Businesses go to work on your birthday

Options vary from private enterprise to city-owned facilities to nonprofit organizations

Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2003

With her 6- and 8-year-old children, Jetta Whittaker has become something of an expert on local birthday party venues. She's been to just about all of them, she said.

"The gymnastics academy is a total favorite. ... We've been to lots of swimming parties ... that big backyard place. ... And of course now the skating rink is a big hit," she said.

Juneau organizations have done well catering to parents who want to treat their kids and their kids' friends to a special party, parents said.

The options vary from city-owned facilities - such as the Treadwell Arena ice skating rink, the swimming pool and the Mount Jumbo Gym - that leave the chaperones to provide the bells and whistles, to nonprofit organizations such as Sports Unlimited, which operates the Southeast Alaska Gymnastics Academy, to for-profit businesses.

Our Back Yard, the indoor playground that opened in April 2001, offers birthday parties that match several levels of extravagance. Parents can choose from a $99 party held during the facility's regular hours; a $119 private party held after regular hours, and the grand blossom and seedling sprout theme parties - private parties that incorporate food, presents and decorations in one of more than 35 themes.

Both the regular and the private theme parties "seem to work out well," said Whittaker.

Birthday parties make up more than 50 percent of Our Back Yard's business, said owner Kristi Elliott-Gallagher.

"In the beginning it was just a basic rental, but now we give them the option of just a basic rental or we can do the decorating and all that," she said.

The decorating for theme parties includes balloons, tablecloths, paper plates, cups, take-home centerpieces, and sometimes cone hats or wall-hangings, Elliott-Gallagher said.

Cakes for theme parties are provided by the bakers at Safeway, who "try as best as they can to match the theme that we're providing for them," Elliott-Gallagher said.

Themes include Cinderella, Barbie, Scoobie-Doo, Strawberry Shortcake, Batman, Spiderman and Tinkerbell, she said.

Guests who choose a regular, un-themed party can decorate Our Back Yard themselves, and can have their parties any time the business is open, Elliott-Gallagher said. Guests who want private parties must have them from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, or from 8:15 to 10:15 p.m. Friday, 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday, or 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday.

Private parties should be reserved three weeks to one month in advance, said Elliott-Gallagher. Regular parties normally require one to two weeks for reservations.

"I think one thing that is unique about our birthday parties is people can pay the flat rate ... start off with 10 or 20, and then if they have more they can pay for more," she said.

For older children and adults of all ages, the Rock Dump, a climbing gym on Thane Road, offers its space for all types of parties, said Matt Cecil, co-owner with his wife, Amy.

"The Rock Dump - that's a great place," said Whittaker. "We want to do the next one there."

Climbers and nonclimbers alike who choose the Rock Dump for their parties are "looking for something a little bit different than what has been offered in Juneau in the past," said Cecil.

"The kids are naturally good climbers," he said. "There are always a couple that are a little bit scared at first, but the cool thing is the kids can go as high as they want."

Kids aren't the only ones who reserve the Rock Dump for birthday parties. The gym hosted a party for a 45-year-old last weekend, Cecil said.

The Rock Dump charges $75 for 10 people to spend two hours at the gym. Each additional five people are $25. The prices include harnesses and use of all the gym's walls, but doesn't include shoe rental, which is an additional $1 per pair. Shoes aren't necessary to climb at the gym, but most people choose to rent them, Cecil said.

"It's not the kind of place to drop off kids and come back two hours later to pick them up," said Whittaker. Often, parents belay: secure climbers with a rope so they don't drop to the floor if they fall from the wall.

The Rock Dump doesn't provide birthday party supplies, decorations or cake. But the balcony overlooking the climbing area converts to a party area, Cecil said.

"If people want to decorate on their own, they can," he said. "They can also bring whatever food they want."

The Rock Dump has been offering private parties since it opened in the fall of 2001. The parties have proved to be an effective way of attracting new customers, Cecil said.

"Literally we look at it as a way to get a lot of people oriented to the gym in a short amount of time," he said. "We get tons of return birthday party business."

Another birthday party spot for the more actively inclined is JRC/The Alaska Club. The club's Valley location offers one- or two-hour parties for up to 24 children, said fitness director Lachelle Crotteau.

Parents provide food and drink for JRC/The Alaska Club parties, and the club provides decorations, plates, napkins and plastic utensils. Kids can choose from among 12 activities for the party, including tennis, racquetball, badminton, soccer, mega tag, jump ropes and scooters. One adult chaperone must attend the party for every five kids, Crotteau said.

Members and nonmembers pay the same for birthday parties at JRC/The Alaska Club: $82 for a one-hour party, $143 for a two-hour party. Reservations and payment are required at least two weeks in advance, Crotteau said.

Parents looking for a less expensive birthday party can turn to what has become an American classic: the McDonald's birthday party.

"They were started by an owner/operator, I believe in Boulder, Colorado, in the mid- to late-'60s," said Mike White, owner of the Juneau McDonald's.

Though individual McDonald's owners can vary their party options based on their restaurant features and preferences of customers, McDonald's provides its franchises with marketing information and recommendations for parties, White said.

"Everyone's able to do whatever fits in their community and what works for them," he said.

In Juneau, what works is parties at the Valley location, which has a play area consisting of plastic playground material and a pit full of plastic balls. The downtown store, which doesn't have a play area, doesn't host many parties, White said.

McDonald's provides a Ronald McDonald cake, which is baked in Seattle, ice cream, soda and a "goody bag" to party participants. Meals of burgers, cheeseburgers or chicken nuggets and fries can be purchased for $1.50, $1.69 and $1.89, respectively, said Joy Donnely, the restaurant's manager in charge of booking parties. The restaurant does not provide decorations.

Parties at the Juneau McDonald's cost $15, plus an additional $1 for each child, said Donnely. Parties are limited to no more than 14 kids, and the play area is open only to youths under 12.

Christine Schmid can be reached at

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