With my eldest son turning five this year, and my youngest having just turned two, we have a decent number of birthday parties under our belts. This weekend was the first time we had a thorougly licensed birthday party though, and it was a little shocking. We opted for Thomas and Friends for my youngest son’s second birthday and didn’t give it a second thought until putting together the decorations last week: Wow that’s a pricey tablecloth.
When we hit the local party shop to pull together our ideas, we got a bit of ticket shock. Somehow we managed to pull ourselves together, away from the $10 balloons, and put together a licensed birthday party that was still over-priced but not too far over budget! Here are some tips on reducing the cost, and stress, of that licensed party.
We opted to use a fifty-fifty approach to decorations. We purchased one Thomas tablecloth, and two plain blue dollar store deals. The Thomas tablecloth provided that extra pizazz for the cake and gifts, and my son was sufficiently enthralled by everything on it. We also stole an idea from a friend’s recent Princess Sofia party. Themed plates are only “necessary” for the children attending. Adults can eat from plain dollar store options. Who knew? The limited number of plates added to the decorations, but didn’t add too much to the cost. At $3 for 12, it was still extortion in my opinion, but again, was well loved by the birthday boy. The main splurge of the day was the Happy (insert date here) Birthday banner, which given a little time could probably have been handmade, but for lack of stress and beauty of banner I give it a ten out of ten. For even cheaper decorations we placed several of his toy trains on the table with the platters of food.
My favorite cheap decoration came from a Pinterest find. Yet even though it was my favorite, it seems no one took a picture of it! Using blue painter’s tape, we laid a train track from the front door to the church hall, where the party was being held. Not only did it provide guests an easy route to the party, it provided endless entertainment for the kids who chuffed along it quite happily. And my fear of having to take 100 ft of tape up at the end of the day? Apparently peeling tape up from the carpet in six inch increments is great fun for kids aged four through nine!
No themed food here. Good old triangle sandwiches and cheese balls for us! For the cake, rather than attempt to pipe icing in the shape of Thomas, we opted for flags and accessories purchased in bulk from Amazon, and added them to simple cupcakes. I also took a leaf out of Bakeat350’s book, literally, and made decorated sugar cookies using the flood and fill technique. Now I know Thomas is the number one engine, but after putting a number two on my son’s first birthday cake (and then fixing it) I had to go with Edward’s number and make color correct #2 cookies. We attempted to cut out the sandwiches using a Train cookie cutter, but it was rather a sad looking train, so we dispensed with that idea very quickly. Other shapes worked quite well, but weren’t in keeping with the theme.
Here perhaps was our biggest win of the licensing game. We inherited quite the collection of wooden track from friends, so rather than splurge on entertainment for our rowdy crowd, my husband and I spent the night before the party setting up our very own Island of Sodor. It was easily 12 by 12 feet, and suffered minimal construction work during the day, even with kids aged between one and nine playing on it for three hours. If you don’t have access to quite this amount of track, but have a tot sufficiently interested in Thomas, it might be a good gift suggestion for the party. Then you can add to the track as guests arrive. Any other Thomas game we had was brought out of the closet and set up around the room. The kids entertained themselves for hours and had an absolutely “chuffing” good time.
A staple at any of our birthday parties is a well stocked coloring table, for this year we had a selection of crayons and coloring pencils, as well as an assortment of Thomas themed stickers and coloring pages. We purchased an enormous pad of stickers and coloring sheets from Sam’s Club and I tore the book apart for individual projects. It was an amazing deal for the quantity and quality we got, not to mention the leftovers that will be getting used up over the next few months.
When we decided on this theme months ago, I decided not to do goody bags. Then the week of his birthday came around, and my mother’s guilt chip kicked in. Last year we gave out bags of Chips Ahoy with a sticker on them proclaiming, “We’ll eat you up we love you so!” It was a Maurice Sendak birthday. This year we went for a bucket of train whistles; thank you Amazon Prime and the two day delivery! These were fairly inexpensive on Amazon, but be warned, of the 24 we ordered only 12 actually made a whistling sound. A file and some elbow grease will fix them, but alas not in time for the party. Next year I will definitely be checking out the suggestions provided by my fellow GeekMom, Kelly Knox, for goody bag alternatives.
