If your little one is heading toward a birthday, you’re probably wondering if this is the year you can ditch the big party and just do something super-fun instead (you know: experiences instead of “stuff”). Yes, you can! From an epic staycation to the star treatment at Universal Studios, here are 10 unforgettable ways to celebrate, along with all the best perks and freebies that come with being the birthday boy or girl.

photo: Melissa Heckscher

Enjoy the Royal Treatment at Medieval Times

You probably know that a night out at the Buena Park's Medieval Times includes dinner and a rollicking show featuring knights on horseback and plenty of rollicking crowd-cheering to go around. What you might not know is that, for an extra fee, you can have your little Ladies and Sirs called up in front of everyone to be knighted by the queen, a pre-show ceremony which includes a framed photo and an official Medieval Times scroll declaring your birthday boy or girl's knighthood. You can also have your little's name announced during the show for all 1,000+ guests in the kingdom to hear. That, and the fact they get to eat their entire dinner with their hands (it's the Medieval way!), and we think this will be a "knight" to remember. *

Birthday Perks: If you join Medieval Times' birthday fellowship (for you or your child), you'll get free admission (includes the entire four-course dinner!) on your birthday. Knighting ceremony is $20 (and includes photo and commemorative scroll). 

Cost: Adults, $63.95; children 12 & under, $36.95. You can also get the "celebration package," which includes an announcement in the show, a slice of birthday cake, priority seating, a VIP lanyard and a group photo for $18 a person extra. Hint: There's usually some kind of promo on the site offering way discounted tickets (like this back to school promo that offers prices more than 30 percent off!), so be sure to scour the site before paying full price. 

7662 Beach Blvd.
Buena Park, Calif.
Online: www.medievaltimes.com

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photo: Trish George

Dine with Dolls at American Girl Cafe

If you've got a kid who's all about her dolls, a visit to LA's American Girl Cafe should be at the top of her birthday list. The cafe, located on the top floor of the sprawling American Girl store (at the Grove), is a bustling eatery that's as dainty as the dolls themselves. Here, not only can your child dine in style on a fixed-price gourmet meal—but her doll can also sit at the table in her own high chair and her own mini place setting (that you can take home!). Left your doll at home? No problem. The cafe has a stockpile of boy and girl dolls available for "rent" at no additional charge. As for the food, the "gourmet" eats are yummy as can be (even for grown-ups) and include kid standbys like chicken tenders and mac 'n cheese as well as more sophisticated eats like honey chipotle glazed salmon. Just don't fill up on the delicious cinnamon rolls that always start the meal.  

Of course, you can't get in and out of the American Girl Cafe without winding your way through the AG store, so get ready to either shell out some serious cash on doll paraphernalia—or start practice your oh-so-serious "No" voice now. 

Birthday Perks: There's a fixed price "Birthday Celebration" package (available for as few as two children) that includes a three-course meal, signature cake and ice cream, goody bags, doll tiaras, and a special gift for the birthday girl. Price is $37 per child; $27 per adult. 

Cost: Lunch is $23 per person; dinner is $24 per person; tea times are $20 per person.   

189 The Grove Dr. (in the Grove Shopping Center)
Los Angeles
Online: americangirl.com

photo: photo: Melissa Heckscher

Have Your Cake—and Make It, Too!

You might get by without a birthday party—but you can't forgo the beloved birthday cake! This year, why not give your little one the chance to design her own dessert? At Duff's Cakemix, being a budding cake decorator is a cinch. Upon check-in, you'll get a pre-cooked cake round (that's already covered in the fondant color of your choice) upon which you can add frosting, sprinkles or fondant to design a birthday cake worthy of the Food Network (Duff's founder, Duff Goldman, was featured on the Food Network show, "Ace of Cakes"). Each cake or cupcake session includes access to tools, aprons, gloves, cutters, stencils, molds, and guidance from Team Duff. *

Cost: $18 for two cupcakes; $48 for a 6" cake.

