Sunday, January 23, 2011

DIY Circus / Carnival Themed Birthday Party!

My baby boy just turned one.  While I am still in denial that my baby is 1, I did somehow manage to throw him a party.  It's tough to figure out what a kid likes at this age, so you kindof have to wing it when coming up with a theme.  Toby loves balloons, like I'm sure most toddlers do, so I thought a circus / carnival theme would be a good theme to bring in lots of bright colors and balloons.  I always like to start with the invitation...


I decided to make Toby's invitation in the form of a circus poster, with him being the star "act."  I used a mix of hand drawing and Photoshop to create the final design, which included an illustration of Toby eating cake and the description, "Witness the amazing 1 year old Toby as he devours an entire birthday cake right before your very eyes!" 

I splurged and spent a few bucks to have these printed at Kinko's on the larger 11" x 17" paper, since my standard letter sized paper just didn't give that poster effect.

I didn't want to fold them, but wanted to treat it like a real poster, so I rolled them up.  I took some empty cardboard tubes, left over from Christmas wrapping paper, and cut them into the right length to hold each poster.  Then I just slid the poster inside and folded the edges in to close off the tubes.
I made a little banner that read, "the Circus is coming to town," printed it on sticky paper, and stuck those around the tube to dress it up a bit.


I hung the usual crepe paper and some balloons, and cut out the letters to spell Toby's name using some construction paper.  You'd be surprised how many decorations you can make with a little construction paper!  I also hung several extra invitation posters around the house.

Then I remembered that I recently started carrying balloons and balloon pumps for clowns and balloon twisters in my Paintertainment shop, so I bought some from myself.  I looked up some how-to videos on YouTube for making balloon animals, and there are a LOT of them.  It was just a few minutes before I had a dog, a cat, and a couple swans.  (I also had a pretty cool flower that popped!)  I thought these would make cute decorations too, so I hung a few with thread from the light in the kitchen.  Toby LOVED watching them spin around as they hung from the ceiling, and I figured I could give them to the kids as they leave the party.


I didn't really do any "games" for Sammy's 1st birthday, because, well 1-year-olds are really too small to participate in games anyway.  But, since we had 6 cousins and 1 big brother at Toby's party, and most of them are old enough for games, I decided to do a pinata.

I made a circus tent pinata, which turned out cuter than I thought it would.  I actually did the paper mache part last summer, while I had all the supplies out doing Sammy's Thomas wagon for Halloween and his Thomas pinata. Multitasking at it's best!  I pulled it out closer to the party to paint it up and fill it with candy.  The flags are just construction paper glued to pieces of bamboo skewers, topped with a wood bead.  The balloons are construction paper with jewelry wire for strings, to make them "float."  I found some circus illustrations via Google Images that I glued around the edges, and a circus tent scene that I glued inside the tent "door" entrance.

The bottom has a trap door with one ribbon that opens it, along with many other ribbons that just come off when pulled.  Each kid gets to pull a ribbon until someone gets the one that dumps the candy!  Where to put the candy?  Why, in your goodie bags, of course...

I think moms have a love-hate relationship with the goodie bag.  Many times it is full of stuff that breaks or ends up in the trash once you get home.  When Sammy gets a goodie bag at a party, often times I'll stash away the little prizes and pull them out later as entertainment on a road trip, or while waiting at the doctor's office or a restaurant.

I tried to find a few little items to put in the bags, made my own labels with the kids' names on them, and then we used them mainly as a place for the kids' pinata winnings. Toby's party goodie bags included little stuffed elephants that I found in the dollar bins at Target, a couple suckers, and clown rubber balls & clown noses that I ordered online.
The clown noses actually ended up making for some pretty funny pictures of the kids!

I had to do a chocolate tunnel of fudge cake because, well,
A) I love chocolate cake,
B) Toby is 1; he couldn't care less what type of cake I baked, and
C) I'm the one who went through the hours of labor on his birth day.  See reason A.

I decorated it with colorful sprinkles, some cute balloon candles, and a little circus train cake decoration that my mom used to use on our cakes when my siblings and I were little.

I have another bundt pan that makes 6 little cakes, so I filled one cavity to make a miniature version just for Toby to dig into!

