The most important part of a surprise party is the one that receives the least amount of attention.
The first two minutes.
I learned this the hard way recently as my sister’s significant other, Nate, and I planned a surprise 50th birthday party in her honor, at her home.
After weeks of prepping, it seemed like everything was coming together the night of the party. Decorations and dinner were in place, guests had arrived, and sangria was poured.
Once we got word that my sister would arrive in 5-10 minutes, the chaos started.
Where should guests stand for the big reveal?
Anyone have enough battery power on their phone to record her reaction?
Would she see the giant pile of coats and wonder what was going on?
Bottom line: we did a good job planning the party, but we didn’t consider how to reveal the surprise or how to make the most of this memorable moment.
Learn from My Mistakes in Throwing a Surprising Birthday Party
Thankfully, we did end up surprising my sister, but it was soooooo close! If we had thought about the “reveal” ahead of time, guests wouldn’t have been racing from room to room like an out of control I Love Lucy episode; we would have a complete video of her reaction and more.
I can’t go back and redo the “big reveal” of my sister’s surprise 50th birthday party, nor can I bottle up the abundance of birthday love from that night.
BUT...what I can do is share some suggestions on what I’d do differently so that YOUR next surprise party is seamless.
Keep reading for details or jump directly to a particular section:
Micromanage the Element of Surprise for Maximum Impact
I believe a surprise party in someone's honor is a rare treat. Not only are people coming together to celebrate the Birthday Person, there's almost an unwritten contract for the party hosts and guests:
"We agree to do unnatural, and potentially inconvenient, behaviors in hopes of delighting the Birthday Person even more. These behaviors may include:
- Telling complete lies to get you out of the house or explain our whereabouts
- Committing to arrive at a designated time
- Standing in complete darkness for several minutes as you make your entrance"
Maximize the person's surprise by deciding on some details ahead of time. Trust me that it's muuuuuch harder to make decisions in the heat of the moment and communicate them to your guests. (Did I mention there was sangria at my sister's party? 😀)
Develop a “cover” story so the guest of honor doesn’t suspect anything - If possible, enlist the help of others so you can focus on the party.
(Kudos to Nate for asking my sister’s colleague to schedule a mandatory meeting. Thanks to Cynthia for keeping my sister in the dark and delivering her to the party.)
Clearly communicate to guests the time they should arrive by, as well as time the guest of honor is expected. I would even include it on the invitation if possible.
(Several guests asked for clarification on start time--was it when they should arrive or when my sister was expected.)
Decide how you’d like the “reveal” to happen-will you surprise them as they enter the room? Will everyone shout “Surprise!” in unison? Do you want to extend the fun and stagger the surprise as various party guests come into view?
(Party guests looked to Nate and I for answers. As mentioned above, we hadn't even considered this.)
- Will you leave clues to help the Birthday Person know something is up-will you turn the lights off in the room? Will you leave balloons on the counter? Will guests be visible from outside the room?
My sister and friends
Enlist Party Guests to Help Delight the Birthday Person
Instead of shouldering all the responsibility for the surprise, enlist others. Guests are happy to help and will be even more invested in the element of surprise if you assign a role to them.
- Distracter-occupies the Birthday Person while the guests are gathering
- Parking Attendant-directs guests to non-obvious parking spaces
- Lookout-tracks arrival of Birthday Person and communicates info to the guests
Coraller-herds party guests to the designated hiding spot
Unveiler-starts the shout of surprise at the agreed-to moment
Videographer(s)-records the Birthday Person entering the house/room/space
Photographer(s)-takes photos of the Birthday Person entering the space
You may not need all of the roles listed above, but I sooo wish we had photos and a complete video of my sister's entry into her own kitchen! Her reaction was priceless!
My sister and some friends she's known since she was 18!
Identify Best Spots to Unveil and Capture the Surprise
After you've gone through all the effort of planning the surprise party, take a few minutes to determine ideal locations to heighten the surprise and help you capture memories.
- Best spot for Birthday Person to enter the room
- Best spot for guests to park
- Best spot to record video of the surprise
- Best spot to take photos of the surprise
- Best spot for a group photo
- Best gathering spot for guests’ coats, purses, umbrellas
- Best table/area for gifts and cards
A Few More Takeaways from Co-Hosting a Surprise 50th Birthday Party
- I underestimated how much fun the element of surprise adds to a birthday party---for the Birthday Person and the party guests.
- The shared experience of planning and keeping the surprise resulted in entertaining stories that lasted late into the evening.
- Inviting a broader range of people made for interesting conversations and connections.
- I wish I'd had time to include more photos into the party decor, but that's a blog post for another day! 😀