I 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?