Theme Parks That Teach Kids to Love Coca-Cola and Chevrolet

Over at The Morning News, assistant editor Mike Deri Smith has a fascinating piece on KidZania, a global chain of theme parks at which children "learn while they play"—only part of what they're learning is how to be obedient, brand-loyal consumers. The parks focus on letting kids act out roles as cooks, dentists, and other adult jobs, but the play areas tend to be sponsored by everyone from McDonald's to Crest toothpaste. And a U.S. location is on its way:

RIGHT NOW, IN EIGHT MALLS SPREAD across three continents, thousands of children are dressed as pilots and flying digital planes from mock cockpits, anchoring news broadcasts in fully functional TV studios, or wearing helmets and extinguishing faux flames with real water cannons.

This is KidZania, a multinational chain of family entertainment centers, where kids try out professions that have been downsized, simplified, and made fun. At these soccer field-size franchises in malls from Tokyo to Lisbon, children play at being adults.

Children can play surgeon, detective, journalist, courier, radio host, and dozens more jobs. They can buy and sell goods at the KidZania supermarket, take KidZania currency that they earn to an operational bank staffed with adult tellers, and be security guards escorting KidZania currency around the park. They can assemble burgers and pizzas, which they can then eat, or give makeovers to other paying children. At the planned KidZania Santiago, Chile, minors will be able to play at being miners. One-size-fits-all costumes supersize the cute factor. The result of all this is mass-produced adorability.

KidZania may seem like a Disneyland of child labor, but the photos and videos that parents have shared online show just how much fun everyone is having in the scaled down cityscape. Joy, wonder, and deep concentration are evident on these kids' faces, whether they're operating on robot dogs or constructing a 25-foot tower using hoists and harnesses--very appropriate for KidZania Dubai. It's the sort of fun I would have lapped up as a child.

But at the heart of the concept and the business of KidZania is corporate consumerism, re-staged for children whose parents pay for them to act the role of the mature consumer and employee. The rights to brand and help create activities at each franchise are sold off to real corporations, while KidZania's own marketing emphasizes the arguable educational benefits of the park.

To put it another way entirely, the candy cigarette has found a rightful heir. And it's coming to the U.S. within the next two years.

Read the full story at The Morning News.