It’s the talk of town… as KidZania lands in London with a bang, Emma Thelwell heads to the latest ‘edutainment’ venue
There are no rollercoasters or video games at the new KidZania theme park. Yet the children queuing up for its launch are screaming to get in, all for the chance to play pretend. Pretend firefighter, pretend doctor, radio presenter, actor or hairdresser, children can mimic more than 60 real-life jobs. A pint-sized play-land replica of the real world, it’s all there: a police station, hospital, theatre and university, as if the mad scientist from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids has been zapping away with his laser beam.
Sprawled across two storeys at the top of White City’s Westfield shopping centre, it even has the London high-street staple H&M, as well as a Gourmet Burger Kitchen and a Capital Radio studio. And just like the real world, children can earn money or ‘kidZos’ which they can either pocket, or deposit at the bank to withdraw from the ATM with their very own cash card.
Though it’s the first KidZania to hit northern Europe, there are 19 across the globe offering their unique take on ‘edutainment’. The concept has attracted 42 million visitors since the 1999 opening of the flagship KidZania in Mexico City. Children aged between four and 14 have four hours to roam KidZania, and with most activities lasting between 15 and 30 minutes they’ll typically try between five or six jobs.
Grown-ups aren’t allowed to join in, but they can watch or play along as the audience in the theatre, customers on the plane or as hotel guests. Otherwise, they are encouraged to wait in the parents’ lounge – a café with free wifi, or head off for some retail therapy in Westfield, while the park’s ‘Zupervisors’ oversee their kids.
All KidZania guests are given electronic bracelets and checked in and out of the city, and children over the age of seven can be left alone. Dr Ger Graus, KidZania’s director of education, explained that it is a place where “grown-ups are to be seen and not heard”. He said that although the activities were developed by teachers and are “loosely” connected to the national curriculum, the employees are facilitators, not teachers.
The children make up their own minds what jobs to go for and how to spend their money. If they don’t know what they want to do, they can go to the Job Centre where they can click through a quick, fun personality quiz on a computer which helps them choose.
“Children can only aspire to what they know exists,” Dr Graus said. “It’s about a learning process providing an awareness, where children can begin to find out what is out there.” Anika Hargie, deputy headteacher of local primary school Wormholt Park, has taken her pupils along to two previous test runs of the city. Queuing at the launch for a third visit, Wormholt boys and girls were buzzing with excitement, jumping along to the staff dance – an enthusiastic flash mob which goes off at any given moment.
Anika expected many of her pupils to make a beeline for the Fire Station, supermarket checkouts, the nightclub DJ decks or Renault’s Formula One pit lane. But she said, “one six-year-old girl whose life ambition is to be a midwife, she’ll be straight in there at the maternity unit”.
The emergency services attract the biggest queues thanks to the dramatic fake blaze at the Flamingo Hotel. A 999 call goes out and the kiddy police, dressed in uniforms complete with stab vests, cordon off the area for the firemen’s hoses, while the A&E team cart off casualties in the ambulance.
At the Acting Academy, children can put on a play, magic or puppet show at the theatre. They can pilot a British Airways plane, join the cabin crew or don lab coats at Cadbury and Innocent Drinks to learn about the origins and science behind the products, before making a chocolate or smoothie.
Though there has been some criticism surrounding the presence of big brands, KidZania London chairman Joel Cadbury said, “KidZania London will be an experience like no other, throughout its development we have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure the City is as authentic and true to the real world as possible.”
Certainly, Wormholt’s school business manager Caroline Plummer said the children don’t pay much attention to the brands. She said, “It’s real life, they want to do what they know.” The wage ranges are less true to life, with actors picking up eight kidZos for 40 minutes’ work and hotel housekeepers taking home 10 kidZos for 10 minutes’ cleaning.
Children can splash their cash on face painting, temporary tattoos or in the department store where hairbands will set them back 70 kidZos, sunglasses range from 250 to 425 and a small digger costs 75. But unlike other theme parks, if they run out of money, there’s no running to Mum and Dad for more cash – it’s back to work.
Ticket prices start at £10 per child, for schools and group parties; through to £29.50 for on-the-day ticket sales; and from £14 to £18 for accompanying adults. Visit kidzania.co.uk and exclusive ticket bundles are available at buyagift.com