I think always of somewhere else, somewhere else where everything is...pretty, like children on their birthdays.
-- Miss Lila Bobbit, Children on Their Birthdays, by Truman Capote
Growing up, we always celebrated our birthdays at home. Trendier friends held bashes at the local bowling alley or pizza joint. Not us. In our family, a birthday wasn't a birthday without homemade cake, closely supervised games of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and an orgy of present-opening on the living room rug. At the close of every do, my dad would appear to cut loose the balloons. Talk about picture-perfect memories! A stream of little girls, all in '70s-era party dresses, chasing blobs of color across the grass.
I also remember how tense my mom was before, during and after these halcyon events. Baking, cleaning, decorating and supervising, she ran herself ragged and forgot to have fun.
Now that I'm a parent, I can empathize. The "simple" home birthday party, while dear and lovely and memorable in its way, really isn't so simple. Planning and cleanup aside, it's hard to fully relax with eight boisterous kids in the house -- particularly if the house is a small one, like ours.
What kid needs a stressed-out parent on his birthday? Take the pressure off by letting someone else provide the entertainment and the venue. You deserve a good time, too.
And just because it's not at home doesn't mean your child's birthday celebration has to be cheesy, impersonal and/or expensive.
Below are six unique options for birthday parties that'll cost you well under $100, food not included (a couple are absolutely free). Most require a month's notice and a bit of creative brainstorming with the people in charge, in order to get just what you want. But your kids and their friends will be learning and having fun -- as will you.
1820 Schuster Rd., Oregon, 608-835-5553
Seasonal, weekends only: April-May for baby animals in the barn, June-October for outdoor activities
$6 per person (negotiable for chaperones)
Farmers Ray and Alice Antoniewicz are best known for inviting the public to witness the annual spring lambing on their working sheep farm -- and if you schedule a birthday party in April or early May, that's what you'll see, too. The big difference is, your partygoers have the run of the cavernous barn, and the lambs, chicks, baby bunnies and resident Tom turkey all to themselves. The party table, provided by A-Z but decorated by you, is situated within full view -- and earshot -- of the baaing ewes and their lively offspring. "One year, a party went on for three hours, as the ewes kept giving birth, one after the other," recalls "Farmer Ray." With the help of "Farmer Alice," little ones enjoy bottle-feeding the lambs, and for older kids, Farmer Ray can arrange a hayride. While a few rules are ironclad -- insurance forms must be signed, kids can't leap from hay bales or chase the animals -- the overall feeling is relaxed. The Antoniewiczes genuinely enjoy sharing their work and their animals with kids, and they never miss an opportunity to gently promote the vanishing art of family farming.
Tip: Bring antibacterial soap and a spigot-thermos for washing up before sitting down to eat cake.
Most appropriate for: preschool through second grade (older kids might enjoy a weenie roast or hayride at the farm; call for more info).
800 University Ave., 608-263-2246
During regular museum hours Tues.-Fri. 9 am-4:45 pm or Sat. and Sun. 11 am-4:45 pm
Give education director Anne Lambert a month's notice, and she'll set you up with an energetic docent who'll treat your kids and their party pals to a private tour of the art museum -- absolutely free. "It's kind of a cerebral thing to do," says Lambert, who suggests a walk to Memorial Union for ice cream to cap off a downtown birthday (she also couldn't help suggesting that kids bring along their sketchbooks for a little en plein air drawing on the Terrace). Docents can tailor a program to fit the birthday boy or girl's age and interests. "We might look at artworks featuring celebrations, or special food, and talk about the historical context," says Lambert. "With younger children, we like to show them big pictures they can respond to." What's popular with kids? A giant, super-realistic street scene by Thomas Blackwell and an interactive cabinet of curiosities by Martha Glowacki (there's some spooky-looking stuff inside the drawers).
Most appropriate for: first through sixth grade.
