By now you’ve seen all the Cars-themed party fun of Kate’s 3rd birthday party, and now here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how it all came together!
The Venue & Setting Up
As I shared in Kate’s 3rd birthday party post, we decided to hold her celebration in a movie theater! Deciding on our venue was the easy part – finding a theater that would actually accommodate us was surprisingly challenging. While calling around to research our options I discovered that Disney/Pixar movies that aren’t currently playing in theaters are locked up in “the vault” and Disney will not release their reels to theaters. I was repeatedly told that our only option for a movie theater party was to have the party featuring a different movie currently playing in theaters. By this point I was pretty committed to the Cars birthday party theme, so I kept on searching and was thrilled to finally find a theater with a DVD player that would let us bring in our own copy of Cars to play on the day! The theater’s only requirement was that we didn’t charge our guests (which of course we didn’t). The party was on, and I was so excited for Kate’s first movie theater experience to be with her favorite movie and all our friends!
The challenge with having this year’s party somewhere other than our house is that I only had 30 minutes to set up food and decorations before guests arrived.
Considering how short I was on time, I was so grateful to have my sister Amanda and my friend Jill helping me with set-up. I planned out as much as I could beforehand, including the placement of decorations, food layout, etc., and on the morning of the party we loaded up my friend Jill’s minivan (thank goodness for that thing!), headed to the theater, and raced like crazy people to have everything set up in time. We ran into a snag right off the bat in that I was expecting two large 6′ banquet tables to be set up for food and favors, but we arrived to find two little 4′ long tables barely deep enough to fit a popcorn tub. I had planned everything out for 6′ banquet tables (tablecloths, happy birthday banners, centerpieces, food placement, etc.) so it was definitely a “make it work” moment. The projectionist was the only theater staff person there at the time, but he was so helpful and brought in another little table from their cafe which helped. My original plan was to have all the food on one table and all the favors and beverages on the other table, but in the end we needed all the tables for food and beverages, and I had to keep the party favors boxed up until we handed them out.
When you’re having a party somewhere other than your home those little unexpected things are bound to happen, but in the grand scheme of things they’re no big deal – you’ve just got to roll with them!
We were still setting up food as our first guests arrived, but luckily we had Kate’s 3rd birthday slideshow (set to two of our favorite songs from the Cars movie) playing to keep people entertained as they picked out their seats and got settled in:
Since we had the whole theater to ourselves we were thrilled to invite all the little kiddos in Kate’s life and their parents. In the end our guest list totaled 70 people (35 of them kids) and we were so excited to celebrate with everyone!
Let’s talk decorations! To keep party costs in check, I made almost all of Kate’s party decorations myself. I’m ridiculously flattered by those of you who’ve asked if I’m a graphic designer, but I assure you I’m not. I made Kate’s party decorations using good old Microsoft Publisher, paper, scissors, and glue. I got some help from an Etsy seller (BirthdayP – I’d link up but unfortunately she’s no longer on Etsy), who made the “Kate” Cars logo that I used on pretty much everything, and the water bottle labels. I Googled to find images of all the Cars characters and used Photoshop to trace around them and erase their background (which is currently the extent of my Photoshopping knowledge) so I could use them for various decorations, starting with…
VIP Pit Passes
My sister Amanda greeted our guests at the door and handed out “VIP Pit Passes” to each of the kids as they arrived. She said they were such a hit that even some of the parents were asking if they could have one, too!
I was looking online for black and white checkered lanyards, but totally lucked out finding these Cars lanyards at Party City – even better! I saw the “Pit Pass” idea numerous times on Pinterest and loved it. I made mine using Publisher, printed them out on white cardstock, cut, and inserted them into clear name badge holders. I used Lightening McQueen and Mater as the stars of my printables since they’re Kate’s favorite Cars characters.
I wanted to do a “Kate is 3” banner that mimicked the classic Route 66 sign, played around with a few ideas, and settled on this. I liked the blue background to add a little color and I thought the red polka dots kept it looking youthful and playful:
Car Wash Hand Wash & Sanitizing Station
I’m a total germaphobe – a condition exacerbated by public places – which is how I came up with the idea to set up a “Car Wash” hand wash and sanitizing station – “free with fill-up!” so guests could clean up their hands before and after they ate without having to leave the movie. I brought our hand sanitizer pump from home and slapped a checkered label on it, and set a package of baby wipes (it just so happened the Target brand baby wipes were the same blue as Kate’s party colors) placed in a red metal bin that we already had.
