I love birthdays. They were always a big deal growing up, although I think the theme when I was a kid was just the cake from a supermarket with matching paper products and balloons. But I love to run with a theme...
This year, I decided I didn't want to host my daughter's party at home....I was trying to avoid the mess, parking hassles, limitations to guest list, etc. I chose a park nearby where I could rent a picnic shelter. I wanted to invite her entire preschool class (12 kids), plus a few close friends, and of course family. When I learned that I could rent a train from the park, that led me down the path of a a theme. A carnival party is a great gender-neutral party theme that is easy to match. Primary colors, easy games, simple foods.
First up was the invitations - an item I think is very important to set the tone and get people interested. (But do be cautioned -- you get a higher "yes" RSVP % when you have a good invite, so don't count on half the crowd not coming!). I had a vision in my head of an invite, and I thought I could find someone else to do the work. Etsy, e.g. has a ton of people who will rework an invite template for cheap (like $10-$15), and then you can have it printed locally. But I couldn't find my vision anywhere.
I wanted an ticket-style invite, but a multi-card one, so that I could rely more information. I am not handy in Photoshop, but I am strong at Microsoft Word. So here is my invite, made primarily in Word (with a little bit of Paintbrush). I printed it on my home inkjet printer on cardstock, cut out the tickets with scissors (the corners were a pain), and strips of white duct tape to hold them together. I even attached a 4th card (a "VIP ticket") for an after-party for family.
I slid the invites into red/white striped candy bags I got off Ebay for $6 (pack of 25, but they sent me a few extras). (I even used a Groupon/Living Social deal for my Ebay payment!) To the bag, I hot-glued a yellow ribbon that I had in my craft closet, using an iron to form the creases at the side of the bag. I also hot-glued a tag on the front with a little label. This label was created with two different scrapbooking punches...a 1.5 in circle and a 2 in scalloped punch in a contrasting color. I use these scrapbook punches for all sorts of things, even though I am not a scrapbooker. I got them at Hobby Lobby on a 50% off sale, so under $10 for the pair.
Next up, decor and games. I hunted on Pinterest for some easy-to-assemble game ideas and settled on 3 games and 3 activity stations -- fishing game, ring toss, bean bag toss, temporary tattoos, face painting, and a "photo booth". I saw signage that you could buy on Etsy for great prices, but I was worried about the signs being too small and/or flimsy to use outside. So I made my own, with $1.50/sheet foamboard from Hobby Lobby (cheaper than Walmart, and Hobby Lobby often has sales of 40-50% off and coupons). I split the foamboard into two rectangles and used craft paint ($0.88/each) in red, yellow, and blue to decorate it. For the words, I didn't trust my painting skills and instead printed out cool looking fonts from Word and cut around the letters, then painted them as well. I used spray adhesive (Walmart, Target) to attach the letters to the signs.
I also made signs for the party entrance, the train ride, the prize table, a directional arrow (turn here), and the different menu options. This all took a fair amount of time, but it really only cost me about $5-7 in supplies. I bought a few metal sign holders at $1 each at my local Lowes, but most of my signs would just be propped up.
The games themselves were pretty easy on supplies. I borrowed a corn hole board and bean bags for the bean bag toss. The ring-the-bottle game was a 24-pack of 0.5 liter Deer Park water bottles (full) in a antique Coca Cola wooden tray (an old collection of mine) with the rings created from plastic tubing (6 feet worth at $0.24/ft at Lowes) filled with pipe cleaners for some color and rounded off with duct tape. The fishing game was a small inflatable pool filled with a couple inches of water, and weighted ducks (from Oriental trading)...which just means the ducks should float upright. I tied pipe cleaners around the ducks necks to give them a little metal, and then used homemade cane fishing pools with twine and magnets to "catch" the fish. Temporary tattoos only need a pack of tattoos, a bowl of water, and a sponge. The photo booth was a just a piece of red fabric as a backdrop (hung with clothespins and twine) and a collection of dress-up hats/wigs/capes/funny glasses. I put the clothes in a shipping box decorated with wrapping paper just to make it colorful. Parents took pictures of their kids trying on the goofy items. Face painting is something that 3-yr-old don't sit still for (and for which its hard to get a volunteer to do the painting). So I bought a couple 9-packs of foam stamps from Hobby Lobby for $0.99 each and just had my artist spread some paint onto a paper plate, rub the stamp in it to blot the paint evenly, and then to quickly stamp the kid's faces. This worked pretty well,and probably would have gone smoother if I had remembered to bring a few paintbrushed to get paint onto the stamp. This station needed a big bowl of water and some paper towels to wash off the stamps in between uses.
