Sunday, March 4, 2012

Ryan & Connor's 4th Birthday Party: Lightning McQueen in Radiator Springs

It's always a little challenging to figure out what to do for the boys' birthday party.  They are just so different and like radically different things.  Ryan loves cars.  And Connor loves fish.  And while I like to think I can come up with some pretty creative ideas I haven't figured out a way to tie cars and fish together in one party just yet.  Since we had a fish themed party last year at the Moody Gardens Aquarium we decided to do a cars themed party this year. 

I originally started out looking for some place with go-karts that the boys might be able to drive, but couldn't find a place that would let shrimps drive.  Most places had 42-48" height limits to drive the cars.  While Ryan would have been tall enough to drive at some places, Connor wouldn't.  And neither would some of their friends.  (Ryan's actually been about 2 1/2 inches taller than Connor for a couple of months now - finally growing into those feet.  :)) 

So back to the drawing board I went.  I kicked around all kinds of ideas, but kept coming back to some sort of movie watching party.  The trouble with that of course was finding a place to show the movie the boys wanted to watch (Cars 2) 6 months after it had left the theater.  But the more I looked around and thought about it, the more I knew I wanted to do a movie on the lawn.  In February.  In Texas.  In the hottest winter I could remember.  But, I had already been bitten by the weather bug for the boy's 2nd birthday (originally scheduled for Old McDonalds farm, but had to be moved the week before the party to an indoor venue due to a cold snap) so I was leary of not having some sort of alternate indoor location.  Luckily our neighborhood has a clubhouse that can be reserved, and while a little on the small side, would work in the event that the weather turned south.  Which of course it did... :)  The Thursday before the party was a balmy 84 degrees.  The Saturday of the actual party a high of 56 was expected. 

Of course inspiration for a cars themed party wasn't hard to come by.  The boys both really liked the original Cars the movie and were thrilled when Cars 2 came out at the theater last summer and finally on DVD in the fall.  We have only watched it a million or so times since then.  :)  And of course the internet is an amazing resource.

Before long the ideas were rolling and here's what I came up with:

The invitations:

The invitations were designed to look like racing tickets.  As usual I am a little behind the technology curve, but finally moved to a smart phone about a year and a half ago, and relatively recently caught on to barcode or QR code scanning.  Since the invitations were tickets I thought it would be really cool if the barcode actually did something - like RSVP for the party.  :)  Yes, I know.  I am a nerd.  I spent far longer than I should admit trying to get a barcode that would send an RSVP email to my email address.  I finally gave up and switched to QR codes.  Since they are smaller than barcodes I went ahead and added 3 QR codes, 2 for RSVPs (1 for accepts, 1 for regrets), and a link to the map of the party destination.  When you scanned one of the RSVP codes it automatically opened up a compose email window, populated the email address, subject and contents  ("We are coming!") into the message body. The map code linked to a URL for the address at Google Maps where you could see a map or get driving directions.   I was absolutely thrilled - until I went into work to find some guinea pigs to try them out.  The problem with QR codes of course, is that everyone has a different reader.  While it worked beautifully on every Android app we tried, a Blackberry, and some Palm Pre's the iPhone both 3 & 4 were hit or miss with the RSVPs depending on the reader that was installed.  On the bright side the map worked for everyone.  :)

The decorations:

The biggest part of the decorations were a handful of posters printed from desktop wallpapers.  Despite the fact that they were fairly low resolution, they scaled really well.

In addition to the posters I had picked up a few standee's at a great price online.  The original Cars characters (Lightning, Mater, and Mack) ranged from about 3 feet to 5 feet tall and looked amazing!     Holley and Finn were a little bit shorter, but still a great size for the boys.  I ended up sprinkling them around the room in mini vignettes (that would have been awesome for pictures had we thought to take any!). 

Size wise they were perfect - Ryan on the left is 42" tall and the Lightning was just his size!  Connor was equally happy with his favorite character - Holley.   And on the bright side, we can reuse them in the boys' room for decorations when we convert them to their BIG "big boy beds!" and move them to their new room in a few months.

Solid red and yellow table cloths, Cars themed helium balloons, an inflatable cactus, and a 100ft long checkered bunting strung around the room completed the indoor decorations.  I had planned to pick up a dozen or so red and yellow helium balloons as well, but sent Kevin to the store to air up the balloons and completely forgot to tell him.  :)  Oh well, we didn't miss them too much.