Turns out the mini bundt shape was perfect for him to pick up and eat, much like a doughnut!

While surfing the web I came across this idea for making cupcakes that look like little popcorn cups. Sure, I have a cake already, but what the heck...why not add another form of cake.  Especially when it's a cupcake that looks like some other food.  You all know from this post, and this post, that I have a thing for cupcakes that look like other foods.

You'd think that red and white striped cupcake liners would be easy to find, but they are not.  Most recipes online want you to buy some fancy, expensive snack cups or use markers to color the paper.  I did not want to spend the money on cupcake liners, and could not picture lifting a cupcake to my nose only to smell Sharpie fumes.  So, I ultimately decided to just make my own popcorn box design on the computer that would wrap around the cupcakes.

Fortunately for you, you don't even have to make your own, because I am going to give you a copy of my little cupcake covers to download for FREE!  Just click the link to download the pdf, print it out, cut, and tape around your cupcakes.  If you have some scrapbooking scissors, try doing a decorative edge along the top like I did, for an added touch! Here's the one I used:

So, to make the popcorn cupcakes, here's what I did...

1) Bake some cupcakes.  I used a yellow cake mix.

2)  Tape the cupcake "popcorn tub" sleeves into circles, using a cupcake as a guide.  You want the circumference of the sleeve to basically match the circumference of the top of the cupcake liner.  Set these aside, so you don't get them full of frosting or food coloring while you decorate.

3) Frost the cupcakes.  I used cream cheese frosting.  Something white or off-white that blends with the color of the "popcorn" looks best.

4) Top the cupcake with mini marshmallows.

5) Cut each one of the marshmallows in an "X" shape.  This is the most time consuming step, but don't skip it!!  This is what makes them look so much like popcorn!  I used my Tiny Bites Food Shears and they worked great.  I found that after 1 cupcake, I'd usually get a little bit of sticky marshmallow on the blades, and then the marshmallows wanted to stick to the scissors and come off.  To remedy that, I rinsed off the tips of the scissors whenever something got on them.  I didn't totally dry them off...just shook off the excess water.  A little water left on the blades helped them to glide right through the marshmallows.

6) Apply the popcorn "butter."  The recipe suggests that aerosol spray food coloring, but I tried several  grocery stores with no luck.  In the end I decided to mix some yellow food coloring and water and spray it on with a clean spray bottle.  You could also try brushing it on with a basting brush, however, don't get them TOO wet or you'll dissolve the marshmallows.

7) Slip each cupcake into a popcorn tub sleeve, and you're done!

The rest of the menu really stressed me out this time for a little while as I just wasn't sure what to make.  The popcorn cupcakes were the starting point, and I thought, why not let the carnival theme flow through the whole menu?  So, in addition to these little popcorn cups, I served...

Mini & Regular Sized Corn Dogs...normally I wouldn't serve frozen junk food like this at a party, but hey, what's a carnival without corn dogs?  Plus, every kid loves corn dogs, and these are easy.  

To add something a little more adult to the mix but still within the corn dog realm, I found this corn dog casserole online and gave it a try. My husband thought it sounded gross, but everyone liked it in the end (or said they did) so I'm glad I tried it!  It's made with cut up hot dogs, cornbread mix, green onions, celery, sage, egg, milk, cheddar cheese and pepper. It's an easy thing to prep ahead of time and then assemble and stick in the oven a half hour before party time.

You can't have a circus without peanuts, so I made sure to put out a bowl of peanuts.  (with a warning, of course, to please not feed the elephants!)  

It looked pretty cute with a little sign and Toby's stuffed elephant nearby.  I was going to get those circus peanut candies, however, I couldn't find them at my grocery store and decided they aren't really all that good anyway.  At least these have some protein...

We also had a big, bear-shaped container of animal crackers out. Although, if you got those little individual boxes that look like little circus train cars, they'd look really cute on the table too!

Luckily we live less than 10 miles away from the Mall of America, and it's amusement park, Nickelodeon Universe.  So, we have access to carnival type food year-round.  I was able to make a trip out in below zero temperatures the night before the party to pick up a big bag of cotton candy for 3 bucks.  When I got home, I divided it up into little ziploc baggies and made tags to fold over and staple to the top.  They turned out really cute and looked pretty in a big, glass bowl!  If you can find your own cotton candy, you can download my labels here and make your own little servings!

