Themes are all the rage in Birthdayville. As any Dallas-area parent knows, when you are planning your child’s annual ode to Father Time, the first thing friends (yours, not theirs) ask is: what’s the theme? Before you realize it, you’re orchestrating a Nemo-engraved linen napkin affair that costs more than your wedding.
Well, you don’t have to make a withdrawal from your child’s college savings plan to throw a shindig worthy of bragging rights for the next 364 days. Of course, you can plop down the cash and let the experts take care of every little cheeky Thomas detail (Shelley’s way) or get in touch with your inner Colin Cowie and host a creatively inexpensive backyard bash, leaving others to marvel (and secretly envy) your ingenuity (Tanya’s way).
Either route, we’ve compiled some practical and not-so-practical theme-driven tips to make your child the happiest kid on the birthday circuit. And you know what that’s worth? You got it: Priceless.
Note: Blowout, in most cases, indicates spending at minimum $100 or more for 10 guests.
Barbie Fashion Makeover
Blowout: Invite the real live(!) Barbie to your house to host your fashion party. Cost: $175 (includes rack of clothes, birthday surprise; 214/381-7464).
Budget: Give the girls your unused, nontoxic makeup samples; let them play fashion consultant and paint each others’ faces. After the fun is over, have them snap glam shots for thank you cards. Cost: $20 for disposable cameras.
Bob the Builder
Blowout: Maybe architecture piques your wannabe little builder’s interest; haul your crew over to Explorit Zone for a hammer-wielding, saw-grinding good time. $50-$110 (includes invitations, paper goods, unlimited play time for kids and 90 minutes in the party room. Saturday parties must be booked 4 weeks in advance; weekday parties, 2-4 weeks in advance; 972/315-1115).
Budget: Use Tonka Trucks as centerpieces, draw blueprints on the sidewalk with chalk and set out blocks and plastic construction tools so kids can build then demolish their own creations. Cost: Tonka Trucks: $9-$14; Sidewalk Chalk: $1; Bag of Blocks: $16. Or fill the sandbox in the back yard and let the kids haul and build castles in the sand. Total: $35
Dora the Explorer
Blowout: Lead a group of budding paleontologists and entomologists to The Science Place for a dino-mite lesson in natural history. Cost: $130-$170 for 20 kids and 4 adults; or have an IMAX party, $250 (includes birthday-party room for 2 hrs, complete with staff. BYOS/decorations, drinks and cake.)
Budget: Give the kids plastic shovels and let them dig up a roped-off section of the back yard in search of ancient fossils — or maybe just dog bones and petrified Easter eggs. Cost: $10 for plastic shovels.
Cat In the Hat
Blowout: If your child is enchanted with the magical powers of Dr. Suess, hire a magician to perform at your party. Add a balloon artist to make clever who-zits and whatz-itz! Cost: Magician: $100 per hour; Balloon Artist: $65 per hour.
Budget: Mom and dad can dress up as Thing 1 and Thing 2 (all you need is red sweats and blue wigs). Buy a bowl-aquarium to use as a centerpiece and play Horton Hears a Who (Have each child take turns making an animal sound for everyone to guess). Cost: Aquarium: $20; Wigs: $15
Blowout: Summon Mad Science of Dallas County to your home for a Hogwarts-style lesson in science. Cost: $150.00 per hour for 15 kids, $5 each additional child (972/724-3623)
Budget: Award the little muggles wizard hats and feather dusters so they can wave their “wands” at furniture and make the dust disappear — OK, well, maybe not if you value your knick-knacks. Have the kids dress up as their favorite Harry Potter character and play Harry’s favorite game, Quidditch (provide the kids with a ball, broomsticks and a back yard, divide kids into two teams, set up two goals on either side of the yard and have them try to sweep the ball over the other team’s goal line). Cost: Wizard Hats: $40, Brooms: $10 Feather Dusters, anyone? $10
Blowout: Make a whale of a splash at Hawaiian Falls Adventure Park. Cost: $150 (Includes all-day ticket, and for 1 1/2 hour out of the day, you get a shaded birthday area, a hostess to assist you, one slice of pizza and one soft drink per person and party favors for the kids. Cake is extra: $18. Two locations: The Colony, 972/370-4327; Garland, 972/546-3046
Budget: Encourage the kids to make and decorate their own fins out of cardboard boxes and run through the sprinkler — or set up pillows/mini trampolines (ask your neighbors to donate theirs for the afternoon) in the backyard and let them bounce on “jellyfish” a la Marlin and Dorie. Cost: $10 for markers or crayons. Request leftover cardboard boxes from your grocer.
