Part 2: Fifth Birthday Deployment + Fort Pics

You’ve read our plan, now read how the party went down, made possible by Budget Truck Rental. (Really! See below.)

A front door sign written by my daughter greeted guests: “Please come in here for the party.” My wife lobbied for “Please come in here for great fun,” but my persuasion won over my daughter. We couldn’t risk overselling the event.

Six kids were invited, including a requisite brother-sister combo. The party started late as attendees trickled in. No worries… kids find ways to entertain themselves without copious planning by adults.

Craft Project

Photo of two pages of my daughter's handmade book featuring phonetic writing, clipped magazine photos and original drawings.

The kids were given pre-made “books” consisting of three blank white pages and a construction paper cover. Their instruction was to find pictures (pre-cut in a shallow box before them) to create a story and paste the pictures with glue sticks.

At the 4- to 5-year-old age you really see the differences in kids. At one end of the spectrum, a child sat stunned and would use the first photo suggested to him. No story. Why are these adults giving me this task?

In the middle is the kid who made a collage, stuffing as many photos as possible, then coloring the spaces between.

On the other end, my daughter was the last one to leave the table, having finished only the first page because she was devising a written story. We gave her an hour at bedtime to complete her book utilizing clippings and her own drawings.

Her epic is titled “Janey and CC” (shown above) and is the harrowing tale of a baby (Janey) at the beach who balks when her mom (CC) says it’s time to go home. Janey persuades her mother to stop at an ice cream shop. CC overpays and is given change in return, and then the family heads home. The End.

Either my daughter reads right-to-left, or in her world people pay for food before they’ve decided what to order.

Anyhow, the kids had minimal assistance with their books as the moms were busy chatting. As each child finished, there was evident pride in workmanship as they shared their picture books with their mothers.

Cake, Glorious Cake

Photo of some kids at a toddler table bent over attempting to hide from the camera.

Above we see some of the kids hiding from the camera just before cake.

Our planned homemade book-shaped cake didn’t happen due to our fort-building delays (more on that later).

We bought a way-too-expensive, but still very tasty ice cream cake from a local confectionery.

I hate the whole blowing germs across the cake thing, so we sliced our daughter’s piece first, stuck candles in it and sang.

Book Exchange

Photo of the kids and moms sitting in a circle opening presents.

My favorite moment was seeing my daughter’s friends in a circle, each opening his or her own package. They each gave her a book and she picked one out for each of them from mostly mint copies I’ve been amassing from garage sales (exception: William Joyce books get a fair amount of wear for some reason).

About half the parents stayed true to our instruction and gave her a used book. The other half bought new books. Some kids were excited, some indifferent. I suppose it’s tough when you can’t read and really do have to judge a book by its cover.

Attached to each book, we gave the kids an oversized multicolored pencil and, later, a parting mix CD with a custom print label. A few kids also took home a balloon.

Cardboard Fort

Photo of the cardboard fort set up in our living room, before the kids arrived.

This fort is 20-feet-long and 12-feet-deep (6.1 x 3.6 meters). There’s no way to convey the sense of scale in a single photo.

Now with only 45 minutes remaining in our party, the cardboard fort was unveiled, conveniently hidden until this moment behind a closed door. Balloons of various sizes were scattered around the area.

Within a minute there was bedlam as kids began screaming and running around, a situation that obligated the mothers to stick around an hour past the official end time, lest they be dubbed the worst moms in the world.

Photo of four kids hiding out in a dead-end chamber, reacting with surprise at being found out.

The volume in the room was insane. Within 15 minutes, the kids decided I was a monster and must chase them. That’s right. The mothers gabbed while I provided the supervision. My knees are still sore.

Photo looking into a cardboard window with a child holding a balloon up to his face while my 1-year-old son is barely seen looking up and smiling at the kid.

Best of all, my 15-month-old son freely wandered the fort, excited beyond measure to be playing with kids roughly his size. They weaved around him without incident as they raced through the fort away from me. He had a permanent smile on his face.

Now… The mothers’ first reaction to the fort was to praise the one man in the room. In truth, both my wife and I worked on it until 3 a.m. the two previous nights. Don’t ask me where the time went. We expected only one all-nighter.

