Last year, Parker Boyes invited his entire class to the movies for his ninth birthday.
His 10th birthday party earlier this month was decidedly more intimate: a virtual hangout, then indoor go-kart racing with two close friends.
He fared better than his older sister, Ellie, who was “heartbroken” when a long-planned 11th birthday sleepover turned into a drive-by party last April amid tighter pandemic restrictions, said their father Adam Boyes, 43, of Glencoe, Illinois.
Last year’s scaled-back festivities were easier on parents, Boyes said. “But I think the kids feel robbed.”
With some kids approaching their second pandemic birthdays and few parents eager for more time on Zoom, party venues say families are starting to ease their way back into in-person celebrations. Masks are still required indoors for kids older than 2, except when eating.
Still, many parents are skipping shared cakes and sticking to cupcakes to go, and shorter guest lists can force tough decisions about which friends make the cut — not to mention make things tough for venues that used to host crowds of kids each weekend.
Ryan Duffy invited just his seven-person school pod and his older sisters to his seventh birthday party at Ultimate Ninjas in Chicago earlier this month. The gym, inspired by the obstacle course competition TV show American Ninja Warrior, hosts classes, camps and parties at four Chicago-area locations.
Celebrating outside didn’t seem like an option in February and Ryan isn’t into Zoom events, said his mom, Alli Duffy, 44, of Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. She talked it over with other parents first and said everyone was on board.
“They were so relieved their kids could do something like a birthday party again,” she said.
The kids ran through an obstacle course and played dodgeball and hide-and-seek. Ultimate Ninjas offered pizza and cake, but Duffy decided to play it safe and offer cookies to go.
Also missing: Ryan’s best friends, who live next door but attend a different school. The kids have been playing together outside, but Duffy’s school advised limiting parties to kids who already see each other in the classroom each day.
“I want to make sure I’m doing all the right things,” Alli Duffy said. “For a 7-year-old, it was a difficult choice. It wasn’t the same, but he had a blast.”
Most parents aren’t yet ready to let kids attend a party or private play session with those outside the “pod” they attend school or socialize with, said Ultimate Ninjas owner Jeff Piejak.
“You never see a request for more than 10,” he said.
Each Ultimate Ninjas location has been hosting just a handful of parties each weekend, down from about 25 before the pandemic, when kids generally invited their entire elementary school class.
Piejak estimates business is down by roughly 50%, a decline that could have been worse had Ultimate Ninjas not seen increased interest in its classes.
“I just think there’s a stigma around birthday parties and large groups,” he said.
Purple Monkey Playroom, in the Logan Square neighborhood, has also seen interest in parties shrink dramatically. Before the pandemic, parties with anywhere from 20 to 65 kids made up about 70% of the business, said owner Jessica Roubitchek.
Now she hosts one or two a week, and the parents are often front-line workers more accustomed to being out and about than her typical pre-pandemic clients, many of whom work from home.
“A lot of them ... haven’t dipped their toes in that water yet, though we are getting some of them back for private playtime,” she said.
At Funtopia, a kids’ entertainment venue with activities like climbing walls and ropes courses, Marketing Director Zarko Drljaca has started receiving calls from families asking about parties later this spring and what restrictions they might face.
Still, actual bookings have been slow: The two locations in Glenview and Naperville have been holding a handful of parties each weekend, usually with fewer than 10 people, down from as many as 50 parties before the pandemic.
“We’re just in this transition period where we’re starting to see more interest,” Drljaca said.
Safari Land, on the other hand, is seeing families come back, though it can’t accommodate as many kids as usual.
After the Villa Park indoor amusement park reopened in January, “the phones lit up again,” said Marketing Director Jennifer Kanella.
At most half of Safari Land’s 14 party rooms can be occupied at a time, some arcade games are closed for social distancing and rides must be disinfected between each trip. The Lion’s Den, a maze kids can crawl through, is off limits — it’s too hard to disinfect after each kid.
Uncertainty about shifting pandemic restrictions means more families are making plans at the last minute.
Natalia Olmos-Jozwiak booked a party for her son Frederick Jozwiak’s eighth birthday at Ultimate Ninjas just two weeks before the event. The family invited about 10 kids Frederick sees at school each day and his brothers Vincent and Julian.
“He was talking about his birthday for months, but I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to do anything because of all that’s gone on,” said Olmos-Jozwiak, 39, of Northbrook.
Still, some parents are booking ahead to make sure a favorite venue won’t fill up.
Caroline Lampert’s sixth birthday isn’t until June but her mom has already booked the venue: Bubbles Academy’s private outdoor playground in the Logan Square area.
“It’s fun for me to plan, and if we need to cancel, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” said Katherine Lampert, 42, of River North.
Last year, Lampert delivered craft supplies, cupcakes and balloons to Caroline’s friends before a planned Zoom call on her fifth birthday, but virtual calls are tough for kids that young, she said.
At Bubbles Academy, indoor preschool programs and virtual parties are underway and outdoor parties are slated to return in April, but indoor parties are off limits until fall, said co-owner and Executive Director Natalie Monterastelli.
While the scaled-down festivities have been tough for venues’ bottom lines, the kids don’t seem to mind, she said.
“We’ve seen our share of huge, gorgeous, elaborate parties, but that’s not where your 2- or 3-year-old’s enjoyment is going to come from,” Monterastelli said. “We haven’t really seen the joy impacted.”
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