Happy Birthday Banner
Here’s a look at how the “Happy Birthday Kate” banner would have looked (mocked up on my kitchen island) had we had the two 6′ banquet tables I was expecting:
Instead, in a “make it work” moment, I tied each set together into one long banner and hung them at the front of the theater underneath the screen (as seen in our original Cars Birthday Party post).
Similar to the “Kate is 3” signs above, her birthday banner was made with white printed cardstock, cut out and glued over blue cardstock – both in the shape of the classic Route 66 sign. I used a little hole punch in the corners and red ribbon to tie them all together.
Safety Cone Balloon Entrance
One of my favorite parts of Kate’s birthday party last year was surprising the little ones with a grand entrance – something I was excited to do again this year! My first idea was to line the entrance with safety cones. I used Lightening McQueen and Mater on most of the party printables since they’re Kate’s favorite characters, but I really wanted to incorporate the rest of the gang somehow, so I decided to add pictures of all the Cars characters to each of the cones. I originally wanted to line the hallway with large racing flags hanging at an angle as the kids ran through but I wasn’t allowed to hang anything from the walls, so I decided to have them sticking out of the tops of the safety cones instead. As we were getting closer to Kate’s party date she asked me if we’d have balloons at her party. At the time I wasn’t planning on using balloons (since we did so many last year) but Kate really loves balloons so I decided to add them to the cones to bring some additional height, drama, and color to the entrance. The end result was a Cars character and balloon-lined entrance into the theater that was a major hit with the birthday girl and all her friends!
Those balloons were probably my biggest source of stress when it came to this year’s party planning. Those of you who follow me on Facebook and Instagram already know about my deflating drama, but for the rest of you here’s the scoop: I had “tester” helium balloons filled at Party City a couple of weeks prior to the party – some with Hi-Float added (which keeps balloons inflated longer), and some without – to test how far in advance I could have the balloons filled, allowing me time to assemble the safety cone decorations. My balloons with Hi-Float added lasted for more than a week, so I knew I was safe picking up my balloons in advance. I picked them up 2 days before the party – all 60 helium-inflated balloons crammed into my Nissan Rogue with little room to spare!
Lucky for me (but not my timeline) I was too busy that night finishing up other party decorations, that I didn’t have time to assemble the balloons in the safety cones. The next morning (one day before the party) I came downstairs to find some of the balloons completely deflated and all of them looking pretty sad. They forgot to add my Hi-Float! Back to the party store I went:
The ties on my new blue balloons were baby blue instead of the teal blue I wanted, so to finish up my balloon saga, I spent that night clipping away, replacing the baby blue ribbon with the teal ribbon from my deflated balloons – something that was certainly NOT in my timeline!
I mentioned above that I found graphics of all of the Cars characters online and used Photoshop to erase their backgrounds. I then used Microsoft Publisher to put them in a white circle with a black and white checkered boarder (these are just printed on regular white paper; not cardstock). Next, I took a 12×12 piece of cardstock and cut a circle out of the center of it, large enough so the hollowed-out square piece of cardstock would fit over the safety cones and cover some of that blaze orange at the bottom. (I originally saw that idea on Pinterest or Etsy but I never pinned it and now I can’t find it again, so my apologies for not linking up!) Next, I glued my checkered Cars character cut-outs onto the leftover black circles cut from the center of the 12×12 cardstock:
I used double-stick tape to secure the Cars characters to the sides of the cones, tied the balloons around the checkered flags and secured them to the inside of the cones (elevated and at an angle) using packaging tape.
