Many little girls get caught up in the magic of princesses from their favorite fairy tales, and my little princess was no exception. She got bit by the princess bug. Hard. So I knew that when she told me she wanted a princess party, we were going to have to go big. Since my budget was significantly smaller than her imagination, I had to get creative. First up, the castle.

Every Princess Needs a Palace!

    The thought of turning my house into a convincing castle felt a little overwhelming, so I turned to my medium of choice, cardboard boxes and duct tape. I spent years of my childhood creating masterpieces out of cardboard boxes and duct tape, unknowingly training for my greatest creation of all: the Princess Palace.  

    The hardest part was finding all the boxes. Big box stores all bale them as soon as they get them, so they weren't any help. My neighbor gave me an enormous refrigerator box, which was a great start, but I had a hoard of royalty to house, and one box was not going to be big enough. I headed over to the local Uhaul, where someone had just dropped off a bunch of used large wardrobe boxes, which I got for FREE! I arranged them in the shape of a castle, with a few turned sideways to serve as tunnels between rooms, and got out my box cutter. 
    The thing about cardboard, is that it's the world's easiest medium. You put one box next to another, cut holes in both, and attach them together with duct tape. It took me about 3 hours to make and attach about a hundred square feet of castle. That includes the time it took the re-tape the whole thing because I used cheap duct tape the first time, and it all fell apart in the heat. Buy the expensive Gorilla Tape the first time, and you could probably do the whole thing in two hours. 
    To make the drawbridge doors, I just cut the shape out of the side of the box, and made sure to leave the bottom attached. This way, the doors could open and close, while still remaining attached to the castle. Since we had so many kids coming, I chose not to add a rope, because I didn't want the kids tripping over it, but you could easily add one.

    Next, I cut the notches in the top, so that they would look like bricks. Then, I  headed to the hardware store for a gallon of paint. For $7, I got a gallon of paint that was incorrectly mixed for somebody else, but was perfect for the castle. My little friends helped me paint it, and we had a blast. We probably got more paint on the grass and kids than the castle, but we had just enough to cover the castle. I used black tempera paint for the brick pattern and purple for the drawbridges. Total cost for materials:  $21. Hilarious, paint covered manual labor: Free.

Princesses Need Gowns, Too!

    In lieu of goodie bags, I decided to make princess skirts for the visiting princesses to take after the party. All I used was a strip of 1/2 inch elastic, and strips of tulle fabric. Since I made 12 skirts, I bought the fabric in bulk for about $30. If you're only making a couple of skirts, or have a larger budget, you can buy tulle ribbon, to save yourself the time of cutting it into strips, but this works out to about $6 per skirt. By buying in bulk and cutting it into strips myself, I made the skirts for about $2.50 each.

    First, I cut the tulle into strips, about 3 inches wide. I did not measure, or cut evenly. It took about an hour to cut the fabric for all the skirts. If you want to make short, ballerina tutus that stick out, the strips only need to be about 24 inches, maximum. For these longer skirts, I used the whole width of the roll of tulle.
    Next, I measured enough elastic to fit around my little princess's waist, and tied it into a circle. I didn't even stitch it. Just tied it in a knot. Then, I took a strip of tulle, folded it in half, so that it was now half as long, and then just looped it around the elastic, pulling the ends through. I repeated this process until the elastic was full of tulle loops, making sure to cover the knot, and a skirt was born! It took 5-10 minutes to make each skirt.
    For the shorter princesses, I trimmed a couple inches off the bottom of the skirts so they wouldn't trip.

And For The Prince?

    For the princes, I made shirts. I just got a bunch of felt, and cut out big rectangles, about 12 inches wide, and 39 inches long. Then, I cut a hole for their heads, making sure not to make it too big, otherwise it would fall off their shoulders (trial and error). I made shields out of blue felt, and put the initial of each boy on it in gold glitter glue, and hot glued the shields to the gray shirts. I made 12 for about $12, and they took about an hour, total.

