Kids’ birthdays: Giant mice, ball pits, arcades, pools and so much pizza

Pizza frequently was on the menu at the King children’s birthday parties, including Olivia’s fifth birthday at Chuck E. Cheese. (Courtesy of the King family)

caption arrowCaption
Pizza frequently was on the menu at the King children’s birthday parties, including Olivia’s fifth birthday at Chuck E. Cheese. (Courtesy of the King family)

When I was a kid, most of my birthday parties consisted of inviting friends over to our home in Athens, where we played games in the backyard and ate hot dogs and hamburgers that Dad grilled, along with cake prepared by Mom.

However, by the time my wife Leslie and I had children, hardly anyone seemed to be doing backyard kids’ birthday celebrations. Instead, it was all about destination parties.

So, our kids ended up gathering with their little pals at swimming pools, McDonald’s, bowling alleys, a science museum, a video game arcade and, of course, the dreaded (by parents) Chuck E. Cheese.

Except for McDonald’s, which featured Happy Meals, and a couple of pool parties where I grilled, we mostly fed them pizza. So. Much. Pizza.

ExploreMore Adventures in Food
caption arrowCaption
Writer Bill King’s son Bill is presented with a baseball-themed cake during a party at Challenges arcade celebrating his eighth birthday. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

Writer Bill King’s son Bill is presented with a baseball-themed cake during a party at Challenges arcade celebrating his eighth birthday. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

caption arrowCaption
Writer Bill King’s son Bill is presented with a baseball-themed cake during a party at Challenges arcade celebrating his eighth birthday. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

And, we served slices of decorated (and often themed) cakes. I remember a Batman cake, a baseball cake (complete with little player figurines) and a princess cake.

Sometimes, though, the party venues, especially the bowling alleys, provided their own catering (again, usually pizza), which generally was pretty decent fare. The exception was those cardboard-like slices at Chuck E. Cheese. Leslie and I both remember them as dreadful, but the 5-year-olds didn’t seem to notice.

Leslie described the scene there as “chaotic,” though the kids generally enjoyed all the noisy, animatronic activities — with the exception of a trembling little girl who spent much of the party sitting in my lap after being traumatized by the namesake giant rodent wandering around. Our daughter, Olivia, held up better, though when I recently asked whether she was scared of Chuck E., she replied, “I think I was, a little bit.”

caption arrowCaption
Olivia King recalls being “a little” scared of the namesake giant mouse when celebrating her fifth birthday at Chuck E. Cheese. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

Olivia King recalls being “a little” scared of the namesake giant mouse when celebrating her fifth birthday at Chuck E. Cheese. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

caption arrowCaption
Olivia King recalls being “a little” scared of the namesake giant mouse when celebrating her fifth birthday at Chuck E. Cheese. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

She was more into playing games and winning prize tickets. “When you collected enough tickets, you could pick out a toy,” she said.

Olivia also enjoyed the rides, and, “the ball pit was fun. You could bury yourself in plastic balls, and nobody could see you.”

I shudder now at what all might have been on those balls, but it was a simpler time.

Olivia’s older brother, Bill, also did the ball pit thing, along with sliding down various tubes and slides, when he had one of his first birthday parties at a McDonald’s playground in Sandy Springs.

Other birthday party venues in his first couple of years of school were Midtown Bowl and SciTrek, the children’s science and technology museum that used to be next to the Atlanta Civic Center.

caption arrowCaption
School field trips and birthday parties were commonplace in the 1990s at Atlanta’s SciTrek children’s science museum, which had exhibits like this electricity “plasma walk.” (AJC file photo)

Credit: Special

School field trips and birthday parties were commonplace in the 1990s at Atlanta’s SciTrek children’s science museum, which had exhibits like this electricity “plasma walk.” (AJC file photo)

Credit: Special

caption arrowCaption
School field trips and birthday parties were commonplace in the 1990s at Atlanta’s SciTrek children’s science museum, which had exhibits like this electricity “plasma walk.” (AJC file photo)

Credit: Special

Credit: Special

For Olivia’s crafts-oriented sixth birthday, we rented an activity room at a nearby YWCA. “I remember playing pin the tail on the donkey,” she said, “and we lay down and outlined ourselves on paper and then decorated it. And, we made crowns to wear.” She also remembers the pink Barbie plates used to serve the pizza and princess cake.

One of young Bill’s more memorable parties was his eighth, at Challenges, a video arcade at North DeKalb Mall. Partygoers were given long strings of tickets they could use to play the many classic arcade video games. A couple of arcade workers thankfully helped the kids play the games, while I mainly tried to make sure we didn’t lose anyone.

Our son recalls Challenges as “a pretty legendary spot,” and a great party venue. “Arcade video games were a big, big deal then.”

caption arrowCaption
Young Bill King plays an arcade video game during his eighth birthday party at Challenges at North DeKalb Mall. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

Young Bill King plays an arcade video game during his eighth birthday party at Challenges at North DeKalb Mall. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

caption arrowCaption
Young Bill King plays an arcade video game during his eighth birthday party at Challenges at North DeKalb Mall. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

After the game playing, the Challenges crew served pizza and Coke out in the mall food court, and we brought along the baseball-themed cake.