While a licensed birthday party can bring a substantial amount of sticker shock, it can also bring a great deal of joy. I would certainly choo-choo-choose this theme again.
Toys that push, toys that inspire art, toys that look like famous geeky characters, and more! Toys aren’t just for kids, and this bunch promises fun for geek kids and geek parents alike.
ArtSee Studio Wowwee’s drawing kit for iPads has some fantastic features to really make your child’s screen time interactive. Stamps, customizable activities, and even animation and sound tools, make this a big-deal toy for 2013. The ArtSee app is free to download and can be used with or without the Studio kit. Recommended age is 3+, but younger children can still go to town drawing and coloring; the Studio tools will grow with them and provide years of activities. $39.99
Battroborg Tomy’s Battroborg is like a cool update of Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots. The robots are R/C motion-controlled, and you can buy new robots separately (but they are pricey). There’s a bit of a learning curve to get the robots moving the way you want, but with some practice it’s pretty satisfying. Recommended for kids ages 6+, or you can get a set for the grownup robot fan in your life. It’s a pretty great office toy. $79.99
Doc McStuffins Checkup Center Just Play’s Doc McStuffins playset has made pretty much every single top toy list for 2013, including the coveted Most Wanted List from TimetoPlayMag.com. We are just as wild about it here at GeekMom and so excited to see something other than a play kitchen out there. It’s ages 3+, but at least one GeekMom has it stashed away for her almost-two-year-old to enjoy this December. $79.99
Flying Heroes Bridge Direct’s Flying Hero is the kind of stocking-stuffer/small toy that could outshine all the expensive stuff this holiday season. The quick-pull launcher is so satisfying, and your favorite superheroes will soar nice and high. You can choose Superman, Spider-Man, or Batman, but we believe that when given a choice you should always be Batman. Ages 4+. $14.99
Hape Wonder Walker Sturdy wooden push cart helps babies walk and also fosters creative toddler play. Onboard activities include knobs and gears. Rubber trimmed wheels protect floors. Ages 12 months to 3 years. $75.97
HexBug Aquabot Bath time is about to get way more interesting, because Hexbugs have learned how to swim! $13
Max Steel Interactive Sword The Max Steel Interactive Sword is the kind of thing that will draw huge gasps when it comes out of the box, and knock down the Christmas tree a minute later! It talks, it makes noises similar to a lightsaber, and it goes perfectly in the dress up box for a superhero, ninja, pirate, or fairy princess. No sharp edges on this fake sword, and it holds up well to extensive play time. $22-30
Melissa and Doug Shopping CartDurable child-sized shopping cart looks just like those in real stores. Sturdy metal construction includes pivoting front wheels and a folding doll seat. Ages 36 months to 7 years. $49.95
Metal Earth Models You know how teens are hard to shop for? How they’re too old, really, for toys, but would still like to unwrap something fun? Meant for kids age 14 and up, Metal Earth models come in a flat package—perfect for slipping into a holiday card. Punch out the sturdy metal pieces to build model airplanes, a Ferris wheel, trains, ships, the Eiffel Tower, and more. These are the perfect gift to bridge that wide gap between child and adult. $5-10
Minecraft Fan Bundle from ThinkGeek For the ultimate MineCraft fan, pick up the Minecraft Fan Bundle from ThinkGeek. The bundle includes a foam sword and pickax, torch, and light-up redstone ore. $80
Monster Factory Mini Monsters Why get a teddy bear when you could have a monster? Canadian collectible toy company Monster Factory is moving their business into the States and into stores with a collection of twelve mini dolls. Showcased at this year’s New York Comic Con, each doll has a distinct and hilarious personality. The dolls are so well made and just adorable. $12.95
Nerf Rebelle Series The Nerf Rebelle series, designed for ages 8-years-old and up, is full of awesome for boys and girls, with two different styles to choose from including a cross bow style. If your child is not a pink kid, pick up some spray paint and give it a personalized paint job to make it their own. Word of advice, make sure your child wears long sleeves while playing to protect their arms from the string snapping back. $29.95