    We held the party in the backyard, where I have flowers everywhere, which helped keep the decorating budget down. We hung paper lanterns and streamers all over. The front walkway had a pink carpet (that I found in the wedding clearance section at Oriental Trading Company for $10) lined with balloons to welcome our guests. We had the bubble machine going, and bouquets of balloons everywhere. 
    I also got cheap plastic wine glasses for the kids to drink out of. For a couple of dollars more than regular plastic cups, the little princesses and princes had a very fancy tea party fit for the queen.
    Between the décor, the castle, skirts, and shirts, I spent about $100. And the kids liked the castle so much that we brought it inside. It takes up the entire playroom, but I'm pretty proud of it, so it can stay. Even the dog and cat hang out in there.

    Max was obsessed with dinosaurs. Like, crazy obsessed. From Apatosaurus to Zigongosaurus, he knew and loved them all. And as his birthday approached, all he could talk about was how excited he was for his dinosaur party.
He wanted a cake shaped like a zigongosaurus. Do you know what a zigongosaurus is? Neither did I. Google did. And I soon realized that a zigongosaurus cake was well beyond my skill level. Since Max can tell each dinosaur apart, I was afraid my zigongosaurus would look like an apatosaurus, or brachiosaurus, or an I've-never-heard-of-it-osaurus, so I talked him into to a cake shaped like any sauropod. That way, I knew that all I had to do was make a dinosaur with a long neck, and he wasn't going to be disappointed. With that, I headed back to Google, and found instructions to make a cake shaped like a sauropod, here. Make sure that if you're going to shape your own cake, you bake one from scratch. If you use one from a box, it will crumble apart.

    So, what did the little paleontologists do at the dino-mite party? First, they went on a dinosaur hunt. I got a bunch of little dinosaurs and other dinosaur themed stuff from Oriental Trading Company, stuck them in some plastic Easter eggs, and hid them in the backyard.
    When the guests arrived, they all decorated a bag with stickers and markers. This kept them entertained until everyone had arrived, and was ready to hunt.  

    After the dinosaur hunt, the kids dug up some dinosaurs. This took a while to prepare. I got each kid a little dinosaur skeleton (also from Oriental Trading Company), and buried it in a plaster mold. To make the molds, I used some styrofoam take-out containers from my in-laws, and filled them with a mixture of plaster, sand, and water. I hid the dinosaur skeletons in the plaster, and set the molds out to dry for a few days. When they were dry, they were little bricks of plaster, waiting for the kids to chip them out.

       Then, I made each kid a little mallet and a chisel out of wood dowels. I got a 1 inch wood dowel, and cut it into sections, 2 inches long to form the mallet. For the handle, I used 3/8 inch wood dowels, cut into 6 inch sections. I drilled 3/8 inch holes halfway into the middle of the hammer pieces, and put the handles in, with a little wood glue to keep them in place.
    For the chisels, I used 1/2 inch wood dowels, cut into 6 inch pieces, and used a pencil sharpener to make the point.

    The kids absolutely LOVED digging out the dinosaurs. We all sat out on the patio, while the kids chipped away. The plaster and sand mixture was strong enough to hold together, but even my 2 year old daughter was strong enough to chip out her dinosaur. Then, once the dinosaurs were out, the kids rinsed them in a bucket of water, and brushed off any extra dirt, just like real paleontologists! 

    We served dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets for our carnivore guests, and had salad and veggies for the herbivores. Everyone had a great time, and the whole thing cost about $100.
    For Lily's 2nd birthday, she said she wanted a carnival in a
circus tent, and a circus cake. I had about $100 and a pretty vibrant imagination, so I decided to turn my house into a carnival. 
     First, I made a tent for the front door. Whenever I have any structure to make, my material of choice is always PVC pipe. It's only a couple of dollars a stick, and all of the fittings are about 25 cents each. It's very easy to work with. To cut it, all you need is a PVC cutter, and once you glue it with PVC glue, that sucker's not going anywhere. For the tent, I used 1/2 inch PVC, but if you need something to support any weight, you'd have to use a larger diameter. Once I had the tent framed, I draped sheets of plastic red and white striped table cloth over it, to form the tent. I zip tied the tablecloth to the PVC to hold it in place, and it turned out to be a pretty decent tent for about $10.

