The Bigger, Better Birthday

Say bye-bye to the little backyard bash. Children expect everything from disco dances to red-carpet events to celebrate their big day

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As Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and a few Michael Jackson tunes blast from a good-size speaker plugged into a laptop, the carpeted dance floor rumbles under the weight of nearly 30 sweaty, fist-pumping dancers.

“Who knows the Cuban shuffle?” shouts Aran Keating, a lanky 28-year-old who runs his “Ridiculous DJ” business from Baltimore and sports multicolored sneakers, a pointed beard and a big grin.

A sea of hands shoots up, and Keating picks three young girls to join him in a demonstration.

Soon, everyone is shuffling along in a scene straight out of a nightclub or disco. Except that these are second-graders celebrating the eighth birthday of Becca Scherr, daughter of Ron and Lori Scherr, at a Bethesda community center on a Sunday afternoon in late January.

The North Bethesda family began planning the event several months earlier. Becca had celebrated previous birthdays at her gymnastics center and at Pump It Up in Gaithersburg, where kids bounced on giant inflatable slides and trampolines. But when she heard a disc jockey at a neighborhood Halloween party, Becca wanted one, too.

Then she figured out who she wanted to invite, which was pretty much everyone: kids from her earlier schooling, kids from after-school activities, neighbors, cousins, friends of the family.

“We made an A-list and a B-list,” says Lori Scherr, a substitute teacher who also has 6-year-old twin girls. The number dwindled from 50 to 31. “My rule of thumb was if I don’t know these parents and haven’t connected with them, we don’t have a relationship,” Lori says.

The e-vite went out six weeks ahead of time, and Lori found Keating, who was willing to haul his gear from Baltimore to Bethesda. Then she went online to locate dance-themed party favors: toy microphones, inflatable guitars and plastic fedoras.

Becca could barely sleep the night before her party, she was so excited.

“I was waking up all last night thinking: Omigod, it’s my birthday!” she says.

Organizing kids’ birthday parties can be fraught with tough choices, as the Scherrs learned. Can the child’s expectations match the family budget? Who gets onto the invitation list? What goes into the goody bag?

These choices are fueled by a massive birthday party industry whose dizzying array of options can quickly break the bank, from mermaid-themed extravaganzas choreographed by event planners to the “Great Zucchini,” a Washington, D.C.-based entertainer who delights the young set with his magic shows and slightly subversive antics. Gymnastics, bowling, laser tag, rock-climbing, pottery-making are all in demand for the under-12 set, parents say.

Entrepreneur magazine recently listed five kid-theme party places—Kidville, BounceU, Gymboree Play & Music, Pump It Up and School of Rock—in its top 500 franchises of 2012. Last year’s TLC reality series Outrageous Kid Parties included an episode about a Utah family’s $32,000 event for their 6-year-old, complete with a $2,100, nine-tier cake.

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