By Kate Madden Yee
The year I turned 4, the best part of my birthday party was running laps around my house as I waited for guests to arrive. Contrast that with the way my niece celebrated her 4th birthday this spring—her mother invited 12 other children and their parents for a little party that included a Darth Vader piñata, face painting, and pony rides in the backyard.
Clearly, kids’ parties are no longer the simple affairs you may recall from your own childhood, with cakes made from mix and bubbles for party favors. But the good news is that whether your child is the type who clamors for a blowout birthday or prefers something more demure, there are any number of East Bay ways to create the perfect celebration.
“Hi! Hi! Hi!” Tracy Hill holds hamster Chubby Dubby and makes him wave a paw at the crowd of kids gathered under the blue canopy. Deftly, he slides Chubby into a white plastic tube and turns it around so that when the creature sticks his whiskered face out the other side, Hill is right there, ready to tip Chubby straight into his shirt pocket.
Hill owns Fur, Scales and Tails, a traveling animal show he takes all over the greater Bay Area. A former kindergarten teacher, he performs more than 400 shows per year with 15 different small animals—among them a guinea pig, rabbit, duck, tarantula, rooster, iguana, tortoise, and fluffy chicks. He entertains kids with a 45-minute show that not only gets them laughing but teaches them about what animals eat and where they live. His fee, between $215 and $265, is based on the party’s distance from Berkeley (not, as is more typical, the number of guests).
The show’s grand finale is Slinky, a 6-year-old albino python that Hill handles with easy grace. He lines the kids up with their arms out and drapes Slinky across the human chain, to the children’s delighted squeals.
“You’d be surprised at how many kids get wide-eyed with excitement when they get to see a snake longer than they are tall,” he says.
Along more classic lines, Happily Ever Laughter, owned and operated by a party performer known as Miss Fae Diddle Diddle, provides a 90-minute party package for $195. Your investment gets you a soup-to-nuts extravaganza for up to 30 kids, with three activities (games, balloon twisting, face painting, puppet show, sing-along, or hula dancing), a birthday gift, and—the pièce de résistance—a costumed performer of your choice. The roster of fanciful characters includes fairies, mermaids, a pink princess, and a hula girl; for something a little less pink, choose a circus girl, pirate, cowgirl, magician, or sorceress.
Rock the block
For the kid who wants to climb the heights on her birthday, check out Bridges Rock Gym in El Cerrito, which offers two-hour parties that include rental gear, belay services, and group instruction on the slackline (sort of like a tightrope, but more flexible) and climbing wall. Pass around cake and open presents in the lounge area (you bring the tableware and food). For guests who just aren’t that into belay, Bridges also offers hula hoops and ping-pong. All of this will set you back $100 for the first five guests (additional kids can join in for $20 each).
“We want to create an environment where kids can hang out and have a good time, but also push themselves a bit—try to grab that next higher hold,” says Patrick Vance, group sales manager for the gym. “Some kids are nervous their first time, but once they realize that we’ve got them secure with the rope and they let go, it’s remarkable how confident they end up.”
Another active birthday option is Kids ’N Dance, with locations in both Oakland and Lafayette. Studio parties include an hour of dance and an hour of games, cake, and presents, and run $199 (for the same fee, Kids ’N Dance will bring an hour-long party to your home). The studio also offers party favors, balloons, tableware, and piñatas. The guest of honor can choose from a variety of themes, including “Kings, Queens, and Dragons,” “Disney Birthday,” “Nutcracker Birthday,” “Dora the Explorer,” and “Hip Hop Boppers.” Kids over 8 can also opt for a dance party with themes like High School Musical, Annie, Beyoncé, or Lady Gaga.
The artist’s way
If your birthday boy is a budding artist, head down to Berkeley’s “Potter’s Ghetto” for pottery painting, mosaic, clay, or glass-fusing at Brushstrokes Studio. Owner and ceramic artist Jessica Williams offers two-hour parties for kids ages 4 and up. Fees are $25.50 per person; groups of eight or more children get a reservation with a staff member in the bright and cheerful upstairs loft, where the apple-green shelves are stocked with pottery crying out to be painted. You bring the food and decorations (local restaurants like Lanesplitter and Picante have Brushstrokes specials); adults are welcome to hang out or drop and go. Brushstrokes also boasts outdoor space so kids can get their wiggles out post-painting.
“It’s our job to keep the kids focused and engaged, not the parents’,” Williams says. “For younger kids, we paint for an hour or so and then play games with them—outside, if the weather is nice.”
Williams brings plenty of passion to the studio. A graduate of the ceramics department at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, her line of tabletop ceramics has been featured at the Museum of Modern Art and Verdigris Gallery in San Francisco, the Palo Alto Art Museum gift store, and at the Gardener in Berkeley.
“It’s important to me that Brushstrokes is owned and operated by artists,” she says. “We’re not a storefront in a strip mall—we’re making art together in an active community.”