Speaking of the red and yellow balloons - I ended up using  the almost 5 foot tall Mack outside along with some balloons to help folks find the party. 

I really loved the balloon banner - and it couldn't have been easier to make (unless of course I had used thread that wouldn't unravel itself the first time!).  The balloons are just blown up - no helium required (the first 30 or so using a hand pump we picked up at Walmart, and the rest by air compressor).  It was made using the directions found here (though in the 12inch balloons we used we only needed 3 balloons per cluster instead of 4).

The balloons were strung between two 6ft tall plant stands that I use to hang various birthday and holiday banners throughout the year. 

I also added eyes to a sunshade that was put in the front window of my car.  I backed the car in so that the front "face" was facing out for folks to see as they pulled into the parking lot.


I went round and round on activities, and even changed a few plans at the last minute (like scratching Mater's redneck bowling with human gerbil balls and inflatable bowling pins) because of the weather.

As the guests arrived we had 3 stations set up inside:
  • Doc's Fix it Shop - with wood puzzles ranging from 12-24 pieces
  • Ramone's Paint Shop - personalized story coloring books and colors
  • And Ramone's Body shop - where the kids could get tattoos
Doc's Fix it Shop (Puzzles)

Doc's Fix it Shop was a BIG hit!

I had originally only put out 6 different puzzles, but ended up breaking out 3 more from a box set when the first table filled up and had a waiting line.

Connor in particular is a puzzle fiend.  He can't get enough puzzles.  And he's amazingly good at them - he regularly puts together 100 piece puzzles in not much longer than it takes me!  I am pretty sure he worked every single puzzle on the table and even helped me sort out two puzzles that got jumbled together in the box.

Ramone's Paint Shop (Coloring)

At Ramone's paint shop the kids picked up personalized story coloring books.

I started out just planning to print a handful of plain Cars themed coloring sheets online for the kids to color.  As I was downloading and saving off the pages to print it ocurred to me that it would be super simple to add a personal touch to the sheets and put something about Ryan & Connor's party on each sheet. 

Before I knew it I had a whole story book about the party with a variety of characters from Cars and Cars 2.  The boys loved it so much that they had us read it over and over, and even asked to take the proof of concept book to school to read to their friends at story time when we got to the book bag.  They loved hearing their name in the story and hearing all about the party.

So I decided to print them as booklets and personalize them with the kids' names ("Dean's Coloring book") and even add them to story ("Lightning, Doc, and Mater were so glad Dean could make it to the party!"

Ramone's Body Shop (Tattoos)

At Ramone's Body Shop the kids could get a variety of Cars, Princess, or Tinkerbell themed tattoo's.  Our great friends the Kunkels helped out cutting out and applying the tattoo's for the kids.

Once everyone had arrived we started some of the group games.

We planned to have:
  • Musical Tires (inflatable swim rings to Life is a Highway from the movie)
  • And then time permitting either Pin the Headlight on Mater or originally Mater's redneck bowling (using human gerbil balls and an inflatable lawn bowling set) which was swapped out with the Scavenger Hunt at the last minute.
  • And the Grand Finale - Cardboard race cars
Musical Tires

As we pulled out the swim rings to get ready for the game the kids immediately pounced on them and devised their own games to play with them.  Thank goodness they were soft! 

After a few minutes of free play we wrangled all the swim rings back together and played 3 rounds of musical tires to the song Life is a Highway from the original cars movie soundtrack.  I had decided to include musical tires as one of the games as the kids play musical chairs at school and really seem to enjoy it.  And while the majority of the kids enjoyed the game we did have a few tears shed from the younger kids when they were eliminiated from the game.  Thankfully they were consoled with consolation prizes and we headed on to other games.

Pin the Headlight on Tow Mater

I had planned to have two stations of Pin the Headlight on Tow Mater - simple 3" white cardstock circles that the kids would attempt to put where Mater's missing headlight goes after being blindfolded (with a sleep mask for easy on/off) and spun around.   However, with 26 kids we opted to skip the game and get them headed outside to run off some energy with a scavenger hunt.

Cars Scavenger Hunt

I stumbled across a bingo like Cars Scavenger hunt game at the party store that I thought would be fun for the kids.

