Why do we go to theme parks? So we can stroll around eating hot dogs in wonderlands of projected human fetish and fantasy. Places such as Sea World and Disneyland are expressions of our abiding obsessions – from ocean life to trains to human history and outer space.
It was only a matter of time before we got the economy-themed immersive entertainment complex we probably deserve. But do our children deserve it?
KidZania is a themed “family edutainment centre” – actually, a global chain of them. The first KidZania opened in Mexico City in 1999 and they are now in 24 cities around the world, including Cairo, Manila and London. Each is a kid-sized indoor city and a simulated mini-economy, a meticulously realised, richly detailed, interactive world – of labour. Inside these cities, children role-play at working in jobs (including as pharmacists, window-washers, doctors, pilots and police officers) and they earn and spend the local currency, “kidzos”.
When I visit Singapore’s KidZania with my three-year-old son, Alex, I find a toy town with paved roads and olde-worlde lampposts, but streets that bear the same signs as the high streets of any major 21st-century metropolis – 7-Eleven, KFC, Sony. There’s no natural light but there is a teeny-tiny hospital, a cinema, an insurance office, convenience stores and, of course, a water quality assurance plant.
Both global and local brands and agencies are represented here in miniature, including the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF). “Each activity is carefully crafted in close collaboration with real-world brands to ensure the realism and authenticity that is synonymous with the brand,” the website explains.
Alex and I stand for a moment, trying to get our bearings, by a Lim Chee Guan, a well-known Singaporean bak kwa barbecue shop – or a replica of one – not far from the city’s entrance. The KidZania fire truck trundles past, carrying eight little firefighters in helmets, pushed by an adult instructor. Parents trail behind the truck, filming the brigade’s progress on their phones.
“I wanna go in the fire truck!” Alex says, but the barbecue shop activity is about to start. An instructor is standing at the door, beckoning passing kids to join in. Alex wanders into the tiny commercial kitchen and the door is abruptly closed between us.
The best and worst thing about KidZania is that parents aren’t allowed in any of the workplaces. Kids rule here and independence from adults is key to the whole gimmick. So I watch as Alex, and the other little kids, are fitted with adorable chef’s hats and aprons and then led to the window to flip bits of replica meat over a replica grill. Parents stand on the other side of the glass, smiling, waving, taking photos and wondering what, exactly, the instructor is saying to the children. Maybe she’s telling them that bak kwa pork is traditionally seasoned with glass shards and gun powder – we will never know. Twenty minutes later, the kids burst out of the barbecue shop beaming. “Look!” Alex shouts, waving fake bills in the air. He’s made eight kidzos.
Things go rapidly downhill from here. We make an excruciatingly realistic visit to the city bank, then we ricochet between KidZania workplaces, trying and failing to secure employment. All the popular jobs have queues out the front and grown-ups aren’t allowed to stand in them. Alex is younger than the average KidZania citizen – it’s pitched at four to 14-year-olds – and he keeps drifting away from the queues, losing his spot – first outside the paramedic office, then the aviation academy, then the police station – to more motivated and disciplined KidZania jobseekers.
An hour into our visit, he’s gained no further work experience and earned no further kidzos. We are growing tired, dehydrated and bitchy – “Stay in the queue!” “Don’t touch me!”– as we trudge between less desirable employment options. Will Alex take a job at the insurance office or as an eco-flooring consultant? No. He wants to work in the glamour occupations: firefighter, pilot, ice-cream factory assistant. Some of the activities seem more than a little sinister (working for Esso, or at the Abbott “milk innovation lab”) but am I curtailing his career opportunities with my own prejudices? The Yakult workplace has cool mini-microscopes but Yakult, as a product, is disgusting to me. I steer Alex straight past.
In this sense, KidZania is truly a triumph of hyperreality. It even generates an authentic experience of 21st-century parental anxiety. Later, when I google “kidzos” I find listings on eBay for parents flogging their children’s unspent earnings in exchange for real currencies.
And in the end, unfortunately, I have to use some real-world tactics to get my kid the simulated firefighting experience he craves, otherwise all this very real pain and anxiety will be for nothing. I buy snacks and we sit down together at the end of the queue outside the fire station. The instructor has seen us make three honourable attempts at this queue already. There’s a moment of grave, meaningful eye contact between us. He takes pity, turns a blind eye, lets me stay. We wait there for a full 45 minutes, watching two separate groups of primary-school students enact the exact same sequence of events.
Finally, it’s Alex’s turn. I watch from outside as he’s shepherded into the fire station with the other kids and fitted with a helmet and an SCDF uniform.
After a short presentation, eight ecstatic little firefighters rush to the fire truck parked outside the station and jump in. The siren starts wailing and the firefighters grin as the truck makes its way to a building marked “HOTEL”, which is aflame for perhaps the 10th time today, with flickering red lighting effects.
KidZania police are already at the scene and have formed a human cordon some metres from the blaze. The firefighters disembark the truck and are directed towards mini-hydrants between the police force and the burning building. They point hoses – where did they come from? – at the fire.
The adult instructors begin chanting: “Good job, firefighters! Good job, firefighters!” Is that real water coming from the hydrants? Can I really smell smoke or is it just the illusion of an illusion? It’s impossible to tell in this darkness, in this chaos and confusion, amid the flashing lights and the noisy chanting and the droning sirens. It’s hard to see from way back here in the exclusion zone, where I’m now barred both by the KidZania police force and the human chain of parents filming the co-ordinated emergency responses.
When the fire lights go out, there’s a chant of “YAY, FIREFIGHTERS!”, then the crew gets back on the truck. At headquarters, they shed their protective gear, high five their instructors and burst out of the station with their hard-earned kidzos, practically convulsing with joy. I don’t know how to feel about this spectacle, both insane and insanely cute.
It’s time to go. But there’s no way, I resolve grimly, as we trudge past the KidZania chiropractor, that we’re leaving this place without cashing in our kidzos. Our next stop is the KidZania department store, where Alex makes the mysterious decision to spend his earnings on three toothbrushes. Purchases in hand, we march through the streets – a euphoric little dentist waves at us through the glass – towards the exit. We lurch out into the sunlight, blinking and parched, our ears buzzing, our palms stinging from high fives.
In Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality, he describes the experience of taking a New Orleans river cruise within 24 hours of taking the fake one at Disneyland. When you don’t see any alligators on the real Mississippi, Eco writes, “you risk feeling homesick for Disneyland, where the wild animals don’t have to be coaxed”.
So, how did it compare, the experience of walking around a real economy after spending a few hours in a simulated, kid-sized one? Well, the overjoyed worker, like the Mississippi alligator, proved elusive that afternoon. But for me, at least, it was a relief to buy lunch from a surly adult who took no obvious delight in labour-force participation and who was not wearing any kind of charming hat. And I warmed right away to our real-world taxi driver – not cute at all, with his gruff, grunting manner, his elaborate ear hair, his taxi that smelled like a taxi. Grouchy and exhausted, Alex and I fell into pensive, post-simulation silence as we crossed the Sentosa Gateway.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 17, 2018 as "Small business". Subscribe here.