Multiple locations
Online: duffscakemix.com

photo: Melissa Heckscher

Make a Splash at Great Wolf Lodge

Bunk beds? Check! Arcade? Check! Awesome waterpark featuring 10 waterslides, a wave pool and a lazy river? Oh, yes! In case you've never been, the Great Wolf Lodge is the Los Angeles area's only indoor waterpark (You may think LA's temperate climate negates the need for an indoor waterpark, but playing all day without worrying about applying sunburn to wiggly faces makes for a nice change). But even more than the awesome waterpark, we think the coolest thing about this place is the fact that it's also a hotel—and since two days of park entry is included with each overnight stay (day passes are also available), a staycation here can make for a relatively cost-effective outing. And, if the waterpark isn't enough, there's also a massive arcade, mini golf, bowling, character appearances, story times, and a live action game called "MagiQuest" that lets little wizards with specially-purchased wands interact with various "portals" throughout the hotel.

Insider's tip: Bring goggles. The water is uber-chlorinated.

Birthday Perks: The hotel can arrange various "birthday packages" which include a birthday poster on your hotel door as well as balloons and a cake in the room when you arrive. Or, just tell the waiter in either of the hotel restaurants about the big day and you'll have the whole waitstaff belting out a  "Happy birthday" song by dessert. 

Cost: Varies from about $179 per night to about $399 per night depending on the day and the room choice (bunk bed rooms are "premium" and cost extra). Birthday package add-ons start at $29.99

12681 Harbor Blvd.
Garden Grove, Calif.
Online: Greatwolf.com/southern-california

photo: Universal Studios

Be a Star at Universal Studios

We can't vouch for this personally, but rumor has it if you're wearing a birthday button inside Ollivanders (not the shop, but the tiny studio next-door where the quirky "wand-fitter" selects one guest for a very public "wand fitting"), you've just upped your chances of getting singled out for the show). We CAN attest that wearing a birthday button has its perks: During our recent visit, not only did the cast members park-wide work our little's birthday into their character schticks; one even slipped us a pass that gave our whole party front-of-the-line access for one ride (hello, Transformers!). Happy birthday to us! *

But even if you don't get the VIP treatment or a front-of-the-line pass, Universal's got tons to entertain young guests, including the new Jurassic World ride, which revamps the old water attraction with larger-than-life special effects and a new-and-improved T-rex that'll thrill even non-dinosaur-lovers. 

Birthday Perks: Free birthday button (available at Guest Relations when you enter the park); "Happy Birthday" greetings from cast members park-wide; possible special attention during shows and character interactions (not guaranteed). 

Cost: $99 and up

100 Universal City Plaza
Universal City, Calif.
Online: Universalstudioshollywood.com

Get Extra Attention at Disneyland

What's better than a day at Disney? A day at Disney ON YOUR BIRTHDAY. To up the ante on your big day, just pick up one your complimentary "Happy Birthday!" button (inside City Hall on Main Street, U.S.A. in Disneyland Park or at Guest Services in Disney California Adventure Park). Wearing said button means you'll get special greetings from Disney cast members (and anyone else who sees your button!) throughout the day. Consequently, you should use every opportunity to let your kids interact with Disney characters: your princesses-in-training will love hearing birthday wishes from the princesses inside Royal Hall, for instance. And, if you get a good spot for one of the parades, your littles will feel downright special when the stars of the parade wish them a happy birthday as they roll by.

Some other birthday perks, according to Jessica Sanders of The Happiest Blog on Earth:

  • If you stop by to see "Red" the firetruck in Cars Land (and he sees your birthday pin), he may play a special song for you.
  • If you tell the jazz musicians in New Orleans Square that it's your birthday, you may get a quick serenade.
  • You can have a special birthday cake delivered to any of these Disney park's restaurants. Just make arrangements ahead-of-time and you can even have your cake inscribed.

