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Bothersome Birthday Businesses

Kids' birthday parties should be child's play, not a legal matterI am probably dating myself a bit here, but when I was kid, we didn’t really go to off-site locations for birthday parties. We hosted a handful of kids from school and the neighborhood, our moms made cakes, we all wore silly hats and played a few pin-the-tail games, and we called it done.

These days, kids’ birthdays are big business, in league with weddings and bar mitzvahs in terms of stuff to buy (favors, customized cakes, snacks, balloons…), the size of the guest list (apparently you’re supposed to invite everyone in your kid’s class?), and the level of activity to plan (bounce houses, making teddy bears, climbing walls, classes, crafts…).

I totally see the appeal—parents no longer need to clean before or after the party, there’s no worrying about entertaining the kids or running games or activities, and the kids get all their wiggles out in two hours or less—and my daughter has been over the moon every time she has been invited to one of these birthday extravaganzas at our local bounce house/foam pit/trampoline/gymnastics studio/ball pit/bowling establishments.

But the problem is that the kids’ birthday business has become such a bonanza that many of these locations designed to host such parties and provide these memories have turned into factories: Push ’em in, push ’em through, push ’em out. And it’s become a giant cash grab. I’m sorry, but for the price you pay for these things (up to $300 or even more for two hours and 10 to 20 kids!), shouldn’t the children and families celebrating the birthdays be getting the experience of a lifetime, and shouldn’t children’s safety be foremost as well?

Recently, my husband and I escorted our daughter to her dear friend’s party, which was being held at Paradise Cove Fun Center, an inflatables/laser maze party business in south Reno, and I was shocked and dismayed about the service her family and friends received on this special day. Here’s just a sampling:

  • The place was a zoo, with at least three parties taking place at one time, so that our friend’s family had a very difficult time getting noticed or attended to when they needed assistance.
  • Grumpy employees. I’ll just say this: If you don’t like kids or noise, don’t work there.
  • Despite the fact that we had to sign a waiver regarding the possibility for injury or death, there was no effort made by the staff to prevent either—the only employees in attendance watching the three enormous bounce houses for misbehavior and injuries were two teenage boys wearing earphones plugged into iPhones, which they spent the entire two hours staring at. We parents had to be the security guards and monitor the comings and goings of these inflatable structures, which at times got so full of people that kids were getting trampled or jumped on.
  • As a result, during our time there, two children in our party received bloody noses, within only an hour of each other, and it was the parents who had to tell the teenaged staff members about it so they’d clear the structures in order to clean up the blood, which otherwise our kids would have been bouncing in.
  • Kids of all ages were allowed to be in the structures together, even in the toddler room which should be for toddlers. Our 5- and 6-year-olds were mixed with kids who appeared to be a few years older, and even though there were notes on the structures about weight limits (adult weights are not allowed), I saw several teenaged boys who clearly were over 150 pounds bouncing with our kids.

It’s not just Paradise Cove, either. I’ve experienced a party at EZ Air where the kids attending a 4-year-old’s party were lumped together with teenagers of at least 14 years of age who apparently had gymnastics experience, so that they all shared the same pad of trampolines, with no barriers between groups. Although one nice, attentive staff member was present, that was way too many kids for him to have been responsible for, and there was no physical separation (a wall would be appropriate, but how about even a drape or red tape?) between age groups. More than once, my daughter was bouncing six inches from a teenager doing mid-air flips, giving us all heart attacks about the potential of her becoming a landing pad.

I’ve watching kids be rushed through their parties so quickly that a staff member was yanking presents out of a kid’s hands so that she’d keep opening them in time to get out and make way for the next party. I’ve seen party rooms in these “fun centers” that looked like cement cells, without windows or an ounce of color.

Parents and birthday children deserve much more than many of these places are giving them. Although, I admit, we always have ended up thoroughly enjoying birthdays with friends at these locations, it’s been because of the occasions at hand and the people we’re celebrating with. And I fully acknowledge that the kids are having a blast at these places, every time. I mean, obviously, kids love these places.

But can we all just admit right now that these businesses need to please parents more than anything? Aren’t we the ones paying these stiff prices for the joy of two hours of entertainment for kids that we don’t have to work our butts off for?

