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Kids are glad to 'work' at role-playing KidZania

By John Bordsen
jbordsen@charlotteobserver.com

Xavier López Ancona, 48, is the Mexico City-based founder and CEO of KidZania ( www.Kidzania.com), which has 11 parks in Latin America, Asia and Europe.

Q: What’s the KidZania concept?

We don’t call them theme parks – they’re entertainment or experience centers that are entertaining and educating. They’re indoor miniature cities where children ages 4 to 14 role-play in all the professions in the real world, from bankers to construction workers to actors. We put streets and blocks and buildings and parks in the cities, which are about 50,000 square feet. We compose multiple industries. For media, for example, we put up a TV studio or have a newspaper. We have factories – like one for chocolate – and car repair businesses, plus police and fire stations.

There are spending activities and work activities.

At the entrance, which represents an airport, kids queue in front of an agent and get a boarding pass and a map. We have our own KidZania currency, and give each child a check for 50 “kidZos,” which they cash for kidZo currency. In the city, they go to the supermarket, beauty salon and so on. When they run out of kidZo money, they have to go out and work – to get a job – if they want more. And we pay them.

We basically teach kids the worth of work. They learn skills – negotiation, teamwork – and values, like respect.

Q. They don’t actually give haircuts at the salon, do they?

No, but they can get their nails done. One girl may be paying to get her nails done or her hair styled; another child is paid in kidZo to do that for her. Q. How many professions are there?

Over 100 career choices. We have 60 establishments in a KidZania; in each, we have several activities. Like in the hospital surgery, we have a dummy made of latex so a child can do a heart of liver implant or remove an appendix. We periodically change the organs – the activity contents – so every time they visit they can see and do something different.

Q: What’s the most popular work activity?

A lot of our “industries” are where kids can manufacture something and take it home – a notebook or chocolate bar or – this is real popular – a pizza. The fire station is very popular. Being a fireman involves driving a truck and throwing real water into a 20-foot-high building where the “fire” is smoke.

And yes, the kids drive cars: It’s very cool. You have to be 6 or older. The electric cars go very slow. Kids first must get their “license,” where they learn about things like stop signs.

Older kids like more social activities at places like the disco where they can take or give dancing lessons.

Q: There are KidZanias from Mexico to Japan to Portugal. Do they vary by country?

We change the mix of establishments. In Japan, we have sushi restaurant. A “factory” may change: It may do cashew nuts in Indonesia – kids put candy around them – but the one in Japan does something with noodles. Japan is used to trains, so we have train stations at the Osaka and Tokyo KidZanias where kids can drive the trains.

Q: What kind of admission do you charge?

In Mexico, it’s about $18 per child; about $13 for adults with them. In Japan, admission is about $55 per child; $35 for adults.

Q: So kids in KidZania are spending their kiZo play money and/or earning it. What can they do with unused earnings?

In the city, you can open a bank account and save your kidZos for another visit. Or you can redeem kidZos for merchandise – things like stationery, cool pens… Q: Are you looking at building a KidZania in the U.S.?

Yes. We’d like to open our first U.S. KidZania at the end of 2014. We’re looking at larger markets that are big for tourism.

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