Planning a Surprise Party
Created | Updated Oct 18, 2006
There's nothing like the excitement of a surprise party - the look of astonishment on the face of the guest of honour (or 'surprisee') face is usually priceless. The event will usually be talked about for months in advance by those in the know and for years after by those in attendance. It's a lot of work, a lot of deception, but this is an instance where the end justifies the means.
So, you want to hold a surprise party. Before leaping into invitations and venues and so forth, consider whether you're the right person for the job. The key trait of a person who is going to pull off a surprise is being able to lie to the very person you wish to honour. You have to do it continually and be consistent. You have to live in a constant state of alert making sure that the loved one doesn't overhear phone conversations, intercept email, or see stashes of party gear. You will be a nervous wreck by the time the party comes around.
Before you get too carried away with the idea, ask yourself: why are you planning a surprise party? Why not just have a 'party' party?
Is it because the surprisee hates parties? Bad idea then - back to the drawing board.
Or is it because the surprisee thinks they hate parties, but you feel you can arrange a party to prove otherwise? In which case you need to be very, very certain of yourself.
Is it because of just one surprise element - say, a loved one turning up unexpectedly? In which case, make sure that the surprisee gets an event that allows them to spend time with this person. 50 workmates moshing to high-decibel music will not help him chat to granny!
Above all, make sure that the surprisee will actually appreciate their surprise party:
I was planning a surprise party for my parents silver wedding anniversary when they announced that they hated surprises, that they would hate to have a surprise party and that they would just walk out if they entered a room and were greeted by SURRRRPRISE!
I rapidly cancelled the arrangements and had a red face for a few days! I paid for a holiday for them instead of the food, drink and venue for the surprise party. It went down a lot better!
So don't throw a surprise party for people that hate these things - they will just end up resenting you.
I don't like parties or surprises on my birthday, and people knowing this arranged a surprise party for me. They were the ones who were surprised when I told them all where to go and walked out. I was absolutely furious...
Arranging the Party
Having decided that you are the sort of person who can organise a surprise party, and that your 'victim' will appreciate the effort, you now need to put plans into operation. It's perhaps worth noting that a simple surprise party can be much better than an enormous event, pulling in different strands of work and life so, if in doubt, stick to the safe and simple.
In general, it pays to plan ahead. The sooner you can start getting things ready, the more leeway you will have if things go wrong or plans need to be changed suddenly. However, if you can improvise well, and if you are organized, then one of the best ways to plan a surprise party can to do it at the last minute. This has the advantage that there is a very small chance that the surprisee will find out, and just to see the look on their face will make anything worth it.
If you know the person well, you can hold the party in a place that has some sort of sentimental value to the person, or to both of you. Then they will be happy that, not only do they have a party, but also that you remembered such a thing.
It may be obvious, but if you're planning a surprise party, do invite all of the victim's friends, not your own.
I once went to a surprise party where the victim's spouse invited some of her own friends instead of two of his buddies who she couldn't stand...
To make the surprise even greater especially for a high number birthday or anniversary dig up some of the friends they haven't seen for a long time. Bear in mind it should be those they long to see, such as old school or college friends, not those they hate. Believe it or not as big numbers come up, if you are close enough to the intended victim these names will slip into conversation more and more often.
As for contacting guests, get the e-mail address of one of them - steal it out of the surprisee's e-mail address book or something - and get them to contact everyone else.
Most importantly, make sure that the surprisee hasn't made other plans. At best, this may simply mean that they don't turn up. At worst, you may find yourself in a situation beloved of sit-coms and advertisements, where the surprisee creeps in doing something they shouldn't be doing, probably with someone they shouldn't be with, to be greeted by their entire family and friends.
Whatever your plans, the most important person is the assistant who gets the surprisee to the right place, at the right time, and in the right condition. Ideally this person should be:
Someone who has been deeply involved in the setting-up of the party, and so thoroughly understands the plans and has a good chance at making the right guess if anything goes wrong. But - someone without whom you can manage for that last hour or two.
