by Rebecca Mead
All KidZanias are attached to shopping centers, and the company has targeted sprawling megacities where, for reasons of security or climate, a mall culture has flourished, and parents can, in theory, drop off their children at the park and then go to browse the stores or eat lunch at one of the mall’s restaurants, tidily completing a circuit of consumption. The ideal location for a KidZania is a place where there is a high disposable income and an ethos of spending prevails; where children are sophisticated consumers of popular culture and users of digital media, and expect novelty and stimulation; and where there are few cultural or historical attractions, and little else to do in the way of entertainment. Best of all for KidZania would be a spectacular and well-trafficked mall that is otherwise surrounded by a barren, inhospitable desert.
This is an apt description of one of KidZania’s newer outposts, in Kuwait City, which opened in 2013, in the Avenues Mall, one of the world’s largest. The mall offers elegant, simulated pedestrian streets, edged with trees and lined with cafés and luxury-brand stores, all under a translucent glass roof that admits natural light but keeps at bay the hostile outside temperatures, which can rise above a hundred and twenty degrees. The mall is Kuwait’s principal recreational resort: twenty-two million visitors went there in 2013, eight times the population of the country. In 2014, four hundred and fifty thousand of them went to KidZania, which ranks as Kuwait City’s No. 1 attraction on TripAdvisor.
In November, Cammie Dunaway, KidZania’s head of global marketing, visited KidZania Kuwait for the first time. Dunaway, who was formerly an executive at Yahoo and Nintendo, was appointed in 2010 to head KidZania’s U.S. expansion, and to manage marketing the company internationally. She brings an American corporate sensibility to the endeavor: it was Dunaway who advised López not to refer to the KidZania marketing department as the Ministry of Propaganda.
At the KidZania Kuwait headquarters, in a characterless office park owned by the Alshaya company, Dunaway met with the marketing team, whose energetic young members were Kuwaiti-born but of international descent—Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian—and often educated in the U.S. Kuwait, it was explained to her, has almost no tourist industry—its only visitors are Saudis for whom Dubai is too racy—and so drawing local visitors back repeatedly would be key to KidZania’s success. One particular concern was attracting parents, for whom there is little to do inside KidZania, and who had been voicing objections to the twenty-seven-dollar adult entrance fee. Dunaway suggested placing a salon offering manicures in the parents’ lounge—one in Cuicuilco had worked well. The team also discussed the necessity of reaching populations like the Bedouins, who had yet to discover KidZania or who were suspicious of what they knew of it. Already, KidZania had fallen afoul of local sensibilities: a festival of “Scary Fun,” planned for late October, was hastily cancelled after there were protests on social media that KidZania was promoting Halloween, which observant Muslims do not celebrate. (An earlier social-media protest, indicting the park for immorality on the ground that its name included the Arabic word zania, which means “adulteress,” had been quietly ignored.)
Even when the company was taking care to avoid violating religious interdictions, it was acknowledged that the very premise of KidZania, with its rhetoric of children’s independence, ran counter to deep cultural sensibilities. Mariam Draz, who has the title of Ambassador for the Middle East and North Africa, and was visiting from KidZania Cairo, said, “We are telling the children things that are not encouraged in the Middle East—all the old ways of parenthood. People don’t know what KidZania is: Is it a school? Is it a nursery? Is it some devil-run thing that isn’t acceptable in our culture?”
KidZania had to figure out how to sustain the fickle interest of those children who were already fans: the marketing team stressed to Dunaway the importance of social media in the lives of their young audience. Seven- or eight-year-old Kuwaitis have the latest smartphone, and the KidZania Kuwait Instagram account has more than fifty thousand followers, many of them kids who post selfies from the town square or other attractions. Dunaway urged caution. “As company policy, we don’t communicate directly with kids,” she said. “We don’t want to be engaging directly with children. But we can’t control what we don’t know.” However, she suggested, KidZania might be productively promoted to parents as a place for kids to get unplugged. “So it becomes an advantage for us—we are about role play, and hands on,” she said, to murmurs of agreement. “It’s not about criticizing the technology. But there’s a need for something to balance it out—a need for kids to become more involved, and face to face, and hands on, and for teamwork.”
The next day in the park, Dunaway had the opportunity to see for herself the teamwork of young Kuwaitis, most of them visiting with school groups. Many of the attractions were familiar: at ten-thirty in the morning, kids in school uniforms of green sweatpants and sweaters were mobbing the Burger King-sponsored make-your-own-fast-food venue. But some areas had been developed with local industry in mind, including a plastics-making activity, sponsored by Equate, a petrochemical company. We watched as half a dozen boys, between the ages of nine and eleven, took part, wearing overalls and protective goggles. First, the Zupervisor directed them to turn stainless-steel wheels on an industrial-looking tank—supposedly full of gas—to produce a cannister full of translucent pellets. After putting their gloved hands inside a glassed-in tank, the kids manipulated the pellets from a funnel into a beaker, then poured them into a hole that led into what the Zupervisor told them was a melting machine that produced small plastic disks—one per child.