Our cast of characters on the right side of the theater entrance included Lightening McQueen, Mater, Doc Hudson, Guido (my favorite character), Flo, Sarge, Lizzie, The King, Red, and one cone with the “Kate” Cars logo:
Our cast of characters on the left side of the theater entrance featured Lightening McQueen, Mater, Sally, Luigi, Ramone, Fillmore, Sheriff, Chick Hicks, Mack, and one cone with the “Kate” Cars logo:
I didn’t have time to take a picture of the actual set-up at the theater prior to the party starting (mostly because I spent the better chunk of our 30 minute set-up time straightening out balloons that had gotten tangled in transit) but here’s how it looked after the party:
The way the theater used only floor lighting once the movie started made the cones in the entryway look even cooler – each character looked like they had a spotlight on them!
We couldn’t have a Cars party without a Piston Cup, so I put together two of these trophies and used them as our table centerpieces:
I bought two large trophies from Oriental Trading Company (they were still pretty small though, FYI), added a mini “Kate is 3” sign to the front using double-stick tape, stuffed some floral foam inside and filled them with water and real red carnations. To give them a little extra height and drama, I also stuck two large checkered flags (the same ones I used for the balloon entrance) inside.
Checkered Flag Bunting
The last bit of decorations were checkered flag pennants (from Oriental Trading Company) hung along the bottom of the theater screen and along the rail in front of the theater seats (seen in the theater pictures at the top of this post).
The theater we chose (Sundance Cinemas) was so gracious to let us bring in our own snacks, water and juice for our guests (most places wanted to charge us an additional $5-7/person for a mini snack tray for the kids – on top of our theater rental fee!) so to respect them for their hospitality I wanted to make sure we stuck with mess-free finger foods. Sundance also has an amazing concession stand that’s more like a restaurant than a theater (they serve an impressive menu of food and drinks – it’s definitely not your typical theater!) and I didn’t want to take away from that, so we kept it light (and simple) with party snacks and told families in our invite that “light snacks and refreshments” would be provided and additional concessions and drinks were available for purchase at the concession stand.
Last year for Kate’s Sesame Street-themed birthday party I really wanted to do themed party food, but I ran out of time. This year I was determined to make it happen, and I had so much fun doing so! Here was our Cars-themed snack line-up:
Sarge’s Surplus Sandwiches
Get it? Sarge runs a surplus store…and we had a surplus of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches! This was G’s DIY contribution to the party – he knocked those bad boys out in serious “Daddy of the Birthday Girl” style the morning of her party.
Mater’s Dip Sticks
Mater is a tow truck and I like to think there’s a dip stick connection there. For “dip sticks” I did sliced carrots and celery in little cups, some with ranch dressing and some with hummus in the bottom.
Sally’s Stoplight Fruit Skewers
For these I used a melon baller and balled watermelon for the red light, cantaloupe for the yellow (okay, fine, orange) light, and honeydew for the green light. It was my first time balling a melon and I’m not much of a fruit person so I was so worried about the fruit getting slimy or going bad if I prepped it too soon, so I balled those damn melons in the middle of the night sometime between 1am and 5am. In the morning (after the 2 hours of sleep I got the morning of Kate’s party) I threaded them through a lollipop stick which was blunt enough not to injure the mouths of the minimally coordinated little ones that’d be eating them. I was a little worried the whole “melon” thing wouldn’t go over well with the kiddos, but it turns out stoplights trump melon and these were gobbled up in no time!
Fillmore’s Organic Flower Power Cake Pops
Fillmore is a free-loving hippy who’s all about organic fuel, so I was all about honoring him with all-natural, organic cake pops made by yours truly. Cake pops are Kate’s favorite, so they’re a must-have for her birthday party! They’re pretty easy to do, but incredibly time-consuming. To prevent myself from going crazy just before her party I actually made all the cake pops for her event back in November (her party was in January) and froze them until the big day. I used pastel pink coating for the chocolate cake pops and pastel yellow for the vanilla cake pops, and all of them were coated with flower power-shaped sprinkles.
Luigi’s Tower of Tires
If you’ve seen the movie you know that Luigi sells tires and has a “Tower of Tires” out in front of his shop. I recreated this using mini chocolate donuts as tires, and this was such a hit with the kids!