A few other decor suggestions. I used a string of 100 ft of multi-color pennants (Oriental Trading), draped on the outside of the picnic shelter. I covered all the tables (7 picnic tables in my case) with $1 tableclothes from Dollar Tree, tying them down with bright-colored yarn so they didn't blow away. I put an inexpensive flower on each table (in Oct, small mums you can get for a $1/each here)...this also helped to keep the tableclothes down. And I made a bunch of homemade pinwheels from leftover scrapbook paper and wooden skewers -- completely free decor. Instructions for the pinwheels are here. I used solid color plates, napkins. I didn't provide plasticware because all foods were finger foods. I didn't provide cups either; bottled water only in open coolers. Oh, and I had a bowl with some bottles of bubbles and another bowl with crayons next to a few coloring books for kiddos too young to do the games or kiddos that got overwhelmed/tired.
Food, I kept quite simple but within the theme.
My ideas came also exclusively off Pinterest. I did mini-corn dogs (made with cocktail smokies --- see recipe), popcorn, veggie straws as "fries" (Sam's Club), whole apples with caramel dip (providing an apple corer and cutting board), and cupcakes. My cupcakes were cooked inside of ice cream cones -- see recipe, although I did end up deciding angel food cake rises better and had better consistency to be cooked inside the cone. Also, for angel food cake, you have to fill the cone with the batter to get it to fluff up enough. These cupcakes are difficult to transport, so we iced them quickly on-site and tossed sprinkles on top. Remember to bring covers for foods that are outside so keep bugs away. Also, I bought my popcorn boxes off Oriental Trading (but later saw similar ones at World Market). My fries cups were from Oriental Trading, with a sticker label I designed in Word, printed on label paper, and punched with my scalloped scrapbook puncher.
Goody bags are pretty much expected these days at parties. To stay in the them, I made mine as the "prize" table for the carnival.
I actually had a roll of tickets (Oriental Trading) that I intended my "carnies" to give to kids but the kiddos were a little too young for that. I intended for them to trade their won tickets for prizes, even though in actuality I planned to give every prize to every kid that wanted it. I had a bunch of clear glass containers that could display the prizes, but I realized that wasn't the smartest of ideas for 3-yr-olds, especially outside, unprotected, on a concrete pad. So I collected empty clear juice bottles and did a little more crafting. I soaked bottles to remove their labels, cut off the top, and hot-glued ribbon onto the top and bottom edges These vessels became my prize containers. Two-liter soda bottles are a pain to get the labels off, so I tried to avoid those.
I made labels for the "cost" of each prize (using my scrapbook punches again), but when it became obvious that this age kid wasn't going to understand, I never actually attached them to the prize containers. Finally, the goody bags to carry home the prizes were lunchbags (red and blue) that I bought as 20-packs at Target for a buck or two, and to which I attached a small label.
The label was created in Word again, printed on label paper, and punched out with my scalloped puncher.
So at the end of the party, each kid approached and picked his/her prizes. Prizes included (with source in parentheses):
Pixie sticks, mini toostie pops, smarties (Target)
Plastic snakes, paddle-ball toys (Dollar Tree)
Punch ballons (Ebay - that same Groupon/Living Social deal)
Foam clown noses, keychains, pencil sharpeners, waterguns (Oriental Trading)
Bracelets, sticker earrings, pencils (Michael's Crafts)
The prizes were actually a pretty expensive feature of the party, even though I got many of the packages for <$1 each (clearance sections).
Well, that's all that I can think of. As you can see, planning a carnival party is a lot of effort but not very expensive if you stay open-minded and look for supplies you can re-purpose or borrow.