Planning a great birthday party

Whether you're looking to celebrate a birthday on a budget or throw an extravagant party with all the trimmings, we've got fun options for all ages

(Jen Rynda / Patuxent Publishing )
March 31, 2014|By Laura Barnhardt Cech, For The Baltimore Sun

Monica Snodgrass was a brave woman to invite more than two dozen 7-year-olds into her home for her son’s birthday party. But with spot-on entertainment planned, it wasn’t the headache one might envision.  The Clarksville mother of three had arranged for a visit from Darth Vader, who led light saber training with pool noodles, and talked about what it means to be a Jedi.

“You could say it’s just a kid’s birthday party,” says Snodgrass, whose Heroes for Hire character knew to mention his TIE fighter. (The 7-year-old Star Wars fans appreciated this detail.) “But my son absolutely loved it. He said it was the best birthday ever.”

That’s why we do it, of course, because no one loves a birthday party more than a kid. But it is a lot to coordinate: themes, invitations, thank-you notes, favors, decorations, games, food and cake.

Negotiating the guest list — whether you can or should invite the whole fourth-grade class, relatives and neighborhood friends — is enough to bring back memories of wedding planning. Plus, there are hundreds of party venues in the Baltimore-Washington area to consider.

We’ve done some of the legwork for you, offering options for various ages and budgets: the bargain party, the moderately priced party and the splurge.

PRESCHOOL
Keep it simple

Bargain: Cupcakes, balloons and party hats are really all you need to make the preschool set happy, which makes a party at home a popular option. We like the idea of storybook themes, such as Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” for a first birthday, a Seuss-inspired carnival, or a “Where the Wild Things Are” dance party.  If you have a morning kid, how about an “If you give a pig a pancake” breakfast fete?
A paperback book or coloring book inspired by the story makes a great party favor.

However, because parents will be staying with their kids at this age, many families quickly run out of space in their homes. If the birthday happens from April through October, parks are an economical option. Plus, there’s less cleanup than for a party at home.

A large pavilion rental at Patapsco State Park’s Hilton area Tire Park in Catonsville runs less than $100 for a Saturday in June. At the neighborhood tot lot, you may just need to stake claim to a picnic table and bring some lawn chairs.

Moderate: Add some wow factor with a visit from an entertainer, whether it’s a magician or a face painter. It’s one thing to have a Dora the Explorer party; it’s another thing when she shows up to lead a hike. Characters from Heroes for Hire run about $185 for a 45-minute appearance at a local party. Some characters will lead games and dance, while superheroes conduct “training.”

It pays to check references. Snodgrass was thrilled with her Heroes for Hire experience, but she had previously hired a Disney princess from another company who showed up 45 minutes late.

Splurge: Many popular family destinations, from nature centers to museums, have party packages. A party at Port Discovery costs about $30 per child, and includes pizza, drinks and a fun craft to take home. A party package for 20 at the Maryland Zoo, including pizza and cake, is about $25 per child for zoo members. Adults are extra.

Or try something a little different. You can stage a birthday concert at Cockeysville’s Drool of Rock Child Care Center, which doubles as a party venue on weekends. The facility can accommodate up to 100 guests. There’s a $300 rental fee, but you can arrange for band performances, dance instruction, DJs and more for less than $100, depending on the artist and time slot.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Be active

Bargain: Whether the party package includes food can make a big difference in the overall party cost. The least-expensive party package at the AMF bowling alley is $14.99 per guest, and at Chuck E. Cheese’s it’s $13.99 per kid, but the cost includes activity, invitations, food and drinks. So you’ll only need to bring party favors and cake.

You can also opt to have the party at a non-meal time. And check out party venues at off-peak times. A party at a kid gym, bounce house or other site is often less expensive in the evening or during the week.

At the new SkyZone Indoor Trampoline Park in Columbia, for example, a basic party package is $21 per guest during the week, but $24 per guest Friday through Sunday. At Rolly Polly’s in Severna Park, parties before 6 p.m. Friday are about $10 per child, down from about $18 other times. A birthday party for up to 25 guests at the Orokawa Family Center Y in Towson is $250 (about $10 per person) for members, and includes time in a party room, and a choice of pool time, rock climbing or sports play.

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