These birthday Carnival theme party ideas are inspired by the traditional travelling funfair with fairground rides, food booths, sideshows, side stalls and games (often just called a Funfair or Fairground outside of the US). I've also included one or two circus inspired ideas such as clowns, elephants and Big Tops as many people associate Circus with Carnival.
The Carnival birthday party ideas below are not to be confused with the well-known Mardi Gras 'Carnival' season celebrated in places such as New Orleans and Rio.
First decide what style you want to apply to these Carnival birthday party ideas. Personally, I love a vintage Carnival theme party style [see Andrew Lloyd Webber's Love Never Dies (below left), which is set on Coney Island in the early 1900's, or this poster created for Zenaida Wine Cellars (below right, by Design 7 Studio) for inspiration].
However, it can be hard to find decorations that fit with this style. So unless you are making your own birthday party decorations you might want to focus on a more brightly colored, modern Carnival theme party.
Just write all your birthday party information onto a decorative shipping tag and tie onto the mustache stick. Alternatively, you can have these printed quite cheaply ($19.95 / £12 for 100 cards) incorporating your own photograph - see printed mini cards for more info.
To enhance the presentation even further, pop each mustache invitation into a paper popcorn bag (below right) before sending out.
Home-made Popcorn Invitations
If you're a bit more craftsy, you can make your own popcorn invitations which are perfect for these Circus or Carnival theme party ideas.
Pick up some small popcorn cartons and follow this recipe for How to Make Popcorn Balls but instead of shaping into balls make one large block that will fill up to the top of each carton. Wait for these to dry completely, then squirt some clear drying craft glue (such as Elmer's) over the top before adding one or two layers of popcorn on top of the main block in an irregular pattern.
You can then tie a small tag style invitation with the birthday party details on (see above) to the popcorn carton and hand deliver on the school run or mail them out in small boxes.
Personalized Carnival theme Party Invitations
There are lots of pre-designed invitations for a Circus or Carnival birthday party available online, including ones that you can personalize, which will work well with these birthday ideas. See here for the full range.
You can embellish these further by slipping them into red and white striped popcorn bags (see Carnival Mustache Invitations above) and tying them up with string or ribbon to fit in with these Carnival theme party ideas
Fill-In Carnival Invitations
If you're on a budget there are also plenty of fill-in invitations to go with these Carnival theme party ideas, such as the ones below (other designs available).
Carnival Theme Party Stamps
A really nice attention to detail is to use these Carnival theme party postage stamps to add extra embellishment to your invitations.
Note: These stamps are only available in the USA
Carnival Theme Party Drinks
Below are some drinks recipes to compliment these Carnival party ideas:
When it comes to drinks at the funfair, it's all about Lemon Shake Ups (right, from recipe.com).
This cute Rubber Ducky Bath Punch (right, by Cheryl at The Tidy Mom) was made created for a baby shower, but you could easily re-named it 'Hook-a-Duck Punch'.
Balance a fishing rod / hook on the edge of the punch bowl so people make the funfair connection.
Caramel Apples go hand in hand with a Carnival theme party, so for something a bit different try making these Caramel Apple Milkshakes (right, by Lynne Laino via Dairyspot).
The recipe above got me thinking about what other fairground/ circus foods could be turned into drinks to go with these Carnival theme party ideas so I set about hunting for a Popcorn Milkshake recipe and came across this one (below, by Manouschka Guerrier for Food Network).
This recipe is for Popcorn Ice Cream, but she posted the picture below on her blog saying that she served them as milkshakes so I would guess you just mix the ice cream with some milk in a blender to create. I'd garnish with some actual popcorn on top to make them look even cuter.
Similarly, make Cotton Candy Milkshakes with this recipe for Cotton Candy Ice Cream. Don't forget to garnish these with some actual Cotton Candy, either wrapped around a swizzle stick or just floating on top.
Below are some of my favorite recipes to go with these Carnival birthday party ideas:
There are certain foods that instantly spring to mind when you think of the Carnival: Caramel Apples, Popcorn, Cotton Candy, Corn Dogs, Churros, Hot Dogs, Funnel Cake, Elephant Ears, Donut Holes, Snow Cones, Salt Water Taffy, Watermelon etc. So, to make things a bit more special I've tried to include a few variations and twists on some of these traditional fairground foods.
