- A 1-year-old recently had a Luxembourg Gardens-inspired birthday party in Washington, DC, that cost six figures to throw.
- It’s not uncommon for wealthy parents to spend $US50,000 or more on swanky soirees for their kids thanks to social-media pressure to outdo one another.
- Parents want custom-everything nowadays for their bashes, including $US5,000 ball pits.
- Even good old-fashioned sleepovers have been given a luxe makeover by companies charging four figures for fanciful tent setups complete with breakfast trays, accent pillows, and lanterns.
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This summer, a Parisian-garden-theme party was one of the most lavish events hosted at the historic Anderson House in Washington, DC. There was a make-your-own-flower-crown booth with fresh blooms, a mime, a crepe station, miniature motorised boats for children to play with in the property’s pond, a balloon artist, and extravagant favours.
“We had picnic baskets with custom fabric lining, gardening kits, macarons, and beautiful candles,” said Anne Ligeard Murat of the New York City party-planning company Clafoutis, which orchestrated the six-figure affair.
The guest of honour? A very special 1-year-old celebrating her first birthday.
“The family loves Luxembourg Gardens in Paris,” Murat said.
Murat – whose itty-bitty clients include the kids of the chef Geoffrey Zakarian, the “Million Dollar Listing” star Fredrik Eklund, and the New York Yankees pitcher Adam Ottavino – says her basic kid’s party package starts at about $US6,000, with some bashes costing up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Our clients wouldn’t consider these parties to be over-the-top,” Murat said. “It’s just their lifestyle, and presentation is key.”
Nowadays, kids’ birthday celebrations can put most weddings to shame, with Instagram and celebrities inspiring a seemingly endless game of one-upmanship. Instead of gift bags filled with bubbles, Nike high-tops are doled out. Ball pits are custom $US5,000 creations, and sleeping bags have been replaced by bespoke slumber-party tents complete with breakfast trays, “fairy lights,” and “accent cushions.”
“People today are spending more than they were even five years ago,” Murat said. “There’s a desire for this kind of party.”
And with pizza and cake no longer cutting it, wealthy parents are leaning on professionals to turn their tots’ birthdays into five-star affairs. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, job growth for event planners is expected to outpace the average job growth by 4% from 2016 to 2026. The costs of parties are rising, too. A 2017 BabyCenter survey found that 11% of parents reported spending more than $US500 for their child’s first birthday. But in affluent cities like New York and Los Angeles, $US500 can just be the cost of the cake – if you’re lucky.
The days of simple parties are over: ‘We have done kids parties for $US350,000, but I would say the majority fall in the $US50,000 range’
When it came time for Rachel Pitzel to plan her daughter Harper’s fifth birthday party last year, the Los Angeles resident didn’t blink at shelling out thousands of dollars for the picture-perfect fete. She hired the elite party rental service Teak and Lace, which has worked with the Kardashians, Nick Lachey, and Lily Aldridge. She spent $US1,000 on a party stylist to make sure the “Carrousel” theme (spelled the Disneyland way) was cohesive, and she cut a check for nearly that much on a professional photographer to document the event.
“I drew the line at a $US500 cotton-candy stand,” Pitzel said of her daughter’s bash, which included a huge rack of rented dress-up clothes like tutus, tiaras, bracelets, necklaces, pretend earrings, and kids makeup.
Pitzel says her pricey affair was in line with what her friends were throwing.
“The days of simple parties have started waning with the rise of Instagram, Pinterest, Etsy, and Amazon,” Pitzel said. “Parents spare no expense for the location or food. One party we went to had a manicure truck and a grilled-cheese truck, and every girl got a spa makeover complete with nails, hair, and makeup, plus robes. They got to make their own bag of candy to go, just like at Dylan’s Candy Bar.”
Rachel Huntington, the owner of the Los Angeles party-planning company Bonjour Fete, says her sales have been consistently climbing since she opened her doors in 2016.
“We’ve surpassed every goal we’ve set,” said Huntington, whose clients include Kate Hudson and Hilary Duff. She says social media has been a driving force behind her growing business, leading parents to spend more than ever before so they can post the extravagant party photos online.
“I have seen an insane amount of money poured into food stations, snow hills, entertainment, flower walls, balloon clouds, and custom everything,” Huntington said. “Need an ‘American Ninja Warrior’ setup in your backyard? I got you. Need a famous chef to flip burgers on your grill? No problem.
“If the client wants it – we don’t hold back. We have done kids parties for $US350,000, but I would say the majority fall in the $US50,000 range.”
Embracing their inner child
Whether a “Singing in the Rain” theme with custom lyric books or a “Little House on the Prairie” party with kids learning how to churn butter, Murat says throwing these kinds of gatherings allows deep-pocketed adults to revisit their childhood.
“They get so excited around cotton candy or even miniature sandwiches – it allows them to feel young again,” Murat said.
One of Murat’s clients, a New York City mum named Yuliya Zhang, has been hiring Murat to plan her now 5-year-old son’s birthdays since he was 1. Zhang, 33, acknowledges she doesn’t bat an eye spending as much as $US40,000 on her son’s celebrations.