To make Luigi’s Tower of Tires, I used a small styrofoam circle, a long lollipop stick, and an old white cloth napkin. First I poked the long lollipop stick into the center of the styrofoam circle. Then I cut a little hole into the cloth napkin to fit over the lollipop stick and draped the napkin across my platter with the stick sticking out. I threaded mini chocolate donuts onto the stick and then piled them up on the platter. Easy as
Guido’s “Pit Stop” Popcorn
Guido is my favorite Cars character so I had to work him in somehow! I love his “pit stop” and I love popcorn, so the connection was clear. We brought a galvanized party tub, filled it (numerous times) with popcorn from the theater’s concession stand, and served it in little red & white striped popcorn boxes. The popcorn at Sundance Cinemas is so good that this tub was almost always empty (and G or I were almost always in the concession line) so unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of it with the bin filled, but you get the idea!
Flo’s V8 Cafe (Refueling Station)
The party beverages we provided were a tub of juice boxes and a tray of waters with personalized “Kate” Cars wrappers. In addition to what we brought, soda and alcoholic beverages were available for purchase from the concession stand, and you better believe this mama had a glass or two of Chardonnay to celebrate the party planning being both over, and a success!
I spotted these mini Cars lunchboxes at Party City while I was scouting decorations and brainstorming ideas, and I absolutely had to have them as the favors for Kate’s party. I love the idea of sending kids home with things they’ll love and use for more than a day and I knew these lunchboxes were it! Because the lunchboxes in and of themselves were the hit, I knew I could skimp with what went inside, so I stuck with Cars stickers and a little die-cast car (both in keeping with the theme) and a packet of M&Ms (Kate’s favorite candy):
While most of our young guests got lunchboxes, they weren’t age appropriate for everyone so I wanted to label our favors for the sake of convenience. While working on the labels I got the idea of making them to look like Radiator Springs license plates, so that’s what I went with (loosely based off of the Wisconsin license plates I’m used to seeing).
I lucked out in that most of our child guests were right around Kate’s age, but I did have a handful of kiddos in attendance that were either too young or too old to enjoy the lunchbox party favors. Because of this, our youngest guests took home a favor bag “kiddie” Cars goodies, and our oldest guests (teenaged) took home a favor bag filled with boxes of movie theater candy and microwave popcorn. I like (hope) to think that everyone left happy!
Last but not least is the cutie-pie outfit our birthday girl sported on her special day! Her personalized Cars birthday party shirt is compliments of my friend Kent from Peachy Keen Designs – she did a wonderful job and I loved seeing my cars-loving girl looking so cute and happy on her big day!
Overall, my goal for Kate’s birthday party was to celebrate Kate’s life with all of her favorite things, surrounded by all of her favorite people. I think there is something absolutely magical about birthday parties at this age, and I’m well aware that that won’t always be the case. She truly adored her day, and even two months later she continues to talk about, which makes me think this may be her first birthday party that she’ll have memory of. That’s amazing to me!
My secondary goal of Kate’s birthday party was to simply celebrate children. I wish I could bottle up that awe and excitement that each child experiences when it comes to a birthday party! Other than her picture slideshow, her name on the decorations and the fact that her parents were paying the bill, this year’s party could have been any guest’s birthday party, and that means so much to me. I was so excited making each child’s VIP Pit Pass thinking of how special they’d feel wearing it. I was all smiles making cake pops thinking of all the kids (and parents!) who would happily devour them in two bites or less. And I envision kids on this very day packing up treasures in their mini Cars lunchbox and proudly parading them around the house.
I love celebrating my daughter.
I love celebrating children.
That is why I love doing this!
Our Party Shopping List
Kate’s Personalized Cars Birthday Shirt: Peachy Keen Designs
Theater: Sundance Cinemas
Kate’s 3rd Birthday Slideshow made using Windows Live Movie Maker
Cars Lanyards: Party City
Plastic Holders for Pit Passes: Staples
Black & White Checkered Handkerchief Squares (used on the Pit Pass and Car Wash tables): JoAnn Crafts
Safety Cones: Home Depot
Large Racing Flags: Oriental Trading Company
Balloons: Party City
Trophies: Oriental Trading Company
Checkered Flag Bunting: Oriental Trading Company
Red & White Striped Popcorn Boxes: Oriental Trading Company
Mini Cars Lunchboxes: Party City
Cars Stickers: Oriental Trading Company
Die-Cast Car Favors: Party City
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