Jennifer Carraher wanted to do something special for her daughter’s fourth birthday without turning herself and her home inside out.
Her daughter, Cassandra, loves princesses and playing dress-up. So Carraher booked a princess party at Tiny Tots Tea Room in Clifton Park.
`The fun factor coupled with the (low) stress factor made it a really good time,` she said.
A growing number of places around the Capital District offer birthday parties that cater to the younger set. Kids can get makeovers. They can take cooking lessons. They can make personalized pottery and stuffed animals. They can play laser tag and video games and scale indoor rock-climbing walls.
There are a variety of reasons parents are turning to these types of parties instead of simply serving the traditional cake and ice cream at home. These parties take less time and effort. They ensure the birthday child will have a memorable day. They expose kids to new experiences.
All of this has turned birthday parties into a big business, and not just in the Capital District.
`It seems to be all over the country,` said Bill Doherty, a University of Minnesota professor who has studied the trend. `It’s urban, it’s rural, it’s rich, it’s poor.`
Stacy Myron can attest to the popularity of planned parties. Myron, who owns Tumbling Tykes on Route 7 in Latham, unveiled her new `party on the go` plan at the recent Kids’ Expo at the Empire State Plaza. So many parents liked the idea of having a Tumbling Tykes staffer come to their house to lead an afternoon of party activities that Myron, who hoped just to get the word out about the parties at the expo, already had reservations booked when the expo wrapped up.
The draw of the plan is similar to what attracts people to her indoor play facility for parties: `We do it all,` Myron said. That means parents don’t have to worry about planning games or entertainment, or even food — Myron can supply cake, ice cream and pizza.
That kind of convenience is one of the big reasons Carraher has had all of her daughter’s parties somewhere other than at her house.
`I like the idea of not having to get our home ready, not having to clean up, not having to worry about the furniture getting damaged,` Carraher, of Rexford, said.
She also likes the idea of giving her daughter a day in the spotlight.
`Every parent wants their child to feel special on his or her birthday,` Carraher said.
Kate Cross, owner of Tiny Tots Tea Room, embraces that philosophy. Cassandra, like other birthday girls who opt for Tiny Tot’s princess package, wore a tiara and got to sit on a `throne.` When the kids ate their three-course meal (vegetables, sandwiches and dessert), Cassandra got to ring a bell to signal the end of each course. When the girls put on an array of fancy gowns complemented by hats, boas and wands, Cassandra had the first choice of clothing.
Cross said she lets the girls dress however they want, even if that means heaping on layers and layers of accessories.
`I’m a firm believer in letting kids be who they are,` she said.
When Jessica Shea was a kid, she was a self-described country girl. Shea turned her childhood fascination with snakes and other animals into a business called Reptile Adventures. She brings snakes, turtles and frogs to area birthday parties, teaching kids about the creatures and letting them pose for pictures with her snakes.
`There are always a million questions,` Shea said. `Kids want to know if they bite and what they eat.`
Allyson Thiessen of Colonie booked Shea for her daughter Laurel Genthner’s 13th birthday party in February and came away marveling at the way the guests took to the animals.
`It was such a fantastic experience,` Thiessen said. `It’s not the thing that you would normally get at a party.`
Thiessen said two guests couldn’t stay overnight, but they made sure to come for the earlier part of the party so they had a chance to see the animals.
Weeks later, the girls are still buzzing about the party, Thiessen said, and they’re making plans for their own unique celebrations.
`Before this, we just had giggly sleepovers,` Thiessen said. `Now it’s almost like a competition. The other parties have to be theme parties, too.`
SIDEBAR: Just let them eat cake
Some parents lament the move toward birthday extravaganzas
By JACQUELINE M. DOMIN, Spotlight Staff
The explosion of entertainment options for birthday parties in the Capital District makes Joan Newman nostalgic.
Newman raised three kids, who are between 25 and 35 years old now. She remembers throwing birthday parties for them in her backyard, playing games in the woods. She worries that today’s kids might never know the simple fun of such things as three-legged races and pin the tail on the donkey.
