THE marquee set up in the back garden was spectacular, inside was a children’s dream world of candy floss and flowing chocolate, sweets, balloons, face paints and fun.
Magician and entertainer Gary James took in the lavish spread, a birthday party, surely, that no child could forget.
But that wasn’t all.
“It was amazing,” he remembers. “I walked through the marquee and my jaw dropped. I thought I’d seen it all in 15 years as a full-time professional entertainer. But this was incredible.”
Sprawled ahead of him were dodgems and a full-size merry-go-round – even, to his amazement, a Ferris wheel.
“It was a lovely cottage on the outskirts of Edinburgh and it was set in a lot of ground, but a funfair in the back garden? That was the last thing I was expecting.
“The party bag for each of the kids – and there were a lot there – contained DVDs and even a Swatch watch,” he adds.
“The kids were only about eight years old, they’d have probably been quite happy with a place to run around and some cake.”
Lavish and increasingly expensive, today’s birthday party circuit for many parents of children of a certain age is no longer simply a case of throwing together a few party games, making some jelly and slicing up a hastily-made cake before sending them on their way with a “thank you” note.
From entertainers to wildlife displays, beauty pamper parties to fire engines, towering cakes and party bags stuffed with treats, today’s kids’ parties often come wrapped up with a massive three-figure bill.
The costs and stresses of throwing what is supposed to be a fun day to celebrate a child’s big day have been brought into sharp focus with news that parents of a five-year-old party guest had been slapped with a “no-show fee” for failing to turn up.
Little Alex Nash, from Cornwall, had accepted the invitation to the dry ski slope party in Devon just before Christmas, but on the day opted instead to visit his grandparents. His parents were later stunned to receive an invoice for £15.95 from his pal’s mother, Julie Lawrence, claiming she had been left out of pocket by his non-appearance.
The row quickly escalated amid claims that Alex’s father, Derek, had been warned he could be taken to the small claims court. Soon the invoice was global news.
Of course, while most five-year-olds’ parties pass off without hitting international headlines, it does seem the days of simply playing a game of pass the parcel and serving up cake have been overtaken by stress, competitive parents and over-the-top party bags.
Indeed, that spectacular funfair garden party isn’t the only lavish birthday do that entertainer Gary has been hired to attend.
“I did one party when the parents had hired out the whole cinema for a movie. It was Harry Potter, so the parents and their children were dressed up as characters from Harry Potter, wearing robes they’d bought in London which cost around £70 each.”
Ironically Gary, who rolls up to parties with his magic act complete with PA system, theatrical-style background and custom-made puppets, has been hired in the past by the boy magician’s creator, JK Rowling. With millions to spare, she might be tempted to throw the most lavish parties, but instead he insists they were relatively down to earth. “Above average but not over the top,” is all he will reveal.
In stark contrast then to the eye-popping extravaganza laid on by one set of parents who hired a floor at Claridges for their 12-year-old daughter, with fashion stylists and beauty experts to give the pree-teens a makeover.
“My friend’s daughter went,” recalls one Edinburgh mum. “She came back moaning about how a film and pizza party she was planning was going to be a letdown after that.”
It’s that constant drive to make sure each party matches – or betters – the last one that seems to be fuelling a dash among parents to splash out a small fortune for a couple of hours of celebration.
And as each bash becomes more lavish, children’s expectations of what they are going to get when their big day comes around soars.
According to another Edinburgh-based children’s entertainer, Ricky “Tricky Ricky” McLeod, it’s no longer unusual to roll up to a party for a primary school age child that also features a disco, bouncy castle and face painting.
“There’s a bit of ‘one upmanship’ going on, certainly with the party bags,” he nods. “I’ve seen kids being given bags that contain a free pass to a private leisure centre, for example. And the cakes? A fairy cake won’t do, it’s got to be a massive theme cake.”
According to Morningside Road celebration cake specialist Bernadette Wood, who runs Too Good To Eat (www.toogoodtoeat.co.uk), the average party cake costs around £85 to £100.
“Most people will spend between £65 to £85 on a birthday cake,” she says. “But others want a castle or something bigger. Frozen cakes – themed around the film – that’s what everyone seems to want.”
Portobello mum-of-two Helen Coyle agrees the demands of the modern birthday party come with an extra gift chucked in – major stress.
“Having two children of prime birthday party age – they’re three and six – it’s a stressful business. At least their birthdays are six months apart, it helps spread the cost. And what a cost!
“I vowed with my second child, who will be four next month, that I wouldn’t get on the bandwagon of trying to conjure up the most unique party venue or most exciting goody bag. Yet as she’s now talking eloquently, she has her mind very firmly set on where she wants her party, what people will wear and what the entertainment will be. I definitely feel pressure to be creative, to keep them happy more than anything.”
It’s not about impressing other parents, she insists, but keeping the kids happy at the least expense to her nerves.
“My eldest son had his sixth birthday at Our Dynamic Earth, which worked out much less cost per head than most of the council-run venues. The party was really well run and exciting for the children – and they only charged for the numbers that turned up on the day. Admittedly, it is frustrating when you have to foot the bill for children who don’t attend and don’t bother to let you know, which does happen.”
Editor of must-have parenting guidebook Edinburgh for Under Fives (www.efuf.co.uk), Cathy Tingle is acutely aware of the stresses of parenthood, even before it comes to throwing a party for 30 red-faced hyperactive pre-schoolers into the mix.
“All most kids want is somewhere to run around, some food and little bit of entertainment. They’re just as happy in someone’s house or garden, as long as they have party games and some fun,” she says.
“It might require a little extra effort from the parents, but children don’t care how basic it is, they’ll enjoy themselves anyway. They are up for a party, so it’s hard to get the day wrong.
Instead, it’s often the parents who are tied up in the idea of the “perfect party”, she adds. “Really, there’s no such thing, someone is always sick or there will be tears at some point.”
Kids’ parties are among the prime topics of debate for online forum Mumsnet. Chief executive Justine Roberts agrees. “Everyone wants to make their child’s birthday party special so naturally there’s a risk of overdoing the expense and the stress.
“Clearly there are some curious folk who love organising enormous parties but if you’re not one of those, Mumsnet users advise embracing minimalism – most children will be perfectly happy with a fair amount of riotous charging about with a load of balloons and silly string, takeaway pizza for tea and a bar of chocolate in lieu of a party bag.
“As one user put it: do as little as you can get away with for as long as you can and avoid hiring a limousine at all cost.’
• Gary James (www.stonethe crow.co.uk), Ricky McLean (www.trickyricky.com)