Category Archives: Kids Birthday Parties

Kids Birthday Party: Bear Bus Style

Regarding kids birthday parties, I’ve made the following statements in the past:
  • You can only invite as many friends as you are old – and that’s it
  • I am keeping it really small this year
  • There will be no goodie bags
  • We aren’t going overboard

I would say these things meanwhile, come the day of the “small” party, somehow two dozen small children and an entire petting zoo found its way to my front yard:

Does a guinea pig dressed in a cowboy hat signal small party?

So this year, I wasn’t going overboard. And I meant it. I struggled with the guest list. I struggled the entire time. Down to the day of the party, guilt pains still ricocheted through my body for not inviting siblings of friends we are particularly close with, neighborhood kids we played with all summer long or whose parties we’ve attended in the past. But I had to draw the line. It seemed perfectly reasonable for 12 kids to attend the party, including my two girls whose birthdays we were celebrating. I couldn’t waver. And this year, I was taking the advice of experts and keeping the party to 90 minutes and not feeding the kids a meal. A few games and birthday cake were good enough when I was a kid, why did I need to do more than that, I reasoned.

But, I am a sucker for entertainment (as if the cowboy guinea pig didn’t give that one away). And when I was researching the top area birthday party vendors for my piece in Washingtonian Magazine’s “Best of Washington” July issue, I found The Bear Bus through word-of-mouth. After interviewing Kelly, who owns and operates the beltway-area franchise of The Bear Bus, I booked her back in July for the November party.

What is a Bear Bus, you might be wondering? It’s kid-heaven on wheels is the short answer. But the longer answer is this: think Build-A-Bear workshop on wheels. Kelly has converted a small school bus into a bear workshop. She pulls up in front of your house and for about 45-minutes, the kids board the heated bus, to choose their animal, stuff it, name it and dress it. Interestingly, I don’t think one kid picked a bear – a unicorn, a pink kitty, penguin and poodles were the top choices for this crowd. Except for my 3-year-old daughter, who picked a green dragon. My mom also noted that each kid came away with a totally different looking stuffed animal – even if they picked the same pink poodle – they all picked entirely different outfits. It was remarkable. And really sweet, actually.

Hanging out inside the Bear Bus...waiting to stuff their new friends

The Bear Bus is equally as appealing to little girls as it is boys because of the variety of animal choices and outfits. My nephew happily stuffed his penguin and then dressed him as a fire fighter. Kelly also said that slumber parties are a popular party theme she books. The teens will pile out of the house and onto the bus to stuff their animal of choice, to then have for the night. What a fantastic idea!

Not only did my kids love having the chance to pick and stuff their own animals, me and the adults loved having the kids entertained on the bus (versus inside my house), so we could hang out, enjoy each other’s company, and even sip some coffee. One dad wondered if the bus could just drive away with them for a while…I sort of loved that thought.

After helping each child individually stuff their own animal, Kelly gathers them around in a circle, they name their new friends and are given a name tag. It was such a sweet and personal experience for each kid and their happy smiles told the story as they exited the bus and headed for…my front door…

But with my 90 minute party half consumed by the Bear Bus, there was little time left but for a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, some song and cake. It only took me six years but I’ve finally successfully cracked the secret to hosting a low stress and totally enjoyable kids birthday party – one that didn’t break the bank and that I could soak in and enjoy. And for the record – the goodie bags were the stuffed animals – so I really wasn’t full of hot air this year in my threats and bold statements.

Now that I’ve experienced it first-hand with my kids, I can say that Kelly’s Bear Bus is absolutely worthy of its inclusion in the Washingtonian “Best of Washington” issue last July. She charges $19.95 per animal/kid or $24.95 per kid/animal if they also choose an outfit for the stuffed friend. That’s it – no other overhead – and remember – she keeps them out of your house but parked out front. There was plenty of room for the 12 kids on the bus and for several adults (many of whom not-so-secretly also wanted to stuff a friend – the monkey led the charge in the adult favorite friend).

Kelly is based out of Northern Virginia but she travels all around the DC-area (I’m in Montgomery County) and she noted a new franchise is opening soon for families in Prince William County.  She was so personable and patient with each of the kids, who ranged in age from 3-to-7 at our party. I really can’t recommend this party theme enough. She does book up in advance, so I’d recommend calling her at least six weeks before the party to make sure you can book this fabulous treat for your kids!

Happy kids with their new stuffed animals..who doesn't want this parked in front of their house?