Another artsy option is a party at MOCHA (Museum of Children’s Art) in downtown Oakland. MOCHA offers daytime studio or galleria parties (two hours for $250 and $325, respectively) for up to 12 guests, ages 5 and under, or up to 15 guests, ages 5 and over. Not only does MOCHA provide an artist host and materials for the party, it also provides plates, utensils and cups for your party goodies, a template to create invitations, and a T-shirt for the guest of honor. MOCHA will help you throw a party with a particular theme—like Fairy Tales, Sci Fi, Carnival, or Tropical Paradise—or will spread an “art buffet” that includes materials for monoprinting, fish prints (no rotting trout here, just a latex cast of a real fish), puppet making, watercolor resist (drawing with oil pastels and covering with a watercolor wash). For kids who like to wear their art, there’s even a theme party called Oooey Gooey that brings together Play-Doh, oobleck, gak, and finger painting into one beautiful, messy celebration.
“Kids get really excited when they have a chance to experiment with art materials they may not have access to all the time,” says museum coordinator Brandy Gardner. “One boy told me that he wished we were a school so he could come every day.”
Rain or shine, a good bet for kids’ parties is Playland-Not-at-the-Beach in El Cerrito, a 9,000-square-foot extravaganza of more than 30 pinball machines, arcade and video games, and vintage circus exhibits, many of them originally located at, yes, San Francisco’s historic Playland-at-the-Beach. Admission is $15 per adult, $10 for kids 14 and under—or you can choose a theme party (“Fun House,” “Laughing Sal,” or “Playland Exclusive”) for $150 (with up to 10 guests) to $350 (up to 20 guests). Party packages include pinball machines and antique penny arcade games, a treasure hunt, jukebox, movies in the arcade theater, and a special space to serve refreshments (which you provide, along with decorations, plates, and utensils). For larger parties, packages also come with a live magic show and customized party invitations. Plus, guests are free to explore all the nooks and crannies of the sprawling space, brimming with charming oddities and entertainments from days gone by.
And of course there’s always bowling—everybody’s favorite fallback option. Albany Bowl offers a party package for $20 per child (eight kids minimum) that includes an hour of bowling under a glow-in-the-dark light show, plus an hour at the party tables behind your lanes, bumpers for kids under 9, balloons, two slices of pizza and a soda for each child—and all the necessary products (invitations, plates, cups, plasticware, table covers, and napkins). Parents can relax: An Albany Bowl party host will set up and clean up the whole deal. You just bring the kids, the cake, and the ice cream.
Lest you think today’s only party options involve a credit card and advance booking, there are still ways to put on an old-fashioned fiesta. Kids love a creative treasure hunt crafted by their parents (think hiding clues in the dictionary or on a nearby tree), pin-the-tail-on-anything, egg-and-spoon races, bobbing for apples, affordable crafts projects (like paint-your-own picture frames) and decorating cupcakes (the more frosting and sprinkles the better). These at-home parties naturally trash your house more (do keep the frosting and glue outdoors), but they make an economical alternative to ponies in the backyard.
So whether you celebrate your child’s special day with art, movement, or spectacle, make the gathering one that’s sure to draw out his natural joie de vivre. Pick a party that sparks your kid’s creative fire, and it won’t be just the cake that’s glowing.
Kate Madden Yee is a freelance writer based in Oakland. She’s still getting over the trauma of a Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour party when she turned 7.
The following is a partial list of local birthday party venues.
Albany Bowl, 540 San Pablo Ave., Albany, (510) 526-8818; albanybowl.biz.
Bridges Rock Gym, 5635 San Diego St., El Cerrito, (510) 525-5635; bridgesrockgym.com.
Brushstrokes Studio, 745 Page St., Berkeley, (510) 528-1360; brushstrokestudio.com.
Fire Pixie Entertainment, (877) 974-9437; firepixie.com.
Habitot Children’s Museum, 2065 Kittredge St., Berkeley, (510) 647-1111; habitot.org.
Happily Ever Laughter Bay Area, (831) 331-8634; happilyeverlaughterparties.com.
Kids ’N Dance, 3840 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, (510) 531-4400; kidsndance.com.
Lawrence Hall of Science, 1 Centennial Drive, Berkeley, (510) 642-5132; lawrencehallofscience.org.
Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA), 538 Ninth St., Suite 210, Oakland, (510) 465-8770; mocha.org.
Playland-Not-at-the-Beach, 10979 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, (510) 592-3002; playland-not-at-the-beach.org.
Tracy Hill’s Fur, Scales and Tails, (510) 823-3923; furscalesandtails.com.
Group support: Birthday party guests hoist Slinky the albino python, one of many animals regularly appearing in shows by Tracy Hill’s Fur, Scales and Tails. Photo courtesy Tracy Hill’s Fur, Scales and Tails.
Climbing the walls: Kids find their own way up at El Cerrito’s Bridges Rock Gym. Photo courtesy Courtesy Bridges Rock Gym.
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