What makes a perfect birthday celebration? In the UAE, it increasingly seems to be more about the show and less about the birthday boy or girl. Alice Haine investigates the competitive world of children's parties and the toll it can take on parents eager to please. In a dark labyrinth of plastic tunnels, curly slides and cushioned ladders, children are racing around screaming. Their squeals reach excruciating levels every few minutes when a machine releases a volley of balls into the air, accompanied by a deafening sound that makes many of the younger ones cling to their mothers in fear.
Add pumping music into the mix and you have a cocktail of noise than can only be described as an assault on the ears. Remarkably this cacophony, at Fun City in Dubai's Oasis Centre, is all in honour of a child's fifth birthday. And despite the obvious distress of some of the younger guests, a group of mothers has clustered together in conversation, almost oblivious to the chaos around them. Towering over their children in their sky-high heels, make-up carefully applied and hair expertly coiffed, they chat away, admiring each other's designer attire. Presents are proffered, each bigger and more grandly wrapped than the last while the birthday boy tugs on his mother's dress desperately trying to get her attention.
There is no let up in the games room where one of the over-enthusiastic helpers screams inaudible instructions into a microphone while the mystified children struggle to understand (and hear) the point of the game. Even when the party food of McDonald's chicken nuggets and chips arrives, pumping music is played at full volume, killing any chance of conversation. One mother politely asks the helper to turn it down while another screams to a friend: "I can't take it any more, I've got to go, this noise is making me feel ill. Goodness knows what it's doing to my daughter."
This unhappy scene is being played out across the UAE as increasing numbers of parents outsource their children's birthday parties, choosing to hold them in rented venues rather than their own homes. And the children's party industry is big business. Fun City alone hosts 2,000 parties a year, with Dubai's Ibn Battuta Mall and Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall the most popular locations. Costing an average Dh900 to Dh1,500, a Fun City party is considered a popular budget choice for parents. But when it comes to throwing a children's party, anything is possible.
From private events in hotel ballrooms and specially commissioned party invitations, linen and party bags, to bouncy castles or drumming sessions for Dh1,000, science experiments, an entire petting zoo, a magician, balloon twister or even a pony or camel, the children's party scene is a booming business. But how much is too much and do children really need such a lavish spread? "No," says Emma Riedel, originally from Australia, and managing director of me&riley, a party-planning service that offers customers "tasteful" contemporary parties. "Some people spend more than I spent on my wedding. I grew up on a farm and remember having traditional birthday parties where my mother made the cake, the food was made by the family and there were party games and something to take home at the end."
But while Riedel creates a slightly more stylish version of her childhood parties through customised party settings, she sometimes struggles to keep up with the mothers' relentless demands. "The mums are in competition and even though they joke about it, it's very serious," she says. "But it's not just about competing, it's about showing off. People go to other people's parties and decide they want this and that, and I get emails with a wish list of everything you've ever imagined."
Riedel, who charges an average Dh3,000 to Dh7,000 per event, once organised a Dh30,000 party which included several different table settings, invitations, food, party games, activities, candyfloss and popcorn machines, a piñata, photographer and videographer and party bags at the end. She recalls her most ridiculous request. "A father asked me for a Ferris wheel to put in his garden for his two-year-old. I laughed and then I realised he was serious. And it wasn't even a garden, it was just a patio.
"Then he wanted a train. It was for a carnival-themed party and eventually I managed to persuade him to have things the child would remember such as a puppet show, jugglers and carnival-style alley games." Fellow party planner Jane Victory, the managing director of Cheeky Monkey Parties, relates similar experiences. "Some people just go crazy," says Victory, a Briton, who supplies trained actors and dancers to entertain youngsters at parties. "I set up my company in London before opening a branch here and the difference between the two is unreal.
"In London, clients would book two hours of entertainment and ask the entertainer to come dressed as Snow White. But here I get requests for Dora The Explorer-themed treasure hunts; Minnie Mouse mascots; bouncy castles; entertainers and dance floors and that's just for one party." Victory, who once organised a "sweet 16" party with dancers, a DJ, a pink "red carpet", lasers, lights and a dancefloor in Abu Dhabi at a cost of Dh35,000, adds: "The sky's the limit here and while it's great for my business, some people forget it's about the kids having fun and not so much about the money.
"When I was a kid my dad used to do the entertainment and I found it hilarious watching him jumping around doing musical chairs. Now it's more about the show and less about the children. "I provided entertainment at one party for 70 kids and it was just a parade of women all dolled up. They had everything there from a petting zoo to a pony, and bouncy castle and they gave the children a goldfish in a bag as a leaving gift. It was more about the show than the birthday boy who was nowhere to be seen."