Cost: Tickets are $129 and up. (But the birthday button—and all the well-wishes it earns you—are totally free.)

Location: 1313 Disneyland Dr. in Anaheim

Online: Disneyland.disney.go.com

See Your Name on the Jumbotron!

Take them out to the ball game! Catching a game is a great way to celebrate for any budding sports fan. But if you really want to make the outing special, get their name on the big screen. Whether you're seeing a basketball game or a basketball or hockey game, both Dodgers Stadium and the Staples Center (where the Kings, Clippers and Lakers play) can help you get your Happy Birthday messages up during a pre-arranged time during the game. See that? Your kid is famous! 

Here's what you need to know—and how much it costs: 

Dodgers: Messages cost $100 (and proceeds benefit the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation, which helps underserved youth in the greater L. A. area.). This price also includes a digital image of your message, which you'll receive 4-6 weeks later. Messages must be ordered at least three days before the game you're attending. For more information and to order a message, click here

Lakers: Cost is $50 per message. Messages must be arranged at least 48 business hours before to the desired game. For Saturday, Sunday, or Monday games, the request form must be received by 12: p.m. the prior Thursday. All messages are posted on the 6 DASH Boards throughout the stadium, beginning 90 minutes before tip-off and continuing throughout the game. Download a request form here.

Clippers: Messages cost $75 and all proceeds benefit the Clippers Foundation. Messages run at halftime. For more information and to download the form, click here

Kings: E-mail your request to royalservice@lakings.com

Play Games Galore at Chuck e. Cheese

You may not be down with the animatronic band members, ding-ding-dinging noise, and seemingly endless wait while your kid peruses the array of plastic thingees at the prize redemption center. But trust us: Your kid is in arcade heaven. What's even better? Birthday kids get some extra perks, especially if you're willing to bring a few extra kids with you (this could even just be your birthday tot's siblings). Birthday packages (they require at least four kids total) with Chuck are a great deal and lots of fun for game-loving littles. Even the most basic of packages include two slices of pizza and a drink (per child), three helium balloons, 30 play points per child, 250 bonus tickets, birthday show recognition and a ticket blaster experience for the birthday girl or boy. 

Birthday perks: Join the More Cheese Rewards Club and your kids can get 20 minutes of unlimited free game play during their birthday week, plus a one-time redemption of 100 free tickets on their half-birthday.    

Cost: Birthday packages start at $15.99 per child and require at least four children. 

Locations: Various.

Online: Chuckecheese.com 

Score Major Birthday Freebies!

Want a free donut? A free cupcake? A free slice of pizza? Milk it for all it's worth on the big day at these local spots:

IHOP: Sign up for MyHop and you'll get free pancakes now and on your birthday.

SusieCakes: Sign up with the SusieCakes rewards app and  get two free cupcakes now and a slice of your favorite cake on your birthday.

Chart House: Join the Landry’s Select Club and get a free $25 Birthday Reward that can be redeemed during your birthday month. (This also works at Landry's other restaurants, including Bubba Gump and Morton's Steakhouse.)

Truxton's American Bistro: Join the Bistro Club and get $20 off your meal (locations in Westchester and Santa Monica).

Chuck e. Cheese: Join the More Cheese Rewards Club and your kids can get 20 minutes of unlimited free game play during their birthday week, plus a one-time redemption of 100 free tickets on their half-birthday.  

Baskin Robbins: Download the Baskin Robbins mobile app to sign up for the Birthday Club and get a free scoop of ice cream on your birthday. 

Panera Bread: Sign up for the My Panera Club and get a free birthday pastry. 

Barnes and Noble: Register your child in the B&N's Kids Club and get a free birthday cupcake or cookie from the cafe during the month of your child's birthday (plus a 30 percent off coupon that you can use to buy a great birthday gift!). 

—Melissa Heckscher

*The writer received complimentary admission to locations where indicated, but any and all opinions expressed in this article are hers alone.

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