While cleaning and packing stuff for our move next week, I came across an ice shaver that my mom had gotten from Pampered Chef years ago, and had passed down to me.  I don't think I've used it in at least 10 years but I thought it would be a great way to offer another carnival food item...Sno Kones!  A week before the party I started freezing ice "pucks" and stashing a supply in the freezer.  I printed a little sign to hang above the shaver, set a glass of straws and some cups nearby, and even found a recipe to make your own snow cone syrup.  I've also uploaded a page of my little food signs for you to use, if you like here!!

Oh yeah, and I threw in a veggie tray with dip, fruit, pasta salad and some chips too for people who wanted some "actual" food.  Gotta have a few veggies to counteract my guilt from serving an entire table of fat and sugar!  But hey, nobody goes to the carnival to eat vegetables anyway, right?!

All in all I think it was a fun time, and the birthday boy seemed to enjoy it all very much!  (except for the scary candy falling from the sky during the pinata!)


  1. I love the cupcake wrappers! Good job - I'm going to save that to my files of wrappers. I don't know when/if I'll ever have an excuse to MAKE 'popcorn' cupcakes, but I'm going to try to find one! :)
    Here's a tip about wrapping paper wrappers around your cupcakes: When you frost your cupcakes (using only NON HYDROGENATED REAL BUTTERCREME, of COURSE! ;) ) make sure your frosting is not around the outside "rim" of the cuppie. I usually use a tip and frost a swirl of frosting right on the top, kind of soft-serve ice cream style. If you get too close to the edge of the cupcake with your frosting and the paper touches it, the paper turns greasy very quickly, and the grease spreads down through the paper. Not such a great look.

    Thanks for the download! :)

  2. Fabulous job Gretchen!! I love everything that you did. Love that you had the shave ice/snow cones and the cupcakes are way too adorable. The cupcake wrapper is cool too! Happy Birthday to your sweet guy! Kerri

  3. Excellent message to every points in this blog about the birthday party supplies and product reviews for the future planning.Thanks.

  4. Can you send me a copy of your peanut sign please?

  5. Congratulations on your son's birthday. What a lovely party that must have been. It looks fun!
    Circus Party Supplies

  6. So adorable! I am planning a circus theme party for my sons 2nd birthday. I did try and download the cupcake wrappers but they print very small and not great quality. Am I doing something wrong? It opens them on a PDF. Also, I am having the HARDEST time creating an invite. I don't know how to do it in PSE9. Any tips?

  7. Love your ideas! Thank you for the popcorn cupcake tutorial!! I am going to use it for my son's party in December. :)

  8. you have such good ideas I'm going to use them for my son's 2nd bday Thanks so much for sharing!

  9. Love all this! Thank you so much for the free download, I can't wait to print them!!!

  10. Can you tell me if I can down load all of your labels & any see how to get the cotton candy label,I have already printed it. I am having a carnival birthday party for my 9 year old. You are so talented & I love your work not to mention how talented you are for sharing all of your hard work with all of us.

  11. Is there a way to get all of your labels? I have already printed the cupcake labels & love them. I would like to use the other labels you created if possible. I am having a carnival birthday party for my daughter. Thank you for sharing your talent with all of us. We all love to save money any way we can. Again Thank You

  12. Darlene, I'm so sorry your post got lost in the shuffle for a little while there! I am guessing that I am too late to help now, but if you still can use them, email me at gretchen(at)gretchenfleener(dot)com and I would be happy to email you the files. I will try to get them up here and download-able at some point too! Thanks for stopping by and i hope you had a great party!!

  13. I am having a circus/carnival themed 1st bday party for my son. I absolutely love the peanut sign. How did you make it?? Are you willing to share? My email address is
    Thanks, Laurie

  14. How did you make the pinata? Any tutorials?

  15. Hmmmm...well, I do have an older post from my 1st born's robot themed party. On there I posted a photo montage with the steps I took to make his robot pinata. It's really the same idea, cardboard box with paper hopefully this will help!! :-)



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