Recently, the Reno Gazette-Journal ran a column entitled “What Happened to Disneyland?” that got readers pretty fired up with its claims that the magic had gone from Disneyland. Although I agree that the prices are out of control there (the only thing I agreed with the writer about), I found the argument she made pretty baseless considering our family’s visit in 2013, which we thought was absolutely full of magic, thanks to the park’s commitment to ensuring a pleasant experience for parents AND children. It demonstrated all the things I’m talking about here. From the employees who stopped at every turn to greet my Cinderella-dress-clad daughter with “Hello, Princess!” to the park-wide cleanliness, numerous healthy snack options, and abundance of staff monitoring safety at all attractions.

Is it fair to compare the local bounce house business to Disneyland? No, probably not. But these businesses could certainly take a few cues from the Happiest Place on Earth about how to treat families who have chosen to spend their precious time and money there on their special day. If these businesses really want to stick around and show us that they’re truly committed to giving kids and their families experiences worthy of these prices, here are some suggestions for how to really please parents and avoid becoming “factories”:

  • If you want us to sign waivers that we won’t sue in case of injury or death, how about helping see to it that we don’t have to actually worry about that? How about placing lots of caring, non-phone-carrying staff members in lots of locations and making sure that they are watching, nonstop, to prevent injuries and keep kids safe? Bounce houses can be incredibly dangerous if no one is monitoring the size and amount of kids inside. We’re there because we want the joy of seeing our kids having fun without having to worry for two hours that they might be crushed to death or contract blood-borne illnesses.
  • Help us to feel less like cogs in a factory and more like valued guests celebrating special days in our lives. We have paid a lot of money to be there. Take a cue from the wedding industry. You may be thinking that kids don’t care about service, but guess what? It’s us parents you need to please. Keep parties separated so that our party isn’t being mixed with two others and you can keep them all straight. If that’s a problem for you, you are overbooking and, thus, not being safe (see above). And remember, we moms talk. And we will also support businesses that we are impressed with.
  • Position a staff member nearby who will attend to our needs for the duration of the party. A couple years ago, we went to a party at the now-defunct (unfortunately) Pump It Up, and I was very pleased by the safety and service; a staff member was on hand the entire time to help distribute food and presents and monitor everyone’s needs.
  • Make the party rooms feel like, oh, I don’t know, a place where you’d like to have a party! How about bright colors? How about party hats and noisemakers coming standard in each room? How about a window? How about music?
  • Maybe you could serve other things besides soda and pizza? How about veggie trays? Juice boxes? Bottles of water? Pretzels? Sandwiches?

I have been pleased with what I’ve seen from The Discovery Museum for birthday parties, which I feel is very safe, well-attended, clean, and thorough in its offerings. I have liked our experiences bowling at Coconut Bowl (however, I definitely would like more staff placed and vigilant at High Ballocity). I also appreciated Flips, the gymnastics studio in Sparks, which cleared the entire gym for the party we were attending, positioned several staff members around the gym to monitor for safety, and called an end to all of it when it was time for the birthday girl to enjoy her cake and open presents, free of distractions.

But, in general, I think the kids’ birthday business needs an overhaul, and it starts with calling out bad behavior.

How have your experiences been at our local birthday party centers? Who have been the stars, and who have been the stinkers?

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About Jessica Santina

Jessica Santina
Jessica Santina’s love for writing started the summer when she was 11. She and her father created their own hand-bound book of poetry that they’d written together, which they called “Pop & Kid: Collected Writings.” It’s this love of the written word that fuels Jessica’s business today as a freelance writer, editor and university instructor, as well as spending countless hours sharing beloved books with four-year-old daughter, Olivia. When she has a few minutes to herself – a rare gem – Jessica loves to cook, read chick-lit novels, watch cooking shows, and take long, leisurely walks that allow her to come up with blog ideas. Check out her blog for words of wisdom on writing and more.

12 comments

  1. Jenn

    I love your posts including this one. I had my son’s 5th birthday party at EZ Air on Saturday. It was everything that you describe in your post. It was ridiculously expensive, two kids got hurt, the staff was rude at best, and the so-called ‘party host’ was no where to be found. Wait, that is until I got my “this is your five minute warning” to leave the room that we had for a whole 40 minutes. Luckily, one of the other moms helped me pass out the crappy pizza and water they provided; and the cake (cake provided by me, of course). At the end of the party, I got the receipt to sign and they left a space for a tip. I couldn’t believe it. Here is a tip – “Read Jessica Santina’s post, and if you are the owner of this establishment, take a closer look at your business because it’s seriously lacking in the customer service arena, among others.” I would never have a party there again and likely will not even visit this establishment any where in the near future.