Instead of serving traditional Caramel Apples, try this variation: an Apple Pie Caramel Apple (below left, from The Girl Who Ate Everything). Or there are these cute Caramel Apple Cupcakes (below right, from Chockylit's Cupcake Blog)
Here are a couple of cupcake recipes that I thought we're just perfect to include in these Carnival birthday party ideas. Circus Clown Cupcakes (below left) and Popcorn Cupcakes (below right) both from Disney Family Fun.
Here's a great video (from Howcast) which demonstrates how to make Carnival style Corn Dogs at home.
If you want to make some of your favorite Carnival foods at home you can pick up various small appliances fairly cheaply such as snow cone machines, hot dog rollers, slushee machines, s'mores makers, donut hole makers, corn dog makers, and popcorn machines - all of which are perfect for these Carnival theme party ideas.
Here's a great video (by Howdini) which demonstrates how to make Ice Cream Cone Cupcakes similar to the ones above:
There's so many different things you can do with Popcorn to make your Carnival theme party ideas a little more unusual. Why not set up a Popcorn bar with lots of different flavors and toppings (like this White Chocolate Drizzle, below left by Picky Palate) that people can help themselves to. (Check out my Princess Party Ideas page for a great recipe for Pink Popcorn).
Or just pick up this variety pack of gourmet popcorn (below center, USA only) with includes flavors such as caramel, cheddar cheese, kettle corn, and dark and white chocolate striped.
Alternatively make this Popcorn Fudge (below right, from Raspberricupcakes)
There's also lots of Carnival candy that you can buy to fill out the dessert table or use as favors, including this gummi popcorn (below left), red apple candy lollipops (below center), salt water taffy, cotton candy, watermelon wedge lollipops and lots more. See the full range here(USA only). Or see here for these cute buttered popcorn gourmet jelly beans (below right, USA only).
If you're want to serve French Fries for your party, make home-made paper cones by printing off pictures of old fashioned Carnival posters from the web. Or make batch of the individual french fries in this recipe made from pound cake (below, by Karen Tack at Parenting), serve in a basket as show and see how long it takes people to notice that they're sweet.
Finally, I had to include this next recipe in these birthday party tips. You could serve regular corn on the cob as they do at the fair, but these Corn on the Cob Cupcakes (below, by Karen Tack via Martha Stewart) look a whole lot more fun.
Unfortunately there are hardly any birthday cake decorations available for these Carnival theme party ideas.
If you're handy with fondant icing, you could use this carousel cake decorating set (below) which includes the tent top and 4 carousel horses.
Alternatively, I think you could use the pieces of this impressive looking 3D Carnival puzzle (below, USA only) as cake toppers. All the cardboard pieces come in a flat 2D form and you just need to punch them out and fold to assemble. I suggest you discard the base and use the cut outs of the carousel, donut stall, sandwich stall, fairground entrance arch, and people as cake decorations. If you've got a soft frosted cake you can fix the pieces in place with skewers, or it's a fontdant topped cake you can probably get away with just balancing the pieces on top.
There's also this cute Carnival tent cake topper which you can add your own photo to. Combine this with some of the Carnival / Circus characters cupcake toppers and these balloon cluster cake picks to make your own Carnival theme party cake. See here for more info on these items.
Here are some food styling and presentation tips to go with these Carnival theme party ideas:
Use these cardboard
Carnival snack servers (below left, USA only) or these
plastic hot dog holders (below right, USA only) to serve different foods in on your dessert / buffet table to give your Circus / Carnival party an authentic feel.
Use these premium clear plastic plates as serving trays and line the base with a grid of Carnival tickets and cover with some clear plastic before adding food). Or simply apply the Circus tickets to the underside of the trays so they show through.
Use these Circus / Carnival stickers to make food picks. Just stick each one to a food pick and position one in the middle of each tray of food on your dessert / buffet table.
Kid's will love this Candy Grabber machine just like the claw machine at the Carnival. Fill it with candies and treats and put it on your desset table.
This Carnival themed inflatable buffet cooler (USA only) is a cheap and easy way to set up a drinks table outside while keeping everything nicely chilled.
Buffet / Dessert Table decorations
Below are suggestions for Carnival decorations centered around your food / dessert table:
I think it would be a cute idea to dress the buffet / dessert table to resemble a Carnival side stall (see photos below for inspiration).
