Published May 22. 2013 4:00AM Updated June 12. 2013 4:33PM
The best birthday parties are usually centered around an activity that guests of a variety of ages can enjoy. Whether it's cooking, kite-making, or cradling a baby lizard, venues and presenters across the region offer some unique ways to mark the milestones.
Here are just a few:
JUMP ON IT
Erin and Rob Arnold were vacationing in Disney World in Florida when an idea for a new business back home jumped out at them.
"It was a rainy day," Erin explains. "And we were jumping in this indoor trampoline park. We just had a blast. And while we were jumping we looked at each other and said, 'We have to do this in Rhode Island.' We literally spent the rest of the vacation running numbers."
Both had experience in business. Erin operated Basket Case, a gift shop in Wakefield, R.I., with her mom before leaving to care for her first baby. Rob is the owner of Efficient Exteriors, a home improvement and construction company focusing on decks, garages, and the like.
They had a plan, but needed a business partner. Rob had completed a job for former New England Patriots NFL cornerback Ty Law, and mentioned the idea to him. Law was in, and Launch Trampoline Park, on Route 2 in Warwick, was born. www.launchri.com
The facility features a concession, arcade games, and a seating area for birthday parties, fundraisers and corporate retreats. There are open jump hours and a separate trampoline area for young children; as well as structured fitness classes for adults, with certified instructors.
"It's low impact — modifiable for all levels. And it's fun. You get exercise without even realizing it. So it's a great way to get back into working out," she says.
Erin — a personal trainer, and an avid gymnast growing up — admits to taking a few flips into the foam pit during off-hours. Her own kids are young — Isla is 3 and Rock is 5. Although they love to jump, she says, they're pretty nonplussed about their good fortune in having constant access to building full of trampolines.
"I tell them all the time — 'You have no idea how lucky you are,'" she laughs. "It really is a huge family thing here. We're very fortunate."
ADD A DASH OF DRAMA
Costumed storytellers can be a hit with younger children. The Broadwaykids & Company School of Performing Arts in Niantic hosts birthday parties which include an hour of fun learning — singing, dancing and/or acting that accompanies the party's theme. And you can arrange for Cinderella or Belle (From Disney's "Beauty and The Beast") to make an appearance. The cost is around $200 for up to 15 children, and families bring the refreshments, paper goods and decorations.
Themes from Broadway include "Wicked," "Hairspray," and "The Lion King," and the company offers general themes as well: princesses and pirates, 50's Sock Hop, Hip Hop, American Girl, Dress Up Tea Parties and others.
Visit www.broadwaykidsandcompany.com to learn more.
The Connecticut Storytelling Center in New London provides a directory of local storytellers online at www.connstorycenter.org. There you'll find a diversity of published authors, musicians, award-winning artists and voice actors. There are folks who specialize in humor, poetry, legends and myths,
science, games and puppetry; as well as African, African-American, Cuban, Kurdish, Jewish and Irish folktales.
One note: Not every storyteller listed is available for parties so check the artist's full profile before you make a call.
TOUCH AND LEARN
Children have a natural fascination with animals, and a hands-on program with exotic creatures can be educational, fun — and make for great photographs and memories. Some encounter programs specialize in snakes, frogs, and lizards; some bring along more cuddly creatures, like bunnies, ferrets, chinchillas and flying squirrels.
Be sure to ask whether the presenter prefers to work indoors or outside, and if there are any other special considerations. (Bug spray, for example, can be toxic to some of these little guys.) Also, children can get very excited to see and touch the animals. As most animals respond better to a calm audience, it can be helpful to explain your expectations to the kids in advance, with gentle reminders during the program.
Locally, you can check out Riverside Reptiles, www.riversidereptiles.com Reptiles on the Move, www.reptilesonthemove.com; Curious Creatures, www.curiouscreatures.org; Bwana Iguana Reptile Adventure www.bwanaiguana.com; and Animal Experiences by Dave, www.bestanimalexperiencesbydave.com; among others. Mystic Aquarium also offers on-site and traveling parties locally; visit www.mysticaquarium.org.
Bouncing and tumbling on soft mats is a wonderful way to work off a birthday cake sugar-high. Thames Valley Gymnastics in Norwich www.thamesvalleygymnastics.net; ABC's Gymnastics Stars in Niantic www.abcsgymnastics.com; Shoreline Gymnastics www.shorelinegymnastics.com and Stay and Play Indoor Playspace www.stayandplayllc.com in Old Saybrook; and South County Movement Center in Hope Valley www.southcountymovementcenter.net are among the gyms that roll out the rubber balls for special occasions.
Some sites provide paper goods, cutlery and small gifts for your guests. Find out in advance what your party package includes. Also find out how many parents/supervisors the site expects you to have on hand. Some area fire laws prohibit the lighting of indoor candles in these venues, so plan accordingly. And tell your guests to wear comfortable clothing.
HAVE BUNNY, WILL TRAVEL
There's a bit of science to making magic, and part of that is knowing how to entertain a crowd of young and fiesty personalities. Performers like Bjorn the Magician - www.bjornthemagician.com - and Mr. Magichead - www.mrmagichead.com - pledge to incorporate both guests and humor into their shows — and they bring bunnies. Domino the Great - www.dominothegreat.com - doesn't bring a live rabbit, but he does purport to make the guest of honor part of the show, in what he bills 'the world's cutest human bunny trick.'
A slice of ADVENTURE
The Hayes brothers leased the old brownstone quarries in Portland in 2007, so they could recreate the exhilarating exploits of their childhood in the country. Mission accomplished. With 12 zip lines running into the water, a cargo net climb, rock climbing, cliff jumping and wakeboarding, Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park - www.brownstonepark.com - offers an unforgettable day for partiers age 8 and older. There's also kayak rentals, a beach, volleyball and picnic area. (And floating gazebos, for when you need a rest.)
ART ON THE SPOT
TDP in New London www.thedrunkenpalette.com/ , Get Fired Up in Pawcatuck www.getfiredup.net and the Clayroom in Groton www.clayroomgroton.com give your birthday guests the gift of instant artistry. No experience is necessary at these studios. Instruction is part of the package, and self-expression is part of the fun. When opting for an artsy birthday, find out what the prices include — material, paints, glazing, firing, etc.
SPEAKING OF DO IT YOURSELF...
Flander's Fish Market in East Lyme www.flandersfish.com and Illiano's in New London www.illianospizza.com provide make-your-own-pizza parties.
Many popular family attractions also offer birthday party packages, including Project Oceanology in Groton, The Connecticut Science Museum in Hartford, Essex Steam Train, Ray of Light Farm in East Haddam, Kidcity Children's Museum in Middletown and The Dinosaur Place at Nature's Art in Oakdale.