ICING ON THE CAKE

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Maybe it was a child's party that included a limo ride. Or a Bouncy Bounce rubber playhouse spotted on the neighbor's lawn. Or the hired clowns and Batman characters that entertained your children at a tot's birthday bash. The clues are there--something is happening with kiddie parties.

The days of homemade cakes and simple family gatherings are being overpowered by the Birthday Extravaganza.

Some kiddie birthday parties have become mega-events, replete with costumed cartoon characters, petting zoos, fun houses, catered food, lavish decorations and fancy store-bought cakes.

Over-the-top parties for tots cost as much as a small wedding.

"Now the children want more," says Virginia Mangione, a Newport Beach mother of two daughters, 12-year-old Jo Anne and 6-year-old Samantha. "When I was a girl, we celebrated birthdays with parents and grandparents. Today the kids are into characters."

Mangione has both given and attended enough kiddie birthday parties to know that for many, mere cake and ice cream won't cut it.

Her family owns a McDonald's, so for one birthday party she invited her daughter's entire class for Happy Meals. This, however, was no ordinary trip to the golden arches. Not only did the entire restaurant shut down for the party, but Ronald McDonald showed up to entertain the kids.

She has spent "a couple thousand" on petting zoos complete with pony rides, a paint-your-own ceramics party and a trip to a skating rink where guests got to skate with Disney characters.

"The kids are always going to different parties and they want a better or a different party," Mangione says. "There's pressure over 'What will we do this year?' "

Sue Cannon of Irvine has thrown big theme parties for her 11-year-old daughter, Crystal, and 9-year-old son, Travis. She's had ballerina parties, a virtual-reality video-game party, a rock-climbing party at a sports club and a "My Little Pony" party with decorated ponies for the kids to ride.

"They had braided manes decorated with lace and glitter. They look like they flew down from heaven," Cannon says.

Cannon studied books about birthday parties with great cakes and "killer themes."

Yet her themed parties haven't approached the extravagance of some parties thrown by her friends. One gave her child an Academy Awards birthday bash, in which party guests dressed up like little movie stars. The birthday girl played the role of reporter, interviewing guests as they strolled up a red carpet.

"They even had director's chairs with each child's name and little Oscar-type trophies," Cannon says.

She says one friend gave a party for a 1-year-old that cost more than $10,000.

"There was a clown, a balloon guy, a bouncy thing, a Velcro thing, and it was catered to the hilt. It was fun for the parents, but it wasn't really about the 1-year-old, who we saw for an hour," Cannon says.

"It's so hard. You want to do something special, but special now starts at $200," Cannon says. "My daughter heard about a limo party to Planet Hollywood and I said, 'Oh, gosh, what's next?' "

The guest list at some kids' galas has taken on wedding-like proportions. There might be 40 or 50 5-year-olds at a party. That has sent parents running to entertainment services to help with crowd control and keep the tykes busy.

Marsi Roberson, owner of Animal Crackers Entertainment in Lake Forest, supplies party-givers with a variety of costumed characters (licensing agreements restrict store owners from using some characters, such as Barney and Mickey Mouse).

"We had one incident where this kid grabbed Batman's cape and ran around behind him so he couldn't catch him. Then he squirted Batman in the eyes with Silly String. Batman was 6-5 and this little kid had him," Roberson says.

Batman foiled the boy by stepping on the child's foot. The parents threatened to sue until Roberson offered them passes to Disneyland.

"I sympathized with Batman, but I told him, 'You can't step on a kid's foot,' " she says.

Despite the headaches, Roberson says sometimes it's the parents and not the children who really want big-ticket bashes.

"They'll ask me, "What kind of goody bag should I get?" I tell them the kids don't care," she says.

Occasionally, all the adult planning turns birthdays into stressful events, just as the December holidays have become fraught with unrealistic demands and expectations.

"Parents are creating undue pressure on themselves, and it's not fun," says Nancy New, a clinical psychologist in Laguna Niguel. "Look how many people don't look forward to Christmas."

She questions whether dino-sized birthday parties are really meant to please the child or to bolster the parent's ego.

"There's nothing bad about a big party, but parents are certainly setting the stage for the future," New says. "They want to be careful not to turn the kids into narcissists, because as we get older there isn't a big hurrah for every birthday."

Parties become a reflection of the parents' worth instead of a child's dream day.

"Big, lavish parties are falling into the category of weddings, where people feel their love for their child is judged by how much money they spend or how original the party is," says Lesley Donovan, mother of a 12-year-old daughter and a marriage, family and child counselor in Newport Beach.

The birthday boy or girl can get lost amid the clowns, animals and other commotion.

"The parent will be busy with the clown and magician and telling the child, 'I can't talk to you right now,' " Donovan says.

Some young guests, meanwhile, who receive hefty goody bags, come to expect that parties are an occasion where they too will be showered with gifts. The big lessons children learn from such affairs, such as sharing toys and letting someone else enjoy the limelight, get lost.

"They have to learn they won't be honored at every party," New says.

She recommends "doing" parties, in which children participate in an activity such as painting clay pots or making pizzas.

"It's doing something rather than having something done to you," she says.

A "fail-proof" way to throw a kiddie birthday party is to first "listen to the child," Donovan says. Ask about their interests and get them involved in the planning.

If a child likes horses, for instance, parents can take a few party guests on a horseback ride. Close human contact is more important than a flashy production, Donovan says.

"One thing that gets lost in big productions is the intimacy between parent and child," she says. "Parents should take the time to share with their children what a special day it was for them when they came into the world."

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