Here's one way you could dress a buffet / dessert table to go with these carnival theme party ideas. Read below for step by step instructions for how to create this look.
If you have a gazebo or pop up canopy at home then use this to provide a roof over your Carnival dessert table. You can make this look more Carnival-like by draping with red and white striped fabric by the yard (below left, USA only) or cut sections out of this super strong (it stands up without supports) corrugated decorating paper (below right, USA only) to lay on top or enclose the sides of your canopy.
Then use a mix of square and rectangular red and white (or yellow and red) colored plates and serving trays to display the food on. I recommend these disposable Premium Plastic Plates (below), they're great value and are really handy if you don't have enough serving platters and trays to match the colors of these Carnival theme party ideas.
Dress the table top by scattering around a few objects and props that you'd find at Carnival side stalls, ex a row of three coconuts balanced on soda bottles, hoops, goldfish etc. Alternatively, buy a roll of Carnival tickets and scatter these accross the table top or use these small Circus / Carnival themed cut-outs as table decorations. Both are available here.
If you've got a shelving unit or tall dresser, position it behind the dessert table. Otherwise just position the dessert table a few feet in front of an empty wall so that you can hang various props on it to resemble the back wall of a Carnival side stall (see illustration above). Some examples are:
Stack pyramids of tin cans along the back wall
Similarly, you could create your own coconut shy
Line up a row of rubber ducks and targets to represent the duck shooting range
Draw some large clown faces and cut out their mouths to represent the 'Toss the beanbag in the Clown's Mouth' side stall
These are really just for decoration to make your dessert table look like an authentic Carnival side stall, so don't worry too much about making them practical.
Alternatively, you can buy some cheap Carnival games such as these inflatable ring toss / bean bag toss games (below) to use as part of your dessert table decorations - then, later in your party you can use them as games.
Next, hang a few bags of cotton candy or plush toys and other Carnival style prizes down from the roof of your canopy or attached the side poles (see illustration above). Then add a few of these ready made Carnival signs (below) or a chalkboard advertising hot dogs, funnel cake, cotton candy etc (see illustration above).
You could also make some simple homemade signs to hang inside the side stall that say general things like 'Score Over 8 to Win', '5 Tries for $3', 'Knock 3 Ducks Off to Win a Prize', 'No Leaning' etc, to make your Carnival decorations even more authentic.
Above the dessert table hang a personalized banner. There are lots of different designs available that fit with these Carnival theme party ideas, such as these ones below (more designs available).
Finish the display with these cute Carnival cut outs. The directional sign stands approx 5ft tall so will make a big impression and is great value at only $20. Or use the Carnival barker stand up which is also over 5ft tall.
If you don't want to invest in a tabletop canopy or big top tent for your dessert table, below is an alternative dessert table which uses some of the same decorations.
To make this option, use the red and white striped corrugated paper to make a backdrop (see above), then use a solid color tablecover such as red (using a red & white striped tablecover as well as the backdrop will look too 'busy'). Apply Carnival bunting along the front of the table, hang a red and white Carnival banner above, and use a 3ft tall popcorn balloon as a centerpiece. See here for these items.
You could also use some of these cute tissue pom-pom hanging decorations. Choose all one color, or two maximum (ie red and white, blue and white, or red and yellow depending on your color scheme) and hanging in a cluster at varying heights above the dessert table (see photo below right).
If you're budget doesn't allow you to use the barker / directional sign cut outs for your carnival theme party, replace these with tall bunches of balloons either side of the dessert table.
If you're using a gazebo / canopy as the frame for your decorations you could also hang a string of light bulbs along the front of it.
Below are some ideas for the dining table:
When it comes to dressing the dining table, I suggest you stick to a few primary colors for your decorations. Red and White, Red and Yellow, or Blue and White stripes are the most easily recognisable color combinations for a carnival theme party. So you might want to use a a red and white striped table cover (see above), or just use a solid color tablecover and add some Carnival bunting around the edge of the table (as shown below).
These Carnival theme party plates, bowls, cups and napkins are a cute way to add some extra decorations to the tabletop. Some of the designs also feature Circus characters too.
For a centerpiece create your own Coconut Shy running down the middle of the table by gluing them to milk bottles. Or apply the same principle to the Hoopla and have a series of small soft toys raised up on small blocks with hoops half placed over them.
