Is this £20m Mini Metropolis a Kiddie City of Dreams?
Ambulances and fire engines hurtle through the streets and emergency workers tumble out to jet hoses at the Grand Flamingo Hotel fire or treat the wounded, while police cordon off the area and Metro journalists interview witnesses.
It might not sound like your typical day out for young children, but the kids here loved every second, because they were the firefighters, paramedics, press and police role-playing in KidZania, London's extraordinary, 75,000 sqft indoor city for children.
Our experience started with a worryingly realistic queue through immigration at a replica Heathrow, beneath the shadow of an impressive, 18-metre and 16-tonne BA Airbus fuselage, which apparently had to be lifted 100 feet through a hole in the wall.
We and our children were then fitted with electronic security bracelets, with radio frequency antenna and identification chips, which gives peace of mind to parents of younger children in this sprawling, two-storey city and means that parents of eight to 14 year olds can relax with a drink in the adults' Garden Shed, while checking their kids aren’t slacking at work.
That is KidZania's only adults’ area - everything else is a wonderfully detailed, £20 million, mini replica of the real world for children only. Adults can escort children through the city to try their hands at more than 60 different jobs, but are not allowed inside workplaces. Instead, they can watch each 15-30 minute kids’ activity through soundproofed windows.
Pig-tailed air conditioning engineers leap out of pipes in high-vis jackets, tiny cleaners polish the windows, couriers charge around the streets delivering packages and behind every window is a team of industrious little people, busily working as spies, TV or radio presenters, hotel receptionists, supermarket assistants and scientists.
The Job Centre at the city’s entrance has screens to help children work out their strengths and interests to pursue their first jobs in KidZania, which could otherwise be a little daunting.
There are familiar brands sponsoring parts of the city, from British Airways’ aviation academy - complete with fantastic flight simulators - H&M’s fashion studio to the Dorsett Hotel and Pokemon Creative Studios, as well as charities like the PDSA vets and Alder Hey children’s hospital.
Each child enters with a KidZania bank card, which they can use to earn and spend money during their four-hour session - they have 50 KidZos on check-in and any money left on their card earns interest for future trips and can be used across all 27 KidZanias around the world.
We took our four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son and in four hours, she worked six different occupations - the city is mainly targeted at four to 14-year-olds, so there was limited entertainment for my son, who spent most of the trip in the RightZKeeper’s Residence, a sweet little soft play house. But my daughter loved it, as we breathlessly navigated her eclectic career ladder, with highlights including landing a plane, putting out an inferno and decorating a biscuit.
There was a big difference in the quality and queue sizes for each job, with the better and more popular occupations (pilot, firefighter, paramedic) having queue times two to three times the length of the experiences themselves and requiring children to pay KidZo dollars for the sessions, rather than earning them.
It is all impossibly cute and impressive and as a result, it is also very popular - around 1,400 children visit this KidZania each day. The city has all of the ingredients to be a child’s dream world, but with so many tiny visitors, it is slightly let down by understaffing and very young workers, who often seemed bored, grumpy and insufficiently trained to deal with younger children.
This can be an issue when parents are expected to leave children in their care and watch through soundproofed windows, when children are confused or overwhelmed by tasks or experiences and ignored when they asked questions. It was disappointing at times to witness the disinterested, gloomy reception children received from staff in some of the experiences, after patiently queuing so long for each job - adults aren’t allowed to hold children’s spaces in the queues, which resulted in some parents desperately coaxing bored kids to remain in line to avoid losing a job session.
There were some stand-out staff though, like the Dance Captains at the KidZania Theatre, who took children on musical processions across the city and the fire station worker who enthusiastically directed children to “DUCK DOWN” after the hotel explosion and quickly work as a team to extinguish the fire.
The concept of making the sessions kid's-only spaces is great, if properly handled. At the end of our visit, our daughter was excited about heading to the reward shop to spend the KidZo dollars she had earned, so we joined another queue to be told that we would not be allowed inside to help her. We were assured they would assist her, as she is four years old, with a very loose grasp of numbers, has never shopped on her own before and none of us were sure how many KidZos she’d earned and if it was worth the wait.
We watched through the window as she patiently joined a crowd in the busy and chaotic shop to ask for help, looked at the gifts around her, clutching her KidZo credit card with clearly no idea what to do. Then we rescued her and promised we’d come back another time to spend her KidZo dosh.
And we will. It was a truly unique, impressive and exciting experience for her in so many ways. But ironically - for a city run by children - the issue here was that there weren't enough friendly adults for such an overpopulated, mini-metropolis. If that little issue was fixed, it really would be a child’s city of dreams.
KidZania, Westfield London, Ariel Way, W12 7GA. Prices from £16 for an adult ticket, £37 for a child ticket (4-14) £10 for Early Years (1-3) and under ones / carers go free. Children aged 7 and under must be accompianied by an adult (18+) with an adult ticket