The educational theme park where kids play at being adults
It’s the latest kids’ phenomenon to hit the earth. One of the fastest growing children’s entertainment brands in the world. A collection of mini cities across the globe, which share their own unique language, money and rules. Unlike the thrills, spills and roller coaster rides of an average theme park, this is all about role-playing in a simulated reality. The KidZanian Declaration of Independence sets the scene with the six ‘rightz’ of childhood: to be, to know, to create, to share, to care, and to play. It concludes with the national motto: ‘Get ready for a better world.’
This better world is played against a backdrop of brick-paved boulevards, dotted with fake trees, public sculptures and storefronts – all lavishly-realised and scaled down to two-thirds of the actual size. Education is at the heart of it. Here, the children can train for or undertake a variety of real-life jobs for which they earn or spend kidZos – the fantasy world’s currency. But this is not just about careers and the importance of training. Much to parents’ delight, these activities come with the learning of money and the fact that it needs to be earned. Furthermore, the experience also teaches children about self-direction, decision-making and productivity.
Aimed at four to 14-year-olds, KidZania is adept at keeping both parent and child happy. Kids are electronically tagged with a bracelet that tracks them. This means that while the children play, the grown-ups, safe in the knowledge that their offspring are in good hands, can go off shopping (or settle down in one of the comfortable lounges provided). Indeed, the Dubai park just won a safety award. The KidZania experience begins with the arrival hall, which resembles an airport check-in desk and a 60-foot A319 fuselage – the airline pertains to the country. Led by the staff (the KidZania word is “zupervisors”), each job activity takes around 20 minutes. There’s everything here from courier to surgeon to stylist in a multitude of workplaces including operating theaters, plane cockpits, restaurants, radio stations and theaters.
The kids start with 50 kidZos and they can earn more by ‘working’ or spend on learning a craft. For example, training to be a firefighter costs eight kidZos for training. The session sees the child don a yellow hat and firefighter coat and watch a video about the basics of fire safety. Then an emergency bell rings out, alerting the crew to a fire on the other side of the square. The miniature firefighters pile into the tiny fire truck and speed (slowly) off to the disaster before putting out the fire (smoke and clever lighting) with real water. A troupe of police-kids set up a cordon, evacuate any grown-ups in the way and keep everyone in check. At the end of the day, the kids can spend their earnings at the KidZania department store or start a savings account in the KidZania bank.
Corporate partners are key to KidZania’s success. To make it more authentic, immersive and enable kids understand the nature of work, each job is linked to a real-world corporation in each location. These partners pay to be part of KidZania and supply kit that adds to the verisimilitude – be it the mixing desk at the Capital radio station, kitchen equipment at Domino’s Pizzas, display mannequins at H&M or a bank account with HSBC. In some parks, Suzuki Motors offer driving tests complete with a driving instructor, rule learning and a driving simulator. There are over 800+ brand sponsors in total around the world, including Avis, Baskin Robins, Canon, Cartoon Network, Chevrolet, Clinique, Coca- Cola, Dunkin Donuts, Fuji Film, HP, McDonald’s, Mitsubishi, Nestlé, Oral B, Unilever, Sony, Spotify, Walmart and many more. Partners vary by facility featuring brands which are both locally and culturally relevant; In London, there’s surgeon’s training “patient” on the operating table of Alder Hey hospital (one of the UK’s largest children’s hospitals), in Seoul the kids can manufacture ramen noodles, and in Mumbai, there is a scaled-down Bollywood studio—spearheaded by' Shah Rukh Kahn, otherwise known as the ‘King of Bollywood’.
Xavier Lopez Ancona is the man behind it all. He is known as the ‘Mexican Walt Disney’ for the way he has carved out a new niche in the entertainment industry. Born in Mexico City in 1964, López obtained a degree in Management from Anahuac University in Mexico, and an MBA from the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management of the Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. He then worked for four years as a company consultant in Booz Allen Hamilton’s office in Mexico City before taking on the role of Vice President of Equity for two years in GE Capital Mexico. In the late nineties, López was approached by a friend, Luis Javier Laresgoiti, who was in the toy-importing business. Laresgoiti was developing an idea for a commercial role-playing park for children. López joined the venture. However, in 2004, Laresgoiti decided to leave the business so Mr Lopez’s brother stepped in as his new investor and partner.
Ancona’s hope is that the miniature world he has created will help prepare children for a more ‘socially responsible, less corrupt world which offers equal opportunities to all’. The idea of ‘performance with purpose’ (as Lopez puts it) caught on. The first KidZania – originally named ‘La Ciudad de los Ninos’ [The Kids’ City] – opened attached to Centro Santa Fe shopping center in Mexico City on September 1, 1999. As one of the largest in Latin America with over 22 million visitors a year, it proved a lucrative fit – and Kidzania was soon welcoming in the masses.
Capitalising on this success, Ancona turned to the idea of franchises. The first franchise was with a large restaurant group in Japan in October 2006 which triggered rapid growth throughout Asia with further franchises in countries including Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The break into the European market came in June 2009 with the opening of a park in Lisbon. Six years later, the brand increased their offering, opening their European flagship in Westfield London in partnership with the entrepreneur Joel Cadbury (who is, perhaps appropriately, a member of the British chocolate dynasty). It’s also here that KidZania has hired its first Head of Education: former elementary-school teacher Richard Barry, who has been working with corporate sponsors to create activities that complement the U.K.’s national curriculum. For example, a smoothie-making activity, sponsored by Innocent Drinks, will underscore the curriculum’s requirement that children learn about nutrition, seasonality, and food sources.
The parks cost up to $35m to build and admission costs range from around $15 in Mumbai to nearly $50 in Tokyo. The business has continued to expand rapidly. With 27 ‘metropolises’ in 21 countries, KidZania receives more than nine million visitors yearly, with 11 more facilities currently under development, including Paris, Johannesburg, Riyadh and New York. All kids dream of being adults. All adults dream of time off from their kids. Thanks to Ancona, these dreams have now been turned into reality.