“So what grown-up job do you want to try at KidZania?” I asked my 4-year-old daughter, Kitty, over breakfast.
“Tooth fairy!” she answered decisively, as she pulled on her Tinkerbell costume and headed for the front door.
KidZania is a role-playing theme park where children ages 4 to 14 get to dress up and try out different jobs. On arrival they are given 50 kidZos (the local currency), and they can earn more by “working” as, say, a supermarket clerk or flight attendant. They can spend kidZos on training for certain popular roles — pilot and firefighter, for example. In the hairdresser’s, they can earn kidZos as a stylist and then spend them as a client. At the end of the day, they can blow their earnings at the KidZania department store or start a savings account in the KidZania bank.
Since the first KidZania opened near Mexico City in 1999, the franchise has expanded to 20 “metropolises” in 17 countries. Branches are due to open in Moscow and Singapore next year, and four more locations are planned for 2017. There are none in the United States, but KidZania is seeking an American joint venture or franchise partner.
We arrived in the London branch just before 11 a.m. on a Tuesday in September, so fortunately the experience was (almost) queue-free. We were given radio-frequency identification wristbands that were linked to each other, so if I lost Kitty, she could be located by the last role she logged into. Children can leave only with the adult they checked in with, and children are scanned in and out of each role-play activity. Visitors age 8 and older can be left at KidZania alone.
The arrival hall resembles an airport check-in desk, complete with British Airways branding and a 60-foot A319 fuselage. This is part of the theme: BA is one of several corporate partners, including Sony and Walmart, which have teamed up with KidZania to create a more authentic and immersive experience.
I was worried that Kitty would be too young for the concept of jobs that don’t involve fairy wings, but as soon as we entered KidZania, her eyes widened, and so did her interests. She quickly shed the costume she’d put on at home, and — just like almost every kid before and since — she wanted to be a firefighter!
Each activity takes around 20 minutes, and you often have to wait your turn. Everything from the buildings to the vehicles and tools is scaled to two-thirds the actual size, so they’re just right for kids.
Kitty paid the lady in charge of the firefighters eight kidZos for training, donned a yellow hat and firefighter coat and sat with three children to watch a video about the basics of fire safety.
This kind of education is at the heart of KidZania: Besides information about specific jobs, they learn numeracy, communication, the value of money and the fact that it needs to be earned. They learn that training is important before you undertake a role, and about responsibility and civic duty.
Just as the video ended, an emergency bell rang out. There was a fire on the other side of the square, the grown-up in charge told the kids, and firefighters were needed.
The team piled into the tiny fire truck and sped (slowly) off to the disaster. A hotel was on fire (smoke and clever lighting) and our miniature firefighters had to put it out by spraying it with real water . . . what fun! They were assisted by a troupe of police-kids who set up a cordon, evacuated any grown-ups in the way and kept us all in check.
After saving KidZania, Kitty was ready for something more sedate: supermarket clerk.
Again she undertook five minutes of training and was then put to work, stacking shelves with real groceries, swiping bar codes and working with numbers. Adults are not permitted in most of the activities, so I was left to mill around outside, snooping on the offices of KidZania’s newspaper — the KidZania Post, whose masthead resembles that of its D.C.-based rival.
But the drama of emergency services was too strong to resist, and soon we were off to the police station.
The staff (the KidZania word is “zupervisors”) are very enthusiastic, and none moreso than the woman who trained our little bobbies. She marched them around the square, encouraging them to chant “We are the police/ We are here to keep the peace!”
Now it was Kitty’s turn to stand in the police cordon, because the hotel was on fire again. The walk-talkie on her lapel was buzzing with instructions and she was in her element, showing off her leadership skills — that is, bossing every adult — and defending her territory.
Soon order was restored to the streets of KidZania, for another 15 minutes at least, and Kitty was ready to don the green jackets of the ambulance squad.
After learning how to wrap bandages, Kitty and the rest of the ER crew sped off to another emergency. That unlucky hotel was on fire again, and a woman had hurt her arm. Wounds were treated, some more kidZos were earned and it was time for something a little more girly.
Most of the activities are gender-neutral; female firefighters and policewomen and male flight attendants and nurses were among the grown-ups who assisted Kitty. But sometimes girls just want to be girls, so Kitty enrolled as a beautician, ignoring the racing-car pit-stop experience next door.
Next it was pediatrician. Baby dolls lay in hospital cribs, and Kitty was anxious to feed her charge straight away, but no — baby needs changing, washing and dressing first, explained the male zupervisor, gently encouraging her to treat her charges with more care than her poor dollies get at home. Kitty eyed the milk bottles impatiently. Skills learned: patience, care-giving, thinking of others, making me a happy Mommy.
After six roles in about three hours, we were both getting tired. But the opportunity to fly a plane simulator could not be missed, so Kitty enrolled in the pilot training academy.
The KidZania experience is not a cheap day out — a four-hour weekday ticket, booked online, cost 28 pounds (the equivalent of $43) per child and 16.50 pounds ($25) per adult. On holidays and weekends, children’s prices are higher.
At those prices, “it’s not very accessible for ordinary people,” said Chloe Webb, who with her sister Emily had brought their sons as a final summer treat before the start of school. “But it’s great that they give the kids independence and let parents sit back.”
Emily added that it provides “great one-on-one attention for the kids. They get treated like little adults.”
“It’s very branded,” Chloe noted, adding that the foods are “healthy” brands, such as such as a cereal-bar maker and a sustainable-sourcing smoothie-and-juice company. “Anyway, kids are so used to brands.”
Vanessa Buchan brought her daughters. In the cabin-crew activity, some of the grown-ups, including Vanessa, were enlisted to be passengers.
As they emerged, Vanessa gushed, “It was so sweet, but my daughter just got stage fright. She was giving me my breakfast and she cried.”
Meanwhile, Kitty landed their plane: “It was so fast!” I wasn’t permitted into the flight training area, so I can’t comment on the plane simulator, but she had fun.
Our four-hour slot was nearly at an end, and we were exhausted. It was off to the department store to spend the rest of the kidZos. Kitty had 60 left — but you don’t get much for that. The more desirable toys cost up to 300 kidZos — which, KidZania hopes, you will acquire by investing at the park bank and making repeat visits. Investment was one concept too far for us: Kitty cashed in her hard-earned money for a tiny toy and instant gratification.
“What job do you want to do when you grow up?” I asked again after we had left. “Fairy firefighter,” she responded.
Starrs is a freelance writer based in London.
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Westfield London, Ariel Way, W12 7GA
Role-play theme park where children undertake adult jobs. Tickets for a four-hour visit: $43 per child age 4 to 14, $48 on weekends and holidays; accompanying adults pay $25. Usually open daily; check website for hours.