At KidZania, Dubai's new educational theme park, young children can obtain a degree, land their dream job and get their first taste of independence.
It's a small world: KidZania, Dubai's new educational theme park
"I don't want to go," squeals three-year-old Tabitha as we head for a play session at Dubai's newest indoor theme park, KidZania. My daughter's mood is no brighter when we check in at the Emirates counter in Dubai Mall. She spies the staff decked out in the airline's familiar red and cream uniform and pipes up: "I don't want to go on the aeroplane." "It's just pretend," I reassure her. As we step into KidZania - a make-believe city where children pretend to be grown-ups - armed with our first-class boarding passes, a map and a cheque for 50 kidZos (the nation's local currency), there is silence from the petite brunette beside me.
A fire engine packed with tiny firefighters kitted in yellow uniforms rushes past, sirens blazing. A group of reporters, notebooks in hand and cameras slung casually around their necks, are going into the hospital to find stories for the KidZania Journal. An ambulance siren sounds in the distance: mini-paramedics searching for an injured patient. A small voice whispers to me: "I want to go home." KidZania, billed as the "world's smallest nation", is the brainchild of the Mexican businessman Xavier Lopez, who was approached by a school friend in the late 1990s to help launch a day-care centre combining learning and role play. Lopez, who is not married and has no children but "lots of nephews and nieces", and who was working in private equity at the time, recalls: "I wasn't going to quit my job for a day-care centre; it seemed crazy. But then I looked at the business plan and changed my mind."
The first KidZania opened in Mexico in 1999 and six more have sprung up around the world, including Tokyo, Jakarta and now Dubai. The venues stick to the same formula with shops and fast-food chains located alongside establishments vital to a working city such as a hospital, university and police station. In Dubai's 7,430 square metre complex, your child deposits his earnings at HSBC, gains a degree at Emaar Education, shops at Waitrose and refuels his car at ENOC. In this mini-economy, little visitors can earn money in more than 70 professions, including a surgeon, chef and beautician. To gain employment, they approach one of the 300 Zoopervisors to ask for a job. Unlike real life, however, the salary is eight kidZos whatever the job; although earning a bachelor's degree from the university raises the salary by four kidZos, and those with a master's get 15 kidZos. The kidZos they earn can be saved at the bank, used to buy an experience such as learning to make a pizza at Pizza Express, or spent in the local department store. It's 50 kidZos for a souvenir, 11,000 for an Xbox.
KidZania's ruler, aka "the governor", Will Edwards, is in charge of running the operational side of the city. He explains: "All the activities adhere to essential elements. They must have realism, incorporate values such as be kind or considerate, be active, educational and, just as importantly, be fun." As a Zoopervisor directs us to HSBC, where we can cash in Tabitha's cheque, we meet our first hurdle: Tabitha is required to queue up at the cashier's desk alone but she clings on to my hand in bewilderment. In order to work, children have to take part without their parents.
While I'm all for independence, not every three, four or even five-year-old will happily part with his or her parent. "That's the problem," sympathises fellow mum Lucille Brand, who is standing outside the radio station while her three daughters, aged seven, five and two, headphones on heads, struggle to read scripts from a monitor in front of them. "Children need someone with them they know. They let my husband into the university in the end because one of my daughters was upset."
While children like to be away from their parents, they also like to know we're nearby; we're like a security blanket. "We understand that," says Edwards, who has been working in the theme park industry for most of his career. "Depending on the number of children, our staff can accommodate a parent with a younger child." A kindly Zoopervisor takes pity, allowing me into the hospital nursery. There, a delighted Dr Tabby learns how to wash the baby, apply talcum powder, put a nappy on and feed the infant in a carefully rehearsed 15-minute session led by a very smiley Dr Rosa. Tabitha gleefully pockets her salary of eight kidZos.
While most activities cater for children over four, some are only suitable for those older than six and others have height restrictions, causing no end of confusion for the parents. There are three-year-olds gaining a degree (an activity marked for over-sixes) and two-year-olds performing a liver transplant (aimed at the over-fours), removing one rather realistic-looking liver and replacing it with another.
Parents with children under 120cm can go to the Parents Lounge for a coffee and those with offspring over 120cm can leave the park as all kids wear a remote frequency wristband to help keep track of them. But the more the hyper-helpers try to involve Tabitha, the more she retreats into the folds of my dress. Along with several other parents, I hover uncomfortably watching my child play - a common scenario, I discovered. "I've spent most of the time standing around," says the New Zealander Andrew Body, a manager for an engineering firm who is visiting with his wife, seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. "I don't really need to be here except my daughter is too young to be left."
Still, there's no doubt that KidZania is a dream come true for children over six. At the dentist, four trainees in white coats stare into the open mouth of their dummy patient, one of them wielding a blue syringe. At the barber, a boy is learning to shave his fake beard and at the racetrack, boys and girls race each other, Jenson Button-style. "They are very happy," says an Emirati mother, Aisha Khalid, proudly watching her party of four children. "They think they are adults. We will definitely come again. It's been very relaxing for me." Her seven-year-old son, Humaid, runs over to tell me that he has worked as a firefighter, a race driver and a painter.
It's exactly this love of "let's pretend" that the KidZania founder Lopez is cashing in on. But what happened to climbing trees or playing cops and robbers in the garden? "It's what kids do every day at home, dress up as firemen or play with dolls. The only difference is that we have taken their favourite game to its maximum potential, making it more fun, safer and more educational," Lopez said. Even father-of-two Body concurs: "The concept is great," he says. "Working to earn money to do things - that's very positive. My son is at DEWA at the moment and he's learning how to save water. That's a nice message."