Meet the Northern Ireland mums who give their kids the most fun parties ever
Themed parties for children are all the rage - boxer Amir Khan and his wife Faryal Makhdoom threw a £75k rainforest-themed party to celebrate their daughter's first birthday recently. Linda Stewart talks to three Northern Ireland mums who pulled out all the stops for their children's big days.
'My daughter wanted a unicorn party for her fourth birthday - we had pony rides, face painting and dancers too'
Dance teacher Jennifer Stewart (40), from east Belfast, threw a unicorn and fairy party for her daughter Amirah (4). She has two sons, Darius (20) and Kaya (10) and is married to Servet (44), who owns a bar in Turkey.
She admits she didn't have many big birthday parties herself when she was growing up: "My birthday was in November, which is the worst time to have a birthday. I never really got a party because it was so close to Christmas. Parties weren't a big thing then - you got birthday cake and your family was all about, but there was no such thing as big parties."
Now a mum of three, she loves rising to the challenge of throwing a big, themed party.
"My eldest, Darius, would have had quite a few parties. I just love putting on a party and I like having lots of ideas. In his time he had a Teletubbies party and on his 13th birthday he had three tickets for his friends - gold, silver and bronze.
"If you got the bronze ticket, you got to go to his disco on the Friday; if you got the silver, you went to the disco and karting on Saturday, and if you got the gold, you got the disco, the karting and a visit to M&Ds in Scotland. He chose who got each ticket, to make it a bit more fun, and his best friend went to the three things.
"He's a football fan, so one year we had a football-themed party and the girls all came dressed up as WAGs and the boys came as footballers.
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"We had Nerf wars for the middle one, Kaya, and last year he had a Fortnite Nerf party. We've had Build-a-Bear parties at home."
Amirah adores unicorns and asked for a unicorn and fairy party for her fourth birthday, so Jennifer arranged for ponies dressed as unicorns to be brought to the house through Fairytale Pony Parties.
"Her birthday is on Valentine's Day, so it's not a great day for birthdays either," she says.
"It rained, but they still did the pony rides up and down the street. A fairy came and she did party games and face painting and glitter tattoos, and then two dancers did a wee dance. Her first birthday was princess-themed and she went as Snow White with a big tutu. She wanted a unicorn dress for this party, so we got a company in England to make it. It was about £50 but she can wear it again to dress up in and you would kind of pay that in the Disney Store anyway. She was delighted - she thought it was super fun."
Jennifer says the kids generally come up with their own ideas and then she puts it all together. "I love organising it. I do quite a bit of it myself, so it wouldn't be super expensive," she says.
"We try not to have one every year - we try to alternate over a couple of years and in between we would have things like cinema dates or a swimming pool party. We have had a party in the park with a barbecue - it just marks their wee day."
She estimates that Amirah's party cost about £250.
"I try not to make them super-expensive. I do quite a lot myself - I've made cakes in the past and only do special cakes for special number birthdays. I try to keep the cost down and sometimes it would cost as little as what it would cost to take the kids out for the day," she says.
"The balloons weren't expensive, we bought them on eBay. All in all, the balloons cost about £7 and you can blow them up yourself."
Many parents could find it stressful but Jennifer loves it.
"I love Christmas, I love Valentine's Day, I love birthdays - any excuse to decorate up a bit. There are many offers on the internet and in local shops. If I am out and about and I see a bargain, even if the party is months away, I'll buy it and tie the theme around it.
"It's my big lad's 21st this year but he's going off to work in Spain, so we're having the party two days before he goes - so he's next on the list.
"I love the whole organising of it and I'm lucky that my kids love it too!"
‘The girls were covered in glitter but they learned about beauty care and the ethical side of the industry’
mTech. Academy founder Diane Morrow (38) put on a party at Lush for her daughter and her friends. She is married to Michael (38), who runs CDE North America, and they have two children, Aidan (11) and Olivia (9).
"I grew up in east Belfast and my mum and dad would always have big parties - we'd invite the whole class to Maysfield Leisure Centre or to the Ozone," she says.
"One year when we were doing Grease at school, my mum let us have a bowling party like the Pink Ladies - we had the skirts and the ponytail and everything.
"Mum always made sure we had a good birthday party.
"I wouldn't say organising parties is something I enjoyed but it's something I felt I should always have done in primary school, in order to help them mix with other children and socialise with their classmates outside of a formal learning environment."