Utterly punctual and trustworthy, both for the other planners' peace of mind, and to get the right actions out of the surprisee at the right time. If your usually laid-back friend keeps saying 'Come on, I promised we'd be back by seven' you start to get suspicious!
Someone who knows the surprisee well. Often, plans involve softening the surprisee up in the pub with a few drinks. Your assistant really needs to know his own, and the surprisee's limits, or the whole thing could go horribly wrong.
One simple mistake by the assistant, and a whole chain of disasters can be set in motion...
The idea was that the surprisee would be invited to play tennis for the day, would be brought home at an appropriate time, and would then be surprised by lots of people.
The person who was supposed to be inviting the surprisee to play tennis got up late. By the time he called, the surprisee had already arranged to travel into town to play pool, thus disrupting both our plan and present purchasing activities.
The plan was altered to allow for this - money was pooled and a group sent to buy presents, whilst another group kept the surprisee occupied in town until it was time for him to return home. Here come the main problems: the party organisers arranged for people to arrive at 8pm, and for the surprisee to also arrive at 8pm, then the group bringing the surprisee home failed to call ahead to warn of their arrival.
So, what we ended up with was half a dozen people standing around talking and pouring cocktails, being surprised by the unexpected entrance of the surprisee, leaving us barely able to shout 'surprise' and sing 'Happy Birthday'.
The worst is yet to come.
None of us know any girls. We managed to entice a pitiful total of two females of legal age to attend the party, one of whom being the surprisee's mother.
And if the surprisee gets the wrong idea, who knows how much trouble you could get into..
A guy I know helped organise one for his sister and her partner, who'd bought a run-down little cafe with plans to open a restaurant. They'd put a lot of work into the place and were getting near to start-up day. Their friends all wanted to give them a memorable launch.
This couple were going away for a few days, giving the party-fixers a chance to set up stuff in the place. Brother was going to meet them at their flat and contrive some excuse to get them to the party venue nearby.
It didn't quite work out as planned. Using a little mobile-phone subterfuge, he got on station half an hour before the expected time of arrival. A few minutes later a police-car turned up. Brother watched from his car as a policeman approached the house. Becoming concerned, he followed the cop up to the door.
They talked at cross-purposes for a minute, and then it became clear that the surprisees had reported a break-in at their business premises. It got sorted out after some bad-tempered warnings about wasting police time. Apparently put a bit of a damper on the party though...
If you organise your surprise party well, so that the surprisee has no idea what's going on, there is still one hurdle to face: the surprisee's feeling of disappointment that no-one has acknowledged the 'special day' can be so enormous that the surprise party is no compensation.
Therefore, plan an overt small party and then arrange a really big surprise party instead. Hopefully they will be overwhelmed with pleasure at the scale of the real do. Or, arrange an outing by way of modest celebration to take place while the big event is being set up, so one flows into the other to round off the occasion. You could even let something slip - accidentally-on-purpose - that isn't really true at all. This is great because it can send them off on a real wild goose chase, while still making sure that they're full of anticipation.
I used this for a surprise wedding anniversary for my wife. I told her I was taking her out to a concert, and of course our real destination was otherwise. Anyhow it got her properly attired. I added a bit of mystery to the evening by not telling her what the concert was.
Alternatively, you could involve the victim in the preparations for the party, under a pretext of course...
Once, we organised a surprise moving-in party and got the victim to buy all the beer and other beverages needed for the party. He thought that the party was for someone else who also moved house recently
One Researcher managed to fall for this trick himself:
There was also one time I masterminded a surprise party for a close friend, only to realise when, not one, but two cakes - and twice the expected amount of prezzies1 - appeared, that all my friends had gone behind my back and scheduled for my birthday party to take place at the same time... Ah well...
