Wish the birthday bash (and mess) wasn't at your house this year? Parents looked into the activities, cost, and personalized options at more than 50 national chains that host kids birthday parties and found that these venues take the cake.
32 locations in ten states
The plan: You choose from 16 themes -- ballerina to trains, space to animal safari -- most of which involve either making your own dress-up items (such as fairy wings) or putting on a costume like a pink tutu from the location's stash. All parties also include gym activity such as freeze dance or an obstacle course relating to the theme.
The experience: Shannon Sutherland, of New York City, had her 3-year-old daughter's superhero party at Kidville in March. "Amelia wore her Wonder Woman costume, but all the kids made capes," she says.
The details: $495 and up, depending on location, for a 90-minute party with up to 11 children, including food, cake, decorations, digital invitations, and two favors you choose from a dozen or more options.
20 locations in 12 states
The plan: Partygoers pick up vibrantly colored lightweight balls and head to designated lanes in this upscale alley. You let the location know whether you want bumpers and ramps to make the experience easier for younger kids.
The experience: "The quality of the food is terrific; it's not your typical bowling-alley fare," says Dawn Loritz, whose son, Matthew, celebrated his tenth birthday at the Fort Worth location.
The details: $20 and up per child, based on location, for a two-hour party including bowling-shoe rental, pizza, drinks, and a personal message on the score screen. You can add cake, balloons, favors, and a pin the kids can sign at an extra cost.
California Pizza Kitchen
More than 100 locations in 30 states
The plan: Before the restaurant opens on weekends, partygoers gather at a large table to make their own pizzas with any topping they want. "We give older children, usually ages 8 and up, a ball of dough and tell them how to form it into a crust," explains Julie Castro, manager of the Huntington Beach, California, location. "Younger kids get their dough rolled out and everyone adds sauce and toppings." While the pizza is in the brick oven, mini chefs tour the kitchen.
The experience: "We only had one lull, and my husband read a book during that time," says Stacey Natal, founder of the blog TotalCityGirl.com, who booked a party for her daughter Ruby's fifth birthday.
The details: $10 per child (20 kids max) for the two-hour party and a personalized chef's jacket for the birthday child, plus the cost of adult meals ordered from the menu. "Since the price includes dessert -- either a brownie or an ice-cream sundae -- you can save money by not having to bring a cake," says Castro. "About half of parties don't have one."
51 locations in 16 states
The plan: Staff members lead water games, rafting, and relay races with kickboards for an hour in the indoor pool, which is generally 4 feet deep. Adults are encouraged to go in the pool if they want at no extra cost. Kids can also borrow life jackets. After swimming, it's off to the party room, which is decked out in one of ten-plus themes you choose from, including mermaid and monsters.
The experience: In February, Kristin Cheuvront, who lives near Chicago, held a luau-themed party for her daughter who was turning 7. "Everything was decked out more than I expected," says Cheuvront, cofounder of TheLittleStyleFile.com. "They even had a large birthday banner with her name on it."
The details: $329 to $379, depending on location, for up to 15 children, including cake, balloons, themed decorations, and drinks. Pizza is available at an extra charge.
47 locations in 18 states
The plan: Partygoers (and at least two staff) play for 45 minutes in each of two private rooms filled with giant inflatable slides, obstacle courses, basketball nets, and more. For an older crowd, you might want to opt for a "cosmic" bounce: The kids get glow-in-the-dark accessories and bounce with the lights off. You can also add a Click's Pics package to your party -- staff will take photos for you and give you a code to access them on the Web. They also show the photos in the party room.
The experience: "It's great for parties where kids are of mixed ages," says Paulette Marcus, of Orange, Connecticut, who has held four of her 10-year-old daughter's parties there. "Even when we had 27 kids at one party, because she invited her whole class, it never felt crowded."
The details: Starting at $99, depending on location, for a weekday party of up to eight children. The drinks, decorations, and invitations are included; you can add pizza, favors, and more kids at an extra cost.
Backwards Party Cake
Gymboree Play & Music
More than 250 locations in 40 states
The plan: First-birthday parties are similar to baby classes at the gym -- kids join in activities on the cushy mats, tiny slides, and crawl-through tunnels. They play games with a parachute and end with a parade. Some locations have a private party room for food after the gym session. When making your guest list, keep in mind that kids ages 6 and up aren't allowed on the equipment.
