It’s fair to say that my relationship with our nation’s capital has been a somewhat fractious one, a love/hate thang if you will. We first made our acquaintance when I moved to London with my family from Nigeria as an impressionable 2 year old. My parents are doctors and my father had his residency arranged in Hammersmith hospital, so we upped sticks and travelled from the hot to the cold. Back then, things were not as they are now. Back then, the UK was crying out for foreign professionals to plug the holes in their understaffed NHS. Being a citizen of a former colonial nation (Nigeria was granted full independence from the British on October 1st 1960) meant that my parents had full access to work and study in the UK. There were no fears of foreign migrants coming and stealing work from the locals. No concerns about benefit tourists or undocumented workers, just hopeful people who answered a call.
Big City Blues
I didn’t speak much English, but then again, I didn’t speak much of anything, I was just a toddler. My parents did of course, and they tried their best to help ease us into life in these foreign climes. We lived in an ugly purpose built apartment block which was owned by the hospital to house its large foreign workforce. To me, this place was grey, cold and sterile. I made a few friends. I remember the brave German girl next door who couldn’t speak a word of English. But language isn’t a barrier when there are trees to climb and pranks to play, we spoke the universal language of adventure. I remember the beautiful Rowena, an older Asian girl, who at 8 years old seemed to me to understand the entire meaning of life.
Language isn’t a barrier when there are trees to climb and pranks to play
It took time, but eventually I got used to life in West London. But then we moved and left the UK so that was that. I didn’t move back to the city until I was 15, when I attended JAGS boarding school. Then, it was a fantastic place to be, a virtual treasure trove of wonder. The clubs, the bars, the people – so many different people! It was London where I fell in love for the first time. I mean love love, not a schoolgirl crush. And I fell for the city itself, big time. I loved the sheer vastness of it. They say that if you are bored of London, then you are bored of life. Well I enjoyed living then and London was life. I fell for the culture, from the National Portrait Gallery to the Royal Opera House. I adored the freedom of being virtually anonymous when you wanted, a stranger in your own town. I couldn’t imagine wanting to ever live anywhere else. But after I finished my A levels I went to university in Loughborough, a small town in the East Midlands. I discovered that life, bars and adventure also existed outside of the capital. And that there it came with a reasonable price tag and loads of extra legroom. I was forever changed. London seemed more and more impractical to me. The traffic, the noise, the over-population, not to mention the inflated cost of living. How can anybody stand it? I have been a reluctant visitor to the city pretty much ever since.
The Big Smoke
So it was purely out of love for my brother that I accepted his invitation to London for the day with the kids. He wanted to spend time with his niece and nephew and was willing to take a rare day off work to do so, so who was I to interfere? I was determined to make it a positive experience for my two, so it was with an open mind that we boarded the train to Kings Cross. Having successfully negotiated our way out west on the tube to White City, we emerged from the stifling underground to glorious sunshine. Perhaps it was the relief, perhaps it was the sun-soaked endorphins but I was happy – I liked what I saw. Everything seemed fresh and fun and shiny. Even the graffiti was artful!
We were to spend the afternoon at the infamous Westfield, shopper’s paradise. That place is a materialist’s wet dream. Two enormous floors filled to the rafters with glossy, high-def merch. I must admit, it knocks the socks off our Centre Traff. But we weren’t there for shopping, no. We were there to be entertained! For as well as housing every high street chain dining establishment or retail outlet known this side of the Atlantic, Westfield is also home to KidZania. KidZania aims to do just that, to entertain. Specifically our little ones. It describes itself as “an indoor city run by kids”. In truth, none of our party knew what to expect. Whatever I was imagining, it certainly wasn’t what greeted me. KidZania is sponsored by a number of recognisable, kid-friendly brands like Mothercare, Early Learning Centre and H&M, the most visible of which was British Airways. As you enter the foyer you are ushered up the escalators towards “check-in” by uniformed attendants. Our excursion was described as a flight, and it certainly felt like one thanks in part to the A319 aircraft in the lobby. A uniformed check-in assistant explained to us what would happen during our 4 hour flight. I wasn’t particularly listening since I was too busy taking in the exact replica of the Gatwick BA check-in lounge around me, replete with security metal detector. Speaking of which, security is pretty tight in this gaff. It would have to be to allay my parental concern. See the kids, at least the big ones 4 years and up, are allowed to wander around this complex unaccompanied. I wasn’t sure how that would work without making this place a kiddie tuck-shop for predatory types. I was reassured by the lengthy check-in process and by the bulky watch-like bracelets that were attached to each of us, containing all relevant security information. I think it might be easier to escape from Broadmoor.
