Today’s Topic: Kids Birthday Parties

When planning for your kid’s birthday party, whether your philosophy is “go big or go home” or keeping it intimate and affordable, it always ends up being a ton of work and in my experience, costs a bit more than you bargained for. So, today’s Wired Momma expert is Laura from Thumbs Up Party, a local mom and small business owner. If you didn’t see it, I contributed a piece to the July “Best of Washington” Washingtonian issue called “Happiest Birthdays” and Laura’s company  is one of the “Best of Washington” vendors I featured. Full disclosure – I have never used Laura for one of my kid’s parties but heard amazing things about her company (which led to Thumbs Up’s inclusion in the Washingtonian piece) and then as luck would have it, a friend hired her for her daughter’s party about a week before the issue hit the stands, and my girls delighted in their experience at the beautifully executed Tinkerbell themed party.

My sweet baby at the Thumbs Up Fairy Party

Because there was such limited space for the article in Washingtonian, and because we all face down the inevitable kid birthday party at some point (mine are both in November), it seemed a natural to spend some time with Laura, getting advice from a pro, on how to plan for and execute a fabulous kids birthday party.  So read on for some really creative and helpful tips!

When I was researching kids birthday party vendors for Washingtonian, I was amazed at how few vendors there are out there who do what you do. Can you tell us about how Thumbs Up started and what services you provide to parents who hire Thumbs Up?

Absolutely. I knew I was headed into business for myself but it wasn’t until one mom, who was attending my daughter’s birthday party, walked over to me and encouraged me to get into the birthday party business that I realized that’s where I would end up. It was actually a mermaid themed party back in August of 2006, so we’re coming up on our five-year anniversary next month.  The bottom line is as moms, we all know what it’s like hosting a kids party at your house – 2 hours fly by, you don’t have any time to talk with guests and it’s a whirlwind. I wanted to launch a business that would help simplify the birthday party process and allow parents to enjoy the experience.  So now, five years later, I have 12 employees, ranging from high school students to other moms. Now my daughter, the one who’s birthday party inspired the business idea, actually helps me out. I really appreciate the fact that my kids see me pouring my heart into my company and now I can bring  my daughter in to help here and there.

I know from our previous discussions you offer a wide range of party themes that appeal to boys and girls, can you tell us about your party themes and which are the most popular?

Sure, for the boys the Star Wars, 007 Spy and Super Hero themes are the most popular and those themes span across a wide age range, with the most common being 5-6 year olds. For girls, the Girlfriend Glamour Spa is the top theme, also Princess & Diva and Fairyland are popular. Our themes appeal to kids ages 1-16.

Those themes sound like so much fun. My girls will be 3 and 6 in November and I struggle every single year with keeping the party small and keeping the games going during the party. Inevitably the guest list grows despite my vows to keep it intimate and the games wrap up faster than I expect. I don’t know why I let this surprise me every year. Will the parties ever get smaller and what advice can you give us on planning for games?

Absolutely. You should know that relief is in sight. In my experience, both personally and with the company, I’ve found that as the kids get older, the guest lists get smaller. In preschool and even into kindergarten, parents feel compelled to invite the whole class or the school has a policy that if invites are handed out at school, then the entire class must be invited. As the kids get older, they have their own few friends that they want to invite and the whole thing just gets smaller. As for games and activities, my advice is to plan more activities than you think you will need, especially because you never know what the dynamics of the group will be that day. If you keep them active and engaged, it’s easier on you. And as you pointed out, the games tend to go faster than you think they will. I also fill time in between games with creative/imaginative play. For example, if you want to move the kids to another part of the house, you can have an imaginary parade using their sparkly high heels:  Ask them to put on their pretend high heels and clip clop to the magical castle, in their magical shoes, walking in a parade. If you are creative and silly, the kids will really respond and have fun with it. In addition to planning more activities than you think you’ll need, I recommend that you write down all your tips, including the filler ideas like the princess parade. If you don’t write it down, you will forget it.

What a creative idea, I love it. How do you plan for parties in terms of time – what is the ideal length of time and how do you break it out when writing everything down in advance?