Nerf Zombie Strike Foam Dart Blaster SeriesThe Sledgefire and Hammershot are fun Nerf blasters that are painted in a zombie apocalypse motif and can take special fluorescent green darts. Of the 10+ Nerf blasters we own, the smaller Hammershot is the farthest-firing one I’ve ever seen. These Zombie Strike series blasters are a Target exclusive this holiday season and will hit the market nationwide in 2014. $14.99 & $27.99
Pygmy Puffs Plush Pygmy Puffs ala the Harry Potter series. I love that you can order directly from the theme park to get something not offered elsewhere. Comes in pink and purple and both my little Potter-heads should love these stocking stuffers. (Got myself one, too.) $14.95
Rollors Lawn Game Combining the outdoor fun of bocce, bowling, and horseshoes, Rollors is a unique game invented by a deployed Air Force officer who enjoyed classic lawn games and discovered a way to combine all his favorites. The game includes all the playing pieces you need, instructions, and a nylon carrying case. It makes a great gift for kids ages 4 and up. $39.99
Sky Viper QuadCoptor Any R/C fan in your family will love this substantial quadcoptor from Skyrocket Toys. It has different fittings for indoor and outdoor use, and you can amp up the level of difficulty with three different modes. The Sky Viper can do flips and barrels, and it’s refreshingly sturdy. And so much fun. Ages 12+. $79.99
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Action Figures If your kids love to play with action figures and love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the latest batch of figures will appeal to them. High quality construction and a lot of included accessories means that their play time will feel as realistic as possible. Great for any TMNT fan on your shopping list. $8-10
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Ninja Control Shellraiser RC Vehicle Have some kick butt fun with the newest TMNT mobile arsenal, the RC Shellraiser Vehicle. Even though the remote control is a little awkward, the handling is great and it doesn’t take long to get the hang of its movements. Pets on the floor should beware of the remote firing sewer cover canon that shoots 10 disks continuously with the push of a button. An added bonus is the ability for the standard size TMNT action figures to ride along on the inside of the Shellraiser or they can hang off the sides! $59.99
Thomas the Train: All Around Sodor The All Around Sodor set is just fantastic. Now the youngest Thomas fans (18 months and up) can have their own train set with features like a talking Thomas and location buttons that will make him go straight to that spot on track. He even works off the track, because you know toddlers are all about doing things outside the lines. We have seen young children mesmerized by this set. $39.99
Thomas the Train Up and Down Coaster Ride On The Step2 Company has made a very cool addition to Thomas the Train merchandise. An actual indoor/outdoor train with more than nine feet up sloping track for kids to ride. We saw this at a holiday preview a while back, and kids could not get enough of it. Ages 2+, maximum weight 50 lbs. $169.99
Tom Kidd Dunne Estates Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle Beautifully detailed steampunk art on laser-cut 423 piece wooden puzzle, made in the USA. Get back to family time spend making puzzles together with this pass-down-to-next-generation item. Ages 7 and up. $100
Tool Belt with Accessories For Small Hands offers hard-to-find, child-size tools so they build confidence and independence. Yard, kitchen, sewing, kitchen, and other useful implements. This is a great resource. We particularly like their tool belt with hammer and safety glasses for kids 3 to 8. $30.95
Toolbox Jewelry One of the best Klutz kits we’ve seen, Toolbox Jewelry not only gives you everything you need to make some beautiful jewelry, but it teaches you skills that you can apply to any hardware you find around the house. Great for girls who have the Maker spirit. $21.99
Transformers Rescue Bots Though they are not a new product this year, Rescue Bots are a very popular toy in the Post house. These toys use one fluid motion to transform from robot to vehicle. This well designed sturdy toy series are a great addition to any house that longs for the toys from their youth for their kids, without the frustration of complicated instructions and pieces falling off. $9 and up
Last week my daughter Hannah and I went to preview HIT Entertainment’s holiday line, and I was really, really impressed. In addition to an extensive showing of Thomas the Tank Engine products, Mike the Knight also has some great offerings this year. The toys covered a nice range of ages and they were accessible to both boys and girls. I loved that.
