1. Parenting

A Dozen Great 18th Birthday Party Ideas

Outdoor Movies, Sushi, Surprises & More

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18th Birthday candles Stockbyte/Getty Images

Swirled frosting? Check. Goody bags? Got ‘em. There’s a formula for doing kiddie birthday parties and whatever the embellishments – Cowboy Bob and his ventriloquist sidekick and pony rides! – we all know how to host one. But an 18th birthday is a big deal. Only question is, what kind of party? How do you incorporate his friends into the celebration? And what on earth do you put in an 18-year-old’s goody bag?

No worries. Teenagers don’t need goody bags – although if your heart is absolutely set on treat bags, a $5 iTunes or Starbucks card and some Hershey’s kisses will do nicely. But an 18th birthday offers all sorts of more grown-up party possibilities. Unless you’re going the surprise party route, be sure to clear your plans with your child and involve him in the planning. Here are five 18th birthday party possibilities. (Pssst - if your child is already away at college, here's how to get a birthday cake shipped there in time.)

  • A Surprise Party: A surprise party is always a fun and relatively easy option. The trick is keeping it a surprise. Enlist the help of a couple of your child’s friends to assemble a great guest list, choose a location – a cool sushi restaurant, for example, or a boisterous Tex-Mex joint, or your home – and get your child to the designated location at the appointed time. Click here for tips on throwing a fantastic surprise party - and keeping it a surprise. Plus, easy ideas for an at-home taco bar, panini buffet and other options.

  • A Wild Scavenger Hunt: No, not the old “find a clothespin and a green Lego” type of hunt. This is the kind Stanford’s freshmen run every fall during campus welcome week. In the Stanford version, students fan out across San Francisco with cameras and a list of quirky, hilarious and often edgy items to “capture” and bring back. But you can use your town's landmarks and icons to throw a wildly whimsical scavenger hunt party that will be remembered for years.

  • A "Hunger Games" Party: Like "Harry Potter," Suzanne Collins' incredibly popular "Hunger Games" series is a crossover hit. Even Hollywood celebrities are throwing themselves Hunger Games-themed parties to celebrate their 30th birthdays. So here are some ideas for turning that theme into a totally memorable outdoor party.

  • Movie Night at the Pool: An outdoor movie night gives an 18th birthday party or college gathering an extra twist. Add a swimming pool, inner tubes and some campy shark movies - plus birthday snacks - and you've got a winner.

  • An Inflatable Games Party: Remember those bouncy houses from childhood? This party idea - an inflatable games adventure, with laser tag and gigantic obstacle courses - puts a spin on the inflatable games concept. It offers plenty of grown-up appeal and an abundance of "wow" factor. One caveat: Do not hold a party of this type on a breezy day, and make absolutely sure you hire party rental company staff to install and adequately tether the structures, and to supervise them throughout the event.

  • A Grown-Up Hogwarts Adventure: The tale of Harry Potter has such enduring appeal, 18-year-olds take the books to college, go to midnight screenings of the latest movies, and play quidditch in the quad - more than 400 universities have intramural quidditch teams. The trick is taking the Harry Potter birthday idea and giving it a more collegiate spin.

  • A Geocaching Treasure Hunt: College kids, teens and 20somethings are huge fans of these high tech, outdoor treasure hunts, which use GPS coordinates and iPhones to locate hidden caches on college campuses, wilderness trails and urban plazas. Add some party prop-filled caches and a very cool forest picnic into the mix for an unforgettable celebration.

  • A Twilight Party: Stephenie Meyer's romantic Twilight Saga and its vampires, werewolves and love triangles became a pop culture phenomenon, especially among female teens and 20somethings. So make your Twilight-themed party (or movie marathon) memorable with a photo booth, fantastic props, Twilight crafts and red velvet cupcakes - with fang marks, of course.

  • Zombie Tag: Got a zombie fan? Zombie tag or Humans vs. Zombies is an incredibly popular game on college campuses, where the race can last for days. But depending on how you structure it, you can run an outrageous game of zombie tag in just a few hours and still have time for cake - and maybe a screening of "Zombieland."

  • A Board Game Party: Host a Settlers of Catan-themed party and the activities take care of themselves - game play, cool decor and lots of wonderful food inspired by those iconic hexagonal tiles. Not a Catan fan? An Apples-to-Apples tournament, Quelf extravaganza or retro game fest are guaranteed to delight. Twister, anyone? Or, even better, throw a gigantic games party with a Twister board for 50 or Monopoly game where players are the pieces.

  • An Experiential Splurge: Grab a couple of your teen’s friends and catch a baseball game or a show, hit the beach, go river rafting, or book a cooking-for-college class at a local kitchen boutique. (If you go the baseball route, be sure to arrange for a happy birthday message on the scoreboard.)

  • A Limo Adventure: A pricier, but definitely luxe option – and one that particularly appeals to teenage girls who like the idea of a glamorous, dressed up night on the town - involves renting a limousine for a couple of hours ($200-$400, depending on the limo company and time element). They can tour the city, snap glamorous photos of each other and grab dinner at a teen-pleasing restaurant such as the Cheesecake Factory, a favorite with the prom crowd.

  • A Shared Wisdom Party: This one’s particularly lovely for a family dinner. A few weeks before the big birthday, take a large scrapbook apart. Remove the heavy pages and send one to each member of your extended family and other important people in your child’s life. Ask them to share their best life advice and any photos they’d like to include for the newest adult member of the family. Present the bound scrapbook at the birthday dinner and read the pages aloud.

And afterward, bring on the frosting swirls and ice cream. And the gifts. Don't forget the gifts! (Here are 89 suggestions for those.)

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