The birth of a child is unquestionably one of the most wondrous moments of a parent’s life. But when the time comes to celebrate that child’s birthday, Mom and Dad are often struck with a sense of dread. It’s no small feat to arrange a party, venue, and guest list, and buy gifts, treats, and more for hordes of hyperactive kids. So, we scoured the region to uncover dozens of foolproof party ideas—leaving you to relax and enjoy the fun.
Sports & Adventure
Keep energetic kids excited—and tire them out—at these high-octane bashes.
By Peter Crooks
Imagination Play with Little-Kid Luxuries: The Coop Pleasanton
Age range: 1 to 8
The lowdown: Complete with climbing structures and a ball pit, this Pleasanton play center is open weekdays for drop-in fun, and reserves Saturdays and Sundays for private parties. The owners outfit the space with decorations in any of 15 themes—including fairies, firefighters, mermaids, and the Wild West—and provide balloons and party favors for an extra fee. They can also set up a party in your house.
Bonus for parents: The Coop has free Wi-Fi, serves food, and plans to introduce an espresso bar in the near future. From $595, thecooppleasanton.com.
Jump Around: Rockin’ Jump and Sky High Sports
Age range: 4 and up
The lowdown: Birthday parties are bumpin’ at the giant indoor trampoline parks Sky High Sports (in Concord) and Rockin’ Jump (Brentwood, Dublin, and Fremont). Reserve bounce time, and have the venues supply pizza and other favorite foods. Sky High Sports recently added an extensive arcade, too.
Take Them into the Ball Game: East Bay Sports and Ultimate Fieldhouse
Age range: 6 and up
The lowdown: Help your kids get their kicks with an indoor soccer party at East Bay Sports in Livermore or San Ramon, or a basketball bash at Walnut Creek’s Ultimate Fieldhouse. Each venue offers a range of games (batting cages, dodgeball, Wiffle ball, and more) and can provide instructors to make sure the party scores big.
Bonus for parents: These facilities cater to adults as well, so grown-ups can get their game on, too. East Bay Sports parties from $295 (Livermore) or $300 (San Ramon), eastbaysports.net; Ultimate Fieldhouse parties from $265, ultimatefieldhouse.com.
Your Own Backyard Thunderdome: Planet X One
Age range: 5 and up
The lowdown: Looking to bring some fun-filled Hunger Games–style action to your child’s party? Planet X One can come to your house with an arsenal of Nerf guns and bubble balls—giant plastic orbs that kids can climb inside and roll around in—then referee a 90-minute session in your backyard. (The company will also set up in a park if necessary.)
Bonus for parents: If it’s at your house, you know where the refrigerator and liquor cabinet are. From $295, planetxone.com.
Meet: Andy Zandy
Andy Zandy performed at his first birthday party at the age of 11. He had an interest in clowning and magic, and presented a show for a class project. "My mom told the neighborhood moms what I had done, and my next-door neighbor called me up the summer after fourth grade to ask if I’d entertain kids at her daughter’s party," he recalls. "I was hooked."
In the years since, Zandy has worked as a stunt performer, magician, comedian, and general entertainer, and studied meditation and martial arts. "I come from a performing arts family," he says, "which was possibly the greatest privilege I could have enjoyed, because no one ever said, ‘You should do something more sensible.’"
Zandy founded his Oakland-based business about seven years ago and travels around the Bay Area to perform as a costumed character at some 100 birthday parties per year. Clients can choose from his four themed programs—pirate, ninja, superhero, and Star Wars—each beginning with mindfulness instruction, then moving on to interactive comedy, magic, balloon twisting, and a physical activity related to the event theme. If parents wish, they can upgrade to include sword battles, appearances from additional performers, and more.
No matter what role he plays, Zandy leaves children thoroughly entertained and engaged. "There’s a tendency to view groups of kids as chaotic and wild," he says. "Turning it into synchronicity and order is the coolest part for me, because that’s when we’re learning valuable life skills." andyzandy.com. —E.W.
Party Like a Pro
If every party has a pooper, don’t let that be you. To help hosts and guests successfully navigate a kid’s shindig, we checked in with Tina Hayes, founder and owner of the School of Etiquette and Decorum, based in Antioch. She offered up some useful tips.
If you’re hosting:
When sending invitations, don’t exclude someone whose feelings might be hurt. In the younger years, when friendships aren’t as established, a good rule of thumb is: If you invite half the class (or half the girls or boys), invite them all.
If cheap trinkets turn you off favors, press on anyway. "Children expect a goodie bag, and that’s part of the fun," Hayes says. Opt for practical or consumable items such as school supplies, stickers, and snacks.
If you’re attending:
Don’t show up with siblings in tow. Make alternative arrangements for anyone not explicitly named on the invitation.
Hayes recommends that kids don dressy attire for parties (unless sporty activities are planned). "It puts them in a different frame of mind," she says. "It’s not just a day at school with friends."
Above all, include your kid at every opportunity. Birthday boys and girls can help mail invitations, prepare food, decorate, and write thank-you notes. Coach them to greet guests, make introductions, and respond graciously to gifts. Attendees should thank the host, participate in games, and sit quietly for gift opening. Says Hayes, "It’s a good time for training." —L.J.
