Birthday guests are pint-sized but the bill's not

By Martha McKenzie-Minifie

Children's birthday parties used to be low-key events - a game of pass the parcel, then cake, jelly and balloons.

But today's generation of parents is spending up to $15,000 on lavish parties for their youngsters' birthdays to meet ever-growing expectations.

With catering, costumed staff and performers, the events have all the trappings of lavish corporate parties.

Only the guests are pint-sized, and it's mum and dad picking up the bill.

Fifth birthday celebrations are particularly opulent, with the occasion seen as a coming-of-age.

Auckland-based Kids Party Company owner Stu Robertson says birthday celebrations are increasingly big-budget affairs.

Hiring an entertainer and a bouncy castle costs around $400 and prices go up from there.

"If you want to go all out, you can be spending $15,000," says Mr Robertson. "It's the age of convenience really, isn't it?"

He says his company stages five-figure birthday extravaganzas for children about six times a year.

Past themes have included Harry Potter, with wizards, witches and giant cauldrons' and Alice In Wonderland, where a giant 4m-tall Mad Hatter Tea Party model was staffed by stiltwalkers.

Mr Robertson says the ultimate child's birthday party could start at the gate, as guests are welcomed by costumed characters.

Inside could be a wonderland of bouncy castles and fairies granting wishes, or aerial performers - with staff on hand to monitor health and safety regulations.

Other entertainment available includes on-stage performances and rides on miniature horses or a fleet of small petrol-powered jeeps, he says.

Petting zoos - complete with llamas, donkeys and horses - are also popular.

Add catering and party bags stocked with take-home treats and watch the costs rise. Loot bags, at a cost of up to $100 each, are often stocked with the likes of the latest CDs and a Barbie doll.

Smile Inflatables director Stacy Clooney says the company's large inflatable toys come with a $2000 hire fee and are in demand from families in well-heeled areas of Auckland such as Epsom and Glendowie.

Remuera mother-of-two Cara Elliott says children's parties are as much for parents as the littlies during the early years.

She keeps celebrations in check, but says party bags stocked with balloons, stickers, pens and toys are expected by children.

"They go to one or two parties with them and then they think every party is like that," she says.

Bronwyn Parker, of online supplier Party2Go, says an $8 party bag for girls contains items such as lip gloss, body glitter, sweets and toys.

In reaction to the trend for extravagant children's parties, Herald online reader Kirstie Prangley shared tips for her $40 party plan: "Cheerios, chips, birthday cake and one or two other treats still go down well and leave left-overs."

She plans party games such as pass the parcel, treasure hunts or rocket balloon races.

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