Former Nintendo executive Cammie Dunaway will lead the U.S. operations of KidZania as it creates “kid-sized cities” for children in shopping malls. KidZania is creating places for kids to learn about real-life jobs and entertain themselves in mini cities within shopping malls.

Started in Mexico, the KidZania are little cities with buildings, streets, businesses and vehicles. They’re bigger than most department stores. Inside these havens, children can take on real jobs such as running a radio station, veterinarian’s office, fire station, bakery or other business.  Dunaway’s job will be to launch KidZania across the U.S.

Dunaway, who recently resigned as the top sales and marketing executive of Nintendo of America, will become U.S. president and global chief marketing officer of KidZania. She will set up a new office in San Jose, Calif., and hire a team to set up the KidZania mini theme parks in malls. But she will also supervise a team that will create online entertainment focused on KidZania so that kids can visit it both offline and online.

“This is a new kind of hybrid entertainment and education,” Dunaway said in an interview. “Kids can learn about what it really takes to do so many different jobs. It’s all about empowering them.”

Dunaway led the sales and marketing at Nintendo’s U.S. division for the past three years. During that time, the Wii game console and DS handheld took commanding market shares, vaulting Nintendo into the No. 1 spot in the industry. But Dunaway said the chance to start something like KidZania was too good to pass up.

KidZania is the brain child of Mexican entrepreneur Xavier Lopez Acona, who wanted to help working mothers struggling to find stimulating childcare. He was the Latin American manager for GE Capital. But he left that job to start the first KidZania in Mexico City in 1999, and it has drawn more than eight million visitors to date. New theme parks have opened in Monterrey, Mexico; Tokyo; Jakarta; Osaka, Japan;  Lisbon, Portugal; Dubai; and Seoul.

KidZania “interactive family entertainment centers” are aimed at kids ages one to 13. With their parents, kids can explore a kid-sized city (they remind me of places such as the Venetian Hotel or Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, where there are lots of shops and restaurants under a faux sky painted on the ceiling. Inside the parks, kids can earn their own virtual currency and spend it on things inside the park. They can create things such as Hershey’s chocolate bars, create newspapers, and essentially run the whole place, under supervision by adults. Dunaway said KidZania exposes children to economic principles and all kinds of occupations.

Dunaway said that the first KidZania’s will open in the U.S. by 2013. Many more are slated to open in 2011 in Bangkok; Shanghai; Santiago, Chile; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Mumbai, India. KidZania will also open a “drive” park in Mexico City where kids can drive vehicles from point to point. In 2012, KidZania will expand into Istanbul, Turkey and Cairo, Egypt.

Dunaway said she will be working closely with marketers to recruit big companies as sponsors within the KidZania theme parks. Current sponsors already include Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, and Fuji Film. Dunaway said she was recruited by Wiser Partners. Dunaway was previously chief marketing officer at Yahoo, and she managed a number of brands for Frito-Lay during a 13-year stint there. KidZania has more than 2,500 employees and another 2,000 partners worldwide.

Breaking into the U.S. won’t be easy, given all of the theme park competition in this country. But shopping malls are under distress and they would no doubt love a new anchor tenant to replace department stores that have shut down. The theme parks charge an entrance fee and also make money through sponsorships.

In a lot of ways, I can see how this is a step up for Dunaway, who saw a wild ride to the top at Nintendo with the Wii. More recently, the sales of the Wii have begun to slow down, with U.S. August sales being the worst August ever for Nintendo since the launch of the Wii in 2006. It will be more of a struggle for Nintendo to make sales gains in the near future. But Dunaway said that she expects Nintendo to see strong sales during the holiday season and has high hopes for the new Nintendo 3DS handheld game system, which launches in the U.S. in March. Now Dunaway hopes to have another wild ride.