`It’s not crucial to childhood, but it would be a pity,` Newman said.
Newman, who teaches child development as the director of educational psychology at the University of Albany, said there’s nothing inherently wrong with kids having their birthday celebrations at restaurants and party centers, especially when kids have the chance to interact with one another and play games.
`At least they can run around, be kids,` she said. `It’s noisy, it’s stimulating. That in itself is not bad.`
But Newman thinks there’s something to be said for taking the time to plan a one-of-a-kind party at home instead of booking an elaborate bash at an outside venue.
`That’s not doing anything unique for your kid,` she said. `There’s nothing creative about going somewhere and being one of five kids to take the class there.`
It can also be dangerous to send kids a message that their birthday is cause for a huge blowout every year, she said. When she was growing up, she didn’t necessarily even have a party every year, let alone one with professional entertainment and dozens of guests.
Bill Doherty, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied children’s birthday parties, is also wary of the sense of entitlement such parties may give to kids. He talked to one parent who recalled her son saying that his party that year was nice, but the next year he wanted to go to a horse barn, and he figured the following year he’d have his party at the Mall of America.
Doherty said the pressure to plan such parties can weigh on parents. If parents are feeling stressed about planning parties, that could be a sign that it’s gotten a little out of control, he said.
Newman suggested as a rule of thumb that the number of party guest should be limited to the child’s age plus one. Another good idea is to make sure the party doesn’t `overly commercialize things.` She suggested activities like decorating apples or clothing.
Doherty agrees with the idea of simple entertainment. In one neighborhood near him, seven kids had birthdays in a two-week span. So, the parents got together and decided to host one big party at the local park, featuring nothing more than cake, ice cream and games.
`Kids said it was the best party they ever had,` Doherty said.
Here’s a look at some of the options parents and children in the Capital District have when looking for places to have a birthday party:
Tiny Tots Tea Room, Exit 8 Plaza, Clifton Park: Princess parties for girls 4 and older, playroom parties for boys and girls. Rates start at $275 and include lunch and dessert. 348.1050, www.tinytotstearoom.com
Tumbling Tykes, 952 Troy-Schenectady Road, Latham: Parties start at $175 and include personalized activities, free play and songs. Pizza, cake and ice cream are available for an additional cost. 783-0767, www.tumblingtykes.com
Bumble Beads, 620 Loudon Road, Latham: Children 6 and older can use beads to make a personalized piece of jewelry. Cost is $15 per person. 885-0103, www.bumblebeadsstudio.com
Kidz Partiez Plus, 145A Wolf Road, Albany: More than 100 theme parties, starting at $9.99 per person and including food. Game room tokens are available for an additional cost. 482-4600, www.kidzpartiezplus.com
The Court Club, Albany: Rock climbing wall parties that include a T-shirt for the guest of honor. Call for rates. 459-4444, www.thecourtclub.com
Riverview Orchards, 660 Riverview Road, Clifton Park: More than 30 theme parties, starting at $11.95 per person and including activities and a cake. Several extras, such as pinatas and lunch, are available. 371-2174, www.rivervieworchards.com
Little Cooks, 102 Euclid Ave., Albany: Home-based cooking parties that include an entree and dessert, as well as an apron and chef’s hat for each guest. Call for rates. 346-9955, www.littlecooks.com
Reptile Adventures, Schenectady: Owner Jessica Shea brings snakes and other animals to the birthday child’s house. Rates start at $100 and include a gift for the guest of honor and coloring sheets. 495-8684, magicmermaids.com/Reptile_Adventure.html
Bellezza Hair Salon, 46 Fuller Road, Albany, and 139 Vly Road, Albany: Parties start at $25 per person and include mini manicures and party hairstyles. 453-6071, 723-2124, www.bellezzabeauty.com/birthdays.htm
Steamer No. 10 Theatre, 500 Western Ave., Albany: Parties include a room for cake, ice cream and presents. Guests get first choice of seats in the theater for a show. Cost is included in ticket price. 438-5503, www.steamer10theatre.org.