In every family the pecking order for holidays is different. In many homes Christmas is the top of the heap. In others, Thanksgiving or even the Fourth of July are when treasured memories are made. But in our house we are all about the birthday - the one holiday you don't have to share with anyone, unless, of course, you're a twin. I've always felt a little sorry for multiples on this account.
The day starts with the birthday kid waking up extra-early and snuggling into our bed. Then my husband and I retell the story of the day they were born. While Dad's sanitized version always manages to leave out breaking water and labor pains, the intention is the same; we want them to know that on this date our lives changed, unquestionably for the better. From there we move on to a breakfast of birthday-child selected cereal - the one time all year that Cookie Crisp or Froot Loops stands a chance to make it on the table. Presents, cake and the playing of the Beatles' "Birthday" always rounds out a pretty awesome, relatively low-stress day.
If the celebration could begin and end here, our family would be set. But there is always a question looming, and it begins to loom several months before the actual date of birth - "What are we going to do for the party?" Morphing into a pint-sized equivalent of the White House social secretary, he or she will start the planning: when will it be, where will it be, who will be invited? Will we invite the whole class or just the girls or just some girls? The political ramifications of these decisions can be great.
Madison, fortunately, has lots of amazing places to stage a winning birthday party. Whether you have boys or girls, toddlers or tweens, a budding naturalist or an emerging artist, there is life beyond Chuck E. Cheese's.
Ultrazone Laser Tag
680 Grand Canyon Dr., 608-833-8880
The allure of Laser Tag is strong - even addictive. My boys, 13 and 11, are huge fans and have been for years. I don't know if it is the adrenaline rush, the camaraderie, or tag aliases like Medusa or Thunderman - Ultrazone is always a hit. At the arena, a "Game Master" will lead your child and seven guests through two heart-pounding games, with a much-needed break for pizza, cake and present opening in between. The cost is $192 plus tax, but two adults play for free. According to owner Bob Sheridan, the grownups "seem to like it every bit as much as the kids."
218 State St., 608-204-2644
If your tween daughter is even remotely artsy, there is no way an afternoon at Anthology's craft table could disappoint as a birthday destination. Just call the store a few days in advance to book table time, pick your craft, and voilà, a built-in party favor. According to owners Sachi and Laura Komai, the decoupage mirror frame ($15 per person) and button bracelet ($14 per person) projects are particularly popular with girls 8 and up. And while there isn't a spot on-site for cake or presents, there are lots of great options up and down State Street to satisfy any sweet tooth.
4009 Felland Rd. #102, 608-244-4386
While I normally ascribe to the less-is-more philosophy when it comes to invites, a place like Bounce U comes in handy when your kid just can't cull the guest list. Up to 20 of your child's closest friends can spend over an hour in a private bounce extravaganza and then retire to the party room for cake and presents. Trust me, if you have this many kids coming, you don't want them bouncing on your furniture; it's way better to leave the entertaining to the party pros included in the package. And if you want to avoid "inflation," plan to bounce Monday through Wednesday. It'll cost less than 10 bucks a guest.
Dane County Humane Society
5132 Voges Rd., 608-838-0143
If man's best friend is also one of your child's, the Dane County Humane Society is hard to beat as a party option. With behind-the-scenes tours of adoptable animals, opportunity for animal interaction, and a scavenger hunt (depending on which birthday package you choose, starting at $125), this venue gives new meaning to the phrase "party animal." But call early - birthday parties here are extremely popular. And consider yourself warned: Your guests may want to take home a kitten instead of a goody bag.
Aldo Leopold Nature Center
300 Femrite Dr., Monona, 608-221-0404
Since kids will always insist on using outside voices, why not just have the party outside? That's the idea at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, where a trained naturalist will lead your child and guests in a specially designed program. Whether your outdoorsman (or woman) chooses Feathered Friends, Frogs or Incredible Insects as the theme, it's a great environment for a party. Just remember, you'll need to bring the cake, perhaps mud pie, from home. Cost: a very reasonable $100.
Madison Children's Museum
100 N. Hamilton St., 608-256-6445
All the birthday packages include admission to the got to-see-it-to-believe it museum - cows hanging from the ceiling and all - as well as 90 minutes in a decorated celebration room. And say goodbye to the same old party junk food; chefs from the on-site Bean Sprouts café cater with clever, kid-friendly munchies and all-natural artisan cakes. With creative event options starting at $190 for members, I'd love to have my birthday here, no kids invited.