Diane says that in P1 and P2 she did the invite-the-whole-class bouncy castle in a leisure centre thing, but it changed after that. "As they got older, we kind of said it's a big birthday party or a big present, not both, so pick which one you want. We did go-karting parties, all of the usual activity centres, cinema birthday parties, bowling birthday parties... I think parties have probably got more expensive as the years go on.
"My son always wanted something a bit different. He's an Ulster-level tennis player and one year he wanted to have a tennis party - which he loved, but no one in his class really wanted to do."
For Olivia's most recent party, they decided to invite a group of good friends and do something really memorable.
"Olivia has always really loved beauty products and fashion and face masks and all of that, but we always called her our little social lawyer because she's always into rights. She loves Lush because of the animal cruelty-free stuff and she loves science," Diane says. "So the reason we let her pick Lush was that it ties in with all the things she likes. She's really into beauty care and face masks and they got to make bubble bath and hand soaps and learn about the ethical side.
"The staff were amazing - they gave them instructions and talked to them about the whole history of Lush and then they took them through what they were going to make. They had to go round the store and find products that contained all the ingredients for making bubble bath.
"They did a mini science experiment with glycerin and essential oils and bicarbonate of soda mixed all together and timed how long it was going to take to set, then they gave each other a massage with a stone and then went back to the bubble bath to set it in a set mould.
"They absolutely loved it. They came home covered in glitter, but they were also using words like 'sustainability' and looking at who made the products. It was expensive, £25 a head, but the way I looked at it was I didn't have to do any catering and cooking or take them out for dinner afterwards. Everything was contained in an hour-and-a-half in one area, and it was a nice way for the girls to have a really nice Saturday afternoon together."
‘We held an animal party, with snakes, meerkats, tarantulas, rabbits ... and the biggest millipede in the world’
Special needs classroom assistant Karen Magill (31), from Carnlough, put on a petting zoo party at Seaview Primary School in Glenarm for her daughter Daisy's fifth birthday last year. She also has two boys, Stephen (4) and Miller (2).
Karen says that while she had parties as a child, they were usually for siblings and perhaps the next-door neighbours.
"The big thing in our house was Halloween parties, but we never had birthday parties. The big Halloween party did everybody," she says.
"Daisy's friends had all been having birthday parties and when she was asked what kind of party she wanted, she asked for a farm party.
"We couldn't do a farm party, so she settled for a petting zoo. She is animal-mad and she loved it," Karen explains.
"I love organising parties. Daisy and the boys all love animals and I was trying to come up with something different that wasn't the normal balloons and face painting.
"Most of the parties are face painting, balloons, glitter tattoos and a bouncy castle."
They chose Seaview Primary School for the party because Karen works there, Daisy is a pupil and Stephen goes to the nursery - and it meant she was able to invite the whole class as well as Stephen's friends.
"I think there were between 40 and 50 kids there," Karen laughs.
"There was everything - there were meerkats, there was the biggest millipede in the world, there were great big massive snails the size of your head, tarantulas, chinchillas, rabbits and they gave you a bit of information on each one
"There was a bit of insight into each animal - where they were from, what they ate, that kind of thing - and the kids got to pet them and nurse them. Some didn't want to touch them and some had the millipede on their arm.
"Daisy was the only one allowed to hold and touch the meerkats because they don't like too much handling, but because it was her birthday she got to play with them.
"I was squeamish about the millipede. It reached from the top of your finger to your elbow, it was gross."
The party went down well with both the kids and parents.
"The kids all loved the fluffy animals and the meerkats, and they liked the snakes too.
"The parents enjoyed it because it was something different and out of the ordinary.
"We had a bouncy castle and all too, for kids that aren't really into animals. There were kids that I thought would be squeamish and wouldn't want to go near them, so if they didn't want to look at the animals they could get their face painted or get balloons.
"But in general most of them did look at the animals. We've found out quite a bit of information about each animal since that day, but I haven't had any out of the ordinary requests for new pets - although I do get out of the ordinary requests every day."
The petting zoo was supplied by Party Animals NI, Karen says.
"It wasn't overly expensive - it cost about £120 and that was to allow them to travel up here.
"I think that was good for 11 different species of animal, and we got the bouncy castle locally," she says.