The set contained bingo like cards with pictures of all 4 of the cars that the kids would have to find as well as 3" round circles that could be hidden.  We decided to hide one car from each card in 4 different areas - the playground, the tennis courts, the trees, and the kitchen.  One car from each card was put in each location and clues were written on the back of first the bingo card and then each respective card to be found after that telling them what card could be found in the next location.

For example:
On the back of the bingo card it might have said "Lightning McQueen plays tennis to stay in shape in the off-season.  Look for him on the tennis courts."  And on the back of the Lightning card it might say "When he's not racing Francesco loves to cook.  Look for him in the kitchen!"  And so on.

We had a pretty large group - 26 total kids.  And the cards came in sets of 8 so the kids had to play in teams.  In addition some of the cards in a set would repeat (i.e. there were multiple Lightning McQueens that weren't easy to tell apart - despite putting team numbers on all the cards we had at least one group end up picking up two other teams' cards making it a bit more challenging for them to find all their cards.  :))  Overall though I think the kids really enjoyed the game.

Grand Finale: Cardboard Car Races!

The cardboard race cars were definately a hit!

I made 6 race cars out of cardboard boxes representing various cars from both the original Cars and Cars 2 movies (Lightning McQueen, Mater, Finn, Holley, Jeff Gorvette, and Red the Fire Engine).  The kids took turn racing back and forth across a stretch of open lawn. 

The cars were made from a variety of large boxes I collected over the last couple of months (Amazon, B&H photo, even a toilet paper box I snagged from work.  :))  They were cut to shape, painted with spray paint, and then had faces, tires, and decals taped on.

I was pretty thrilled with how they came out!

And the kids definately had a good time racing in them.  Ryan loved the yellow Jeff Gorvette, while Connor had to fight the girls off for his favorite - Holley.  :)

At the end of the races each of the kids recieved a piston cup with their name on it.

The food:

I had originally planned to make a relatively healthy dinner with mini sandwiches, fresh fruit, carrots, chips and dip, etc.

But as the RSVP's topped the 70 people mark we opted to switch to pizza instead.

Food was setup at Flo's V8 cafe (in the kitchen).  I created a menu card so folks would know what the options were and then made placards for each of the 6 different varities of pizza.

We kept the kids drinks simple as well with 4 different flavors of Cars themed Juicy Juice boxes and a lucky find of cars themed water bottles.

The juices were iced in tubs with matching labels.

And for dessert/cake - we had tires (donuts) from Luigi's Casa Della Tire showroom.

Ryan doesn't actually like frosting so isn't a big fan of cake or cupcakes.  The boys both love donuts so the "tires" were a no brainer.

We picked up the donuts from our local Shipley's.  I ordered a variety of iced donuts with sprinkles (mud tires, Radiator Springs white walls, and Michael Shumacher Ferrari racing tires) as well as some bullseye donuts (iced donuts topped with whipped cream and sprinkles).

The donuts were laid out on pans in the Casa Della Tire showroom both to keep them pretty and make them easy to distribute.

The Movie:

After the games and dinner the party ended with an indoor showing of Cars 2 the movie.

We set up the projector and screen in the party room as we cleared away some of the tables.  The kids sat in the floor in front of the projector on the rug, and the adults ranged around chairs in the back of the room.

It was our first time using the projector for such a large group and the internal speakers even turned up to full volume were a little hard to hear over the noise of the crowd if you weren't close enough to the projector.  The great thing about the projector we have is that it has everything built in (DVD player, speakers, etc.) so we don't have to lug around and setup alot of extra equipment.  On the downside, however, plugging in external speakers requires an amplifier & speakers... We have some portable wireless outdoor speakers that I think would work really well to provide a little more volume if we decide to do something like this again - we will just have to find an amp.

About half way through the movie as some of the kids started getting restless we called a 10 minute Intermission and turned on the lights so the folks who were ready to head out could see to make their way safely to the door.  Once they were out we turned the lights back off and the rest of the group finished the movie.

All the activities plus the movie made for a pretty long party - about 4 hours total.  A little bit long for 4 year olds - particularly at the end of the day.  We had considered cutting out some of the activities or showing some Mater's Tall Tales shorts instead of the movie to cut the time down, but the Birthday boys really wanted to watch Cars 2 so we did.

