Planning a Party 101

As I write this story, I am planning a birthday party for my two-year-old daughter, who loves to watch Nickelodeon’s Bubble Guppies.

I spent an hour on a Sunday afternoon using Google’s search for images and a word processing program to create invitations we could email. This shindig is on a budget that does not include printing and mailing charges — and my technological savvy-ness is limited.

I was looking over the guest list and thinking about whose email addresses I still needed, when it dawned on me to check for a Bubble Guppies template. Gulp. There it was – perfectly designed and just waiting to be filled in and electronically delivered. Too bad I can never get back those lost 55 minutes.

Needless to say, planning a party takes time. In fact, it can be downright time consuming. Hopefully the tips, tricks, and how-tos contained here will be helpful as you arrange your child’s special day.

Kristy Thomas of Vinton said she began planning more than three months before her two-year-old twins’ birthday.

“Start with the basics: date, time and theme,” Thomas said. “Decide on how many people to invite, and the rest will begin to fall into place.”

Choosing a venue

Deciding where to hold the party was difficult for Thomas, who said she learned from the girls’ first birthday celebration that adequate space for the toddlers to play was crucial.

“Price being a definite factor in choosing a venue, we also wanted something close to our home and close to the store in case we forgot anything,” Thomas said.

The twins’ Minnie Mouse-themed birthday celebration is slated for Famous Anthony’s Vinton location, where Thomas has reserved two sections of the restaurant.

Aside from finalizing the list of guests, booking a venue seems to be the most difficult part of party planning. In my case, our home could not (comfortably) accommodate the number of guests we wanted to invite. Our guests would be a mix of family, adult friends, and children, which meant we needed seating for the adults as well as space enough for the tots to play.

We opted to use the facilities at our church for the past two years, which is doubly advantageous. It provided the space we needed, and we, as members, were able to use the space free of charge. Last year, for Lennox’s first birthday, we had a larger-scale event with featuring a luau cookout, so we needed the full kitchen and outdoor dining area. This year, we scaled it back a bit and used to a smaller gathering space to serve birthday cake.

If you are looking for an off-site location, and you are not a member of a religious congregation, you may consider contacting your local parks and recreation department about available spaces. Roanoke County, for instance, has a variety of meeting rooms at its rec facilities, in addition to the numerous picnic shelters at its parks, all of which can be rented for a birthday party.

Summertime lends itself well to outdoor party, including swimming venues. But for those of us with birthdays during the other nine months of the year, there is a plethora of indoor venues in the Roanoke Valley. From go-kart tracks and miniature golf courses to bowling alleys and roller skating rinks, there are a number of local establishments, including Growing Up In The Valley magazine, that offer birthday party packages.

Now that the magazine has moved into new digs on Colonial Avenue in Roanoke, there is space for parties of up to 12 children. The package includes pizza, cupcakes from Viva La Cupcake and crafts.

What “sets us apart from other local birthday party places is our photo booth,” explains magazine designer Tracy Fisher.

The photo booth will allow the birthday boy or girl to be featured on his or hew own personal cover of the magazine. Two-hour party packages start at $149.


I already touched on the fact that this can be a costly category in your planning.  You do not have to be technology whiz to order custom invitations online from Etsy or Vistaprint, or use the discount stores’ photo websites to create invitations to be picked up in the store. Those are going to be the more expensive options. Packs of invitations to be handwritten can be picked up at the dollar or discount stores for a more reasonable price. But both of the options require postage.

While I prefer the old-fashioned postage-stamped invite, it can become expensive depending on the size of your guest list. One way around this is to hand-deliver at least some of the invitations, if the alternative is practical.

Websites, such as Facebook or Evite, allow you to electronically invite guests by using email addresses. Most of the sites are free, and it is helpful to return to the invitation to see who has confirmed and which stragglers have not RSVP’d.

Shopping for decorations

Party decorations and paper products can be another costly part of your party budget, depending on how much emphasis you put on these items. For my daughter’s first birthday, I went way overboard on luau decorations. Even though my purchases were made at Dollar Tree, I bought way more than I needed. Dollar and discount stores are great places to shop for decorations, plates, napkins, and more, especially if your child has chosen a popular theme that is easily available.

The TV series The Bubble Guppies is a couple years old and not nearly as popular as Minnie Mouse or Frozen. I had to search online to shop for Guppies-themed items instead of being able to shop in brick and mortar stores. I spent enough to qualify for free shipping without overbuying as I did the year before.

Cake- Nom nom! 

This is the category in which I tend to splurge. My hips and waist can attest. We buy birthday cakes from a family friend, who is on the cusp of launching her own business. She bakes the cakes from scratch and spends hours crafting delicate decorations from fondant. At our celebrations, the birthday girl received a lot of attention but the cakes got the rest. This year’s delicacy was a three-tier yellow cake decked out with Bubble Guppies characters and buttercream icing.

For other birthday celebrations, I have baked cupcakes and bought store-made sheet cakes. A family favorite is Dairy Queen’s ice cream cake.

Again, for the budget-conscious this is an expenditure you can cut back as needed by doing it yourself.

A no-presents policy

As a parent of two kids who have too many toys and gadgets, I have pondered the etiquette of slapping “no gifts please” on the party invitations. But then I feel torn between short-changing my child and offending my guests – so we just end up with more toys and trinkets.

Laurie Minnix of Troutville was really pleased when her daughter, Ellie McClung, who was turning seven at the time, asked for donations for Saint Francis Service Dogs in lieu of birthday presents. St. Francis is a Roanoke County-based nonprofit that trains and partners service dogs with individuals with disabilities.

“It’s a great idea. Ellie totally initiated it on her own,” Minnix said.

Ellie’s birthday celebration guests were primarily family, and Minnix said all were supportive of her request. Many donated money directly to the charity, while others brought items for Ellie to deliver herself.

“The physical things that we delivered seemed to make more of an impact initially,” Minnix recalled. Ellie “was all smiles dropping off the donations.”

“She was very proud and honored to be able to contribute t the animals, who could in turn contribute to kids or families in need,” Minnix said.

This year, around the time of Ellie’s eighth birthday, the nonprofit organization sent the family a letter soliciting support.

“Ellie happily gave more of her birthday money. It is a great snowball effect,” Minnix said.


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