A mini-city is being built in Britain with its own airport, hospital, police station, newspaper and currency. But is KidZania just a chance for kids to have some role-playing fun while their parents shop – or a way for big business to get its claws into them early? Stuart Jeffries reports
‘It’s a game-changer,” says Joel Cadbury, the chocolate heir and former owner of the Groucho Club. This may be something of an understatement. Cadbury is the chairman of KidZania, a £20m mini-city currently being built above the Marks & Spencer in west London’s vast Westfield shopping mall. KidZania will be two-thirds the scale of reality and will consist of a 75,000sq ft role-playing theme park for kids aged four to 14. It will include airport, A&E, police station, sports stadium, theatre, shops, university, bank, sushi and pizza concessions. It will even have its own newspaper, passports and currency. Most strikingly, it will also feature a sort of holding pen for parents.
It’s certainly a game-changer for children’s entertainment, but it may also be one for education. Instead of tranquilising kids with video games, or suckering them with rollercoasters in the traditional theme-park manner, KidZania will recreate workplaces such as operating theatres, plane cockpits, radio stations and banks. Children will play at working and will be paid in “KidZos” – above, you would hope, the minimum wage. There are more than 60 roles to choose from, each taking about 25 minutes. Your child could be a refuse collector in the morning, pizza chef over lunch, and surgeon in the afternoon. “Get ready for a better world,” is KidZania’s slogan. In the park, everything works: slacker kids, like broken lightbulbs, are programmatically unacceptable.
So the architecture of KidZania isn’t just a simulation of the real world. It’s a preparation for it. Cadbury, who has a touch of the Willy Wonka about him, explains why. Children can learn to fly a BA aeroplane, deliver letters dressed as little DHL drivers and make Innocent smoothies. At the Renault engineering centre, they can learn how to change tyres; at H&M’s academy, they will be taught the rudiments of fashion and design; and at the Dorsett Hotel, they can be managers, front-desk staff or housekeepers. Your child could even become anoompa loompa – sorry, an expert chocolatier – at the Cadbury factory.
The promotional material shows a child in a pretend KidZania surgery, apparently anaesthetising a dog on an operating table. (That’s got to be a contravention of something, surely, unless the dog’s stuffed.)
“We’re opening children’s eyes to the realities of life,” says Cadbury, who talks glowingly of all the “industry partners” who are being wooed to lend their brands. But why do you need them? “If you have a bank called The Bank, it’s not very authentic,” he says. “You need the real names to authenticate the content.” While KidZania has lots of partners worldwide (including McDonald’s, Waitrose, Epson, Sony, DHL, Walmart, Olay and Mitsubishi), its London outpost has yet to firm up a banking partner. Perhaps a failed one like RBS would be the perfect way to teach kids about banking in the real world. But that probably won’t happen.
The most intriguing KidZania simulation involves a pretend burning building. Paramedics will pull a child casualty from a fake blaze, check for a pulse, then stretcher them to a child-sized ambulance that will ferry them to A&E, where little nurses will administer pretend treatment. Meanwhile, child firefighters will put out the blaze, child cops will investigate the incident, and cub reporters from the radio station and the newspaper will go Paxo on those responsible.