It was all very impressive, especially if you are under 12 years old.
After a frankly unenlightening explanation, we were off, left to fend for ourselves in this crazy replica metropolis. But not to worry, because KidZania is amply staffed by numerous friendly and proactive uni placement students or recent grads (I know, I checked). There was always someone around who would help us lost souls and guide us to where we wanted or needed to be (shout out to Ibrahim, you were a star!). It was all very impressive, especially if you are under 12 years old. The idea is that at KidZania, as the name might suggest, the kids are the stars. They are issued with a certain number of Zania dollars upon check-in, which they are allowed to spend around the city. However, they have limited funds, so they need to earn more in order to spend them. And how do you earn money? Get your head out of the gutter, this is a children’s show! You earn money by going out to work. Kids can be gainfully employed in a number of different ways, from shop assistant to journalist to firefighter to medic. It really is very cool and children get to taste what it might be like to work in these professions.
Kidz Corner Purgatory
But it isn’t without fault. Although all the attractions were pretty well resourced and cared for, the facilities were not. The toilets were poor and smelt worse than a back alley on a Sunday morning – use those at your peril. Sadly with under 4s, needs must. And therein lies the major flaw, the fly in this otherwise fragrant ointment. If your kids are all above the minimum participation age threshold, then they are free to do everything and anything that they can squeeze into their 4 hour window. But if like me, your kids vary in age, with one being under the threshold, then you face a dilemma. This being her first visit and her being the only older child in our group, The Girl was reluctant to be left alone. But The Boy was definitely too young (not to mention untrustworthy) to be unsupervised. If I had been alone I would not have been able to keep them both happy, and the likelihood would be that The Girl would have to join us in the toddler section. Luckily there were several adults in our party so she was able to swan off with one of them to enjoy the cool bits whilst I was left to wallow in the baby section with The Boy.
KidZania really does work for it’s target audience, but the rest of us are left wanting.
That’s pretty much my version of hell. The “kidz” corner is tiny by comparison. It’s not much different to your average soft play/church toddler group fare. Yes, there’s an LED lit bouncy water trampoline with plastic fish in. And yes, there is a well stocked kitchen corner, as well as a bedroom and lounge. But frankly I’d have rather been in my real house, sitting on a proper sofa (not plastic) and drinking tea (read gin). Still the babes were entertained, for at least half an hour, before violence and tears ensued. For me, the best bit was the science lab. The kids were able to wear lab coats and mess about with water and washing up liquid. I was free to blow huge bubbles and smile as the littlies tried to catch and pop them.
Sadness and Shopping
The Boy was gutted that he wasn’t able dress up as a fireman and ride on the truck like the bigger kids, cue tears and tantrums. The only thing that the teenies could really do was to play shoppers for the big boys and girls on the checkout. He did enjoy pushing his mini trolley around the store stocking up on plastic carrots, tins of lentils and a rubber chicken. And that about sums it up, that’s the main problem. KidZania really does work for it’s target audience, but the rest of us are left wanting. Scant attention is paid to the under 4s and no real thought is given to any accompanying adults. On the plus side, the gift shop is well priced. I managed to placate the distressed toddler by purchasing a plastic fireman’s helmet for a very reasonable £7.
But 4 hours was simply too long for me, I could barely survive two. Fortunately with The Girl being minded by her uncle, I was able to escape with The Boy and the rest of my rambunctious rabble into the relative peace of the shopping haven that is Westfield. Calm was restored by application of food (his) and drink (mine). Two hours of retail therapy later and we were all smiles again. The Girl made the most of her 4 hour flight, I made the most of Zara.
So with heavy bags and even heavier eyelids, we made our way back home on the tube. It was still light enough outside to spot the sombre spectre of the burnt out carcass of Grenfell Tower. Truly horrific. It breaks my heart to think of the fear that must have gripped each resident who had to scramble their way to safety. It’s even sadder to know that there are still so many survivors that have yet to be rehoused or to receive the financial assistance that they need. I pray that they each get the emotional, financial and legal support that they require.
As for KidZania, I’d say that it really works if your child is old enough to join in the big kids’ activities. If not, stay well clear. If you do go, for the love of God and all things holy, take your phone and make sure it’s charged- there’s going to be a lot of hanging around for you!
Now, click the button below to read what my daughter has to say.