A little known fact about me is that I have a skill for making kid's birthday cakes. It's not actually so hard when you have the equipment, but it's wicked time-consuming, so I haven't made lots in the past few years.
Really, to make an impressive centerpiece, you just need a good pan and some patience. My first foray into this was for my godson, Dylan's 1st birthday.
The next one I made was a variation on the bear: a bee for Dylan's little brother, Nicholas. It was pretty cute, despite the fact that the wings kept falling off and the black icing was kind of gross in that quantity.
The next time was for Isabelle's first birthday - no mean feat with a nursing 1 year old:
And my latest creation was for Thomas' 1st birthday. Gee, you wonder why I look tired and hyperglycemic?
Have a look at Wilton's website - a lot of the cakes could be made with standard cake pans, it's just a lot more math to do and you need a steadier hand. You definitely don't need all the fake stuff - I use a regular buttercream or cream cheese icing (yum....), oil and flour my pans as normal (just very carefully) and take my time. One thing you probably do have to buy is the black icing - you could skip it, but I don't think it's feasible to make black buttercream.
Isabelle has requested a princess cake this year - will let you know how it goes.