, Fla. -- It was a busy day for 8-year-old Jordan Mike. The third-grader piloted a Spirit Airlines jet, worked as a cashier at a Publix grocery story, helped repair a broken arm as an emergency room doctor at Plantation General Hospital and wrote an article as a Miami Herald reporter. Jordan was also a firefighter and police officer; he didn't have time to bottle drinks at the local Coca-Cola plant or help produce a show on Cartoon Network or CNN.

For all these jobs, Jordan earned 310 Wongas, which he deposited in his State Farm Bank account. It came with a gold plastic bank card, complete with a personal identification number, so Jordan could withdraw cash any time he needed it.

All in all, it was a typical day for Jordan and the hundreds of other "kidizens" who visit Wannado City, the latest innovation in both amusement parks and corporate marketing to children, each day.

The size of 2 1/2 football fields, this $40 million indoor theme park near Fort Lauderdale provides 3- to 13-year-olds with what its developers say is a taste of the grown-up world. They get to "play" at more than 100 professions, from attorney to paleontologist, dentist to pizza maker, hairdresser to detective. For their hard work, they earn Wongas, which can be spent on cookies, rock climbing or carnival rides purchased from park employees, or manicures and hair styling done by other role-playing youngsters.

But what's real life without brand names or corporate marketing? As Wannado's chief creative officer, Luis Javier Laresgoiti, says, a city without corporate names "doesn't look like a real city."

So it's no surprise that the theme park aggressively courts brand-name firms as sponsors to give companies an opportunity to reach out to children and their parents in hopes of turning their Wannado enthusiasm into can-do spending.

That's certainly the goal of State Farm Bank, an early sponsor at the park that opened in August in the Sawgrass Mills shopping mall, a popular Florida tourist destination. The bank, a subsidiary of State Farm Insurance Cos., the nation's largest auto and home insurer, has no branches; customers gain access to it through State Farm agents, a telephone or the Internet. "A lot of people don't know about our bank," said Bobby Wilkinson, State Farm's manager of sponsorships. That's what made Wannado a great marketing opportunity, he said.

Wannado officials said they approached State Farm to sponsor other activities, including the fire department, but when the firm learned that the bank needed a sponsor, it snapped up that option.

"How awesome to have a 3- or 4-year-old with their first bank account and debit card from State Farm," Wilkinson said. "We can introduce that brand early to kids and bring some awareness to parents that we have a State Farm Bank. And if we can introduce this brand early to these kids, then the potential that these could be lifelong customers just increases."

That's precisely what bothers some critics of marketing aimed at children. "It's one more step that corporations are taking to insinuate themselves into the fabric of our lives," said Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist and the author of "Consuming Kids." "The fact that role-playing is taking place in a shopping mall is also very troubling," she said.

Spirit Airlines Inc., a low-fare carrier based in Fort Lauderdale, hopes its sponsorship of a flight simulator will make "all the kids think good things about Spirit," said Lynne Koreman, the company's senior director of marketing and communications. "When they're sitting around home planning the family vacation, we hope everyone will be saying, 'We're flying Spirit, right?' "

Most children seem oblivious to the corporate branding, at least while they are in the park -- perhaps because they're too busy running from job to job, trying to cram several lifetime careers into a few hours. Jordan, for example, said he didn't notice the brand names. But he added, "one day I might want to fly on" Spirit because the simulator "felt like a smooth ride."

Most parents were unperturbed by the corporate branding. "It's reality, what they're familiar with, what they're comfortable with," said Anna Martinez, whose 8-year-old son, Alexis Julian Martinez, was a firefighter, gold miner and doctor. But getting to do those jobs didn't change his mind about his future: When he grows up, he wants to be a baseball player.

Wannado City is the first indoor theme park for children in the United States. It follows the concept created at La Ciudad de los Niños (Kid City) in Mexico City in 1999, although at 140,000 square feet, Wannado City is three times as large. Only "kidizens" can participate in the activities; parents can watch -- or hang out in the grown-ups-only Internet cafe. (If their children are at least 8, parents can drop them off and go shopping in the adjacent mall.)

Laresgoiti, a founder of Kid City, came up with the idea of the kid-size theme park after seeing his children, now 9 and 10, play with his phone and fax machine. "I realized kids want to play with real things and imitate an adult's life," he said. He considered creating some life-size toys but concluded that "that didn't make sense without the whole environment." However, he needed money to fund his idea; that's how corporate sponsorships developed.

Laresgoiti and his Kid City partners parted in 2002, with Laresgoiti joining forces with another Mexican company, a division of the international entertainment conglomerate Corporacion Interamericana de Entretenimiento SAto bring the concept to the United States.

The Sunrise site is the first, but the company has teamed up with Arlington-based Mills Corp., which owns and manages Sawgrass Mills, and already announced it will be part of Mills's Meadowlands Xanadu entertainment and shopping complex that is scheduled to open in New Jersey in 2007. Wannado is now looking for sites in other major cities, including Washington.

At Wannado City, everything is kid-size and as lifelike as possible. At Publix, for example, the food shelves are only four feet high so small children needn't struggle to reach them. The produce is plastic, but the rest of the food is real, including the candy. "That's why so many go missing," joked Wannado sales and marketing director Laura Lieberman. In Plantation General's surgery rooms, children make incisions in mannequins covered with rubbery skin so lifelike that some of the "doctors" have to be treated for lightheadedness.

Admission to the park is $34.95 for children ages 3 to 13, and $15.95 for those age 14 and older. Children younger than 3 are admitted free, according to the park's Web site .

The park "is one of the best concepts I've seen in the last 25 years, which was when the outdoor water park was introduced," said Dennis L. Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a Cincinnati consulting firm. It represents the continuing evolution of amusement parks from a field full of carnival rides to increasingly sophisticated variations on a theme that started after Disneyland opened 50 years ago, Speigel said.

As theme parks have introduced higher, longer and faster rides, they've also expanded customers' activities. For example, instead of just taking a ride on an attraction, participants might engage in role-playing during the ride. Meanwhile, corporate sponsors, who were present in the early days of Walt Disney Co. parks (consider the company-sponsored rides at Epcot at Walt Disney World), are demanding roles that make sense for the company and promise a more certain payback, Speigel said.

The six-year-old Kid City in Mexico City has attracted 61 sponsors, including such international brands as Johnson & Johnson (for the hospital), General Motors Corp. (for the auto dealership) and Pond's (the beauty parlor) at its 55 pavilions. At Wannado City, only 13 sponsors have signed up for its 40 sites. Individual companies declined to say how much it costs to become a sponsor, but Wannado Entertainment President Rene Aziz said sponsorships average about $250,000 a year.

Wannado officials said it has been more difficult to attract sponsors in the United States than they had anticipated because American companies are bigger and more decentralized, so it's harder to get a decision. They added that many firms were skeptical about signing on to a new theme park concept without first seeing it in operation. "American companies take time to make their decisions," Aziz said.

Wannado has hired the Leverage Group and Sponsorship Resources to help recruit sponsors. Children will "live the brand at Wannado City, leaving a lasting impression that companies will translate into parents' dollars for them," said Adam Cotumaccio, Leverage's chief operating officer, in a statement announcing his firm's partnership with the park. Wannado City, he said, is "a playground for marketers."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company