One American mum, a regular on the children's party circuit in Dubai who did not wish to be named, says some mothers put all their energy into organising the party and forget to spend time with their child during the event. "I went to a two-year-old's party with a train, a bouncy castle, face-painting and every cartoon character you can imagine," she says. "The mother was going on and on about how it had to be so perfect with this grand entrance made out of balloons.
"It was about showing off how much they had spent, with the child dressed up in designer gear, the mother welcoming every guest, the father showing up 20 minutes before the end to cut the cake while their son spent the entire party with the nanny - his real parent." Devika Singh, a psychologist, says overly ostentatious parties are often a case of parents "keeping up with the Joneses", or using the event to showcase their wealth.
"It's a declaration of success much like the decision to buy an Aston Martin over a Honda. But it can also be due to the need to compensate," she adds. "Dual-income families are at greater risk as they can experience guilt over not being at home as much. As a result boundaries around material values and discipline can be compromised." But what kind of message are parents who overspend sending their children?
"The most overt message is that money can bring fun and therefore happiness," adds Singh. "But research carried out over the past decade has uncovered that once 'basic' needs are met, more money does not lead to increased happiness and life satisfaction." But for those mothers who want to buck the trend and host a traditional party, the pressure is on to conform. As one mother at the noisy Fun City event points out: "I want to hold my party at home with homemade food and games but it will seem so meagre in comparison. So it will have to be at a soft-play area - but why do they have to be so loud?"
"Children get very excited when they are enjoying themselves, and the noise simply reflects this level of excitement," says Fun City's marketing manager, Kunal Harisinghani. "In a room of 20 to 30 excited children, we find that using a microphone is much more effective, as children will react immediately, and our hostesses do not have to repeat themselves to avoid wasting time." Maybe there is too much going on at these parties? After all, generations have grown into perfectly well-balanced adults with little more than pass-the-parcel, musical chairs and a home-made sponge cake.
"When there's too much going on the kids get disorientated," says Victory. "It's great to have an entertainer for party games but if you start throwing in bouncy castles, animals and even more on top, the children get scared, cry or don't want to take part because they're in a different place with unfamiliar faces. It can be quite distressing for small children." An American mother-of-four, Maria Murgian, follows the keep-it-simple-even-if-pricey philosophy. She spends an average Dh5,000 on each party for her seven-year-old daughter, five-year-old son and 20-month twins, and incorporates games and arts and crafts into the occasion. And she says hiring a party planner to organise her events ensures she does not miss a moment of the party.
"I want to ensure the children have fun and a professional can do it better than I can," she explains. "I organised my children's first two birthday parties, spending hours baking a cake that didn't look good and taking all the photos myself, but it was too stressful. "I've got four children and the planner takes all the hard work off my hands. I like to watch what's going on and get involved rather than running around making sure everything is okay."
Murgian, who holds all her parties at her Al Barsha home, adds: "In Dubai, the balance can get a bit warped, but I think if a party is decorated well, has a theme and some structured playtime, it enhances the whole experience and you can do that without going over the top. Yes, Dh5,000 is a lot, but I think you could do it for less, and the kids will still have a great time." So what are the essential ingredients for a perfect kids' party? "Fond memories, fun, bonding, some food and games," says Singh. "Over time, children's needs have changed in response to what they've been offered. When children want more out of parties, it's only because of the psychological effects of the commercialisation of fun."
Ten facts and tips about entertaining the kids 1. The ever-trendy spawn of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Suri, reportedly had a US$100,000 (Dh367,000) birthday party when she turned two. The catering bill alone was $45,000 and the cake a whopping $5,000. 2. New York's famous FAO Schwarz toy shop can be rented for a sleepover party at $38,000 (Dh140,000). A bargain. 3. Other equally attractive alternatives are museum and zoo sleepover parties. Safety might be a concern, but it might limit your numbers for next year. 4. One of the most popular requests from five-year-olds for birthdays is a pedicure party, where the birthday girl and all of her friends head to the nail salon and get manicures and pedicures. 5. The characters from the Dubai-based Arabic cartoon Freej can pay a visit to parties and bring along Freej cakes. For a small fee. 6. Required reading is an entire website dedicated to parents and professionals who think that "children's birthday parties are getting out of control". The site aims to show parents how to throw birthdays without pressure. Go to www.birthdayswithoutpressure.org 7. One of the most stressful things for parents is to show up at a party and realise the theme is the same as the one they are planning in a few weeks' time. Avoid this by going retro and making yours a home-grown party with no theme at all. 8. Parents can use Amazon.com for children's birthday gifts. As if wedding lists weren't painful enough? 9. A Floridian family reportedly rented a cougar for their seven-year-old's birthday party. The oversized cat attacked a four-year-old guest. 10. On the upside, children's parties are not recession-proof according to reports from ABC news. Parents are cutting back on party favours and are even baking cakes themselves. What next? Nadia el Dasher