“What’s most important for me is to love what I see and to be in a beautiful, magical, organic environment that brings a fairy tale to life,” said Zhang, a stay-at-home mum.
Together, she and Murat have thrown her son a policeman party complete with an NYPD-costumed actor who led a mini police academy, a dress-up corner where kids could choose to be a cop or a robber, a mug-shot photo booth, and a magician. Another year, the duo planned a “Jurassic World” bash with life-like dinosaurs, an actor dressed as Owen Grady – the birthday boy’s favourite character from the movie – and activity tables where kids could dig for dinosaur bones.
“As adults, we like to go back in time and experience these happy moments again,” Zhang said, “which is why we also hired a professional photographer to capture every party.”
Custom, custom, custom
Status-quo party packages at the neighbourhood play gym or at-home gatherings with a piñata and Betty Crocker cake just don’t pack enough punch when every parent with an Instagram account is a micro influencer.
That means throwing a party with a wow factor is of utmost importance.
Murat says for one youngster’s party, she had actors dress up as Ghostbusters to create slime with the kids and even parked an Ecto-1 car outside just as the guests were leaving.
“You can’t just park an Ecto-1 in front of a building on Park Avenue, so it requires a lot of coordination,” Murat said.
Last April, a Manhattan mum named Madelyn Mejia went all out to make sure her 5-year-old son’s $US12,000 knight-themed birthday party was unforgettable.
“The cake was the most beautiful medieval castle that had been sketched and envisioned by Anne,” Mejia said of Murat. “And the party favours were beautiful ceramic unicorn trinket boxes that we had personalised by a calligrapher for each child.”
It’s that craving for something unique that helped Eunice Ong of Mesh Kids Co. break into the pint-size-party scene. Ong says she creates 10 to 25 personalised ball pits a month – with each 10-foot-by-20-foot space costing $US4,000 to $US5,000.
“Our core demographic is children 5 years old and under,” said Ong, who is already booked into mid-2021 and counts the Kardashians among her clients.
Marie, a stay-at-home mother of two in Los Angeles, who didn’t want to reveal her last name for fear of social-media backlash, is using Ong’s services next month. She’s justified the cost with the mindset that her son will only turn 3 once.
“I’m always trying to find new and experiential ways to entertain my kids and the birthday guests,” Marie said.
After all, for mums like Marie, ordering a “Fudgie the Whale” Carvel cake is out of the question.
Sheila Volk-Weiss, who owns the Los Angeles baking company Peachtree and Belle, says kid birthday-party cakes can go up to $US700 for her three-tier confections. “They’re like small wedding cakes,” she said.
Her recent orders have been filled with requests for $US250 volcano cakes complete with buttercream lava erupting from their cores and two cakes connected by a foot-long fondant rainbow that cost $US325.
And that’s not where her edible masterpieces stop. “We’ll often do on-theme cupcakes for the adults and personalised cookies as party favours and table decor,” said Volk-Weiss, who says those treats typically tack on an extra couple of hundred dollars.
“I’m busier than ever because parents are feeling more and more pressure to put on photogenic parties that resonate on Instagram,” Volk-Weiss said.
Bring on the professionals
Just don’t expect the parents to be getting down and dirty with setup.
One Dallas mum, a human-resources professional who asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons, said it’s not uncommon for toddlers’ parties in her neighbourhood to have valet services, black-tie servers passing trays of sushi, and a full bar service.
“People have staff-managed bounce houses, characters in costume, deejays, full catering, personalised candy, clean-up staff, and paper invitation suites,” the Dallas mum said.
Even good old-fashioned sleepovers are becoming fancy affairs thanks to companies like Trish Healy’s WonderTent Parties. Their “SleepOver” package starts at $US450 for five guests and includes a tent, plush mattress, blankets, fairy lights, accent cushions, and a breakfast tray for each kid. Celebrities like Molly Sims and Kyle Richardson have called upon the company to erect backyard installations for picturesque campouts.
Shawna Wilson, a mother of two and founder of SBW Tennis Academy in Los Angeles said she never even gave old-school sleeping bags a thought when she planned her daughter’s $US2,000 slumber party.
“It’s all about convenience,” she said. “It’s so much more comfortable to have a mattress and blankets and lamps and it means the kids don’t have to bring anything other than themselves, and the setup is magical looking – the kids were so excited when they saw the tent.”
Healy says it’s not uncommon for parents to add services like outdoor movie packages starting at $US300, outdoor dining experiences that start at $US300, or karaoke machines, candy stations, or dress-up stations that start at $US100.
“For the parents, it’s one less stress for them knowing that we’ll come in, set and style everything, and then pack it all down the next day,” she said.
A mother of two in Los Angeles, who asked to remain anonymous for social reasons, said she’d witnessed kid birthday parties that were fancier than some black-tie bar mitzvahs, including one with mermaids swimming in the pool.
Not that she minds.
“Do you really want to go to a party in the park or at the play gym?” she asked.