The cacophony of Chuck E. Cheese, matching octave for octave the growing hysteria of a throng of children; the monotony of McDonalds; the unnerving prospect of turning one's home into an raucous amusement park -- sound familiar? These are typical scenarios for a child's birthday party, an annual event that many parents rightfully dread.
Wouldn't it be nice if someone took it off our hands -- planned the party, set it up, entertained the kids, totally bypassing the house? Wouldn't it be great if all a parent had to do is just show up?
In fact, there are ways of making a child's party -- no matter how small or large -- practically painless for the adults and fun for the kids. There are a number of businesses and locations in the area that specialize in kid's parties and others that offer them as one of their services:
The Party Palace, about 15 miles outside the Beltway in Centreville, Va., just off I-66, is not a party supply store but a place to throw a party for any number of children, from a few to several dozen.
Adorned with fantastically colored and designed floor-to-ceiling murals on all the walls, the Party Palace was founded by a young couple with three children of their own. And it offers more than a half-dozen different party rooms with themes ranging from sports (video sport tapes are played through the party), to knights and fiery dragons, to princesses (with a bowered throne), to a pirate's den and a dollhouse. The rooms are cheerful, brightly decorated spaces filled with tables and chairs, pinatas, balloons and party hats, as well as streamers and other decorations. A larger area for games provides a carnival-like atmosphere with dancing lights and children's music where all the kids gather to earn prizes for goodie bags.
Marietta and Randy Tallia, owners of the Party Palace, and their eight part-time hosts, provide virtually everything needed to make a child's party memorable and eliminate work for busy, mostly two-income parents, who, they say, are their target customers. In addition to games, goodie bags, pinata-busting and opening of gifts, the Party Palace furnishes all the refreshments for the children. The only tasks left for the parent is to send out invitations and show up on the day of the party.
Located in a new shopping center off of Lee Highway, a half-mile from I-66, the Party Palace is the only full-service children's party center in the area. The cost is $100 for seven children and up to four adults (a staff host or hostess is assigned to each party) on weekdays, and $120 on weekends.
The Party Palace, 5714 Pickwick Rd., Centreville, 703-266-0006.
Fun Times, located in the Ballston Common Mall in Arlington, bills itself as the children's entertainment center. A large room partitioned into different areas for playing, rides, video games and a stage for children's theater, puppet shows and special events (such as the recent appearance of one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Fun Times operates as a club with family memberships. In addition to children's parties, Fun Times provides drama and ballet classes, after-school activities, play groups for younger children and baby-sitting, encouraging parents to drop off their children while they shop at the mall.
For birthday parties, Fun Times can accommodate any number of children, ages three to 11. Party entertainment consists of whatever is on the center's schedule for that day plus the amusements on the premises -- toys, fun house mirrors, a carrousel, music and games. Parents are encouraged to plan parties around the scheduled live shows. Refreshments, goodie bags, balloons and hats are not provided and must be furnished by the parents.
Fun Times charges $8 for a family membership for the host family and their children up to age 11. Additional party guests cost $2.40 an hour per guest with a minimum charge for the equivalent of 10 children. Thus a party for up to 10 children and adult chaperones comes to about $32. The center also offers discount coupons for food and refreshments from other businesses in the mall, such as the nearby food court.
Fun Times, Ballston Common Mall, 4328 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-524-4321.
For something a little more elegant and sophisticated, young ladies may want to mark their special day at the Washington Dolls' House & Toy Museum, in Friendship Heights just around the corner from the Mazza Galleria.
Full of Old World charm, the museum offers a place for a tea party for children age 5 and older, although it is not limited to kids. Hostesses are dressed in Edwardian period costume and take guests on a tour of the museum, after which they repair to the upstairs Edwardian tea room for tea sandwiches, cake, ice cream and lemonade. The entertainment is restrained, consisting of a treasure hunt with prizes, a demonstration of some of the museum's antique clockwork toys, which are wound up for the group to enjoy, and the tea itself. Balloons, party hats and decorations are provided. A party lasts two hours.
A maximum of two parties are scheduled daily, Tuesday through Sunday; one is a noon luncheon and the other is a 3 p.m. tea. The minimum charge is for 12 guests, with a maximum capacity of 20. The cost is $15 per person for the midday luncheon and $11.50 for the afternoon tea. Thus, 10 children and two adult chaperones would cost $138 to $180.
The Washington Doll's House and Toy Museum, 5236 44th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 202-244-0024.
MarvaTots and MarvaTeens are two parts of a popular Maryland gymnastics company that attracts students from all over the region, as far away as Fauquier County. Although the Marvas specialize in recreational and competitive gymnastics, their mandate is to make the sport fun. In that effort, MarvaTots and Teens provides gymnastics parties for the uninitiated as well as the initiated.
The parties are offered to children, age 3 and older, on Sundays and wherever they can be worked in around gymnastics classes. They consist of an hour in the gym and a half-hour for refreshments and opening of gifts. MarvaTots and Teens supply drinks but no decorations, prizes or food. The cost is $60 for up to 10 kids, $75 for up to 17, and $90 for up to 24. There are two Marva locations -- Gaithersburg and Wheaton.
MarvaTots, MarvaTeens, 2723 University Blvd. West, Wheaton; and 7557 Lindbergh Dr., Gaithersburg, 301-942-0088.
Zoo parties are offered as part of a membership to Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ). Parties are held in a special room in the back of the zoo's Lion's Den restaurant weekends only at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. A FONZ host provides lunch, games, goodie bags, party favors, balloons, hats, decorations and a scavenger hunt. All the activities are designed to teach the children about the animals at the zoo. Cakes must be furnished by the parent because the Lion's Den has no baking facilities.
The cost of a zoo party is a $44 membership fee for the host family for one year, plus $10 per child.
FONZ, The National Zoo, Connecticut Avenue NW, 202-673-4960.
Setting It Up
Cheap or free locations for kids' parties include parks, playgrounds and the Y. Many child-oriented businesses, such as petting zoos, amusement parks or even day-care facilities, often are willing to host a child's party for a fee. Places such as these would require the host parent to provide refreshments and favors.
Fast-food places that have attached playgrounds always are willing to help out and generally offer party packages. But the refreshments and favors generally are limited to what they have on the premises, so parents may need to furnish any extras separately.
Often, local gymnastics or even karate clubs will lend their facilities and offer activities for a price.
If you choose to go to a commercial establishment that specializes in children's parties, you should plan ahead. The best times -- weekends and after school -- get snapped up a couple of months in advance.