Mike the Knight has really taken off this year. We speculated at the preview that perhaps this is because the parents are all fans of Game of Thrones? One of the nice things I learned about this series is that Evie is very popular with boys as well. She’s a wizard-in-training. What’s not to like? There is great gender crossover with all the toys and the show itself, which appeals to me for the preschool set. My daughter isn’t quite there yet, but I like to know the options for when she’s old enough.
Mike and Evie are coming to DVD for the first time with Knight in Training, and I also really liked the Transforming Sword. The sword becomes a light, makes swashbuckling sounds, and has a belt clip. As a grownup I think that sounds like fun and I can only imagine this in the hands of preschoolers.
The big Mike the Knight toy this year is Glendragon Castle which is a playset with sounds and ten separate play pieces and characters. This is for ages two and up.
The new packaging on the Mega Bloks Thomas sets is so clever. Keep and collect the boxes, then snap them together to make a track for the cars inside. These are for ages three and up.
My niece and nephew have a small ball pen in their playroom. I have seen what a hit that is when all the kids in the family get together, so I think this Railway Playland (ages two and up) could be a giant hit for the holidays. It isn’t actually train-related, but that’s just semantics to a Thomas fanatic, right?
This year for the first time ever, a girls’ Thomas the Tank Engine costume will be available for Halloween. The company recognizes that girls also really like Thomas, and this is a step towards including them. Can I just say how much I love that this costume is girly and not pink? I think this is a smart move from HIT.
I thought the All Around Sodor Interactive Train Set was absolutely fabulous and it was my personal favorite toy of the day. It’s for ages 18+ months, with nice big plastic trains, tracks, and buildings. Thomas has color-coded buttons that correspond to buildings along the railroad. Push the button, and Thomas goes straight to that building for a chat. It was great to see a train set for toddlers, and a really clever one at that. I will be keeping my eyes open for this to go under our tree. It should be available this month.
In 2006, when the family was living in Apex, North Carolina, we had the chance to hold my oldest son’s 4th birthday party at the nearby New Hope Valley Railway, which was about 20 minutes south of our town in New Hill, North Carolina.
The railroad wasn’t operating excursions on the day we held our party, but for only $75 you could rent out a dining car that’s specially outfitted for parties and the party guests could take tours of the stationary locomotive and train equipment.
My son was Thomas the Tank Engine’s biggest fan at the time, so we had a great time “Thomas-ing” things up for him.
The cake was my first-ever hand-decorated cake…I was taking Wilton cake decorating lessons at the time and this was my first star-tip-covered cake. It was quite the workout, putting all those little stars on a cake that feeds 50!
For the goody bags, I purchased 6″ miniature tote bags and printed pictures of Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends on iron-on paper. I hand-ironed pictures on 24 of those bags! Instad of putting items in the bags that might end up in the trash, I filled each bag with a 24-box of Crayola crayons and several Thomas the Tank Engine coloring book pages. I had hoped that these bags could make it into Moms’ tote bags in the future for church, restaurants or shopping trips to keep the preschoolers happy.
The goody bags also doubled as balloon weights for basic latex helium balloons. Then each guest could take home a balloon too!
Want to take the plunge for the ultimate train geek birthday party experience? All it takes these days is a simple Google search for birthday parties at scenic railroads. This might not be so helpful without knowing what tourist railroads are nearby. There are numerous internet guides to tourist railroads available, with RailServe.com being one that has worldwide tourist railroad information.
