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Thursday, Aug 18, 2022
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Kids

By SHELLY GARCIA Staff Reporter In the ’50s, mothers made birthday cakes lovingly by hand. In the ’60s, they bought a cake mix. During the ’70s, they scoured bakeries to find a cake that looked homemade, and in the ’80s, they bought theme cakes with their child’s favorite character. Then came the ’90s, and mom doesn’t even want to touch the cake, let alone serve it at home. Kristen Firrell recited the chronology by way of illustrating the popularity of her new business. Firrell, vice president of business development at Children’s Time Machine, hosts birthday parties for kids. Children’s Time Machine is among the newest entries in what’s known as the family entertainment industry. Since opening in October, it has been booking about 10 parties a day on weekends at a cost of $400 to $500 for the average event. In its first two months of operation, it booked as much business as it had planned to book in its first five months. “It’s simple. Guilt and competition,” said Dee L. Shepherd-Look, a child and family therapist and professor of psychology at Cal State Northridge. “The guilt is all about parents too stressed and too busy to spend a lot of quality time with their children, so they buy ever-more-lavish kinds of quality time on special occasions. And then I think the competition is about who’s giving the best party.” Competition for the party dollar is fierce. There are at least 50 places to hold birthday parties between Calabasas and Studio City. They range from Chuck E. Cheeses, among the first and largest of these centers, to smaller, independent operations that are open only on weekends. Many such centers fail after only a year or two in business, unable to keep up with the changing trends or compete with the big-name brands. “A lot of people were jumping into the business and seeing great results in the first few months, and after six months to a year, a lot of these places fell off because the novelty wore off,” said Pat Esgate, principal of Esgate & Associates, a Nyack, N.Y.-based consulting group that specializes in out-of-home entertainment. “Many of the centers closed for the same reason any small business closes. There’s not enough funding and they can’t make it through the slow times.” With aspirations of taking its business national, and even international, the founders of Sherman Oaks-based Children’s Time Machine have structured the company so that it doesn’t rely strictly on parties for its revenues. The 12,400-square-foot operation includes a retail store, a restaurant and an indoor amusement park that attracts walk-in visitors as well as parties. “We tried to create a formula that could support itself and be profitable all week long,” Firrell said. Children’s Time Machine, the brainchild of Paula Kent Meehan, founder of hair-care company Redken, includes six different areas, each with a variety of educational, interactive and other games geared to children aged 4 to 10. The themed areas are: “Submerged,” with a fish tank and games geared to ocean life; “Castle Fair,” a dress-up area with costumes that kids can wear; “Wild Side,” with a tropical jungle theme; and “Spaced Out,” with virtual-reality games and a spaceship-style play station. There is an “Enchanted Garden” where children can participate in karaoke, sing-alongs and dance-alongs, and a “Movie Room” where kids sit on bean bags and watch 3-D movies. Parties typically begin with an hour in the amusement center and then move upstairs to a private room where, for another hour, kids get private entertainment (like a magician or clown), and are served pizza, ice cream sundaes and birthday cake. Prices start at $300 for a basic package for 15 kids and go up depending on the services and number of guests. “We’ve closed the place down for private parties for $5,000,” Firrell said. Themed play areas combined with restaurants have been around for decades, but the category began to heat up in the ’90s. A recent “Party Guide” published by L.A. Parent magazine lists 40 different kids’ party options in the greater L.A. area, offering attractions ranging from gymnastics to art programs. “It’s just easy to go somewhere and have them do everything, and when the party is over and everyone goes home, there’s no cleanup,” said Mimi Slawoff, a contributing writer for L.A. Parent who has covered the kids’ party scene. “Time is the commodity,” said John Ecklein, president of Ecklein Communications Inc., a Novato company that publishes a number of reports on the themed entertainment industry. As consumers search for bigger and better experiences, entertainment centers have attracted big-name players like Club Disney that have raised the stakes for these enterprises, whose earliest versions were little more than game arcades. “I think that young people, children and adults have become so inundated by technology that the things 20 years ago that we found entertaining are not entertaining, and we’ve become jaded,” said Tim Knipe, a member of the communications committee for the Themed Entertainment Association, an industry group. “We have to look a lot farther and harder to get that same titillation. And I think that fuels the move toward these entertainment centers.” The competition to host the best party has contributed to the demise of a number of centers that opened to great fanfare but soon found business dropping off as their clients moved on to newer centers with more-elaborate formats. Children’s Time Machine says it is using the lessons of the recent past to fine-tune its formula. About 20 percent of the attractions are changed periodically, “so we’re keeping it as fresh and new as possible,” Firrell said. And the company caters to parents as much as it does to children. There is a Sports Lounge with a big-screen television, a Time-Out Sanctuary with sheepskin-covered massage chairs, a part-time masseuse to provide mini-massages, and a restaurant serving adult fare. Time-Out Sanctuary is separated from the din of the play area by soundproof glass. “We call it the guiltless father weekend,” said Firrell. The lounges are equipped with closed-circuit televisions that allow parents to keep an eye on their kids while they play. And to make sure there’s no danger of abduction an increasing concern with public areas Children’s Time Machine fits parents and children with a bar-coded wristband that must be matched upon exiting, preventing a kid from leaving alone or with another adult. The company is working on a number of ways to draw additional business. To increase business during weekdays, for example, it’s offering discount certificates to schools. The certificates can then be used in conjunction with recognition awards. Still, the best shot at success may lie with grownups battling the modern-day trials of parenthood. With so many dual-worker households, parents are feeling the time crunch more than ever and lavishing extravagant perks on their kids to compensate. “They can’t sit around and talk about whether their kid was student of the month or whether he was potty trained at one-and-a-half,” said Shepherd-Look. “So the competition goes into what they buy for their children. Parents mistakenly feel if they’re giving the best party, they must love their kid the most.”

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