  2. Jessica Santina

    Oh my God, are you kidding? That is RIDICULOUS. Shame on them.

  3. Right you are! As the owner of MunchkinLand PreSchool and the mother of a 4 year old, we get invited to A LOT of birthday parties. Up until this year I have chosen to host my son’s birthday parties at home and bring in entertainment. We did the Tumblebus for his 2 year old birthday and a Pirate magician/ clown for his third. Both were wonderful and around $200. This year we decided to go somewhere for his birthday. I called around to get prices and find out what would be included. It felt like an easy decision to go with the Discovery Museum. Yes, it was the most expensive option, but the price difference was minimal when considering that we had the use of their beautiful party room for two full hours and we got to bring in our own food, it just made sense. The staff was great. They welcomed us in before the museum even opened, helped us unload the car, decorate and were attentive throughout the whole party. I chose to add on a scavenger hunt and was thrilled to see that at the end of it, they had prizes for all of the children and not just the ‘”winner.” We ended up having 64 guests all together with the family and the children’s parents. The room was large enough that it accommodated the whole group nicely and didn’t seem too chaotic. I feel that since I am in the kid business, I am pretty picky about cleanliness, safety etc… and yes, unfortunately most birthday party places could definitely improve 🙁 However, The Discovery Museum knocked it out of the park for us this year. Two thumbs up!

  4. Great post, Jessica! I’m so bummed to read Pump It Up is closed, I didn’t know that. They did a great job with our son’s 4th birthday party – we were in a separate room with just our party and they had an assigned person with us the entire time. It was a dream. It’s crazy to hear all of the atrocities out there! My favorite line from your post was: “And remember, we moms talk. And we will also support businesses that we are impressed with.” Cheers to you for starting the conversation on RMB – hopefully we can all share the good and the bad and support those businesses that do things well!

    • Jessica Santina

      I agree — it’s such a shame when the people who do it right don’t succeed, while so many other crappy businesses stick around.

  5. My kiddo is only 14 months old and this post and the comments above have me so freaked out. What happened to the old rule of the number of guests correlating with the number of years you are celebrating? Fortunately I am a contrarian by nature so I predict that we will be bobbing for apples in my back yard rather than shelling out for these professional endeavors. Easy for me to say that now though, right?

  6. Jessica Santina

    You are not alone! I, for one, am hosting my daughter’s party at the neighborhood park (fingers crossed the weather is nice, as our house is the back-up plan!) and will be keeping the guest count to a minimum. I think whatever party you have is fine, as long as the kid is surrounded by love and fun. And, I should add, safety. 🙂
    He or she will not be counting guests or gifts, I can assure you. My daughter will be turning 6 next month, and she’s more excited about helping me decorate her cupcakes and decorating than anything!

  7. Great post. I was feeling the same. I had a birthday party previous week at the same place. The sevice was too bad. The people working there were not at all friendly. There was nobody to give the Birthday child an family what they deserved..

    I also felt the same about the pricing of these places. 20kids $200!! It’s so expensive. Thank you so much for describing all these non sense, taking place around us and making other people aware

  8. Hi Jessica-
    Thank you so much for posting your thoughts. I am so sorry the party you attended was a disaster. I will immediately take steps to resolve your concerns. I agree party places should be a great experience for everyone, including the parents! I started this business because as a Mom, I felt we needed a kid’s party place on the south end of town and tried to put thought into what would be appealing to kids and parents. It sounds like I have much more work to do! Again, I appreciate your thoughts and concerns, I promise we will make changes and make it a better experience for everyone.

    Cindy
    Owner, Paradise Cove Fun Center

    P.S. We do offer fruit and veggie trays as well as other options for food on request.

  9. Jessica Santina

    Thanks for responding, Cindy! That’s good to know about the veggie trays and other options, thanks! And to be fair, the party wasn’t “a disaster” – I know the kids had fun. But the safety concerns and helpfulness of the staff would keep me from returning, so I know we all appreciate your commitment to addressing them. Thanks!

  10. So sad! I haven’t attnded a birthday party at Paradise Cove, but have taken my kids many times. Staff has always been wonderfully attentive and went above expctations. And no iPhone/headphone distractions. I’d hate for their business to be hurt by bad publicity when we’ve always experienced great customer service.

