It's a problem that arises every year without fail - or more often if you have more than one child: party planning. As we cradled our newborns in our arms little did we know what a logistical minefield was opening up. First, the guest list: do you invite the whole class? Girls and boys? Siblings? Then there is where to hold it: at home or away? How much do you want to spend? Do you mind what food they eat? Will the parents stay?
Then there is the "keeping up with the Joneses"; the party circuit can be a terrifically competitive place. Your party has to be better than the one you went to last week. Pink bunting? Pah, how about a disco floor and lava lamps? And that's just the mothers - children are even harder to please. Tweens are a particularly tough market to provide for: too old for tea parties at home with pass the parcel and musical statues, and too young to be let loose with their friends in a spa. What are you supposed to do?
Luckily, in the UAE there are myriad party options depending on budget and the age of your child (unless otherwise stated, all prices quoted are for parties of 20 children). Most of the play centres in Abu Dhabi and Dubai offer party packages that allow children to play on certain rides and eat in their party room. ActionZone in Mina Port (02 673 4530), Fun City in Marina Mall (02 681 5527) and Magic Planet in Mall of the Emirates (04 341 4000) are just some of the venues which can be perfect for allowing larger groups of small boys, in particular, to run around and burn off some steam. Several beach and sports clubs have venues they will hire out and cater. Try bowling at Abu Dhabi Country Club (02 657 7777), or a seaside bouncy castle at The Club (02 673 1111).
If you have a snow bunny in your family, Ski Dubai offers party packages from Dh2,200. Younger children can have an hour in the snow park, with use of all kit included, followed by a meal in the party room. Alternatively, older children can have snowboarding or ski parties from Dh3,400 (04 409 4000, www.skidxb.com).
@A&L-SubheadDivider:For Dr Dolittles From Dh1,225 for 15 children, you could hold your little one's party at Dubai Dolphinarium. Children can enjoy discounted entry to a dolphin show, followed by games, food and a visit from the Dolphinarium mascot in a party room (04 336 9773). Or how about a party in the rainforest with animals and mystical temples? The atmospheric Rainforest Café in Dubai Mall has party packages from Dh1,500 with games, food and face painting included (04 330 8515).
Then again, there's always The Royal Stables in Abu Dhabi. The standard package costs Dh3,500 for non-members and for this, each child can have a five-minute pony ride followed by two pony-oriented games (such as a grooming competition). Prizes are included, as are decorations in Sheikh Zayed's outdoor majlis in the beautiful leafy grounds of the stables. You need to provide your own food, but the stables can arrange a pony-themed cake (02 447 8111).
The party and food combination is an obvious match, but how about getting the children to make their own party food? PartiPerfect in Abu Dhabi does just that. In a professional catering kitchen, Lana will advise on age-appropriate food the children can make, and kit them out in aprons and a hat. The children are taught basic kitchen hygiene; they then make their own chicken nuggets and pizzas, with a pastry chef teaching them how to roll out the pizza dough and make cupcakes. Any food left over can be taken home. From Dh1,200 for around 12 children (050 126 4819, email@example.com).
A similar sort of party is offered by L'Atelier des Chefs at Le Méridien Hotel in Dubai. Up to 10 children (or 15 for older children) are kept occupied for an hour and half in the state-of-the-art catering making three pastries and a fruit smoothie with Chef Gregory Khellouf. Prices start at Dh1,200 for a minimum of eight children. For an extra charge, the children, or the birthday boy or girl, can have their own personalised apron to take home (056 690 0480).
If you would like to hold a party at home but can't think how to keep the children occupied, help is at hand. The Exotic Pets Party people will come to you. For Dh2,000 if you are in Dubai or Dh3,000 for Abu Dhabi, experts from the Animal Care Centre in Dubai will bring a variety of vaccinated animals for children to pet for two hours. The handlers will educate children on how to be gentle with animals, from chinchillas, snakes and iguanas to hedgehogs and rabbits (050 646 7792 or www.animalcarecentre.biz).
Voula Caraiscos, an Australian living in Dubai, was faced with the dilemma of where to host a party for her eight-year-old daughter during Ramadan last summer. Outdoor venues were too hot, indoor venues could not offer food, so she hosted it at home, enlisting Jane Victory of Cheeky Monkey Parties to organise a Hannah Montana-themed celebration. "I cannot tell you how good she was. The energy just jumps off her. The other mums and I sat around having chats and a coffee then watched them do their stuff," says Caraiscos.
Victory explains: "Our parties are very structured and interactive. There are games; it's educational and fun. Parents can chill out for the two hours or so that we are there." A standard party (and there are several themes suggested on the website) costs Dh1,600 for two hours for up to 30 children. The entertainer, female and a native English speaker, brings balloons, glitter tattoos, and plenty of prizes (056 691 3552, www.cheekymonkeyparties.com).
Alternatively, those terribly clever chaps from Mad Science will come to your house to entertain and educate your children. From 50 minutes for younger scientists up to two and a half hours for children up to the age of 12, a mad scientist can keep up to 20 children amused on prearranged topics, from dry ice to rocket launchers. Basic packages start at Dh650 in Dubai, but can go up to Dh2,300. Branded party bags, a cake, invitations and additional activities can also be provided (04 337 7403, www.madscience.org/uae).
For those who baulk at the cost of professionally aided parties or who just want something simpler, a traditional birthday party at home may be the answer. Shelley Butcher, who lives in Abu Dhabi, decided to do just that for her son Louis' fifth birthday having been disappointed with parties in special venues in the past. Louis and eight friends played pass the parcel, musical chairs and pin the tail on the camel. Butcher also organised a mini-treasure hunt. "I made them a simple lunch of little sausages, sandwiches, home-made elderflower jellies and biscuits with Louis's name and age iced on. I made the cake - a big chocolate cake with the number 5 marked out in Smarties." Butcher really enjoyed the party too, "I wanted to host it and get to know my son's friends better. It harked back to the days I went to these sorts of parties, and they were definitely the best. It was a very nice day."
Whether you enlist the help of others or use the opportunity to visit a new UAE attraction, or go all Nigella and do it yourself, one thing is for certain, if there's a cake, presents and unwavering attention, the birthday boy or girl will love it.