Now that the planning is well underway, there are a few pitfalls to watch out for:
Don't all huddle in a group and say 'nothing' when asked what's going on. The person you're planning it for will be suspicious.
Be careful if you can't spend time with the person you're planning the party for, because you're too busy planning. They might go off in a huff and not turn up to the party.
Make sure that no obvious clues are left lying around for the surprisee to spot.
I was completely caught out by my 21st birthday party. That is to say, I'd got the idea there was something going on (my partner is appallingly bad at telling a straight lie) but I had no idea of the huge scale of things. My boyfriend had ordered a fabulous cake, with my name and 'Happy 21st Birthday' written on it. But - crucially - he hadn't told the cake shop it was for a surprise. A few days before the party we walked past the cake shop window - and there it was displayed in all its glory! Luckily I didn't see it, and the poor lad had to make an excuse to double back and plead with them to shift it. It's these little things that could ruin the whole surprise.
And please, when planning a surprise party, always remember that the object is not only to scare them when you all jump out, but also to make them incredibly happy, and have a memorable time.
Arriving at the Party
You've managed to keep it a secret for weeks. The surprisee thinks they're going to a 'pie and pea' supper at the local darts club. Just make sure you don't blow it at this late stage...
My mother arranged a surprise birthday party for a friend, and was caught out because said friend spotted us parking outside the venue (near her house) earlier in the day. Mother, a doctor, claimed to be on a visit which would have been fine, but she couldn't think up an excuse for me being there too.
It was quite funny, though; the friend didn't say anything at the time, but when she was brought into the room where we were all waiting and we cheered and shouted, she opened her coat and was wearing a ribbon which said: 'Oh! What a surprise!'
If anyone coming has a distinctive car, or if you are having the party in an area where there are not usually many cars, make sure you advise guests of an alternative place to park, rather than right outside, where the surprisee will see all their cars and possibly work it all out.
Better still, get them all to take the bus!
My mother learned her lesson. The next surprise party for that friend was well away from home, at one of those outdoor concerts where you dress up and take a picnic, and was a complete surprise!
Another scene popular in bad sitcoms is the one where the surprisee is brought into the party venue, only to immediately work out what's going on because they can see the party-goers trying to hide - it can get pretty crowded behind curtains and under tables. Those are bad hiding places anyway.
If you have a closet you can cram about two or three people in there. You can hide under a desk as long as it isn't facing the door. Try hiding in another room, but you don't want everyone coming from another room, because it ruins the element of surprise.
Make sure you hide the party decorations and balloons as well. They take up less space and you can fit them in the bad hiding places - you can't see balloon feet under the curtains.
At the Party
Sometimes the element of surprise is not the surprise party itself, but what happens to the surprisee at the party.
When I was in my second year at university, we decided to throw a little birthday bash for our friend, Hobbie, and I can't say it was exactly a nice surprise, because it was one huge joke on her.
We'd planned it weeks in advance, of course. For up to a couple of weeks before the party we fed her a bunch of tales that even she, gullible as she was, would never fall for - that we were all stressed out after the mid-semester exams and that a dinner party would provide an excellent opportunity for us to let our hair down. We even got her best friend to lie to her about how our recently-married friend FY wanted to try out some new recipes on us. of course, the reason we fed her those lies was not to lure her to come unknowingly to her surprise party, but to make sure she'd know we were throwing a surprise party and thus lure her to it, thinking that she'd be getting a cake and presents from us.
She never guessed just how devious her classmates were.
She went to the party, where she was duly ignored for the first two hours or so as we all helped cook up a storm - and made a mess of FY's kitchen in the process - devoured everything and settled in front of the TV screen for a round or two of karaoke, as though nothing was out of the ordinary. And then we lured her into the living room by telling her we were going to play a game called 'coronation' - and the minute she sat down at the centre of our circle, a whole bunch of us charged and pinned her down and the remainder proceeded to give her a total makeover from hell.