300 Femrite Dr., Monona, 608-221-0404
$10 per child
Take the party outside -- snow, mud or shine! Aldo Leopold Nature Center offers year-round birthday programs led by an expert naturalist. A pleasant private room is available afterwards, in which to chow down on the cake you baked (or bought). Plates, cups and forks are provided. In the summer, kids can go on an Incredible Insects junket, using nets to find butterflies, grasshoppers and crickets. Animal Tracking is a popular theme for snowy birthdays, says nature center director Amy Workman. At one party, she recalls, a highlight for 6-year-olds was learning to use binoculars.
Check the website for ideas and guidelines. There's a $50 nonrefundable deposit.
Most appropriate for: kindergarten through fifth grade.
1215 W. Dayton St.
Even if your kids can't spell "paleontologist," a private free tour of the UW Geology Museum might be their passport to nirvana. "Our birthday party tours focus on getting up close and personal with dinosaurs," says assistant director Brooke Swanson. Led by a UW student volunteer, a birthday group's allowed to go into the "prep lab" (normally viewed, tantalizingly, through a glass window) and see the tools geologists use for cleaning dinosaur fossils. Guests can touch rock from ancient Wisconsin volcanoes, see the jellyfish and other sea creatures that swam where we now walk; and stand under the tusks of a mastodon discovered just up the road in Boaz, Wis. Tours are an hour-long and can be arranged during standard museum hours (see Web site). You must eat your cake elsewhere, but Union South is just around the corner, with plenty of tables and chairs -- or head to Rocky Rococo's, on Regent Street. Weekday parking: Grainger Hall Ramp (from Brooks Street) or University Lot 17 (behind Camp Randall). Saturdays (except football Sats): Lot 54 (directly behind museum, from Charter Street). 2-hour street parking.
Most appropriate for: kindergarten through fifth grade.
2300 S. Park St., 608-262-4779 Weekends/weekday afternoons or evenings $3 per child
An otherworldly birthday can be arranged at UW Space Place, where space cadets and stargazers are treated to one-hour, private programs led by UW researchers in areas of astronomy and space science. "Living in Space" asks kids to imagine how they'd go about their everyday activities in a place where everything floats. "Surviving on the Moon" requires them to choose a small number of essentials should they become marooned on our airless neighbor. Activities might include making a paper model of the space shuttle or scissoring shapes to fit various constellations. Snack -- freeze-dried astronaut ice cream -- is included, but, as with the museums, you'll need to eat your cake elsewhere.
Check the website at under "group visits" for a list of program topics.
Most appropriate for: first through fifth grade.
3110 Laura Lane, 608-831-5559
Seasonal, roughly April-October; call ahead for hours
$6.50 to $14 per child
For all-out fun, head to Bogey's. My own small boys were beside themselves to learn that this kind of park, previously thought (by them) to exist only in Minocqua, was just a short drive away on the Beltline. Owned and operated by Middleton resident Tim Bruecker, Bogey's features batting cages, mini-golf, a driving range and par 3 course, go-karts and an arcade. Birthday party packages range in price; the Value Plan includes soda, popcorn, batting tokens (16 "pitches" per token) and a round of mini-golf. Beware, though: Racecar fans will be burning to drive the NASCAR-themed go-karts, so you may want to spring for the Earnhardt/Nicklaus Plan, at $10 per child -- the package includes all of the above and one five-minute go-kart ride (kids shorter than 54" need a parent to ride shotgun, for free). "Bogey's is a great local place for groups of kids to have fun," says Middleton Chamber of Commerce executive director Van Nutt. "The park's clean and well-run, with something for every age group."
For an extra $5 per hour, a party room with table and chairs is available.
Most appropriate for: first through eighth grade.
Babcock Hall Dairy Store (1605 Linden Dr.) sells ice cream pies for under $10 (8 pieces in each pie). They come in a variety of flavors, and if you call at least a day in advance, a pie can be made to order for your child's party.
Ribbons, ribbons, ribbons, from polka-dot to pink organza, abound at Michael's Arts and Crafts Stores (Greenway Station in Middleton and 4271 Lien Rd.), all at reasonable prices.
Orange Tree Imports (1721 Monroe St.) and Playthings (Hilldale Mall) are one-stop sources for stickers, tiny animals and other party favors.