The children seemed engaged by the machines, though the hands-on part of the activity might not have been very challenging to a child half their age. After the disks emerged from the melting machine, they were placed on a conveyor belt leading into another apparatus, while the kids pressed some brightly colored flashing buttons labelled “mold” and “color,” as inscrutably connected to the process of transformation as the “Drink Me” label on Alice in Wonderland’s bottle. After a lot of clanking, a molded white plastic helmet, complete with elastic chin strap, popped out of the other end of the machine, to the delight of the young petrochemical engineers. Out of earshot of the children, Stephen Putzeys, the mayor of KidZania Kuwait, told us that the Zupervisors had to remember to remove the “Made in China” stickers from the helmets before loading them into the machine. As the boys surrendered their goggles at the end of the activity, I asked one of them what he and his friends had learned. “We learned how to make a helmet,” he said.
Later that evening, KidZania hosted a grand ceremony for the inauguration of a pseudo-Congress: a cohort of twenty kids whose yearlong participation in a series of focus groups is ingeniously themed as public service. “We really treat the kids with respect,” Dunaway told me. “We really convey to them that they have a sense of responsibility, and that they are training and learning to be great leaders.” Members of the Kids Congrezz, as it is known, are drawn from the pool of regular visitors by means of an online election that is monitored, and sometimes heavily manipulated, by a team of marketing executives and clinical psychologists. “It keeps us very tuned in to what kids need, to what they think, and to what we need to do differently,” Dunaway said.
The ceremony took place in KidZania’s theatre, most recently used for an adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” that conformed to local mores. (The representation of wizards is forbidden in Kuwait, so in KidZania’s version the wizard was on vacation.) Local dignitaries had been invited, including representatives from the ministry of education, and the chargé d’affaires at the Mexican consulate. There were swarms of press photographers, and waiters passed around platters of hors d’oeuvres and Middle Eastern sweets.
Twenty children wearing red KidZania sports shirts and serious faces sat on the stage, at desks that resembled those in the Security Council chamber at the United Nations. Fernando Medroa, KidZania Kuwait’s governor, a veteran of Disney Europe and Six Flags, went to the lectern to herald the new Congrezzmembers. “Kai, everyone—good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to zank you all for coming today,” he began, explaining that this Congrezz, the first in the Middle East, was “giving children a platform to voice their opinions, express themselves, and work together as a team improving their own city.”
There were further speeches, and then Medroa invited the children to rise and swear an oath, pledging to maintain the rights of children as outlined in the Declaration of Independence, and to fulfill their duties as Congrezzmembers. Medroa announced the national anthem, and a swelling tune sounded over the loudspeakers, the kids joining in at the refrain, “KidZania, KidZania, you’re always in my heart.” Then Medroa distributed ceremonial buttons to them all, and posed with each for a photograph mid-handshake—a politician’s grip-and-grin. The proceedings seemed to be over, but then, from the back of the theatre, figures wearing the costumes of the five RightzKeepers processed down the aisles and stood before the stage. They waved KidZanian flags in time to quasi-martial orchestral strains, like participants in a synchronized performance celebrating the birthday of Kim Jong-un. At the tune’s end, confetti exploded from a cannon, and the children finally burst forth from behind their desks and gleefully threw handfuls of it around the room.
Afterward, I huddled with several of them at the foot of the stage, while their parents looked on proudly. Though the four hours of rehearsal had been tedious, they said, they all seemed thrilled by the ceremony, and by the honor of being chosen to represent their peers. One girl admitted to having campaigned in the park, handing out sweets and flyers; others said that their schools had urged their classmates to vote for them.
They were all frequent visitors to KidZania—one girl told me that before the school term had begun her driver had brought her there every day—but they also had ideas about how the place might be improved. “I love KidZania, but there are not as many activities as there are in other countries, like Japan,” another girl said. “They have trains, but we don’t have trains, and I think we could incorporate it.” One child said that she wanted to see a recycling plant; another wanted a taller tour bus, to provide a better view. They all agreed that they loved getting paid for their work. One girl withdrew from her handbag a thick wad of bills: five thousand kidzos, she said. They all carried iPhones—“my social-media folder has over a thousand notifications,” one eleven-year-old boy told me, with affected weariness—but insisted that they would much rather be at KidZania than in a virtual world. “On the phone, you can’t really feel your happiness,” one girl said. “What a boring thing, just touching a screen,” another added.
They said that KidZania gave them what they desired most of all: a sense of autonomy. “Whenever you’re at home, your parents say, ‘You need to do this, this, and this,’ and you say, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ ” the boy with the overwhelming social-media presence told me. “But, when you’re in KidZania, you feel like you’re an adult, and you say what you want to do.” His favorite activity was the karaoke bar, because he wanted to be a singer—a quite different career from that of his father, who works for the al-Sabah family, Kuwait’s ruling dynasty. But KidZania also helped him to better understand the challenges his parents face. “In Kuwait, parents and adults have responsibility for everything you do,” he said. “But in KidZania it’s different—it’s like kids rule the world. That’s really fun, but you can also learn how hard and complicated it is, and how adults feel when they work. I have learned that being an adult is actually hard.”
This is an excerpt from an article in The New Yorker. For the full version, click here.