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Barbie, still controversial, appears anew as tourist attraction on global stage

May 11, 2013 1:30 pm

Skift Take

Barbie is a doll, and she can’t help it if she is the epitome of beauty, at least in some people’s eyes. Whether she is a doll role model, or the prototype of sexism gone wild, she will attract tourists by the stroller-full.

— Dennis Schaal

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Pichi Chuang  / Reuters

Girls look at Barbie dolls on display during the media preview of a Barbie-themed cafe in Taipei January 30, 2013. That Barbie is a global attraction was evident as Barbie The Dreamhouse Experience opened in South Florida this week and will debut in Germany next week. Pichi Chuang / Reuters


Barbie, the iconic figure that has long ignited the imagination of fans of all ages, is now for the first time living larger than life in South Florida, residing in a super-pink, playful, technology-driven parallel universe.

Barbie The Dreamhouse Experience opened Friday at Sawgrass Mills in Sunrise. The interactive installation of 10,000 square feet is filled with several different rooms and loads of life-sized — and even bigger — wonders.

It’s the first such Barbie Dreamhouse Experience to open worldwide, with Berlin debuting next week.

Screen Shot 2013-05-11 at 1.03.00 PM

Think of it as a new version of a high-technology, multimedia Barbie.

“The media component of a dreamhouse has to be there because Barbie, at the end of the day, is ahead of her time,” said Christoph Rahofer, president of Vienna-based EMS Entertainment, which produced the Dreamhouse Experience in collaboration with the toymaker that manufactures Barbie, Mattel.

“The dreamhouse has to be ahead of its time also, in terms of how pink, how fancy, how crazy, how unexpected it can be, and that also goes for the use of some of the technology,” said Rahofer, in a telephone interview from Vienna. He used his 8-year-old daughter as his muse in thinking up the dreamhouse idea, which was developed by a creative team in Vienna.

Live interactive doll experiences moved into public venues beginning in 1998, when the first American Girl Place store opened in Chicago. Thousands of girls across the country now take their dolls to tea and hold birthday parties at 14 stores nationwide. One opened at The Falls in South Miami-Dade last October.

While Rahofer had never heard of American Girl dolls until three months ago, both are owned by Mattel, which bought American Girl in 1998, and both are now part of the new world of experiential doll-playing in South Florida.

Yet some moms say Barbies are much more financially accessible than American Girl dolls, which cost $105 on average. Barbies begin at just a few dollars.

“It’s a big financial commitment,” said Lane Kiefaber, mother of a 4-year-old daughter, of American Girl.

Since Barbie was introduced in 1959, her popularity has soared in line with the fantasy world she sparked. Barbie, whose real name is Barbara Millicent Roberts, rose to become the No. 1 doll sold. Today, according to Mattel, a Barbie doll is sold every three seconds somewhere in the world.

Yet while Barbie remains an icon to those to whom she has endeared over the years, to some, she is a sexist symbol.

In Berlin, where the dreamhouse will open in a large tent in an area nestled between a railway and old communist housing blocks, a grass-roots group of opponents has formed. The group has created a Facebook faction called Occupy Barbie Dreamhouse, which has drawn more than 1,000 supporters, according to the publication The New Age Online.

Yet Barbie gives girls hope of realizing their dreams, Rahofer said, as she has had dozens of professions over the years. “So it’s not a doll, it’s a concept, the concept of what can you achieve in life, how can you fulfill your dreams, and that is why it’s a dreamhouse,” he said.

Regardless, Barbie is no longer the doll you may have grown up with and played with alongside your friends, dressing her perfectly sculpted body in cute outfits.

Today, Barbie is all about multimedia, living in a Dreamhouse that includes LED touchscreens to make Barbie digital outfits and video screens in the pretend elevator playing “webisodes” of Barbie and her friends.

“It’s a whole new world of Barbie,” said Lisa Cassidy, 44, of Miramar, who brought her daughters, Riley, 8 and Sidney, 10. “It’s not just the doll we knew.”

Still, the Dreamhouse Experience leans on time-tested favorites, including baking and dressing up, retaining aspects of the original dreamhouse that debuted in the 1960s.

Kids can make cupcakes on a touchscreen inside the all-pink kitchen, play with huge pieces of jewelry, stand in a “glitterizer” inside Barbie’s bedroom and watch a dolphin come out her bathroom’s toilet. The experience culminates with girls getting made up and dressed up to participate in a fashion show on a catwalk, with adult “Barbie friends” instructing the girls on how to pose with their hands on their hips and blow kisses at the audience.

“Cool!” squealed a dozen girls, ages 2 to 10, as they toured the dreamhouse with their mothers on Friday.

“I think it’s awesome. It’s a girl’s dream come true,” said Michelle Sherman, 44, who brought her 4-year-old daughter, Samantha Ruby. “Who wouldn’t want to live in Barbie’s house?”

In this replica, pink abounds, from the bathtub to toilet paper, tutus, hair driers, curlers and towels. An “endless” walk-in closet even contains retro Barbie clothes and shoes, along with life-size glittery shoes and purses.

“I love it, it’s just like in all her movies,” Riley Cassidy said. “It’s really pink, so it’s awesome.”

Barbie’s Dreamhouse Experience has been in the works for 18 months, Rahofer said. The group chose South Florida for the weather, as well as for its combination of a large local community and an abundance of tourists.

Open seven days a week, the dreamhouse will remain on site, in the former Hard Rock Cafe building, until at least August 2014, Rahofer said. Individual ticket prices range from $14 to $29.99 for a VIP Megastar ticket. ___

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