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Spoil System

FAO Schwarz has a birthday party to impress jaded juveniles -- and parents pay the price.

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Mock fashion shows held in beauty salons, private carnivals complete with merry-go-rounds -- when their children's birthdays roll around, affluent New Yorkers scramble to keep up with the Trumps, not the Joneses. Indeed, there aren't many stunts left that can raise the heart rates of the city's been-there-done-that little darlings -- but FAO Schwarz has come up with a novel way of parting pampering parents from their cash.

At $17,500, the Fifth Avenue Ultimate Sleepover Adventure, a wildly lavish in-store slumber party, is available to only a select clientele (the first one went for $26,000 at a February charity auction). Three more have since been sold. Chuck Santoro is the relentlessly cheerful former toy soldier behind the bash; he and Liz Nagengast, his partner in In Tandem Productions, produce the parties with FAO Schwarz. Even a job that requires him to spend his days auditioning Alices-in-Wonderland has its headaches, Santoro confides. "This morning, I got a call from Mother Goose saying, 'I can't come in,' " he sighs, looking up at the ceiling of his tiny subterranean office. "I tell them, 'You're getting paid to play with toys. This isn't Bosnia!' "

To say the least. On a typical night, fifteen kids ranging in age from 7 to 12 arrive at the door from tony Westchester suburbs or upper Manhattan; past campers include the son of a rock star and the daughter of a multimillionaire concert promoter. Many have cell phones, and some have asked to bring laptops. Each child is handed a survival kit -- a backpack crammed with essentials like interactive talking watches. Under the watchful eyes of store security cameras, they're turned loose in the FAO aisles to test robots and remote-control vehicles, refresh their manicures, and scavenge for wooden dinosaur bones.

After a midnight treasure hunt, campers bed down in the Star Wars room to watch the DVD movie of their choice on four giant screens. (Kids often complain about cell-phone reception in the Star Wars room, but it's better than sleeping in the life-size dollhouse, where the lights won't dim all the way.) In the morning, $100 gift certificates are handed out for a last-minute spree -- pocket change for these kids: When the 12-year-old heir to a sporting-goods fortune arrived at the register with more than $300 worth of merchandise, he quickly declared, "I brought my own money!"

There is only the occasional grumble, says Santoro -- like that heard from the son of a supermodel, who at one party surveyed the morning spread of bagels and cream cheese with disgust: "No Nova?"


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