But since Beth Spreitzer’s daughter, Brooke, wanted just the girls for her ninth birthday, Spreitzer rented an oceanfront room at Ponte Vedra Inn & Spa. There, the girls played kickball on the private beach and sipped smoothies between pedicures and facials.
The Spreitzers are an example of those buying into a booming business in Jacksonville and the rest of the country: children’s birthday parties. Informal surveys show that in recent years, on average, parents spend $200 to $400 on birthday parties. And some wealthy families may spend up to $5,000 or more, said Heather Downs, a professor of sociology at Jacksonville University. That’s a far cry from the Pin the Tail on the Donkey and paper streamers of the past.
Downs also attributes the rise in cost to higher expectations nowadays from children for lavish events. Parents may also use a birthday party as an opportunity to network with their colleagues, particularly for parties for 1- and 2-year-old children.
“Parents view the birthday party as a chance for children to fit in with their peer group,” Downs said. “The parents are going to do what they need to for the child to fit in.”
Why invest in a party? For the Spreitzers, it’s not about competition among other parents or wanting to impress friends. The parties provide an opportunity to give Brooke an experience she can remember, Beth Spreitzer said.
“Growing up, I had great memories of my birthday parties,” she said. “[We] want to make sure, as well, that she has great memories of her birthdays for years to come.”
Dozens of places in Jacksonville now serve as venues for birthday parties, offering everything from inflatable houses to jump in to full formal teas for tots, and often are booked weeks in advance. And for those brave enough to have a party at their home, there’s a plethora of party planning companies and performers to pick from.
Amelia Davis and Shelly Rich co-own girly-girl partea’s Inc., a St. Johns County-based company specializing in custom parties for girls, often packed with princesses and pink. Their themes include red carpet and spa parties, like the one they put together for the Spreitzers.
“Parents now really want to give a great party for their children,” Davis said. “I think they’ve gone through all the other parties and thought, ‘you know, let’s step it up a notch.’ ”
Davis said girly-girl partea’s is mostly referral based, and their schedule fills up quickly. When they started their business in 2008, they had a modest number of parties they worked on. In 2010, girly-girl’s business has nearly doubled and has had clients all over Jacksonville.
Meanwhile, Portia Gillespie, owner of Sugar Plum Entertainment, said her business is a full-time job with a steady stream of clients.
For the past 14 years, Gillespie has seen children’s birthday parties escalate and become more elaborate. She’s performed as a clown, magician or pirate at birthday parties for children as young as a year old.
“It doesn’t seem to matter if [the family is] affluent or not affluent,” Gillespie said. “People do find money to spend on their children because they want to make it special for their child.”
Gillespie declined to share her prices with the Times-Union, but said in Jacksonville, performers are typically paid $150 to $200 an hour.
Jacksonville isn’t alone in buying into children’s parties. A recent episode of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” featured housewife Taylor Armstrong spending $50,000 for her 4-year-old’s backyard party. A new TLC show, “Outrageous Kids Parties,” shows one family spending more than $30,000 for their daughter’s princess party, complete with a horse-drawn carriage.
Amscan Holdings, which operates the Party City franchise that has locations in Jacksonville, reported a net income increase of 32 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to its U.S. Security & Exchange Commission report. Its latest quarterly report for the first nine months of 2010, the latest available, has shown a net income increase of 20 percent compared to the first nine months of 2009.
Downs said throwing children’s birthday parties away from the home, at higher-priced venues, ups the cost even more. Although a homemade cake and some party hats used to cut it, nowadays companies are offering packaged deals that include food and entertainment. And when you venture outside of the home, it can only add to the overall cost, she said.
Pump It Up, an inflatable bounce house business on Beach Boulevard, offers its pizza party, which includes pizza and an hour and a half of jumping for about $400 for 12 children. That doesn’t include the add-ons such as goodie bags or extra kids.
Chuck E. Cheese, a birthday party staple, now charges $12.99 per child for a birthday party, with a 10-child minimum.
If you decide to stick with the home party, expect to pay at least $100 per hour for a performer and $100 for a bounce house. Want to throw in a petting zoo? That will cost you at least $250. And don’t forget the cleanup.
And, the more parents spend, the higher the likelihood that other children will expect more for their own party, which increases the pressure on parents to put together something special, Downs said.
“It seems like some people get caught up in the consumerism,” Downs said. “They go to the party store and things get out of control. I think there’s something about that.”
But are extravagant parties a bad thing? Some party vendors, such as Gillespie, see it more as a celebration of the child and not something that should be viewed as silly.
“I feel like I’m in the business of making happy memories,” Gillespie said. “I think the parents are after the memory.”
Spreitzer said the best part about giving Brooke a great birthday is how grateful she is to have the party, and she never expects to have anything over-the-top, which makes it even more special.
So what’s the plan for Brooke Spreitzer’s 10th birthday? A Disney cruise, her mom said.