The experience: "The staff was happy to incorporate my son's favorite elements, like playing peekaboo with colorful scarves and shaking maracas, from the Gymboree classes he's been taking," says Jan Baer, of Mountain View, California, whose son, Jaxon, had his first-birthday party there. "I also like being able to bring in any food I wanted -- we had pizza and Chinese food for the adults. Gymboree provided water and juice."
The details: $300 and up, depending on the location and whether you're a member, for a 90-minute party with up to 20 children, including decorations, drinks, paper goods, and a gift for the birthday child. You may be able to add food at some locations.
Arts and Crafts Party
1,140 locations in 49 states
The plan: A few weeks before the party, you pick out a craft project from anything in the store. Because there are literally thousands of options, you can tailor the activities to your child's interests, whether it's horses, butterflies, or superheroes. "Duck Tape and Perler bead projects have been popular lately," says Chris Young, Michaels director of education. You buy the materials, and Michaels has them ready in a private party room (along with a party leader) on the Big Day.
The experience: "The person helping me from Michaels suggested painting wooden frames," says Marina John, who booked a party for ten to celebrate her daughter's sixth birthday. "I bought the frames, which were just a few dollars each with coupons, and Michaels provided the paints and glitter to decorate them." (You may need to buy the decorations, depending on the craft you choose.)
The details: $50 for two hours in the private party-room rental and at least one store helper, plus the cost of the crafts. "I spent less than $100 -- and that's including the food and drinks I brought from home," says John. "I couldn't have done it much cheaper at home -- and I didn't have to clean up."
More than 200 locations in 28 states
The plan: You select a first-run flick for the kids and work with the theater manager to find a time when your group can have a private screening. Kids receive a "snack pack" with popcorn, a small piece of candy, and a drink to enjoy during the film. Before or after the movie, you get an hour in the party room or auditorium space for cake you bring.
The experience: "Most of the kids at my daughter's party have some form of autism, and the host from the theater was wonderful with them," says Kelli Rimondi, of Springfield, Massachusetts. "She worked around their food allergies and sensitivities."
The details: $300 to $500, based on location, for up to 20 guests. The movie, snacks, and printable invitations are included.
The Little Gym
205 locations in 35 states
The plan: You decide whether you want the standard gym party or one of the three exclusive character-based themes: Dora the Explorer; Go, Diego, Go!; and SpongeBob SquarePants. "We partner with Nickelodeon to create an exclusive storyline and music for the Dora and Diego parties," says CEO Ruk Adams. At the Dora bash, partygoers help Dora and her friend, the birthday kid, overcome obstacles to get to the top of Big Birthday Mountain. "Our parachute becomes Isa's Flower Garden and kids use their imagination to cross Turtle River on our balance beam," says Adams.
The experience: Rebecca Sabela, of Fairfax, Virginia, chose the traditional gym party for her daughter's fourth birthday but brought a cake and decorations with a Disney Princess theme. "I liked having the party outside of the house but still being able to customize it," says Sabela. "And my daughter and her friends went crazy over the gym's moon bounce."
The details: $200 to $400 for any theme, depending on whether you're a member, for 60 minutes in the gym and 30 minutes in a private party room for up to 15 children. Beverages and a T-shirt for the birthday child are included in the price.
The School of Rock
More than 140 locations in 30 states
The plan: Kids spend the first hour in the music room with an instructor -- little ones learn rhythm games, play instruments, and perform a rock version of "Happy Birthday" into standing mics. Tweens head to the sound studio to write a song. "We take a backing track of, say, a Katy Perry tune and then have the kids work with an instructor to come up with lyrics that match the interests of the guest of honor," says John Carboy, manager of the Farmingdale, New York, location.
The experience: "My 3-year-old daughter, Olivia, still sings the oldies songs she learned at her birthday party, and that was eight months ago," says Laura Bisceglia, of Levittown, New York.
The details: Starting at $300, depending on location, for an hour of music and an hour in a private party room for up to 15 kids, including pizza, paper goods, and drinks.
Birthday Party Ideas: Daisy Balloons
Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Parents magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.