Back in our preschool years of parenting, my family spent a great deal of time with Walter Wick’s books. To be truthful, we spent a great deal of time with a great many books–almost universally those that created anthropomorphized-machine worlds filled with earnest steam engines, recalcitrant backhoes, or steam shovels of derring-do. Mr. Wick’sI Spy School Days picture-find book was a particular favorite, though. My older son would climb into my lap, dragging the oversized book behind him, sherpa-style, and open always to one glorious track-and-block-filled photo-homage to potential energy: an intricate, Rube-Goldberg-styled “balloon popper.” With w-flavored ‘l’s’ and a slight lisp, he’d start at the top of the page working a chubby finger through a sinuous path of levers, ramps, and pulleys, describing each action, each result, until whole minutes later he would shriek delightedly: “AND THEN, POP!”
Immediately serious, he’d twist around to look me in the eye, and say, “Okay, you do it, mom!” Entire afternoons could be spent in this manner. And were.
That little sherpa towers over me now and articulates with theatric, basso-profundo clarity. There are times when I miss the inseparable-intimacy of those preschool days…but then I am able drink a second cup of coffee uninterrupted or take a shower long enough that I run out of hot water…and I recall that that idyllic sweetness came at a price. Ultimately, I am thankful for the immersive richness of that time and thankful, too, to have moved on…
College is actually fast-approaching for sherpa-lad–which is probably why I jumped at the opportunity to visit Walter Wick’s studio in Hartford, Connecticut, earlier this month, along with a half-dozen other bloggers, at the behest of Scholastic Publishers. Though my sons seem more than willing, I sense that I am the one not quite prepared to put away our childish things–as long as there are blocks and trains and Lego and picture books lying underfoot, they are still here with me where I can keep them safe–everyone tranquil, nobody aging or changing…
The day of my visit, the first thing that I learn about Walter Wick is that his work studio was once a firehouse. I can’t help wishing (not for the last time) that I’d figured out a way to bring my boys with me as I tour the space–a decade ago when our family was house-hunting, the two items on the boys’ mutual “must-have” list were an artist’s studio and a bedroom fire pole. They’re still waiting on both…
The main workspace on the second floor of the firehouse is open and sunny, with near-floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides of the room. As the visiting bloggers traverse the periphery, snapping photos of the sets for the next book in the Can You See What I See? series (a fairy tale romance between a time-traveling robot and a princess with moxie), Walter explains that from idea to inception, each book takes about a year to complete–so that production for one title overlaps with promotion for the book most-recently completed.
During lunch and throughout the rest of our day, Walter patiently answers questions from our group as he leads us around the building. Yes, he tends to work with archetypes children find accessible: trains and pirates, robots and princesses. The books are specifically designed to work on a number of levels, however, from simple reader to picture-find adventure that reinforces vocabulary and listening skills to (in the case of Toyland Express) sweet story of old toys that find a second life among new children–all depending on the needs of the reader.
“Look!” I gush, “The author signed it! And that little yellow bead boy is hidden somewhere on every page. His name is Seymour. And the publisher even sent me home with ‘Toyland Express’ train cookies for the family…”
“Wow!” my older son laughs, leafing through Toyland Express. “This almost makes me wish I was ten years younger again. When I was going through my train-obsession thing I would have loved this book!”
When he gets to the final spread in the book, a scene full of block towers, tinker toy bridges, and rambling train-filled track reminiscent of our old friend, the “balloon popper” page, his eyes widen. Tapping the book with tapered fingers, he tells me, rapid-fire: “You know, Mom: this guy really understands what gets little kids excited!”
“I may have to quote you on that,” I agree.
Want to win a free copy of Can You See What I See? Toyland Express? Dig out your blocks, Lego, trains, and trucks and create your own “toyland” world (click around on Walter Wick’s site for inspiration). Take a picture and upload it to GeekMom’s flickr group anytime before Monday, December 5. One lucky winner will be chosen by a guest judging panel of teens and tweens to receive a copy of the book!
Note: This blogger received a signed copy of Can You See What I See? Toyland Express free for review.