Remember when you were a kid and you went to work with your dad or mom? Remember all those important decisions you got to make as an honorary employee, and how good you felt at the end of that “hectic” day of work?
Nope, me neither. But I do remember the excitement and wonder of discovering something new each time my dad took me to his science lab and let me mix those strange potions together, or my mom engaged me in the latest anthropological research she was doing. And looking back, much of what I do today in my own work can probably be attributed to the lessons I learned trying out my new “jobs.”
That’s the idea behind Kidzania, a theme park concept that is now on three continents and is gearing up to open in the United States in 2015. Started in Mexico in 1999 by entrepreneur Xavier Lopez Ancona under the name La Ciudad de los Niños (The Children’s City), it now has more than 15 locations open around the world, extending from Santiago, Chile to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Its aim is to provide youngsters with a fun, up-close sense of the real working world, or in the words of Kidzania itself, to provide an opportunity “to do what comes naturally to them: role playing by mimicking traditionally adult activities.”
Activities vary from park to park, but all use real-world job experiences. The role-playing settings all have corporate partners such as American Airlines, Coca Cola, DHL and Cheetos. They also have regional partners, such as New Straits Times (newspaper) in Kuala Lumpur and Pemex in Mexico. The more partners, the more “jobs” the kids can try out.
In Mexico City, kids can act out the experience of piloting a large passenger jet, assembling a new automobile, driving a tourist bus or (believe it or not) assessing an insurance claim – among other jobs. In Dubai, children can learn what it is like to work in a Coca Cola bottling plant (a favorite), sell cars or work in a residential construction trade, while in Kuala Lumpur they can be a newscaster for a day, a dentist or a surgeon.
They also learn an important skill in any commercial environment: the art of using (and saving) money. The youngsters are paid in Kidzania’s own currency, kidzos, which they learn how to deposit in their own savings account in the park’s designated bank during their first visit. From there, they can spend their hard-earned currency on items and services within Kidzania, which is also part of the role-playing fun of being a Kidzania patron.
Kidzania’s tag line is “Get Ready for a Better World,” which is in its own sense, true, if kids are more prepared for the real world before they have to stop being kids. But I couldn’t help wonder about a few of the subliminal messages that were evident at several of the regional sites.
Money rules. Earn wisely and invest wisely and the best in life will come. Not a bad value set to teach kids, if they are also learning the value of giving and compassion as well. Are kids encouraged and given the opportunity to think of and donate their hard-earned currency to organizations that support the less fortunate?
Bigger is better. American companies play a large role in Mexico’s three locations. Major corporations like American Airlines, McDonalds, Walmart and Nestle sponsor activities in Mexico’s parks (as do many of Mexico’s biggest companies). Are kids learning to value and support smaller start-up companies that reflect regional and cultural contributions at the same time?
English is the dominant language. It makes sense to have a common language in a network of theme parks that strive for globe-hopping repeat customers. But what is the cultural takeaway message here?
Mexico’s three sites all use Spanish as their primary language, but are accented with English euphemisms and expressions that aren’t generally found in Latin American Spanish vocabularies. Dubai’s Kidzania operates a site completely in English, as does Kuala Lumpur, suggesting deference to English-speaking visitors. Who is the target audience?
It’s hard to know what each one of the parks charge for admission without studying each site, but the average admission cost of $10-20 USD per child in Mexico (depending on age) suggests that this isn’t an experience geared toward Mexico’s low-income children, unless they are fortunate enough to attend on a sponsored school outing (which Kidzania graciously provides for many charity organizations).
Still, it’s curious that a theme park that lauds so many western values has taken so long to open in the United States where learning how to work on a production line, sell a car or fly a plane are often attainable, if not rudimentary goals. In a way that makes both commercial and altruistic sense: If you want a better world for everyone, concentrate on those kids who have the least reach and knowledge of technologically advanced jobs, first.
It will be interesting to see which becomes Kidzania’s inaugural city when it opens in the U.S. in 2015, and just what kinds of magical experiences kids will equate with working in the U.S. in the 21st century.
Given the changing cultural-political landscapes in the Arab world at the moment, it will also be interesting to see how the upcoming parks for Cairo, Istanbul and Jeddah negotiate the delicate topic of culturally appropriate media for those audiences that don’t embrace many of our western values. Topics like real-world employment, equity for women and shared educational opportunities for boys and girls may present some challenging educational landscapes even for a company that has been remarkably successful at leveling the playing field for everyone.
Photo of boy in manhole at Kidzania Mexico courtesy of Arturo de Albornoz.
Photo of Kidzania Koshien courtesy of Masakazu Matsumoto .