Kansas City can't get 'Kenough' of the Barbie-themed Streetcar. What did it cost taxpayers?
The Kansas City Streetcar Authority typically charges local organizations thousands of dollars to sponsor decorations for its vehicles. But rather than being paid for by Mattel or Warner Bros. Pictures, the hot pink and reference-filled “Dream Streetcar” came out of the agency’s mostly tax-funded budget.
It turns out the Kansas City Streetcar’s newest art isn’t, technically, an ad for the blockbuster “Barbie."
Records obtained by KCUR show that Kansas City Streetcar Authority spent nearly $25,000 in public funding on what it calls the "Dream Streetcar," featuring a hot pink wrap on the vehicle's exterior and colorful seats based on characters from this summer’s hit “Barbie” film starring Margot Robbie.
Since the Streetcar made its debut on September 1, social media users have assumed the Dream Streetcar is an ad paid for by Mattel or Warner Bros. Pictures, which made the "Barbie" movie.
In fact, the cost was shouldered by the Kansas City Streetcar Authority. Donna Mandelbaum, the Streetcar Authority's communications and marketing director, said funding for the Dream Streetcar was taken from the agency's own marketing budget, which is funded mostly by taxes.
The Streetcar Authority says production and installation of the exterior wrap and the interior seat wraps cost $15,990. The agency hired local company Whiskey Design to create the art at a cost of $8,563.
The streetcar is funded almost entirely by sales, property and parking taxes collected from the downtown Transportation Development District. Revenue also comes from sponsorships.
Mandelbaum said the goal of the Dream Streetcar was to encourage ridership, not to promote “Barbie.”
“There was never any thoughts to promote the movie,” she said. “We do stuff like this all the time. This just happened to have a really big splash because it's really pink.”
Streetcar wraps are typically sponsored by a local organization and “are not open to corporate sponsorships at this time,” according to the Streetcar Authority’s website. Streetcar Authority Executive Director Tom Gerend said revenue from sponsorships helps fund the agency's overall budget, including its marketing expenses.
According to guidelines posted on the streetcar’s website, eligible sponsors can be either for-profit or non-profit organizations and must fall under one of four categories:
- Kansas City landmarks, sports, arts and entertainment
- Events that have “significant cultural, community or economic impact”
- Events that attract visitors to Kansas City
- Attractions along the streetcar line and Transportation Development District
It costs between $1,250 and $7,500 per month to sponsor a streetcar wrap, depending on how many months a sponsor purchases.
Another sponsorship program costs $50,000 per year, per streetcar, and allows a corporation to place their logos outside of the streetcars.
“Barbie,” based on the iconic Mattel doll and distributed by media giant Warner Bros. Pictures, was released July 21 and quickly became a phenomenon, inspiring fashion trends and memes. As of September 17, it has grossed more than $1.4 billion worldwide and $626 million in the U.S.
The Dream Streetcar does not actually feature the word “Barbie” or any pictures of dolls or characters from the movie. The seats feature art based on the costumes from the movie, like a sash worn by Issa Rae’s character President Barbie and a striped shirt worn by Michael Cera’s character Allan. The wrap also includes references to Ken — including phrases like "I Am Kenough" and "Kensas City."
Since September 2022, the streetcar has featured eight unique wraps, most of them sponsored by local organizations, businesses and events, like the Kansas City Current, Worlds of Fun and the NFL Draft.
Mandelbaum said the Streetcar Authority has previously paid for wraps for LGBTQ+ Pride and the December holidays. She said the Dream Streetcar is a locally-themed wrap because it promotes local businesses along the streetcar route, including the B&B Theatres downtown location that was still showing “Barbie" nearly two months after its premiere. (The B&B Theatres chain is based in Liberty, Missouri.)
“How is this not local if it’s our name on it?” Mandelbaum said. “It's not promoting a movie, it's not promoting Mattel, it's not promoting anything like that.”
However, the agency's own promotion of the Dream Streetcar is inextricably linked to the "Barbie" movie, with numerous social media posts about the streetcar quoting the film, using the movie's soundtrack, and tagging the official Barbie social media accounts.
I got to ride the Barbie streetcar tonight pic.twitter.com/YJUCuo7MqL— Activisty Tim (@Beertheist) September 5, 2023
Are people riding the Dream Streetcar?
Ridership numbers from the first two weeks of the wrap’s installation resemble those from earlier this year.
According to the Streetcar Authority, 9,088 people rode the streetcar on Friday, Sept.1, the day the Dream Streetcar debuted. That’s higher than the streetcar’s average daily ridership of about 5,000, although it also coincided with the final First Friday of the summer.
During Labor Day weekend, 13,534 people rode the streetcar on Saturday, Sept. 2, and 10,206 people rode it on Sunday, Sept. 3.
In June 2023, average Saturday ridership for the streetcar was 12,585 people, and the average Sunday ridership was 6,600.
During the week following Labor Day, from Monday, Sept. 4 to Sunday, Sept. 10, ridership averaged 5,127.
So was the five-figure cost of the Dream Streetcar worth it? For at least one rider, it is.
Chloe Thomas lives downtown and takes the streetcar to and from her job at Union Station. She said the Dream Streetcar helps break up the monotony of her daily commute, when she is normally absorbed in thoughts of work.
“Every time the streetcar changes, it's kind of a big deal,” she said. “The art is always so different, but always bright and always colorful and interesting.”
Thomas said she sees people admiring the streetcar’s art — Barbie or not — on a regular basis.
“I think that art inherently makes a city richer,” she said. “I hope that all the different art, including even the Barbie art, is here to stay, because it makes my day better.”
Walking past Streetcar stops since the Barbie Streetcar launched, it’s fun hearing and seeing kids and adults being excited about it.— Chris Stritzel (@chris_stritzel) September 4, 2023
Little things like this bring joy. pic.twitter.com/O2J9WkV1Nj
But the Dream Streetcar doesn’t fulfill the same purpose as other streetcar wraps that feature local art, said Jim Woodfill, chair of the painting program at the Kansas City Art Institute.
For example, “Disco Cloud,” created by Fred Trease and sponsored by the organization Art in the Loop, is a tribute to the LGBTQ+ community inspired by drag balls, Pride parades and other celebrations.
Woodfill said “Disco Cloud” has a clear intention that is communicated to the public, but he feels the Dream Streetcar wrap is a work of marketing that doesn’t communicate a clear message.
“When I look into the Barbie thing, there’s not that set of intentions,” Woodfill said. “I don’t know if I want to make a value judgment about whether that’s good or bad, but it’s a confusion.”
The Streetcar Authority said the Dream Streetcar is slated to stay pink for about a month and a half.