Lest you think this is a girl's dream come true, maybe I should first state that it was our class artist, that we let loose on her. You should get the general idea what happens when you set a boy, who has no knowledge of makeup but an extensive knowledge of painting techniques, loose on a not-so-compliant victim. Let's just say it involved a lot of screaming and struggling - and a great many photographs.
At the end of Hobbie's nightmare, her hair was coloured bright blue and braided, and well... she was a masterpiece. Then, to top it off, we pinned a cloak around her, sat her on a throne and gave her a sceptre and a crown. And finally - before she could kill us all - we brought out the pile of presents and the immense cheesecake.
To her credit, Hobbie was a great deal more sporting than we'd expected her to be. She happily posed up a storm in her ridiculous regal garb, and she was tremendously happy with the presents and the cake, although she hasn't come within two miles of us for the last two years when her birthday came around...
Or, perhaps, the surprise turns out to be on the guests...
When my partner was approaching his 40th, his family decided to throw him a surprise party. I thought, as we had been engaged for 12 years, we could make use of this handy party, so I let my partner in on the secret and suggested we got married on the quiet, thus saving the hassle of invites, flowers, who to invite, cars, dresses etc. He said 'yes', so that's what we did.
The party was arranged, my partner was brought over by friends, he walked in and acted surprised, but when he got up to do his thank you speech he wipped out a bride and groom cake decoration and stuck it on his birthday cake and shouted surprise back at the guests. Most people were happy for us but a couple got a bit huffy for missing the wedding. Still it saved them from having to buy wedding presents.
And it doesn't have to be a surprise party for the guests to get a big surprise:
When I was seven, a classmate invited us to her birthday party on a Saturday afternoon. Only then she forgot. We turned up in party dresses, expecting musical chairs and cake. The girl opened the door, took the presents then told us we couldn't come in. Boy, were we surprised.
Turns out her mother had gone shopping and she was home alone. We were all upset and our parents were livid. She was not the most popular girl in the class after that.
Which is fine if all the guests are in the same boat. But if it's just you...
I went to a fancy dress party, but the vicious hostess 'forgot' to tell everyone else it was fancy dress. That was a very unpleasant surprise and no, I still haven't forgiven her.
And If It's Your Party...
Try to be happy that your loved ones care enough to try to give you a surprise. Even if you're angry about the whole thing, pretend that you're not!
For my wife's 30th birthday we organised a surprise party for her at her sister's house. And when we pulled in she said, 'why is so-and-so's car here?' Followed quickly by, 'this had better not be a surprise party!'
Of course, that immediately set the kids in the back seat to giggling, and the little ones and I shouted 'Surprise!'. But she was grumpy about it for about an hour or two.
Kind of ruined the fun for us organisers at any rate.
So what kind of person doesn't like surprise parties? Lots of people, such as this Researcher:
I hate parties because nothing good ever comes of them and my friends end up getting into fights with each other. I hate surprises because they are rarely ever pleasant - I'd prefer no surprises at all as opposed to one good surprise with twenty bad surprises. I hate my birthday, basically because of the party routine. Things have been very bad in that respect.
And if someone close to you plans a surprise party and you know all about it, pretty much from the point when they started planning it, you are still obliged to walk through that door and feign an expression of surprise, even shock, that doesn't look in the least bit fake. Then, you need go on to spend the first half hour of the 'surprise' party hugging the person responsible and saying as loudly as you can 'Well done you, I really had no idea, this is so great!' If you know that someone is planning a surprise party for you, it might be worth practising a few appropriate facial expressions in the mirror - the sorts of 'oooh's and 'aahhhh's that are usually associated with firework displays are a good start.
And In Conclusion
So there you go. Make sure that you know what you're doing. Make sure that the surprisee doesn't know what you're doing - but will appreciate it in the end - and you're well on your way to a truly memorable occasion.
And finally, there's one type of surprise party that no one should ever have...
The biggest surprise was when nobody turned up for my real party.