In our most recursive events to date, we're hosting a series of grown-ups-only parties at Kidzania, the kid-sized city where kids pretend to be adults. Ahead of next Thursday's sold-out launch, Andrzej Lukowski went to check it out.
Whatever you associate with Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush, it’s probably not the bizarre. Practically the definition of a shopping mall is that you know exactly what you’re going to get. But Westfield is now home to one of London’s strangest new attractions: KidZania, a miniature city where all the jobs are done by children. It sounds like a weird idea: who’d want to spend their childhood being a grown-up? But after a visit, I wonder if adults can learn something from this odd, happy society.
This is the first UK franchise of a concept that started off in Mexico and is now in 18 cities across the world. KidZania has its own currency, the kidZo, and its child audience – a mix of school groups and shoppers’ sprogs – get paid for completing ‘shifts’ in dozens of occupations, from working in a hotel to flying a plane. And it’s a damn sight bigger than traditional creches: 75,000 square feet on two floors, with a bank, dentists and a chocolate factory among the scaled-down venues. Adults are only allowed near it with a child, and even then they’re relegated to being spectators (in the theatre or sports stadium).
With its tie-ins with actual brands – H&M, BA and the Bank of England all feature – and talk on its website of it instilling ‘financial acumen’ in children, it’s understandable that KidZania’s arrival has been treated with a degree of suspicion. ‘Preparing them as drones to the elite, this idea sucks!’ declares reader Rosielee underneath the Daily Mail’s story on KidZania. ‘Creepy... it’s all about setting parameters of consumerist consumption on to children,’ howls Guardian user Supermollusc. ‘Abhorrent London Theme Park “KidZania” Wants to Turn Your Kids into Careerists’ screeches website CraveOnline. Inevitably, enthusiastic KidZania UK CEO Ollie Vigors is having none of this, describing it all as ‘educational role-playing’.
Of course, he would say that. As I step through the door the first day it opens to the public I’m feeling cynical. I can see why you might think KidZania has a whiff of Goveishness about it: the idea that it is promoting dreary pragmatism over childish escapism. But have you ever seen a city run by seven-year-olds? Because it’s definitely a lot more of a laugh than the grown-up London.
Head up the discreet escalator to the entrance, and you suddenly discover you’re at a stupendously massive airport check-in desk – sponsored by BA, natch – ready to take your trip to the ‘country’ of KidZania. After the theatre of being checked in, the children – today an excited rabble of schoolkids and tourists – are let loose on a colourful toy town which they’re allowed to roam with something like impunity within the loose parameters set down for them. I certainly never see anybody get told off for slacking. And let me tell you, there’s plenty of slacking.
As I sit in on a fire brigade briefing with seven tweens, I can’t help but notice that I’m the only one paying proper attention to proceedings in the dinky station. In fact, at one point I think I’m the only one even sitting the right way round as a lady playing a firewoman attempts to conduct a brief overview of the profession.
‘How can a fire start?’ she asks.
‘Flamethrower,’ mutters the boy next to me.
‘Er, yes, very good: flamethrower,’ she says. She looks at me.
‘Um, chip pan?’
She smiles politely.
I leave shortly after; the next time I see my fellow firefighters they are trundling round a street corner in a very slow, very adorable mini fire engine in order to put out a ‘fire’ at the prodigiously combustible Flamingo Hotel (which I see burst into flame at least three times). They aim their pre-deployed hoses at a single smouldering window, cheerily ignoring the other four that are also on fire. It is very sweet. ‘In other countries they used to be able to rotate the hose in all directions, and the kids would turn them on their teachers,’ confides Vigors. ‘So here you can’t turn them that far.’
In all honesty, being banned from hosing your teachers is about as proscriptive as KidZania gets. There is very little evidence of indoctrination into consumerism. Yes, there’s an H&M there. But it doesn’t actually sell clothes, instead offering a wholesome factual exhibit on how denim is made. Overwhelmingly the venues are unbranded, while the contributions from BA (half a disused Boeing stuffed with flight simulators) or Renault (an F1 race car whose wheels kids can compete to change at speed) seem fundamentally benevolent.
In reality, it’s a modestly educational afternoon out, not hugely different from the ‘working museums’ I was often hauled off to as a child back in the murky bowels of the late ’80s and early ’90s. And let me tell you, I turned out just fine.
But here’s something I found truly fascinating about it, something that seemed to bemuse even Vigors. Beyond the inevitable allure of the emergency services, guess what the most popular jobs in KidZania are? Guess again.
The most popular jobs are courier and supermarket shelf-stacker. Now, in the ‘real’ world these are not great jobs, because they involve long hours, low pay and little respect. KidZania offers short hours, a genuine concern for your enjoyment, and the wages are pretty standard. Most occupations pay six or eight kidZos per shift, while a couple – textile engineer and catwalk model – offer ten, not because they’re ‘elite’, but because they tend to be undersubscribed. There is no 1 percent in KidZania, no CEO earning 300 times what his or her workers take home. Not all the kids are good at their jobs. But they all seem happy, and that seems to be enough in this society.
It’s hardly a socialist utopia, but it is food for thought. Why should a supermarket shelfstacker have a hard time when they’re actually doing something useful? And why, in a world in which ‘Tetris’ exists, should box-stacking be considered an unfulfilling career path? In the last few years Londoners have embraced kidulthood. In a city where it’s a struggle to grow up and settle down, we’ve turned to revelling in childish things, from ball pits in clubs to cafés just serving cereal. In its peculiar way, KidZania is an inversion of all that: a vision of an adult world in which work is fun and workers are respected, and where no one needs to retreat back into childhood. So yes, Rosielee, Supermollusc and CraveOnline, it’s easy to be cynical about this artificial society. What’s harder to do is to take it seriously, and wonder if there’s anything it could be teaching us.