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Frugal parties = sad clowns

Ooopsy the Clown threw in a bubble machine for the monkey-themed party marking Nicholas Castillo's first birthday. She usually charges extra, but what's a clown to do in a recession that has some parents throwing less extravagant celebrations for their kids?

Ooopsy, aka Amy Tinoco, estimates the Pembroke Pines company she co-owns took in about $80,000 before taxes and expenses last year. That's about $46,000 less than in 2008. She used to average 12 parties a weekend. Now it's down to three.

"I didn't realize how good it was," says Tinoco, who wore a red wig, multicolored skirt and blue clown shoes for Nicholas' bash. "It's a huge difference. I have a lot of people telling me they are having a party, they are just not having entertainment and catering."

Party planners and parents around the country have seen a pullback, though they agreed some will always take kid birthdays over the top. David Tutera, a New York-based event planner, says his clients still want to have parties, but they're not making them quite so lavish.

"I think they are not getting the $5,000 birthday cake for their 5-year-old," he says. "They are still going to have the fun theme party. ... It's not going to be so opulent."

Chandra Turner, executive editor of Parents magazine, says some kid birthday parties had gotten so huge they were more like mini weddings.

"I think that parents for a while there were doing everything they could to make the birthday parties as amazing and extravagant as possible," she says.

The magazine recently asked 2,264 readers how much they expected to spend on their children's next birthday. Twenty-six percent says less than $75, 49 percent says $75 to $200, 19 percent says $200 or more, and 6 percent said they didn't know.

Extravagance in kid birthday parties, as in life, clearly means different things to different moms.

Nicholas' mom, Lisa Castillo of Davie, went well beyond the magazine's dollar figures, but she did cut back her initial plans. She estimates she spent under $1,000, switching to pizza over a full Italian buffet to trim expenses. There were personalized, laminated placemats for some younger guests, custom-made crayon holders in the goody bags and a monogrammed bib for Nicholas.

"I kept saying to my husband, ‘This party's for me,' '' she says.

The birthday boy squirmed on his mother's lap as Tinoco led the excited young audience in a round of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, and wowed them with a bear puppet. Later, Nicholas entertained himself by licking frosting off his fingers from his high chair. The bubbles were a huge hit all around.

"That's what I love about kids, they are happy with the simplest things," Tinoco said as she twisted a balloon into a sword for a little boy.

Karen Sternheimer, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, says that because people are having fewer children and having them later in life, some parents try to relive their own childhoods through their kids.

"I think we have this idea of what childhood means and it's usually very commercialized," she says. "I think part of that is for the parents themselves. A lot of parents today, their primary social network, if not through work, is through their kids."