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Keeping Birthdays Simple | Should you get a petting zoo? No way. Tips on celebrating and keeping your sanity. By Lisa Fernandez

A friend of mine recently had a birthday party at Children's Fairyland to celebrate her daughter turning 2. The party, however, turned out to be too much for the child on this day, and so it was cut short, ending after an hour at the theme park and 30 minutes of petting a bunny.

There was a huge barbecue at Lake Merritt that day and parking was a mess. Her daughter had the runs. The toddlers had to wait in lines, which seemed long on this Sunday. There were too many tiny hands trying to pet a bunny at the same time.

The fee was $350, which included a one-hour party, a trained party host supervisor, 20 admission tickets for the day, three live performances, and bunny petting. But my friend, thanks to an upset kiddo, had to wrap things up quickly and forfeit most of the festivities.

The best part of the day for my friend? "Afterward, when my daughter was just rolling around on the grass," my friend said. "I'm not doing that again."

She should heed her own words: Throwing a birthday party that's too overwhelming for a young or unprepared child is hardly wise for anyone, let alone for the parents of a 1-year-old who likely will be just as thrilled playing in a cardboard box.

I have to say that I've never been the party-planning type, and I've always refused to do "extras," like party favor bags. (Yes, I know my children will need therapy one day.)

So, unlike one of my colleagues, who was Googling "how much does a petting zoo cost?" ahead of her son's first birthday, I have always tried to keep birthday parties simple and cheap.
But that's not to say they're not fun.

When my daughter was 8, we invited her class to Lake Temescal (we showed up early in the morning and didn't pay to reserve the spot) and turned a grassy area into summer camp. I ran games, like a potato sack race, water balloon toss, egg carry, and dive-for-the-penny-in-a-plate-of-flour for about an hour, and then we all hopped in the lake for a swim. She still remembers that party and declared it her favorite. I brought pizza and cupcakes to the park and the whole event cost less than $100.

Some of her other favorite parties include a movie and sleepover at our house with six or so girlfriends and crafting pillows at her best friend's house when she celebrated her 10th birthday.

For my son? Our annual adventure is taking him and a bunch of his friends to Stinson Beach with boogie boards, Frisbees, and footballs. Again, I pack a homemade lunch and will treat the boys to an ice cream at the shack on the beach.

Another great party was when he turned 6 and we headed to Adventure Playground in Berkeley, voted among the top 10 playgrounds in the country by National Geographic. It's full of discarded tools and structures, where kids can hammer and paint on makeshift boats, forts, and tire swings. It's free for individuals and groups of five pay between $75 to $180 depending on size.

It's not like there aren't great places to celebrate birthdays at in the East Bay. There are tons: Children's Fairyland, the Oakland Zoo, Pump it Up, Bladium, Albany Bowl, Oakland Ice, Chabot Space & Science Center, Habitot, and MOCHA, just to name few. Some are pricey, so my friend, Rebecca, came up with a different and simpler plan. One year, she invited about five boys over and gave them duct tape and a dozen or so empty refrigerator boxes. The boys spent the evening and the next day, cutting, taping, and creating a cardboard labyrinth in her backyard that was both creative and pretty much free.

As for my friend whose child melted down at Fairyland, she swears she's going to go more DIY next year. No roller coasters. No llamas to pet. Just a cake, and a low-key picnic party at the park.

Editor's note: This article has been edited to emphasize the importance of age-appropriate birth parties. The original version contained factual errors about Children's Fairyland birthday parties and may have implied its parties are excessive. The $300 fee includes vegetable snacks, cupcakes, a round of "Happy Birthday," a one-hour party, supervision by a trained party host, 20 admission tickets for a day at the park, three live performances, ride access, and a $50 party animal petting option that was a rabbit that kids could feed carrots.


Try the Adventure Playground in Berkeley as the setting for a kid's birthday party. Kids love it, and it's not expensive. Photo CC Teddy Cross