Making magical memories
Plan a great kid's party at home -- the delight is in the details
The evolution of children's birthday parties has been on fast-forward during the past few decades. Pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and crepe paper streamers in the dining room have been replaced by rented rooms in warehouse-sized buildings filled with inflated apparatus, video games, flashing lights and acres of play space where the kids run wild. Often, the celebration gets lost in the chaos.
Not every parent is happy sharing hosting duties with an oversized mascot of indeterminate species, but a return to the days of white paper plates and a handful of balloons seems kind of -- boring. Is it possible to bring the party back home and still make magical memories?
"Absolutely," says Heather Mattos, Pleasanton party planner extraordinaire. "A party at home keeps the focus where it belongs -- on the person being celebrated. You don't need lots of glitz to give the feeling of a special event. Just adding a few unique details makes the party personal and memorable for the guest of honor."
Four kids of her own have given Heather plenty of opportunity to utilize her talent for finding those distinctive details, which she credits her mother, Carree Anderson, for sparking.
"Everyone hoped for an invitation to my birthday parties," she confesses. "My mom did things differently; no one had parties like my family."
While most kids were handing out paper invitations and slicing grocery store cakes, Heather's mother was ahead of her time, taking things to a different level.
"My mom liked to find a theme and run with it," Heather recalls. "No detail got overlooked. For a '50s party we had a karaoke machine, costumes with all kinds of accessories, a custom-made cake in the shape of a record and decorations she made herself.
"But she did that for all of her parties, not just birthdays," Heather adds, smiling. "When I smell a glue gun, I still think of Christmas."
It was only natural that Heather would want her own children to experience the unique parties that made her childhood so memorable. Over the years these have included family picnics offering blankets and baskets packed with takeout cartons; Lego parties with boxes of Lego-shaped candies and marshmallow Lego heads; and milk and cookie celebrations featuring "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie" books as invitations.
As the parents of her children's friends noticed and appreciated all the imaginative details featured at her parties, Heather's business, Cookie Mondays, was born.
"People asked me questions about how I did things, where I got my ideas, and then they started asking for help," she says. "I'm just really organized and I can lead people in the right direction."
Her friends and clients would disagree and claim she is overly modest. Not everyone can look at an empty milk bottle and envision a custom label to create bowling pins, or have the patience to make dozens of bowling ball cake pops as Heather recently did for her son's 8th birthday.
"Chayse wanted to have a bowling party with his friends. A bowling alley is not very personal, so I thought of simple ways to emphasize the bowling theme in a different way."
Heather says she sees people moving away from the prepackaged theme parties that have been the go-to answer in the past.
"It's important to have an idea to build the party scheme around, but it doesn't have to be a character or a sport or a movie. It can be a favorite color, or a texture or a design," she notes.
Vintage decorations are very popular for children's parties, but, Heather says, the biggest party trend these days is, in fact, party planning.
"You don't have to go to a big party store and buy their perception of your party idea. Inspirational resources like Pinterest are so accessible people can find a hundred different ways to put together one party idea. There are many creative ideas out there and the Internet makes it easy to share."
What about the people who are inspired and excited and yet might be considered dangerous with a staple gun and electric mixer?
"That's where I can help," Heather says. "People can outsource as much or as little as they want. There are resources for photographers, caterers, decorations, props. I can help figure out what will make the event personal, and if you need help putting it all together in an exceptional way, or planning crafts and activities, I can help with that, too."
Crafting is a big part of Heather's business. The custom burlap banners she sells through her website have become a popular party personalization tool in Pleasanton and serve as a keepsake of the event.
"The banners are just another example of a way to individualize the party -- using details to make it special."
Heather emphasizes that decorations don't need to be overwhelming or abundant to bring spirit to the party.
"Choose a table and make it the focal point," she explains. "If you center the party around that one place, all eyes will be drawn there. You don't have to cover the room to create a wonderful atmosphere."
You can bring spirit, and a little magic, to the party with a phone call to Kari's Magic Parties. If ghosts aren't on your guest list, she's got plenty of other options: princesses, pirates, wizards, elves, faeries, even the Cat in the Hat. If a child is dreaming of a visit from a certain someone, Kari can probably make it happen.
Five years of working in the non-stop party atmosphere of Walt Disney taught Kari a few things about what keeps kids happy and that expertise keeps her company a perpetual favorite throughout the Bay Area.
"It used to be that the character would just appear at a party, maybe perform a magic show or make balloon shapes," Kari says. "Now it is an interactive experience for the guests -- they are all part of the show, whether it involves magic, building volcanoes, spa treatments or dancing."
Specializing in parties for the 2- to 13-year-old set, Kari recommends party planners remember that guests will not always arrive at the moment specified on the invitation.
"You want to remember that people will be arriving over a period of time," Kari cautions. "Too often hosts want to get the party going and plan the main entertainment to begin at the start of the event. Make sure to give some time for latecomers to arrive and everyone to socialize."
Dance parties have become an increasingly popular social event for the tween and teen crowd, says Darlene Laspina. She and her sister, Bonny Wallace, have been party planners for more than 25 years, and their company, Events By Wallace, is one of the most established in our valley.
Though weddings, corporate functions, fundraisers and other "adult events" are their main focus, the sisters know all the tricks to keep those awkward teen party moments to a minimum.
"Activity, activity, activity," cites Darlene. "Those kids need to be kept busy. If you don't keep them focused, they can disappear."
Keeping the kids engaged includes hiring professional dancers to get the kids off the chairs and onto the dance floor, renting photo booths with accessories for crazy photography, and, of course, the food.
"The food needs to be fun," Darlene emphasizes. "Sliders, fries, pizza ovens, taco bars and at least one 'action station' like a build-your-own ice cream sundae can all add to the atmosphere and keep the kids interested."
Fun can also come with some adult influences.
"The martini luges that are so popular these days can also be a great treat for the kids. We develop a signature non-alcoholic drink in honor of the celebrant, then we send the mixture through a carved ice sculpture to come out chilled and pouring straight into the guest's glass," she explains.
Custom mocktails may be cool, but Darlene admits keeping the real thing out of the underage parties can be a real challenge.
"There's a lot of liability involved with minors and alcohol; we always recommend that parties for the older teenage crowd be held at a facility, not a home. And bring in a security guard."
Security guards, photo booths, princesses and party planners -- today they are not just accepted, they are expected. You have to marvel at how very far we are from the parties of our own childhoods.
Until you take a look at Heather Mattos' blog and see pictures of her daughter's All Tangled Up Party featuring a very creative and totally retro "Pin the Pan on Flynn" game, complete with blindfold and scotch-taped frying pans. Suddenly everything feels a little bit more like home.