Kids' birthday parties have come a long way since the ice cream, cake and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey celebrations that used to be.
Today's pint-sized partiers are kicking up their heels at karate parties, rubbing elbows with Ninja Turtles, sliding down water flumes and tracking dinosaur "footprints."
In Howard County, at least a half-dozen companies are capitalizing on the growing demand for creative fun and games.
Teresa Keller Kurz expanded into specialized parties last November through her company, Discovering Science, which until then had focused on producing educational programs and materials, mostly for schools.
Party business has brought in an extra $10,000 so far, Kurz said, and she expects that figure to double by the end of the year. She has provided 50 one-hour parties since January, charging $130 to $175 for most.
"Parents have done the Chuck E. Cheese parties; this is something new and different," said the Columbia resident.
Slime parties and mad-scientist parties, both educational, are two of the themes she offers through her 5-year-old business, which has offices in Columbia and Bethesda. Members of the 4- to 7-year-old party set can learn about clues the dinosaurs left behind by searching at home for fossils and pretend footprints.
Eight to 12-year-olds can watch chemical reactionswhile mystery powders and liquids turn into slime.
The choice of themes seems endless, but the attraction for many parents seems to bemore fun and less mess.
The Plaster Fun House opened in the Bethany Shopping Center in Ellicott City two months ago, and is a franchise of similar children's party stores that originated on Long Island, N.Y. Since opening, it has provided 30 parties.
"We keep the kids entertained," said Colleen Wolfe, manager. "It saves parents from cleaning up and having to plan a party at their house."
With help from assistants at the store, children select an item to paint from morethan 100 plaster figures, such as dinosaurs or ballet slippers, thatrequire no firing.
The 1 1/2-hour parties allow party-goers enough time to paint and have their cake and ice cream too. A refrigeratoris close by so parents may bring refreshments if they choose, but employees will serve the food and clean up.
Owner Colleen Quinn, whose family started the business in New York, estimates she'll organizefive or six parties a day on weekends.
The cost is $5.95 per child plus tax for a minimum of eight children.
Jan Waxman's business,Arts & Crafts Parties, also specializes in keeping little hands occupied.
"There seems to be a lot more people who don't want to do the parties themselves," said Waxman, who opened Arts & Crafts Parties three years ago.
She averages about 12 parties a month and says parents hire her because the theme is "different", there's no mess, andthe party is "compact with no children running through the house."
When Waxman opened her business in 1988, she handled two or three parties a month. She now manages 10 to 12 a month.
She charges $130for a 13-child party ($8 for each extra child) and provides plastic piggy banks, desk organizers and trash pails for young hands to decorate with paint pens. The 1 1/2-hour parties also include soda, pizza,ice cream sundaes and goodie bags.
"People are looking for something different than the clown they had last year," said Ellen Baniszewski, owner of Ellen's Music, a business based in her Columbia home. "The more I offer, the more they want."
Baniszewski, the mother of a 7- and 9-year-old, has been in business four years and says demand for parties has steadily increased.
She has provided musical entertainment for about 300 celebrations, 90 of them in the past year.
She offers two types of parties, both in the guest of honor's home. The first, for children ages 2 to 8, is a song and rhythm party in which celebrants can wiggle, march, dance and play to original ditties composed by Baniszewski. Rhythm instruments are supplied.
Dressed in one of nine costumes ranging from a Ninja Turtle to Big Bird, Baniszewski uses her own tape-recorded music. In-between the action, children make a 10-foot long birthday mural as a "keepsake picture" for the guest of honor. The cost is about $75 for 45 minutes.
For $95, children ages 7 and up can try their own hand at creating instrumentalsounds on an electronic keyboard. Rhythm instruments and a birthday mural are also provided.
For something less traditional, Will Maier's United Martial Arts in Columbia offers a 30-minute karate demonstration at his studio for $30.
Responding to requests from students, Maier started the party demonstrations in 1987 and does about 50 a year. The birthday child receives two introductory lessons. Parents provide refreshments.
Another option for parents who prefer taking the party crowd elsewhere is the Columbia Swim Center, where splishing and splashing on the flume has become a popular party activity.
"One of the advantages is that the parties are held here and we provide everything," said Maria Granata, assistant manager at the center. "The kids can come here and make the mess, rather than in their houses."
The center offers parties only on weekends, and Granata says more than 1,000 are held there each year. Parties are usually booked at least four to six weeks ahead.
In June and July the swim center is available from 7 to 10 p.m. on Friday nights only.
Parties include unlimited flume rides, a birthday cake and candles, hot dogs, soda, ice cream, party invitations, and a bouquet of balloons.
Children must be at least 42 inches tall to participate. The splashdown birthday party package costs $6.75 per person for members of the Columbia Association Package Plan, Package Plan Plus and the Columbia Swim Center; non-members pay $8.75.