Use popcorn boxes as vases and arrange yellow and white flowers in them to look like popcorn.
Create caramel apple place settings: Tie caramel apples up in clear cellophane and place one at each setting with the guest's name tied onto the stick like a flag. Alternatively you could do the same with a stick of cotton candy (stand these up in shot glasses).
If you want to give your party a really professional look, make sure all the chairs have a uniform look. Often, if you're using mis-matched chairs or the color doesn't fit with the theme of your party it can really detract from the overall aesthetic. The reason the table styling always looks better at professional weddings or events is because the chair covers match the tablecloth. If your budget allows, use these stretch fabric chair covers which are approx $7 each in black or white. You can then add a splash of color (say red to match your Carnival decorations) by adding a colored sash (below left) or band (below right).
Below are some general decorating tips to go with these Carnival theme party ideas:
Always start your party decorations outside so there's a bit of a build up to the entrance. There's nothing worse for your guests than arriving at a bare front door. For a Carnival theme party you could just have bunches of balloons starting along the pavement and leading guests up your drive to the front door, a personalized yard sign (below left, USA only) or banner (below right).
Alternatively you could chalk the pavement, hang a sign saying 'Carnival This Way', or make you own fake Carnival posters and position them along the route to your party.
It's great to have someone great people at the door, so see if you can, get a sibling or other family member to dress up in a Carnival costume (ex, Circus Clown, Strong Man, Fortune Teller etc).
Alternatively, you could print a life-size cut out (below left) of your child dressed in a Carnival costume to position at the end of then drive or at your front door. These are add a motion-activated voice recorder (USA only) for around $10. You just have your child pre-record a short welcome message which then starts to play as people walk past the cut out.
Another option is to tie a Circus clown shaped Airwalker balloon holding a bunch of balloons to the front door to greet people. The Airwalker balloon itself is 4ft tall, so once you tie some other balloons in it's hand it will make quite an impressive display.
Bunting and pennant bannners are perfect decorations to go with these Carnival theme party ideas so use plenty of these around the party. This red and white tissue bunting is nice, as are these hanging Carnival decorations. See here for both.
If your budget permits there are some really great Carnival cutouts (USA only) such as ticket booths, fortune tellers, ferris wheels, and even concession stands.
Make your own signs / booths by using these Popcorn and Ticket wall decals (below, USA only). Cut a rectangle of red and white striped corrugated paper (see top of page) then mount the decals onto it to create impressive looking signs.
Alternatively, use this customizable Carnival sign kit (below, USA only) to make your own. It comes with 4 blank signs and a selection of letters and numbers so you can add your own text.
Pick up a roll of Carnival tickets and turn these into homemade curtains to hang over door frames. Just stick them onto long strips of string or ribbon, each one an inch or so apart, then hang a series of strips together to create a curtain of tickets. These can also be used to create cheap abstract backdrops to decorate large areas / empty walls.
If you're holding the party in your backyard, use a curtain of tickets to create an entrance. Screen off the main party area by creating a long curtain of tickets with a gap in the middle to create a doorway for guest to enter through. Then hang a 'Tickets' sign (see above) over the gap to complete the look.
There are lots of
cute costumes available to go with these Circus / Carnival theme party ideas so let the birthday boy / girl stand out at their own party by getting dressed up.
I always think its a good ideas for one or two adults to dress up in costume too as this provides some 'human theming' and really brings these Carnival theme party ideas to life. So try to persaude at least one parent to dress up. Having a Strongman, Clown, or Circus ringleader greet guests as they arrive will make a big first impression.
These pre-filled favor boxes are a quick and easy solution to go with these Carnival theme party ideas. Or if you prefer to fill them yourself you can buy the same boxes empty or these cute Circus ones. See here for both (USA only).
THANK YOU NOTES
cardboard photo frames (below left, USA only) would be really cute to use as thank you notes to follow up after your party. Try to capture a photo of each guest at the party so you can send these out as personalized keepsakes. If that doesn't work out, just fill them with a picture of the birthday boy / girl or a group shot of everyboday taken at the party.
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Matt James is a professional event planner and owner of event agency Left Field Productions, which has produced events for Elton John, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kevin Spacey, Stella McCartney, David LaChapelle, John Waters, and Elvis Costello & Diana Krall. Since 2004, Left Field Productions has won 30 industry awards for excellence including Production Company of the Year.