Gaming & Entertainment
Win over technophile tykes and tweens with video games, movies, or robots.
By Rachel Orvino
Magic of the Movies: Orinda Theatre
Age range: 5 and up
The lowdown: Get a taste of Hollywood with your own private film screening at this historic movie palace in Orinda. The birthday boy or girl can choose from the current slate of films, bring a DVD, or make a special cinematic request; guests can enjoy popcorn, drinks, and fruit snacks during the movie, along with cupcakes from Republic of Cake after the show. (Additional food options are also available.)
Bonus for parents: Indulge in a glass of wine or craft brew at Cine Cuvée next door. From $400, orindamovies.com.
Gamer’s Nirvana: Dave and Buster’s
Age range: 8 and up
The lowdown: This popular sports bar and gaming franchise recently opened a location at the Veranda shopping center in Concord, and it’s already drawing crowds. The spacious midway has innumerable games, from virtual reality to Skee-Ball. You can book a room for bigger groups, or reserve a spot in the communal dining area. Party packages include kid-friendly nibbles.
Bonus for parents: Hit the busy bar to watch sports on the big screen, or explore the Veranda’s shops and wealth of dining options. From $249, daveandbusters.com.
Have a Blast with Video Games Past: High Scores Arcade
Age range: 8 and up
The lowdown: If you’re looking for old-school joystick action, head to this intimate arcade, with outposts in Alameda and Hayward. Both venues offer exclusive use of hundreds of classic games such as Asteroids, Missile Command, and Pac-Man for two hours. High Scores provides a table if you want to bring your own food and drinks.
Bonus for parents: In Alameda, have breakfast at nearby Ole’s Waffle Shop if it’s a morning gathering, or a beer at Alameda Island Brewing Company for later events. In Hayward, grab a bite and sip some suds at Buffalo Bill’s Brewery across the street. From $300, highscoresarcade.com.
Rage Against the Machines: Bot Bash
Age range: 7 to 12
The lowdown: Children cheer on their favorite metal warriors in an exciting robot rumble. The Lafayette-based company Bot Bash—which competed on Discovery Channel’s BattleBots last May—supplies an arena, a variety of remote-controlled robots, and a technician to host a tournament in your home.
Bonus for parents: Adults can battle, too (or socialize while the kids kick bot butt). From $350, botbashparty.com.
Meet: Heather Ware
Extreme face painter
Some birthday-party face painters draw basic flowers or animals on kids’ faces. Heather Ware, on the other hand, transforms her human canvases elaborately and artistically—to the point where parents often exclaim, "Look at you!" Hence, Ware named her face-painting business Look at You.
Ware started painting faces as a teenager in Ashland, Oregon. However, it was in the 2000s, while attending art school in Manhattan and working as an art consultant for the City of New York, that she really began honing her craft. She took classes in makeup artistry, and soon Ware was doing makeup professionally for theater productions.
Today, the Berkeley resident teaches art at local schools and community centers and works as a preschool teacher. Still, it’s Ware’s face-painting artistry that attracts the most buzz. Disney recently enlisted her services for a Frozen 2 promotion at an Oakland Day of the Dead event. Other clients include Wells Fargo, which has hired her to paint faces at the San Francisco Pride Parade for the past two years.
At parties, guests marvel at her intricate designs, from a sunset over an African savanna, to a cascade of sparkly ombré shapes, to Ware’s specialty: a full cat face. "I mix in beauty techniques with regular face painting," she says, noting that she only uses hypoallergenic, water-based pigments. "That’s what gives my face painting the realistic and fantasy combination.
"Imagination play is so important for kids," adds Ware, who further thrills partygoers with her creative balloon twisting. "It’s very intimate and cool to be a part of that." lookatyou.squarespace.com. —V.S.
Let Them Not Eat Cake
Break out of the cake and cupcake rut with desserts that add a little extra oomph to the festivities. Here are some alternative ideas.
There’s no shortage of bakers offering theme-decorated cookies. SusieCakes in Lafayette whips up mini whoopie pies, and San Ramon’s Crème Si Bon makes a rainbow assortment of macarons. For an extra-special surprise, order animal cracker–style treats made to look just like the guest of honor from Parker’s Crazy Cookies in Hayward.
Pick up a couple dozen from your favorite shop and arrange them into a tower—or hang them from a pegboard to double as decor. Gonutz in Fremont specializes in creative doughnut designs, including the prettiest, sparkliest unicorns.
You can’t go wrong with a DIY sundae bar. For a handheld frozen dessert, order a case of It’s-It treats from the Burlingame factory store (delivery available throughout the Bay Area) or an assortment of embellished gelato on a stick from Popbar in Concord.
Cakelike alternatives include brownies, hand pies, and cake pops, as well as bite-size Bundtinis from Nothing Bundt Cakes in Dublin and Walnut Creek. Consider a decadent (and surprisingly vegan) Cinnacake—a "cake" comprised of fused-together cinnamon rolls—with up to five toppings from Berkeley’s Cinnaholic. For a gluten-free option, try cream-stuffed Penguinos cupcakes from Oakland’s Mariposa Baking Company. —L.J.
