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Several years ago it looked like theme parks would go the way of drive-in movies – down the trap door of history. But recently Walt Disney Co. reported that the profitability of its worldwide chain of theme parks carried the company into the black, wiping out the embarrassing losses of its movies. Creating experiential fantasies (and not the less tangible kind), to accommodate consumers’ desires for more unique experiences, may rank higher in the company’s future.
And it makes sense that given the dismal state of the economy people who can afford it will flock to escapist entertainment, just as they did in the Thirties when they went to the movies en masse. Today with escapist entertainment no farther away than one’s pocket or purse, the fix looses its effect and, like any addiction, more intense pursuits are sought. Tourism thrives on feeding this craving and don’t we marvel at the development of Old Towns in formerly abandoned city centers? Theme parks are simply the most extreme (or extravagant) commercial response.
In North America and Western Europe the market for theme parks has been saturated and, with the economy in the toilet, development has stalled; but this is not universally the situation. China, for instance, has dozens of theme parks and continues its expansion (six major parks opened in 2011) with Disney expected to open its Shanghai venture in 2015.
Interestingly, one of the most innovative new theme parks to open this summer is located in Beirut. Called KidzMondo it offers a thoroughly unique approach to the concept of a theme park. No giant rodent and certainly no Gallic Warrior will be seen on site. What you will see instead are Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts franchises, and Pepsi Cola and Colgate will be present, along with sixty popular European and Middle East brands of consumables of one sort or another.
While the branding will be familiar, and comforting, the context is startlingly provocative. KidzMondo is a scaled down (1/3 regular – adult size) replica of a city. It occupies a 30,000 square foot mall on two stories and comes complete with an airport lobby (the entrance), a bank that issues credit cards (all the kids get money), a hospital, fire and police departments and brand name commercial establishments and services galore (that’s where the business funding for the park comes in). The idea is not that the kids (adults are discouraged from entering the premises) simply run around purchasing items at all the stores, but that they enter an establishment to take a job.
So, for instance, Colgate sponsors the dental office and an adult actor playing at being a dentist explains dental hygiene to the kids who don a white smock and pretend to be dentists. At Burger King, the kids are chefs and at Pain d’Or, they are bakers. Or they can be police, firemen (and women, since gender roles are abolished in this mini-utopia).
The promoters maintain that the kids are naturally attracted to the role-playing, but more importantly, education is integral to the whole experience of KidzMondo. They learn job roles of course, but also they learn the basics of budgeting when they use their credit cards as shoppers at the food store, and are checked out by kid cashiers. If they attend the American University of Beirut’s kid’s university, they get a diploma and extra kidlars (KidzMondo currency) at any of the jobs that they take on. Their salary provides them an opportunity to buy toys and other goodies at a store in the complex that accepts only kidlars. To earn enough for a purchase the kids must work, and the more they work, the more kidlars they have to spend. A simple lesson of the (utopian, debt-free) consumer society.
What is amazing about this venture is that it did not originate in America. Did it require an “outsider” to the American Dream to devise this utopia? Or should we recognize that the market economy has become the economic DNA of the world? Trading is not a foreign concept to the Middle East by any means.
There are US charter schools that have adopted a similar system – without the built environment – as a teaching aid. The kids learn math by counting money. They work on art projects that they can then sell in the school marketplace, they run a snack bar and so forth, but these are usually auxiliary aspects of the teaching experience and not the core curriculum, yet.
There are some elements of KidzMondo that teach more than playing at work and being a happy consumer. All the kids are manacled to a Radio-frequency identification (RFID) wristband at the airport and there are hundreds of CCTV cameras tracking the kids to comfort (and amuse) the parents. What does this compliance to surveillance portend?
And what happens to the kid flaneurs that just want to hang out? Do the kid police move them along? Or does the kid psychiatrist intervene?
But maybe this is just my curmudgeonly self in evidence, after all the kidizens do have a constitution that shames every (adult) constitution in the world. The first principle says all kids are equal and united in play. And the second one is even better – kids have the right to be happy and free! What? It goes on: be creative, explore the world, express yourself, be helpful to and respectful of others, and be honest and kind. Furthermore, protect nature and the environment.
The ten principles of the kidizen constitution totally contradict the KidzMondo (utopian) capitalist system. On second thought, isn’t that the case with the American Constitution (and the Bill of Rights)? But the creators of KidzMondo need not worry about kidizens demanding their rights – they made certain that there is no government in KidzMondo. Hmmm?