The Favors:

I had been incredibly lucky over the last year to catch all kinds of Cars and Princess themed stuff 50-75% off clearance and had quite a selection for the goodie bags.  :)

All the boys got a metal tool box filled with a scene setter with stickers, sheet of Cars magnets, a cars necklace pen, Cars notepad, box of Cars Colors, some Cars Candy racers, a sucker, and a real die cast race car from Cars the movie.

And finally...

The Thank You cards...

Just a simple folded note card designed to fit in a 4x5 envelope. 

And someday (soon I hope!) I will actually get around to finishing getting all the cards in the mail!  Though it would certainly be helpful if this nasty case of bronchitis would go away so I could breathe first.  :)

And next year?  Next year I will be happily writing a check to one of those nice everything included bounce places.  :)  And bringing my camera to actually take a few pictures of the party!  :)

The END!


  1. SERIOUSLY AMAZING! Love Everything. If my kids saw that window shade in a parking lot they would go insane. They can spot "Keem" or Mater from space, I think. Love the donut tires too. So clever! Well done. Now you set the precedent, a bounce place seems boring!

  2. Just found you through pinterest. Wowzers! Amazing party! I am going to use some of these ideas for sure. Do you have the coloring pages saved anywhere? I would love to be able to make custom ones as well.

  3. I didn't keep the originals - just saved the final edited files. But the majority of the coloring pages came from here:

  4. What a fun party! I bet your boys will always remember that--and one day they will totally appreciate all the hard work you must have put into that party for them! I'm feeling so inspired from this post, though I doubt mine will be half as impressive!!! ;)

  5. What a fun party! I bet your boys will always remember that--and one day they will totally appreciate all the hard work you must have put into that party for them! I'm feeling so inspired from this post, though I doubt mine will be half as impressive!!! ;)

  6. Thank you for sharing your Cars party info with us! I am borrowing the idea of Ramone's body shop as planned to tattoo all the guests & this is the perfect creative way to do so! Our cardboard boxes have already been spray painted & are awaiting decorations. We chose Mater, Lightning, Sally & Francesco, 3 of each! Im also making the loot trophies - Piston Cups - out of plastic 32 oz fountain drink cups, sliding tongue depressors in to make the wings, spray painting them gold, writing the guests names & when the loot falls from the pinata, they can load it in their Piston cup! Im SO excited! Lots left to do in the next 3 weeks! Thanks again! Stephanie from Blue Springs, MO

  7. Wow! This is outstanding. I am doing a Cars theme party on Sunday and will be borrowing some of your ideas. I love the idea of the puzzles as Doc's repair shop. We have our car boxes ready to go since I saw that somewhere else, but I absolutly LOVE your other games. Thanks SO much for blogging about this.

  8. WOW! I want to steal everything you did! I wished I had the budget. But it’s still a year before this happens. How did you make OR better, where did you download the template for the invitation?

  9. Unfortunately I made the invitations from scratch in Photoshop Elements, not from a template. And managed to lose it in a crash a couple of months later.

    As for budget - you'd be surprised at just how inexpensive of a party this was - especially when you have a year to catch sales. I spent just over $115 on decorations (and could have cut that down to $75 and would have still looked really nice). ~70 on favors (for 27 kids and went way overboard... :), and about $25 on other odds and ends like plates, napkins, table cloths, paint for the cars, scavenger hunt game, etc.) We own our projector and screen, but you can rent one, or in many cases pick up an inexpensive one and use a sheet for less $. One of our local libraries let you check them out for a nominal donation to cover bulb costs. And one of our friends was able to borrow one from their church - so check around!

  10. Super neat idea! My son’s second birthday isn’t until next month and I already told my husband what we’re doing for his third! Haha It’s going to be Cars themed of course, which is why I ended up here on this lovely blog which by the way, THANK YOU for sharing. I think I can speak for everyone who has somehow ended up here that you are doing us a great service by sharing your ideas. I consider this revolutionary in regards to birthday planning! I am SO glad I saw this a year in advance. Gives me so much time to make a birthday party as awesome (or at least try) as this one. It’s by far one of the best kid parties I’ve seen! I might do just what you said about looking around for someone or someplace that might lend out a projector. I love the movie idea. Also, where did you find those giant cardboard cut-outs? And I do believe I’ve seen the Juicy Juice cartons boxes at Albertson’s.