Even more popular, though, were the parties for which we rented our neighborhood pool. “Swimming parties were always the best,” young Bill recalled.

We couldn’t do the outdoor pool parties for Olivia, since her birthday is in March, but we did do a couple at the Decatur-DeKalb Family YMCA. She said it was special to have a pool party “when it was still winter.”

caption arrowCaption
Olivia King rides a “dragon” during her fifth birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese in Norcross. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

Olivia King rides a “dragon” during her fifth birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese in Norcross. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

caption arrowCaption
Olivia King rides a “dragon” during her fifth birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese in Norcross. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

As for our son’s pool parties, there was a grill next to the covered picnic tables, so I channeled my father and grilled hot dogs. And, since Bill’s class had at least one vegetarian, those grilled dogs included late ‘90s veggie dogs, which proved something of a challenge for the grillmaster — they tended to shrivel up rather quickly if the heat was too hot, and they were rubbery, otherwise.

(At a school function where some similar nonmeat wieners were served, a fellow parent asked, “What do you put on a vegetarian dog?” She took a bite, and then answered herself: “LOTS of mustard and ketchup!”)

As Olivia got older, the parties tended to involve fewer kids. One year, Leslie took her and some friends to a pottery painting place in Decatur, where they each picked a pot, painted it and glazed it, before eating pizza. A week later, the pots were ready, after firing.

caption arrowCaption
Olivia King and guests at her eighth birthday party enjoy pizza at the former Suburban Lanes bowling alley in Decatur. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

Olivia King and guests at her eighth birthday party enjoy pizza at the former Suburban Lanes bowling alley in Decatur. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

caption arrowCaption
Olivia King and guests at her eighth birthday party enjoy pizza at the former Suburban Lanes bowling alley in Decatur. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

And, Olivia recalled, “One year, Mom took me and a few friends to a movie and dinner.” The movie was Vin Diesel in “The Pacifier” (there weren’t any good movies open that week!), but the meal at Raging Burrito in Decatur was a hit.

Olivia celebrated her 18th birthday on a trip to Disney World with her two best friends. She got to wear a special birthday button, so “all the characters and workers would wish me happy birthday.” They had lunch at a Moroccan restaurant in EPCOT.

caption arrowCaption
One of Olivia King’s most memorable birthdays was her 18th, celebrated at Disney World in Orlando. (Courtesy of Olivia King)

Credit: Handout

One of Olivia King’s most memorable birthdays was her 18th, celebrated at Disney World in Orlando. (Courtesy of Olivia King)

Credit: Handout

caption arrowCaption
One of Olivia King’s most memorable birthdays was her 18th, celebrated at Disney World in Orlando. (Courtesy of Olivia King)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Wondering how kids’ parties have changed over the years, I chatted with several folks I know who have young children.

Lauren Pangle, mother of two boys, ages 7 and 3, explained that destination parties still are big, especially at places like Leapin’ Lizards, a popular indoor playground. But, she added, thanks to the pandemic, one of her boys recently had an old-fashioned backyard party, “so we could be outside.”

Local parks also have become popular for outdoor parties in the past couple of years, another parent noted.

Others also said their kids have been to backyard parties recently, but that usually involves renting a bouncy house or some sort of inflatable water slide. My niece, Caroline Billman, rented a bouncy house for her son’s second birthday party “and it was a big hit!”

Jamie Gumbrecht, who has two daughters, ages 7 and 4, said that, pre-pandemic, “we often wound up at parties at the big spots like the Children’s Museum, Center for Puppetry Arts, the zoo or Fernbank, or play spots like HippoHopp or even Little Shop of Stories.”

One of her daughters had her last pre-pandemic party at her ballet studio, Neighborhood Ballet.

caption arrowCaption
Leslie King serves birthday cake during daughter Olivia’s sixth birthday party at the former YWCA on Lawrenceville Highway in Decatur. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

Leslie King serves birthday cake during daughter Olivia’s sixth birthday party at the former YWCA on Lawrenceville Highway in Decatur. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

caption arrowCaption
Leslie King serves birthday cake during daughter Olivia’s sixth birthday party at the former YWCA on Lawrenceville Highway in Decatur. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Snacks frequently are provided by the venue, she said, but “every so often, there’s a very Pinteresty party, where someone’s parents go all-out with themed snacks. At some point, though, kids are just like, ‘Chips and sugar, please,’ even if you did your best to make carrots and cucumbers into a unicorn.”

Mainly, they just want sugar. “My kids will inhale the frosting off a cupcake, and hand the rest to me,” she said.

I asked if anyone still does Chuck E. Cheese, but no one had in recent years. Said my niece Caroline: “Too germy, even pre-COVID.”

One thing that hasn’t changed: Staging birthday parties is a tall order for working parents, though the kids do seem to appreciate it.

It will be interesting to see what sort of parties our 1-year-old granddaughter will have as she gets older. Still, whatever her parents choose, I’m betting pizza will be involved.

Read more birthday party memories at Bill King’s Quick Cuts blog, billkingquickcuts.wordpress.com. He can be reached at junkyardblawg@gmail.com.

ExploreOur favorite dishes in Atlanta right now

Sign up for the AJC Food and Dining Newsletter

Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.

About the Author

Editors' Picks