Planning a great birthday party

Planning a great birthday party
(Jen Rynda / Patuxent Publishing)

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.

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.

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.

Local bargain websites such as Amazon Local also occasionally offer party deals. A LEGO party at BWI Snapology normally going for $325 for 15 guests was recently $225 through Certifikid.

Moderate: Offer lessons at the party. (And finally indulge your child's curiosities about, say, being a knight or a dancer.)


A fencing party, which includes instruction, is $18 per guest for a party of 10, but the Baltimore Fencing Center can also accommodate up to 20 fencers and up to 60 guests. A dance party at Coppermine Field House in Baltimore, where kids will learn a choreographed routine, is $21 per guest for 14 kids.  And a circus training party at the Center Ring Circus School in Columbia is about $17 per guest for up to 15 kids.

Food is extra at all venues, but can be as inexpensive as pizza or as fancy and thematic as you want to make it.

Splurge: If the party is part of the birthday gift, you can do everything from rent a pirate ship to an entire spa.

The works (mani-pedi, facial, massage, make-up, pizza, cupcakes and chilled apple cider) for eight people is $600 ($75 per guest) at the new Kupcakes Spa For Gurlz in Pikesville. (They can also set up a spa party at your home, and they have less-expensive packages.)

A full birthday adventure cruise aboard the Urban Pirates ship in Baltimore is $800 for up to 49 guests (about $16 per guest if you fill the ship). Bring your own "grog" – aka food and cake.

Go for quirky

Bargain: Make some popcorn and cue the movies — horror flick marathon, rom-coms for a chick-flick fest, or maybe show a few '80s classics like "Karate Kid" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

For a large crowd, rent a projector ($100 to $300) and set up a backyard screen, or keep the party small in your family room.

Moderate: We also like pool parties for this age, because you can still play volleyball, Marco Polo and other silly games, yet not insult your tween's sense of maturity. Jazz up the affair with a luau or a beach party motif.

An outdoor pool party at Columbia Association is $75 for nonmembers, which includes a shade structure, plus guest fees. At Merritt Clubs, a party for up to 14 is about $21 per guest. Food is not included.


A birthday party for up to 25 guests at the Orokawa Family Center Y in Towson is $250 for members, and includes time in a party room, and a choice of pool time, rock climbing, or sports play.

Splurge: Slightly wacky twists (but not embarrassing!) work for the tween crowd.  Ripley's Believe It or Not museum has a party package that's $22.99 per guest, and allows kids to make their own wax hand. Food and cake are not included, but there's no shortage of that in the Inner Harbor.

Even college kids would be envious of a party at the Autobahn Indoor Speedway in Jessup. They actually do plenty of adult parties. But the Junior Racing-Rookie package — $45 per person — is tailored to the slightly younger set. It includes racing, medals and 45 minutes in a party room.

Plan sophisticated fun

Bargain: Host a dinner party. It can be an elegant affair with china and candlelight, or poker night with root beer and pizza. A certain teen might appreciate a murder-mystery costume theme, while others might prefer a cookout with lawn games. Ask your child's friends to help with the music playlist and birthday toasts.

Moderate: If your culinary skills aren't up to par, or your dining room is too small, consider hosting at a restaurant with a private dining area or a fun atmosphere. Japanese steakhouses, Dave and Buster's, and the Hard Rock Cafe are a few popular choices.  (Dave and Buster's party dinner packages start at $19.99 per person.) For the more discerning teen palate, how about Ethiopian or tapas?

Just be sure to plan a party-starter — perhaps a trivia game about the birthday girl or boy, photo-booth props or a collage put together by the guests.

Splurge: Add an adventurous element with a tour of the city on Segways (for ages 14 and up) through Segs in the City. A 90-minute tour is $60 per person; training is required. Monkton Bike rents $25 tubes for floating down the Gunpowder River.

Party packages at Terrapin Adventures in Savage start at $27 per person, and can be tailored to feature a zipline, giant swing, geocaching and more. Party packages at Earth Treks Climbing Centers start at $250 for groups of fewer than 10 (about $25 per person).

Party on!