  11. Too funny. A woman after my own heart. We haven't made it through the boys' 5th birthday yet (a dinosaur paty), and I am already thinking ahead to next year - Avengers or Transformers most likely. :)

    The cars standees came from Johnny Stone -

    They had the cheapest prices at the time ($18-22). And I managed to catch a sale on top of that completely by coincidence. :)

  12. Thank you so much! You have been such great help. I cannot express to you how much warmth is in my heart right now. I know my son would LOVE to have anything resembling a party like this, and now thanks to you I can try to make it happen for him.

  13. This is SO awesome!!! My son in obsessed with cars, so this is the jackpot!! :) I was just wondering how/where you got your stand-ups and posters...and what kind of pricing they were?

  14. The cars standees came from Johnny Stone -

    They had the cheapest prices at the time ($18-22). And I managed to catch a sale on top of that completely by coincidence. :)

    A number of posters are available from Walmart for $2.44/each locally. I have also seen a good variety of posters at our local poster shop for $5/each.

  15. This is AWESOME!!! I'd love to make the cars for my son's 3rd bday. Do you happen to have a link for the box cut-out/patterns? Also, where did you find the spray-paint? How long did it take you to make these A-M-A-Z-I-N-G cars?

  16. Unfortunatley I didn't use patterns. All the cars were just cut freehanded. The first one - Lightening Mcqueen - I just started cutting and shaping as I went. After that I sketched the silhouette of what I wanted the car to look like on the side of the box, then figured out where things would have to attach (like the right and left sides to attach to the hood, and same thing in the rear for the backend/spoiler) and added an extra inch or two in those areas for cut lines. The first car took me about 30 minutes to cut, shape, and hot glue. Each one after that took about 10 minutes - which was mostly just cutting time with a VERY dull razor blade on heavy duty boxes.

    Spray paint came from Walmart - and there is a HUGE different in paint. The paint I used on Mater included a primer (and was only about 50 cents a can more!) and coverd in one application. Lightening and Holly took 3+ coats and if you looked closly in one or two places could still see some of the original black box logo's bleeding through. So definately look for the primer included paint.

  17. Hello there I'm throwing a cars party for my 2 year old next month can I buy some of your decorations? I would love the cardboard cutouts of all the cars. If not where did you buy them?

  18. You did an awesome job!!!! What font did you use to create the menu card for Flo's V8 cafe?

  19. Did you rent a banquet room? At first I thought it was your house, and the I saw that there is a yard that looks like a forest. I was just wondering because I want to know what kind of place would be best to have a party like this.

  20. After the party we used the cardboard cut out for the boy's room. They will probably be ready for a new home in about a year when the boys are ready for a new theme. :)

    They originally came from Johnny Stone (links above in some of the previous comments).

  21. Unfortunately I can't find the font. I thought I copied all the fonts over to my new machine, but when I open the file it says can't find font substituting.

    As for the room - yes, we reserved our neighborhood pool house for the party. Though we had planned to have everything outside - the room was orinally just a backup in the event that the weather went south (which of course it did...).

  22. I just ran across this page while planning my daughter's 2nd birthday party. Could I possibly get a file of your coloring pages? I can't quite read the story you wrote, but I'd like to do something similar!

  23. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  24. Very helpful post! You have put a lot of time and sweat in it and it turned out amazing. Can you suggest a place where I can buy party favors for CARs. My little one is turning 2 in March and is crazy about cars!! He almost knows all the character names from the car movie! I am trying to find a place where I can buy the decorations and party favors for car movie theme. Thanks!!

  25. RE: Favors - I found a bunch of stuff at the Target Dollar Spot, I've also seen a number of cars things starting to arrive at Dollar Tree. They are both good places to check if you are looking for Cars stuff.

  26. Really amazing.Am trying to do the same for my son's 3rd birthday.Can u please provide some details on the invitation with QR code..its really wonderful idea.

  27. I just googled free QR code generator and input the following:

    Accepts & Regrets used mailto syntax - see example usage here:

    For the map - I searched for the address at google maps and used the URL (or a shortened URL from google). See how to shorten google maps URLs here:

    I saved the generated QR codes as .JPG images. Then just copied and pasted them into my photoshop invitation making them as large as possible while still making sure there was space between them to make them as easy to scan as possible.

    Good luck! :)

  28. Hello, where did you go the sticker decals for the cardboard cars? They look amazing! Thank you

  29. The decals were just printed on plain paper and taped or glued on.



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