It’s my party…and I’ll cry if I want too…

As many of you know, my girls both have birthdays in November. And I’ve written a lot about birthdays…and here for Washingtonian. I love birthdays. I love presents. I love parties. I love cake. I love games. Oh…and I love throwing birthday parties, not just enjoying those things myself…though have I mentioned I love presents?

I do. Lots of them. Wrapped nicely. For me, I mean. Not my kids. Presents for moi!

But back to kids birthdays, every year I claim I am going to keep it small and somehow I end up with a petting zoo and 40 kids running around my house. I’m pretty sure that’s not small.  I get carried away while swearing it won’t happen. So obviously I am in  the throes of obsessing over my girls party this year and how to handle it…while my older one pouts about having to share the spotlight with her pesky little sister…and what, with my wondering eyes, doth appear in my inbox?

Well, not 8 tiny reindeer but something close….today’s Plum DC deal featuring the services of mom-owned and mom-run custom-design party planner extraordinaire, business woman Katie Nguyen Wells, who founded Petite Social. After hearing positive feedback from friends on throwing her own daughter’s second birthday party, and market research showing a hole in the market here in DC, Katie launched Petite Social in July. She offers three levels of service and today’s Plum Deal is ideal for the mom who wants to throw the party but needs some help with the decor.  By spending $62, you purchase the virtual plan, for which Katie normally charges $125. What you get for this great deal is Katie’s designed inspiration board for your party (doesn’t have to be kid, she also does adult parties).  Once you receive the inspiration board, you can then execute a beautifully designed party. And you don’t even need to live in DC to purchase this deal, the brilliant thing about the inspiration board is that you can live anywhere to have Katie custom-design it for you! She never uses character themed materials, she brings to life her theme in a custom-way that she coordinates based on your wishes.

For parents short on time but still wanting the “wow” factor and needing the help with it, you can also apply today’s Plum Deal towards Katie’s other services, she offers a Petite or Grand level of service. The Petite is her most popular and with that she brings to life the custom design theme she offers from the inspiration board.

So back to moi….and my party…enter Katie for my purposes. Not only am I short on time and determined to host my girls party at my house, I have a bit of a hybrid theme going in that one child wants a Teddy Bear theme and the younger one wants a Pirate theme….Pirate Teddy, anyone? Ideas on how to seamlessly blend that one?

A pirate themed party designed by Petite Social

Needless to say, today’s Plum Deal (which expires in a few days, so act fast!) is practically written for me….because it’s my kid’s party…and there will be no tears at this party! Or they’ll be walking the infamous teddy bear plank…..

Disclosure: PlumDistrict DC gifted this deal to me through my partnership with them. As always, if I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t be writing about it. Stay tuned for a report on how the Pirate Bear party turns out next month.

Gifts Galore

We seem to be approaching that time of year in my world and I’m not just talking Christmas. Both my girls are November birthdays and because they are tracked specifically by seasonal birthdays in the early years at their preschool, it seems with the fall come endless weekends of birthday parties. The inevitable question of – what do I get Child X for their birthday arises – and I struggle. Surely I can’t be alone – it’s often especially difficult to pick out gifts for kids who are a different gender or age than your own. The other thing I struggle with is how much to spend – is it really  necessary to spend more than $10 or $15 for another kid’s birthday gift – but you don’t want to show up with a flimsy looking cheap gift.  And if you live anywhere near one of those discount stores, like Tuesday Morning, you run the risk of being one of 4 people who show up to the party with the same $4.99 game that looks like it cost more money.  Right?

 So, again, today, I bring you another sweet deal idea from Plum District DC because well, I couldn’t resist. This week’s deal  is from a site I hadn’t previously heard of, Creative Kidstuff, and by spending $15, you get a coupon worth $30 for the site. As with any of these deals, I always hop onto the vendor’s web site first to poke around, see what they offer and if any of it will appeal to my kids or their friends. After checking out the Creative Kidstuff site, I knew this deal was gold – I could either score a fantastic bday party gift reserved for one of my kids’ super close friends, for $15 or I can purchase something for one of the girls for their birthdays. The SmartMax Magnetic Discovery Building Set specifically caught my eye because normally I wouldn’t spend $60 on it, but if I could essentially get it for $30, then I feel like that is a real deal for a smart, educational and fun looking toy that will appeal to both kids.

If you are on the hunt for a great bargain for any occasion for boys and girls alike, then I’d swoop up this deal from Plum – and hurry up – it expires in one more day.

Disclosure: Through my partnership with Plum District DC, they gifted this deal to me – but you  know me – I wouldn’t be telling you about it if I didn’t think it was awesome. My thoughts here are my own.

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!