Arts & Education
Learning and creating were never so fun as at these ultra-engaging soirees.
By Virginia Shannon
Walk on the Wild Side: Lindsay Wildlife Experience
Age range: 1 to 12
The lowdown: This Walnut Creek wildlife facility hosts memorable parties, where kids can meet three "animal ambassadors," such as guinea pigs, rabbits, chuckwalla lizards, snakes, or even hissing cockroaches. (Owls, hawks, and a porcupine are available for an additional fee.) Expert handlers teach guests about the creatures, and party attendees get free access to the wildlife museum that day.
Bonus for parents: The meet and greet is just as fun for adults as it is for kids. From $500 (for nonmembers), lindsaywildlife.org.
Art of the Matter: Créatif
Age range: 2 and up
The lowdown: Creative kids paint canvases with staff guidance, or ceramics their own way, at this sleek Pleasanton art studio. Canvases come pre-sketched, so even less-artistic guests can produce something they’re proud of. Créatif provides two party coordinators and a private room (with decor, music, and even a gift for the birthday child); pizza, juice, and goodie bags are optional upgrades.
Bonus for parents: Grown-ups who prefer not to participate can run errands in Oak Hills Shopping Center, or walk across the street for a stroll through Centennial Park. From $299, creatif.com.
Super Steam Labs: Brickspace and Hands-On!
Age range: 3 to 10
The lowdown: Educators sneak science and engineering lessons into fun activities in these learning studios. BrickSpace in Benicia facilitates themed Lego-building projects (Star Wars, My Little Pony, and dinosaurs are popular choices). Berkeley’s Hands-On! focuses on science experiments involving candy, potions, or slime. Both can incorporate games, art,
and more into a two-hour bash.
Bonus for parents: Hands-On! neighbors include Mr. Mopps’ toy store and Fatapple’s eatery. Adults who’ve had enough Lego can head to the nail salon near BrickSpace. Both from $250, brickspacebenicia.net, handsonberkeley.com.
Time Travel to Prehistoric Eras: Dinosaurs Rock
Age range: 3 to 13
The lowdown: Experts bring real dinosaur fossils and giant cast specimens to your home for Dinosaurs Rock’s Jurassic parties. After an engaging show where kids interact with the artifacts, guests dig for fossils and play dinosaur-themed games. It’s more fun than a trip to a natural-history museum. Goodie bags are available for an extra fee.
Bonus for parents: The presenter handles everything, so parents can relax for the hour. From $495, dinosaursrockprograms.com.
Meet: Ashie Bhandiwad
Ashie Bhandiwad noticed that the natural curiosity her then-3-year-old daughter displayed while they experimented in the kitchen led to conversations about science. "She started getting this foundational knowledge in chemistry and physics," says San Ramon resident Bhandiwad. "I thought, I need to see if this can be put into a platform where other children can avail it."
So, a little more than two years ago, Bhandiwad—who has a Ph.D. in engineering from Dartmouth—founded StemChef, a business that teaches children science through cooking, initially via after-school programs and enrichment camps. In 2019, she opened the StemChef escape room, a candy lab located in Danville’s Blackhawk Plaza.
While kids are invited to experience the escape room anytime, Bhandiwad also hosts parties there, geared toward children ages 7 to 13 (but fun for older youth, too). After an introduction to the challenge, participants start gathering clues and solving puzzles, eventually using what they learn to create a dessert. "Every month, I change everything: the puzzle, the science, the recipes," Bhandiwad says. "The gratification is seeing the excitement of kids when they crack the code and they get it. The decibel level is [through] the roof."
The escape room has been a hit with visitors. One boy informed her that his parents had set up a pretend investment account for him, and asked Bhandiwad if he could buy stock in StemChef. "I said, ‘You will be the first to know when I’m IPOing,’" she recalls with a laugh. "In my wildest dreams, I never expected that question from an 8-year-old." stemchef.com. —E.W.
It’s All About Others
Parents can minimize materialistic messaging by using a birthday to teach kids about giving back. Here are a few ways to inject altruism into the event.
Have your party at an animal shelter.
Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (in Walnut Creek) and the East Bay SPCA (in Dublin and Oakland) host parties for young pet lovers, complete with facility tours and visits with furry friends. The money you spend on the event is going to a good cause, and there’s always a chance that one of your guests will wind up adopting an animal in need.
Turn a party into an opportunity to donate.
Ask attendees to donate to a nonprofit to which your child feels connected. (For example, if you’ve got a budding theatergoer, consider the Bay Area Children’s Theatre.) Alternatively, ask visitors to bring a can of food, a warm coat, or a toy to the party to be donated to a worthy organization after the festivities end.
Throw a party for someone else.
Invite your child to team up with the Birthday Party Project (which hosts birthday bashes for kids in homeless shelters around the country, including San Francisco’s Hamilton Families and Haven Family House) or the Confetti Foundation, which brings birthday celebrations to hospitalized kids at John Muir Health Walnut Creek Medical Center. —E.W.