    Inside the house, I hung cup holder hooks from the ceiling in each corner of the room, and tied a string from each hook making kind of a clothesline around the room. Then, I cut sheets of the striped table cloth and hung them from the string, leaving room for the windows to let in the light. This was great, because I didn't have to take down any pictures; I just hung the table cloths in front of them. I also used different colored table cloths along the walls where the games were, and hung the signs for the games from the string at the ceiling. My amazing neighbor painted the signs for the games.

    Every carnival needs games! Since this carnival was geared toward preschool kids, the games weren't very difficult, and everyone was a winner. These were the games we had and how to set them up:
    Strike Out: For this game, we used bowling pins, a playground ball, and a table. We lined up the bowling pins on a table in the backyard, and the kids stood back behind a line and threw the ball at them to knock them down. Knock down the pins to win!
    Gone Fishing:  For this game I used an inflatable pool from the dollar store, a stick, a magnet, string, construction paper, and paper clips. First, I tied the magnet to the stick to make a fishing pole. Then, I cut the construction paper into the shape of some fish, and attached paperclips. I cut up some blue construction paper to look like water, and threw the "water" and "fish" into the dry pool, and the kids went "fishing." Catch a fish, win a prize!
    Carnival Cups: If you went to college, you probably played "Carnival Cups," but called it something different. For this game, I used disposable cups, a piece of cardboard, ping-pong balls, and a table. I glued the cups to the cardboard in the shape of a triangle, and put it on the table. The kids stood back behind a line, and tried to throw ping-pong balls into the cups. Get one in, you win! You can also have each cup labeled with a different prize.
    Shootin' Range: For this game, I used a large cardboard box, styrofoam, golf tees, ping-pong balls, and a loaded water gun. I glued the styrofoam to the top of the box, and stuck the golf tees into the top of the styrofoam in a line. Then, I placed the ping-pong balls on the golf tees, and the kids stood back behind a line and shot the ping-pong balls off the tees with the water gun. Shoot 'em down, win a prize! It doesn't work well on a windy day, because the balls get blown off really easily. If you do try it on a windy day, stock up on prizes, because you'll have lots of winners.
    Pony Shoes: This was basically short range horseshoes. Get the horshoe around the pole, win a prize!
    Kerplop: For this game we used a stepstool, an empty bottle and some clothespins. The kids stood on the stepstool and tried to drop the clothespins into the bottle. Get one in, and you win! 
    Walk the Line: For this game we used a wooden spoon, waterballoons and some duct tape. I taped a line across the backyard, and the kids walked the like while holding the waterballoon on the spoon. If you can make it down the line and back without dropping the waterballoon, you win a prize! This was great for the little ones, but it was pretty easy for some of the bigger kids, so we turned it into more of an obstacle course.  
    We also had face painting.

        Don't forget the prizes! Most of the budget for the party went to ordering the prizes from Oriental Trading Company. Since Lily had invited a bunch of kids, we needed a ton of prizes. I hung an unused piece of trellis netting from my garden from the ceiling, and clothespinned some of the prizes to it to create a big display. I forgot to take another picture after I put up the sign and the rest of the prizes, but you get the idea.

   For the cake, I baked 3 sheet cakes, and stacked them on top of each other with frosting inbetween, making a huge block of cake. Then, I cut the top of each side at an angle, to make the shape of a circus tent. If you are going to do this, I advise baking a cake from scratch, because box cakes are really fluffy and crumbly, so then you try to frost it, it might come apart. Cakes from scratch are more dense, and hold their shape better. If you use a box cake, then I would cover it with fondant instead of frosting, so that you don't see all the little crumbs.  I frosted the whole thing white, and piped on red stripes. Then, I made little colorful flags out of construction paper and toothpicks, and put them all around the edges of the cake. It actually did look like a circus tent! Lily loved it! I was impressed. 
    We put the cake out on a table with a bunch of different candy and fruit, and covered it all with another PVC tent.

    We added balloons to everything just before the guests arrived, and everything turned out great! I decorated our outdoor bar to look like a ticket booth, and handed out tickets to the guests as they arrived. The whole thing ended up costing about $100, which I thought was pretty reasonable for a carnival!