Theme park lets kids try on different careers

March 05, 2006|By LYLAH M. ALPHONSE | LYLAH M. ALPHONSE,BOSTON GLOBE

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Does your child want to be a firefighter when she grows up? How about a doctor, an actor, a disc jockey? They are all options at Wannado City, a gigantic, reality-based indoor theme park that takes "learning on the job" to a whole new level.

"You get to be like an adult," said Zachary Zeiper, 12, of Weston, Fla. His favorite activity? Being a detective.

Wannado City anchors one end of the enormous Sawgrass Mills mall in Sunrise, the second-largest tourist destination in the state behind Disney World. The complex, which opened in August 2004, welcomes about 600,000 visitors each year, according to Laura Lieberman, director of sales and marketing for Wannado City.

It's the first of its kind in the United States, though Wannado City's Mexico-based parent company, CIE, has plans to open other locations in the next few years, starting with one in New Jersey's Meadowlands area.

At this 140,000-square-foot site, youngsters can sample the working world firsthand and get paid for their efforts in Wongas, the city's currency. Their salaries are determined by the jobs they attempt - and there are more than 100, from archaeologist to X-ray technician, each with its own highly detailed activity area, complete with props and, in some cases, uniforms. The activities are geared for ages 3 to 13.

Among other things, Wannado boasts a pint-size CNN studio where children can see what it's like to be a television director or a news anchor; an actual Spirit Airlines plane outfitted with flight simulators for pilots-in-training; and a Miami Herald "office" where visitors can put out their own newspaper, which then gets distributed throughout the city.

The lobby of Plantation General Hospital's "branch" is filled with children waiting to scrub up for work as an emergency-room surgeon or neonatal nurse (the patients are realistic, life-size rubber dummies and baby dolls).

Children gain a measure of independence here, thanks to RSID (remote species identification) technology and wristband tracking devices that monitor their whereabouts while allowing them to play freely.

Several computerized kiosks let children and adults keep tabs on one another - hold your wristband in front of a kiosk's sensor and icons pop up on a digital map, showing where members of your group are at that moment.

A trip here can be an all-day event, with activities taking as long as 20 to 30 minutes each. Wannado City is not a drop-off-while-you-shop kind of place. Weary grown-ups can hang out at the Eagle's Nest, a quiet roost high above the bustling streets, with beer, wine, coffee, pastries, digital television, free Internet connections and a stellar view of almost the entire city.

Security is tight. Adults are not allowed in unless accompanied by a child, children are not allowed out unless accompanied by an adult, and no one is permitted to leave the complex without first clearing a checkpoint where wristbands are collected and staff members make sure that the people who came together, leave together.

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