Backyard birthdays

It sounded like a good idea at the time.

When my son turned 7, we decided to have a big-time birthday party at our house. We’d done it before, mostly small gatherings with just a few friends. But this was going to be the big bash.

So we invited 20 — yes, 20 — first-grade boys to our house.

My son chose a Dr. Seuss theme, and we had a great time inventing homemade games: Pin the tail on Cat in the Hat. A fishing game for “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” And my favorite, Ring the Gack, in which my husband volunteered to sit in a chair wearing an antler headband while 21 first-grade boys hurled plastic rings at his head. (He survived.)

But as the throngs started arriving, I panicked. I grabbed a couple of parents and threatened them unless they stayed to help. They cut out last-minute tails for the Cat in the Hat game, coralled the boys in the backyard and generally made sure no one died.

All of which reminded me why many parents opt for birthday outings instead. We’ve succumbed ourselves a few times, taking the kids out to bowl or play miniature golf before heading back to our house for pizza and cake.

And this year my son has decided he wants a party at Skateland — not for the skating so much as the “awesome” laser tag he played at a friend’s party there last month.

To be honest, it makes me sad. I love backyard parties. We are birthday people. Every summer my kids meet up with all their cousins for one big birthday celebration, sort of a Christmas in July. We’ve been doing it since my nieces were little — more than 25 years now — and they still love it.

But the off-site birthday business appears to be thriving. Besides the bowling alleys, skating rinks, tumbling gyms and pizza places (at least we don’t have a Chuck E. Cheese), some new birthday venues are opening in Champaign.

The new Bella store on South Neil Street plans to host private parties, including breakfast with Cinderella and Sweet Sixteen parties.

And Balloons and Spoons restaurant, which opened last week in the old Dog ‘n’ Suds off North Prospect, offers a birthday package. For $15 to $22 a head, your child and his friends can have balloons, pizza, drinks, cupcakes, ice cream and unlimited free play on the restaurant’s video games. And they’ll be picked up in a limo.

The restaurant already has a dozen parties booked, according to manager Jason Hitch. He says customers like the all-in-one party so they don’t have to run to six different places to get a cake, favors, balloons, etc. — or clean their house.

“Everyone’s trying to multitask,” he says.

Stephanie Baker of Urbana can relate. She had a tumbling party for her 7-year-old son this year at the Champaign County YMCA, where he and a dozen friends could run around and throw themselves on the mats. It was well-organized, and he loved it.

“It was so easy — much easier than doing it at home,” Baker says.

For his sixth birthday, he had a “Star Wars” party at home. Baker’s husband, Eric Shaffer, was in charge of games. The favorite? The R2D2 he fashioned from a Roomba, the robotic vaccuum cleaner, which the kids chased around the house. Shaffer also glued pictures of “Star Wars” villains onto bowling pins so the kids could knock them over.

Last year, for my son’s “Star Wars” party, we hung a Darth Vader costume on the wall and had them shoot foam darts at it with a Clone Trooper blaster. (Hey, it was just a blaster, not a gun.) They made spaceships out of recyclables and had light-saber duels (another idea gone awry).

Urbana teacher Amy Kellogg-Bouchard lets her children choose what kind of party they want, and they pick a homemade one every other year. Claire, 7, had a dress-up/balloon party this year.

“I just blew up 40-godzillion balloons,” Kellogg-Bouchard says, “and we played every game you can imagine with a balloon.”

They invited Claire’s entire first-grade class plus a few others — 24 kids in all — but “some of them, thankfully, did not show up.”

Her 10-year-old, Max, opted for a sleepover (they’re apparently not called slumber parties if you’re a boy), with video games, pizza and a movie.

Despite all the extra work, Baker and Kellogg-Bouchard say they actually prefer parties at home.

Yes, it’s a hassle to clean, and “most of it’s at the last minute,” says Baker, a research programmer at the University of Illinois Library. “But it’s kind of fun to decorate the house and come up with the games.”

Plus, it’s cheaper. Sure, it costs money to buy a cake, pizza, favors, etc. But off-site parties can run $200 or more, even the all-inclusive ones at the two park districts.

There’s also no time limit at home. Baker has become friends with some of the kids’ parents, and she usually invites them to stay for pizza so they can visit. And you get to know the kids better, she says.

“You can really get down and dirty and play with them. That’s what I love,” adds Kellogg-Bouchard. “They’re only that age for such a short period of time, where they want you to hang out with them ... .”

My 6-year-old is busy planning her next party, even though it’s several months away. We have done princesses and fairies (don’t ask about the candy fairy wands that wouldn’t freeze), and she’s chosen an American Girl theme.

So let’s see: Pin the hat on the doll ... ?

News-Gazette staff writer Julie Wurth can be reached at 351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com, or on Twitter.com/@jawurth.

Photos: The shoot-the-dart at the Darth Vader game and the R2D2 Roomba (Wurth and Baker family photos)

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