KidZania: Where Kids Find Reality, Not Fantasy
By Shlomo Maital
“We make people happy.” This is Disney’s famous mantra, implemented to perfection at Disney theme parks in California, Florida, Hong Kong, suburban Paris and elsewhere.
“We make kids grown-ups”. This could be the mantra of KidZania, a worldwide chain of theme parks where kids aged four to 14 get the chance to enact the roles of grownups in lavish, scaled-down worlds. The story of KidZania is told in Rebecca Mead’s article in the latest New York issue (“When I Grow Up”, Jan. 19 2015).
In KidZania, Mead explains, children “can work on a car assembly line, or move furniture, or put out fake fire with real water. KidZania has its own currency, kidzos, which can be used in branches around the world, or deposited and accessed with a realistic looking debit card.” Children get a check for 50 kidzos on arrival and can add to it with a ‘salary’ they earn for working. The most popular jobs (e.g. training to be a pilot on a flight simulator) pay less than the less popular ones, like being a dentist. (Kids look into a dummy’s mouth – wonder how many kids pick THAT one!). Kids can rent a car (small electric go-karts) and buy stuff at the mini city’s department store.
KidZania has its own language. “Kai!” means hi, along with placing two fingers over the heart. “Zanks” means thanks. Bye is “Z-U”, from Santiago to Seoul. Adult staff are Zupervisors. Staff ends conversations with kids by saying “have a productive day”.
The founder is an entrepreneur, aged 50, named Xavier Lopez Ancona. His headquarters are near the KidZania in Centro Santa Fe mall, Mexico, one of Latin America’s biggest shopping malls. KidZania now exists in over a dozen countries, including Japan, Malaysia, and Turkey. Lopez went to bizschool at Northwestern U. and ran GE’s private equity business in Mexico. A friend in the toy importing business came to him with an idea for a role-playing park for kids. Lopez joined the venture. The Santa Fe park opened in Sept. 1999. In the first year, 800,000 people came to it, double what the founders expected.
Lopez is careful to vary the KidZania parks according to the venue. In Mexico kids spend their kidzos as soon as they get them. In Japan it is hard to persuade kids to part with their kidzos for any reason. In Lisbon kids come with their parents. In the Gulf states kids come with nannies or are dropped off by their drivers. In KidZania in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, girls will be allowed to drive cars – a privilege their moms don’t have and definitely, in my opinion, subversive.
Mead quotes one child in Kuwait: “In Kuwait parents and adults have responsibility for everything you do. In KidZania it is different – it’s like kids rule the world. That’s fun, but you can also learn how hard and complicated it is and how adults feel when they work. I have learned that being an adult is actually hard.”