  11. I am a newcomer to this blog, and to Reno, for that matter, so I apologize in advance if I offend anyone. I have two young children, and have yet to visit Paradise Cove. However, I’d like to respond to the posts about EZAir because I am in complete disagreement. When we moved to Reno, we were ecstatic to see there was a trampoline park, because my kids loved the ones we had back home. I was shocked, and pleasantly surprised, by how well run EZAir is compared to a lot of the other trampoline parks we have been to. There is staff at every station watching the kids to make sure everyone is following the rules, and they are very attentive when someone does get hurt, which is unfortunately a possibility with trampolines. Thus the waiver, which essentially just states that there is inherent risk with jumping on trampolines, and if you get hurt doing something that was not caused by faulty equipment, then you as the parent are taking the responsibility. I read the waiver in full before signing, as any responsible parent would. Safety is also something the owner, a local father, takes very seriously. Just talk to him once and you’ll see he did not open the facility to be a “birthday party factory”. In fact, I had a conversation with him once (you can see him walking around EZAir every weekend and he’s always been more than happy to talk to anyone) about the very idea of having a separate section on the big jumper for toddlers. He said he has thought about it numerous times, and talked to many other trampoline park owners, and unless you can have a completely separate enclosed section for the toddlers, there is not a logistically feasible way to just “rope off” a small section. Other trampoline parks have tried and everyone has had problems. So it’s very easy from a customer standpoint to look at something and say what’s wrong, without looking at it from the business side. And it’s very cynical to just assume every business owner is out for the “cash grab”, especially small business owners where that’s rarely the case.

    As for the birthday parties at EZAir, my daughter had hers there a couple months ago, and both my kids have attended 3 other parties there. I LOVED the experience every single time. (I also take the kids every couple weeks just to go jump off some energy). The staff was extremely helpful and friendly, and attended to anything we needed. We didn’t have one specific person assigned to just our party, but that was discussed when I booked the party, and I was always able to ask the party staff if i needed anything. And for anyone who thinks $210 is “ridiculously expensive” for 10 kids to jump for an hour, have pizza and water, have a private party room for just your party for almost 2 hours, have all the utensils and setup/cleanup provided, I think you would be hard-pressed to be able to throw your own party for less than that. That’s only $21/kid. Or book the party during the week when its super quiet and it’s only $18/kid. Which is what the staff recommended for us since my daughter was turning 6. When I booked the party, i originally wanted it on a Saturday around noon. Upon finding out the age of my daughter, the event manager wisely suggested we do it during the week so that there wouldn’t be a ton of teenagers bouncing around the smaller kids. So that’s what we did and saved $30! They also advised us that if we did want it on Saturday, to go with the 10am option as it is also a much slower timeslot for the smaller kids, and that anyone under 7 they suggested the parents to be up at the courts watching their kids, too, just as added safety. The safety monitors can only do so much, and both toddlers and teenagers tend to do things they shouldn’t sometimes!

    In direct response to Jenn’s post, I think it’s very irresponsible to complain about things that you were informed of from the very beginning when you book the party. If you thought the price was too much, don’t have the party there. They also don’t have “party hosts”, which they don’t advertise to have. They tell you from the start that you have the private room for 1 hour and 40 minutes. It says it on their website, the event manager tells you that when you book, they tell you that when you check in for the party, and they remind you when the pizza arrives. I’m not sure what more they could do to remind you that your time is coming to an end. They also tell you all they provide is pizza and water, and that you are to bring your own dessert, IF DESIRED! And it’s not like the staff asked for a tip, right? They didn’t for our party. Printing out on the receipt is probably just a feature of the software they use.

    I understand where some of the complaints, in general, come from. Yes, most kids facilities feel like a zoo….because most kids act like wild animals when they get together and have fun! As a parent, that’s what I expect when going to a kids facility. I agree safety should be first and foremost on the staff’s mind, and the owners should take note if their staff is not paying attention or are on their phones. That’s just unacceptable when they are getting paid to be a “safety monitor”. However, I also don’t let my 4 and 5 year olds out of my site at these places, because I am ultimately responsible for them, as their parent. I’m not entrusting their safety 100% to a college kid!

    I’m looking forward to going to a party at Discovery Museum because my kids love going there, as do I.. But I think it’s unfair to compare parties there to parties at other kids facilities…afterall, it’s a museum! It’s also a non-profit with volunteers, and it’s huge!

    As a small-business owner myself, I just felt compelled to offer a positive response about one of our local establishments. Like Michele said, I’d hate for EZAir’s business to suffer because of a blog post. I fully understand and agree that “we all talk”, but if you have a legitimate complaint, don’t just make assumptions, talk to a manager or ask for the owner! That’s the only way things really ever change.

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