Courtesy of Disney
Princess birthday parties can be had at Disney's theme parks, resorts and cruise ships.
When Rosie and Ben Platt took their son and daughter, Coral, to Disneyland recently to celebrate Coral’s fourth birthday, Rosie worried it would spoil her daughter.
But given Coral’s obsession with the Disney princesses and the fact that they were meeting California relatives there, trepidation quickly turned to excitement upon arrival.
“We were 13 deep and everyone – kids and adults – were just beaming skipping down Main Street,” said Rosie Platt of Portland, Ore. “I wouldn’t typically have that feeling about a big corporation, but Disneyland really is the happiest place on Earth.”
When did kids' birthday parties go from gifts and games at home to full-blown Disney vacations?
Disney doesn't track the number of children who celebrate their birthdays at a Disney theme park, resort or on its cruise ships, but company representatives, travel agents and many parents agree it appears to be on the rise.
While “celebration vacations” to mark a birthday or anniversary are increasing, according to travel trend watcher Peter Yesawich, not everyone thinks they're a good idea.
“Birthday parties have become an arms race,” said Peggy Orenstein, who wrote the bestseller “Cinderella Ate My Daughter.”
“First it was the games at home, then it’s that each kid gets a goody bag, then the parties at the bouncy houses, then the princess parties, and now it’s the Disney birthday parties,” she said. “It keeps escalating. And of course Disney is looking for ways to expand its market and up the ante.”
For a two-night trip in April to Disneyland in California, a family of four could spend close to $2,000 for two nights at the Disneyland Hotel and three-day park passes alone. A 7-night cruise aboard Disney's brand-new Fantasy ship around the Carribbean, leaving from Florida in April, starts around $8,000 for a family of four. And a four-night stay at the new Disney Aulani Resort in Hawaii, with a partial ocean view room and round-trip flights from Seattle, starts around $4,400.
And that's not including the extras.
At Disney’s 11 parks worldwide, numerous resorts (the latest just opened in Hawaii), and on Disney’s four cruise ships (the newest sails this month), guests also can choose from dozens of birthday gifts, parties and packages to add to their Disney vacation, ranging from $15 for a "personal-sized" birthday cake, to $395 to decorate a hotel room with five small gift boxes and balloons, to a whopping $690 for a premium party for up to 10 kids at Disney's Polynesian Resort in Florida, which includes two-hour use of the Never Land Club games and activities, a character visit, and pizza and cake.
Orenstein believes over-the-top birthday parties can create spoiled children, and she also worries that the focus on princesses and subsequently the popular princess-themed parties – a huge draw for Disney parks and resorts – sends the wrong messages to girls.
“The problem becomes when it’s princesses at age 3, Bonne Bell Lip Smackers at 4, watching 'Top Model' at 9, and 'Keeping Up with the Kardashians' at 14,” she said. “We’re raising our daughters to define themselves from the outside in, to focus on appearance and performance rather than on authenticity.”
If you don’t have a young daughter (or haven’t strolled the aisles of Target or even Home Depot lately), you may not have heard of Princesses Jasmine, Ariel, Belle and the rest. The Disney Princess brand, which sells everything from movies to toys to paint, has leaped from a $300 million industry when the brand launched a decade ago to $4 billion a year.
“I think giving in to the princesses and the Disney drama is inevitable unless you live in a cave,” said Rosie Platt. “But it’s being well-rounded about what you expose them to. Coral also likes snakes and dinosaurs. The princesses aren’t her whole world.”
According to Yesawich, vice chairman for travel marketing firm MMGY Global, two factors are contributing to the apparent rise in birthday trips to Disney properties: impressive amenities for parents at luxury resorts and cruise lines, and parental guilt.
Both parents work in about 60 percent of American households, he said, and there is “a tremendous amount of parental guilt. So vacation becomes when you make up for the time you didn’t get to spend with the kids. Disney is a great place to do this.”
Jennifer Duston, an elementary school teacher in Ventura, Calif., agrees. She took one daughter to Disneyland for her third birthday and the family splurged on a Disney cruise last year.
Steven Miller / Courtesy of Disney
Disney birthday gifts come in familiar shapes.
“The cruise was the best vacation we’ve ever had,” she said. “My daughters were really, really into the princesses and they loved dressing up like a princess and seeing all the princesses come around.”
However, Duston reminded the girls that not every birthday would be this extravagant, and she turned the princess phase into an opportunity to teach good manners and kindness.
“We can’t control what gets our children excited, but we can control how we allow it to affect them,” she said.
Disney doesn’t track exact numbers, but several thousand birthday packages are requested on the cruise line alone each year, said Lisa Haines, vice president for public affairs.
Steven Miller, a Disney spokesman, said he has seen an uptick in demand for birthday merchandise as well as more kids having birthdays at the Florida parks where he works.
“You have experiences here that don’t happen anywhere else,” he said. “If you want to become a princess or another character, you are magically transformed for a day. People come here because we make them feel very special.”
As for Coral Platt, is she expecting something bigger and better for her fifth birthday next year? Actually, she’s already requested a small party at home with an “owl-shaped cake.”
“I think our Disney trip will be a hard birthday to beat, but I don’t think 4-year-olds think that way yet,” Rosie Platt said. “Birthdays in general are an exciting time, and we like to celebrate our little people.”
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