Blowout: Command a limo to Seventeen Spa with 10 of your daughter’s closest friends for a pamperfest. Cost: $400-$850 (469/361-0017). (Accompanying lessons in archery, horse riding and tiaras additional).
Budget: Recruit your mommy friends to dress up as royal maids (or ’50s-style beauticians if you want to Grease it up) and let the girls choose from a menu of services doled out in “stations” throughout your house. Cost: $50 for beauty supplies.
Blowout: Let the kids go ape and gorge on primitive American cuisine (pizza and cake) in the wilds of the Dallas Zoo. Cost: $450 for 30 party passes (includes parking, all-day admission to the Dallas Zoo, 1-hour party in the “party place,” a private room in the Children’s Zoo, hot dogs or pizza, lemonade or punch, personalized zoo-themed birthday cake and ice cream, party favors and a T-Shirt for the birthday child; 214/943-2771 x301); Or rent a zoo in your own back yard — chickens, pigs, goats and sheep. Say “baaaa” for the camera! Cost: $175 1 hour
Budget: Require camo-only attire and let them paint mud on each others’ faces in the backyard while they search for wildlife (bugs, worms, etc.). Tip: Keep the water hose handy for end-of-the-day safari-camp-style showers. Cost: Free
Blowout: Speed dial Neil’s Wheels for slots of fun and high-performance racing. Cost: $140 (includes a full 1 1/2 hours, race director who runs the entire event, including practice time and organized race, trackside assistants, use of high-performance slot cars, controllers, and racing tracks, racing ribbons for all partygoers, party area with tables and chairs, paper products and utensils, plus pizza, soft drinks, and ice; BYOC/cake; 972/517-2277)
Budget: Barricade the cul-de-sac and let your little NASCAR fans race remote-controlled devices (BYOC/car). Cost: Free
Thomas the Train
Blowout: All aboard the Grapevine Vintage Railroad! Chug along in a vintage 1920s coaches powered by “Puffy” the 1896 Steam Engine No. 2248. Cost: $150, ages 12 months and up (includes hot dog, drink and a tug at the train’s whistle for the birthday boy, hotdog packages $3 extra per adult; private section of train roped off to group; onboard mention of birthday; 817/625-7245).
Budget: Roll into the Age of Steam Railroad Museum. Poke around retired locomotives and dine on your own grub at picnic tables. Cost: $100 for 20 guests (Includes paper engineer hats and plastic train whistles; 214/428-0101).
Wild, Wild West
Blowout: Take the little cowpokes to the Mesquite Rodeo for a hootin’ hollerin’ day of fun. Cost: $109.50-$169.50 (includes food, rodeo and birthday announcement; 972/285-8777)
Budget: Give the kids cowboy hats and rope and let them try to lasso the dog in the back yard. Tip: Only allow this if the dog can run faster than the children (can substitute with those carnival-prize stuffed animals in the attic). Cost: Cowboy hats: $40 Rope: $40
Lisa Phin contributed to this story.
*Prices quoted for groups of 10, unless otherwise specified. Our editors called: Dollar General, Home Depot, Party City, Petco, Target, Wal-Mart and Walgreens.
Send us your ideas! If you have a budget or blowout birthday party theme suggestion, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.