The UK gets its first capitalist theme park

Corporate branding key to our success: KidZania London Chariman
Corporate branding key to our success: KidZania London Chairman   

The sixth floor of a West London shopping mall is the last place you would expect to find an airport.

But a decommissioned British Airways plane is the gateway to a city run by children, who make a "living" by taking on jobs changing tires, delivering packages or fixing teeth. The currency is monitored daily and its economy tweaked when necessary.

Welcome to KidZania – a theme park-cum-real-world-role-play center equipped with its own banking system and town center built to scale.

London's £25 million ($39.1 million) branch is nearing completion. The park will add to 16 existing locations that have attracted 30 million visitors worldwide. London expects 750,000 guests in their first year alone and aims for 950,000 by year three, which isn't bad for a site just slightly bigger than an American football stadium.

A general view of KidZania Tokyo.
Kiyoshi Ota | Getty Images
A general view of KidZania Tokyo.

The company was launched in 1997 by CEO Xavier Lopez, a former vice-president for GE Capital's Private Equity Group and principal of Booz Allen and Hamilton Mexico. After opening in Santa Fe the idea spread, with franchises popping up in cities like Bangkok, Kuwait, Mumbai and Tokyo.

KidZania aims to set itself apart as "edutainment," teaching kids to manage cash and exposing them to real life work as receptionists or bank cashiers. They even manage to dissuade hovering parents, who can only walk the city's streets or pass time in an adults' lounge decked out with napping stations and a coffee bar.

But it's the corporate partnership model that's turning heads, drawing business interest and raising eyebrows over child-targeted branding.

Kidz Economy

Most 'careers' in KidZania are sponsored, drawing partners like Wal-Mart, Korean Air, and Nestle who help develop activities, provide equipment for their respective stations and become its brand.

London has so far secured agreements with approximately 25 companies, including Innocent Juice, Eat Natural, Unilever, British Airways and Pokemon.

Kids will inspect engines and change tires at the Renault car service centre, learn about cocoa sourcing and chocolate production at the Cadbury factory, and follow their burger 'from farm to fork' at the Gourmet Burger Kitchen site.

Merely stepping into KidZania earns you a cheque. The question is whether to spend your 50 'KidZos' right away, or open a bank account, start saving and head straight to work.

London will run activities at 49 kiosks, many of which will both pay for work and offer services – you earn a wage as a hairdresser at the local salon, or spend your hard earned KidZos for a fresh hairstyle.

Courtesy KidZania London

Emailing from KidZania's headquarters in Mexico, Lopez told CNBC that 'career' choices have slowly evolved since they opened their first branch in 1999.

"The "typical" roles such as pilot, firefighter, surgeon and police officer remain popular, however, there is now a global trend to try more technology-related professions and activities, which we are developing," Lopez said.

For now, franchises have to make do. Find too many kids at the chocolate factory but not enough repairing air conditioners? The staff will up the pay for repairmen and reduce the wage for chocolatiers.

"The way you move people around the city is very simple: you change the economics," KidZania London CEO Vigors told CNBC during a tour of the building site.

"But you have to be careful," he warned. Kids can buy just as much as they earn around the city. It's a matter of balancing the currency, he explained. And they've partnered with the Bank of England to help keep the economy in check.

‘Advertainment?’

When asked whether he had concerns about brand exposure at KidZania, Vigors said it's precisely the corporate expertise and brand recognition that makes the theme park compelling.

"There can't be real-world role-play without real world products."

"People will say: 'Oh, aren't you commercializing?' Well the answer is, no for lots of reasons...They want to do what mummy and daddy do. They don't want to fly on 'Kidz Air' they want to fly on British Airways," he explained.

"I think that's absolutely key, and it's helped make KidZania successful around the world."

Children spray water at a simulated fire site as they play the roles of firefighters at KidZania Tokyo.
Kiyoshi Ota | Getty Images
Children spray water at a simulated fire site as they play the roles of firefighters at KidZania Tokyo.

Vigors launched KidZania London with long-time business partner and the great grandson of Cadbury chocolate business, Joel Cadbury, following a raft of nightclub, gym and restaurant ventures.

Vigors wouldn't provide CNBC with figures on partnership investment to date, saying the process was ongoing and varied across companies.

But one report by American online magazine The Morning News suggests corporate partners put forward 55 percent of investment needed for the first site in Santa Fe, and that up to 45 percent of Dubai's revenues come from sponsors. It also claims Kuala Lumpur's site drew $2.6 million from sponsors.

"There's no doubt the exposure is good for both parties. And why wouldn't it be?" Vigors said.

Blogger Aseem Rastogi visited KidZania's Kuwait branch earlier this spring, tagging along with a friend's 4 and 1-year-old. In an email to CNBC, he played down the corporate impact of partner branding, saying it differed little from kids' real world experience.

"We live in a commercial world where brands thrive because we consumers love them in every aspect of our life.

"From the time we get up to the time we sleep, we are surrounded by brands of all kinds."