TO EXPORT KIDS 'WORK ETHIC' THEME PARK TO UNITED STATES
By Niko Price, Associated Press Writer
Friday March 8, 2002
MEXICO CITY (AP) -- The City of Children, a theme park designed to teach a work ethic and create brand loyalty at the same tender age, could be coming soon to a shopping mall near you.
The successful Mexican attraction will begin construction in the United States soon, and malls in the New York and Los Angeles areas are competing to host the first U.S. branch.
"This is genius," said James Ashton, president of AFC Commercial Real Estate, based in Westlake Village, Calif. He toured the attraction recently and is negotiating with the owners to build a similar park for a new mall in the Los Angeles area.
"People are so starved for something like this and there is nothing comparable. Everything is going kid-oriented and there is nothing that could compete with this."
But the concept that has been accepted so overwhelmingly here -- companies build brand-oriented attractions for children within a "city" provided by the developer -- could face more probing questions in the United States about its motives.
Mexican upper classes, to which the attraction caters, are lacking in cynicism about commercialism and materialism.
In the United States, where the planned entrance fee of about $20 would be accessible to many more families, people tend have a more pointed opinion that is the opposite of their Mexican peers.
"There are certainly some segments of the population who very much can't stand that kind of commercialism, but at the same time that's more and more in the mainstream of American society," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a Portland, Ore.-based anti-commercialism group.
"More and more, this is what American marketing is looking like. It seems like there's nothing they won't do to market to kids these days."
The idea of the park is simple: After buying their American Airlines "ticket" to enter, children receive play money, which they can spend on General Motors bumper cars (Avis rents them). Or, they can make themselves up at the Pond's Institute beauty salon or scale a rock wall emblazoned with the word "Nesquik."
If they run out of money, they can go to work -- applying Sherwin Williams paints to a wall at the Cemex construction site, caring for babies (dolls, actually) at the Johnson & Johnson hospital or reading bar codes at the Superama supermarket.
The 52 sponsors at the current site put up about half of the money for construction. What they get is hard-core advertising to impressionable children.
"Kids don't say, 'Let's go to the pizzeria.' They say, 'Let's go to Domino's.' Obviously when they want a pizza they're going to want Domino's," said Esteban Lopez Ancona, general director of Amazing Toys de Mexico, which runs the theme park.
The park itself is laid out in the form of a city, with a central kiosk, drainpipes where children can go on an "archaeological dig," a theater where plays are performed every half-hour and streets where fire trucks crawl along, sirens blazing, and tiny detectives in trenchcoats look for bad guys.
There are areas for toddlers -- a "farm" with activities for the smallest -- and for all other ages. Directors say 80 percent of their clientele is between the ages of 5 and 12, but most are between 6 and 10.
"I think it's sensational for kids. For parents, it's deadly," said Angelica Laguna, a 42-year-old accountant. "There's nothing for us to do. We sit here bored for three or four hours."
At the second park in Mexico, where construction begins this year, there will be more attractions for parents, such as an ESPN sports bar and an American Express lounge. Lopez Ancona said the slowest days of the year are when the Mexican national soccer team has an important game.
Attendance has risen every year since the attraction opened in 1999, and last year 800,000 children visited, Lopez Ancona said. The city was awarded a "Thea" prize last year from the U.S.-based Themed Entertainment Association.
Already the company has lined up about 100 sponsors for the U.S. park, Lopez Ancona said. They plan to choose their spot by April and open in summer 2003.
In Mexico City, parents praised the educational aspects. And in a country where some children's television shows are awash in hard-sell advertising, few expressed worries about the incessant plugs for the Cartoon Network on giant televisions or the Quaker State Oil billboards along the go-kart track.
"I think it's extraordinary. The important thing is that it teaches the kids to work, and to save their money. It builds a sense of responsibility," said Hermegildo Lagarda Leyva, director of a university from northern Mexico who brought his 7-year-old son Alejandro during a trip to Mexico City.
"It's really cool," said Ricardo David Ortega, 8, proudly holding up a Reforma newspaper front page with a banner headline above an article he had just completed on speedboats. "I love to work so I get more money, and then I have more next time I come."