For the younger kids, I really think 90 minutes is a good amount of time. Plan for 10 minutes on the front end for arrival time. Also with young ones, they don’t necessarily always jump right into the party, then might be hanging onto Mom and not sure about it all. I urge the hostess to get down on their level and greet them personally. Then plan for 50 minutes of activities: crafts, interactive time, 3 games, then the filler idea in between games because you don’t want them sitting the entire time in between games. You can also have fun stretching activities between games: Have them reach up high for the stars, stretching on their tippy toes, then hop over here, then lift their legs 5 times, and so on. It’s an easy way to get their energy out.

What games do you find are the most popular ones for kids parties?

Kids of all ages love freeze dance. And then for us, it depends on the theme of the party. We take classic games like Hot Potato and customize it, so for example for a Princess themed party, we would play pass the jewel. For a Star Wars themed party, we would play pass the light sabre. Kids also love scavenger hunts and relay races. But the games really do vary based on group size and age and what the theme is of the party. We actually have fashion shows, concerts and performances with the Diva party theme. We’ll bring lights and a red carpet. For American Idol theme parties, we’ll break kids out into groups of 3-4 and teach them dance moves and have them perform in costumes with props.

OK. Can you host these for adults? It sounds like so much fun. Now let’s talk party size. Like I said, I fail at this every year. I seem incapable of keeping it small. How do you manage and staff a party based on size, to give the rest of us a realistic idea of how many adults we need helping pending on party size?

Our parties are geared for 8 kids up to 14 kids. We have 2 party hostesses and for anything bigger, we’ll have a third party hostess there. Often we’ll have a character apperance instead of another hostess. The bottom line is the extra set of hands is really helpful -you always need someone designated to help write down what gifts the child received, for example, and you want to ask them well before the party starts to help you.

Here’s something else that is the bane of my existence: Goodie Bags. They are a waste of money and it’s all just crap anyway but the kids expect it.  Are you seeing families move away from goodie bags or if not, any tips on where to get the filler?

Goodie bags can definitely get out of hand. I believe that less is more. I’ve seen themed personalized cookies instead of the gift bags, a personalized bag with the child’s names on them is another popular one, or I’ve seen people donate money to a dog shelter or a charity of the child’s choice. Another great idea is to take pictures of the birthday child with each of his/her guests and print them during the party, then have the kids decorate picture frames and that is their take home present. It’s nice because they’ve made memories together and have something for their rooms. But here’s another area where you’d need an extra set of hands helping you – to print those pictures during the party.  If you are purchasing items for the goodie bags, I think Party City has good theme related things that can hold up – I do not recommend Oriental Trading because those items fall apart very quickly.

What advice to you have in terms of timeframes for sending out invites,  people RSVP’ing and is there an increased trend in the “No Gifts” direction?

For RSVPs, if you are hosting it yourself, I’d recommend 5 days in advance. If we are hosting your party for you, we send the invites out 4 weeks in advance, and if you are hosting it yourself, I’d say sending invites 3 weeks in advance is good. As for gifts, many people are asking that instead of bringing a gift, you bring an item for food donation or you donate some money to an animal shelter of the child’s choice. I’ve seen it happen even with really young kids and those kids seem to understand it and really learn something through that process. If they specify “No Gifts” on the invite, you have to respect their request and not bring a gift.

You’ve given us all some great advice, Laura. Do you have any final parting words of wisdom?

Yes – don’t forget music. People often forget it and it really sets the tone of the party. We create our own party lists to match the theme of the party and the age group of the kids. Also, pick 2-3 colors as your theme colors for the party and stick with that. It will help create a comfortable space and bring all the elements together. It also looks really nice.

Thank you to Laura. And if you are interested in hiring Thumbs Up to handle your child’s party, know that they book up about 2 months in advance. I was so impressed with the party they threw for my friend’s daughter – and my friend could actually spend time really soaking in the fun her daughter was having and talk with the other guests.  Also – I used Laura’s idea of the imaginary parade the other day when out walking with my girls – we were mermaids searching for fish and dolphins and pirate treasure – it ended up being one of the most fun walks we’ve ever had. They immediately slipped into character and spotted under-the-sea animals within seconds of me introducing the idea. I loved it!

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