They come around once a year – global pandemic or not – and kids look forward to them more than most adults. I’m talking birthdays and, specifically, birthday parties. When safer-at-home guidelines closed down traditional party options, parents replaced backyard petting zoos and princess visits, mini golf and trampoline park field trips with Zoom get-togethers and drive-by options.
Months in, it’s clear that not all safer-at-home, socially distanced parties are created equal. To create a virtual birthday party that stands out – especially for kids who have little attention span and have already been to a few of these virtual parties – takes time and effort.
“You have to amp up every aspect of it,” says Marley Majcher, L.A. mom of three and the event planner behind The Party Goddess!.
Having been invited to, consulted on and had her kids attend these types of parties, Majcher has tips for families planning safer-at-home celebrations.
Who’s gonna party?
Guest list guidelines are different for a virtual birthday party than for parties in person, because computer screens are easily crowded. Still, you want to invite enough guests to address the flake factor. “Keep in mind that it’s much easier to no-show for a Zoom party,” Majcher says. You don’t want that screen to be empty.
The invitation sets the tone for the entire party and is your chance to entice guests to log on or drive by. Sure, you could just send out an email with the Zoom link, but that’s so three weeks ago! Instead, create your invites through Paperless Post, which lets you create virtual party invites to fit a variety of themes.
Even better, hand deliver or mail invites and party packs that include themed party favors, plates, napkins and materials for party activities. “You could have fun with it. You could pay a masked person, part of the theme, to deliver the invitations so everybody is virtually having the same party with the same fun things that you would be having if you were all together,” Majcher says.
Party City and other companies have virtual party kits available, or you could DIY your kits. Because these parties are competing with all of the other virtual activities out there for kids, getting a package in the mail will help you get guests’ attention. “You have to give them specifics and a reason to jump on the Zoom party,” says Majcher.
Whatever type of invite you send, make log-on and other instructions crystal clear. “Not everybody is as skilled as you might think at this,” Majcher says. The last thing that you want is a child waiting to join the party while their parents try to figure out how to download Zoom.
Speaking of Zoom, Majcher stresses the importance of resending the log-in information and link one hour before the party, so people have it close at hand. Even better, gather guests’ cell phone numbers and text them.
Have a party plan
Once you’ve figured out how to get everyone there, make a list of the elements you want your party to include – entertainment, activities, food, singing “Happy Birthday,” eating cake – and put them in order. “You sort of organize it like you do a regular party,” Majcher says – only with a shorter timeline to fit the format. “You have to have a plan. You can’t just get on and hope for the best. It’s not going to entertain them.”
Here’s where the second phase of setting the scene comes into play. Just as you’d decorate for an in-person party, you’ll need to plan the visuals for your virtual or drive-by party. “In order to crush it, you have to have amazing visuals,” says Majcher. “Because the visuals in the background are what everybody’s going to see about the birthday girl or boy.” You could hire someone to create a cool Zoom background or build a “set” for your Zoom call or driveway (this is L.A., after all) – or you could tap your family’s time and talent to DIY it.
Put someone in charge of the program, plan a little chatting time and welcome guests as they trickle in. Then, keep things moving. “The younger the kids, the shorter the timeframe it should be,” says Majcher. “You have to really keep their attention throughout, so the pace becomes very important with virtual parties.”
Once you’ve got your guests engaged, it’s time to entertain them. Fortunately, party entertainment has gone virtual.
SkyZone Virtual Parties: The company offers a free version in group party format, as well as private parties for a fee ($50 per 30 minutes). Group parties celebrate up to 20 birthday kids (of similar ages) during one zoom call. Both formats include games, a group birthday song and dance party. The company is also running a gift-card special, offering two free 30-minute jump tickets with every $30 gift card purchased.
Ever After Princess Events: You can book a princess for a virtual cameo or character visit, with prices ranging from $15-$50 and options that include shout-outs, story times, crafts and game time.
The BeatBuds: These local kids’ musicians are offering up “cyberjams” packages ranging from 45-minute interactive virtual parties to socially distanced “drive-by” party experiences to “Happy Birthday” videos, with prices ranging from $45 to $395.
LoveBug & Me: The SoCal chain of music classes offers Zoom parties featuring its educators playing instruments from guitar to ukulele and hand drum. The 30-minute parties also include dance, puppets and storytelling for $100.
A Faery Hunt: This fun-loving group, which hosts little ones for adventures across the Southland, also offers virtual faery visits for your parties. You can book visits of 5 to 60 minutes for $40-$150.
“The younger the child, the more bells and whistles, and the shorter time frame, you need,” Majcher says. “It’s got to be like, pop, whiz, bang, because you’re not going to have 7-year-olds sitting there just chatting and hanging out.” If you have a tween, that’s a different story. Just keep in mind that kids this age have likely already been hanging out together online, so try to offer something that helps your party stand apart.
Here’s where a drive-by party could work in your favor. “I think the drive-by stuff, in a lot of ways, is kind of more fun,” Majcher says. It’s interactive and it gives folks a chance to get out of the house. Younger kids might like the BeatBuds driveway option, or you could hire a local DJ to mix a driveway set. Plan the party in stages to give the birthday child a little moment with each drive-up guest – from a safe distance – and stretch out the fun.
Crafts and cake
Even if your party guests aren’t physically together, you can plan activities to enjoy together. Majcher loves the idea of kids getting materials ahead of time and doing some sort of craft or class. “Whether it’s watercolor or how to bake something, I love that,” she says. “To me, those are the best realistic options.”
Make it extra meaningful with Volunteer in a Box, which delivers volunteer projects kids can do at home. Your guests could make stuffed toys for kids in need, soap for women in homeless shelters or toys for pets in animal shelters. The packs cost $17-$30 per guest.
Sugar Babies Bakeshop in Sherman Oaks can deliver DIY cookie kits featuring six themed cookies – from unicorns to dinos, cars and sea creatures – plus four shades of icing and custom sprinkle mix to your local guests so you can decorate “together.” Each pack costs $18.
Or combine your craft and cake. Baking with Melissa, a local “bakertainer,” hosts virtual baking parties where guests receive printable recipe cards, ingredient lists and activities in advance, then bake up small-batch recipes together. There are 18 recipes to choose from. Classes last one to two hours and cost $250 for up to 15 households.
If you or someone you know loves to bake, craft, sing, dance or tell stories, you can DIY all of these party aspects. Just gather up your materials, send out your invites and party packs and get ready for fun.
Just don’t be surprised if, despite all your work and planning, kids are quickly pitting your party against the Zoom gaming session they had last week. As Majcher reminds us, “Kids are a tough audience.”
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.