BEIRUT: Out near the edge of Beirut Waterfront, designers and technicians are putting the final touches on a child-sized Beirut. A little Bank Audi awaits its first checks to cash; a construction site sits ready for tiny-handed workers; a mankousheh shop prepares for its morning queue; and a miniature MTV studio is set to broadcast daily life in KidzMondo – Beirut’s long-awaited educational theme park.
“Kids love to act like adults,” says Ali Kazma, chairman and co-founder of KidzMondo, “where they learn how to live the adult life.
“A big part of the concept is education. They learn how to earn and save and spend money. There are lots of educational outlets,” he adds.
Kazma slates the theme park to open May 2, after two-plus years of planning and construction. The educational entertainment center will offer all the foundations of a real city: hotel, hospital, fire house, grocery store, eateries, factories, artisan shops, gas station, archeological sites, salons, an airline carrier and local entertainment.
Whether working on the assembly line at the tiny Pepsi plant or learning how to transplant a liver on a medical dummy at the KidzMondo hospital, children earn play money through professional role-playing and then spend it on entertaining services like a billiard games room or at the local hair salon.
“The kids, when they go to the Pepsi factory, they bottle the Pepsi from scratch: They clean the bottle; put the liquid in the bottle; and then put the branding on the bottle; then they drink the bottle. This simulates as if they were in a real Pepsi factory,” Kazma says.
The creators of KidzMondo have dubbed the theme park model “edutainment,” and in less than two years have signed deals to open the concept in other parts of the world.
A KidzMondo has signed on with Istanbul’s Trump Towers. The smaller venue will offer a slightly altered version in Turkish, rather than Beirut’s bilingual English-Arabic model.
A third KidzMondo is also under way in Abu Dhabi, though the much larger theme park will take longer to complete. The expansive location plans to mimic the layout and appropriate professions of Abu Dhabi, such as an oil refinery, Kazma adds.
Kazma is finalizing three more locations for KidzMondo in Africa and East Asia, though he says he cannot reveal the exact locations yet.
In Beirut, KidzMondo is filling what the creators see as a scarce service: safe children’s entertainment.
“We both created this concept because we have kids and there’s no place to take our kids to,” Kazma says, referring to KidzMondo co-founder Hind Berri. “In 2010, we saw we were in a hungry market for kids’ entertainment and education.”
Role play starts the minute children enter KidzMondo.
They’re given a check they have to take to Bank Audi to cash into Kidlars – KidzMondo currency.
Before heading off to test their professional skills, children can stop by job information to get a career consultation. For action-oriented kids, professional learning includes activities like pilot flight simulation and getting a KidzMondo driving license to become an F1 racer.
Children can test out creative fields like jewelry and fashion design, hair styling, perfume creation, photography, baking and pottery.
Service sector jobs abound at KidzMondo, from construction workers to Hypco gas station attendants to Dunkin’ Donuts factory workers. Technical jobs like engineering, scientist and car or air conditioning repair teach ways to solve real mechanical problems.
KidzMondo even teamed up with American University of Beirut Medical Center and sponsor Colgate to offer a range of medical fields: pediatrics, emergency care, surgery, paramedics, optometry, dentistry and pharmacy.
And for high-energy children, KidzMondo offers everything from relaxing yoga classes to aerobics.
The concept harnesses that ubiquitous childhood thirst to grow up in order to teach life skills untouched in standard Lebanese school curricula.
“Right now, our main focus is school groups,” Kazma says.
For example, the fire house teaches children about the different kinds of fires and what to do in case of them. The botany school teaches about plant care, and the process of earning and spending money teaches financial literacy – one of the overarching goals at KidzMondo, Kazma says.
In many ways the children’s city better teaches elements of democracy and freedom of choice than the world outside its massive walls. Children will role play without KidzMondo imposing gender, class or ethnic restrictions. The KidzMondo constitution even pronounces that all are created equal.
Boys can be models or have their hair done. Girls can fly planes or be F1 racers. The city makes no distinction between a construction worker and a surgeon or a cashier at Pain d’Or and a radio host.
The details that went into the 80 different professions have added up to around $25 million, Kazma says.
To fund such a budget, the KidzMondo concept uses real brands to sponsor each professional station. The coordinators have stuck mostly to local Lebanese brands like NRJ radio, LibanPost, Middle East Airlines, Tonino and Sukleen, as well as international sponsors like Samsung and Burger King.
Kazma is open about the fact that early brand recognition is part of the overall strategy.
“The sponsorship completes the concept because the kids will feel like they are in the real adult life. It’s brand awareness for them,” he says.
Entrance to the theme park will cost $25 for children, nothing for toddlers and $13 for parents, who can take advantage of the parents’ lounge and leave their children to the care of KidzMondo’s 300 trained educators.
The center is aimed at children aged 2 to 14 years old and all activities, except for food, are included in the entrance fee.
In the seven weeks before its grand opening, Kazma and his giant team will be inundated with eager families and teachers, he says: “I receive 10 to 15 phone calls every day asking ‘When are you opening?’”