She did a lot of the initial planning and box setup. Then I swooped in insisting on certain features and slathered on assurances that the whole project wasn’t going to hell. Oh yes, fort building is a serious source of marital friction. She made most of the pillars. I did most of the interior tunnel taping. And so forth.

The room’s furniture was relocated into other rooms. That left just a bookshelf along one wall and a table along another wall containing my laptop, and our small entertainment center which is wisely on wheels. Oh, and we held a garage sale the next day, working us overtime in every respect.

The fort has several key architectural elements:

  1. A low front wall where initially cautious kids can peer inside.
  2. A central courtyard where kids face multiple destinations and can toss balloons in the open air.
  3. Places to stand up and congregate in the middle of tunnels.
  4. Three seemingly useless dead-end alcoves.
  5. One tunnel with periodic skylights so it’s not too imposing.
  6. Exterior rooms created by taping together small boxes into support pillars for roofs made from thin futon boxes.
  7. A Fortamajig made a room into a tent-like structure.
  8. Connectables (not installed at the time of the photo below) turned a dead-end into a covered alcove.

Photo of the fort set up in my living room with various features pinpointed on the image.

I’m sure that diagram clears things right up.

The Budget Truck Rental connection

The tunnels in this fort were made possible by Budget Truck Rental. Two years ago, I had the worst experience obtaining boxes for my daughter’s third birthday party.

At the time, Budget Car Rentals was advertising on Thingamababy. Too late for the party, I realized Budget is also Budget Truck Rentals — as in move-your-family-across-the-country trucks. They have 24″x24″x40″ wardrobe boxes at their disposal. In a heart beat they agreed to ship me 21 boxes. In return, I gave them some blog advertising and promised to thank them when I held my August fort party. Oops, Halloween fort party. Umm, Christmas fort party with packing peanuts as snow.

Damn. Time flies when you’re avoiding organizing a fort party. Two years have passed.

So, hey, look! Wardrobe boxes make great tunnels. Two kids can crawl through them side-by-side and dads can navigate them on their knees instead of slithering like a snake.

Thank you Budget Truck Rental! And thank you D4R for passing my request to Budget. I had also solicited Sears and a few other corporations and none of them even responded. Even most stores I’ve visited in person don’t give a rat’s ass about a father trying to collect cardboard boxes for a child’s birthday party, so it was a delight for you to take notice and help make this party a reality.


As mentioned in Part 1 of this story, my daughter wanted to invite many more friends than our 5-kid limit. So we’ve kept the fort up and had two kids over since, and two more slated for today. Basically, if you’re reading this, know my daughter, and weren’t at the party, give us a call before we grow tired of not having a living room.

Lessons Learned

1. Forget playing music at a party. It’s not audible over the kids.

2. Wear knee pads if you’re going to chase kids through tunnels for two hours.

3. Two hours in a refrigerator makes ice cream cake mushy.

4. Remember to buy candles so Dad doesn’t have to run to the store in the middle of a party.

5. That’s it. I didn’t really learn anything more.

We’re exhausted at this point and won’t be building another fort until, maybe, our son’s third birthday. By then we’ll have our plans worked out for cardboard stairs leading to the mezzanine.

More Photos!

Photo of a girl turning a corner at the end of a long cardboard cooridor, reacting with surprise at seeing the camera.

Did I mention I chased the kids around holding my camera in front of me, making goofy Tasmanian Devil noises (ala Looney Tunes) and snapping photos without using the viewfinder? The flash became part of the game, with me sneaking my hand into chambers unseen and surprising kids with the flash. Yeah, you’re not seeing the entirely blurry images now littering my hard drive.

Photo of a girl smiling while looking out of a cardboard box, with a hairband coming off her head.

She’s standing inside a box pillar… crawl into the box, stand up and look out across at a second box pillar (the second is only accessible by tunnel). I was skeptical — it was my wife’s idea and it did get used.

Photo of my daughter and two other kids inside an octagonal chamber, with my daughter looking up and realizing dad is photographing them from above.

Oh, yes, you are standing in two giant octagonal watermelon crates and there’s a big hole in the ceiling that the one adult with a camera can access. Run!

You’d better enjoy that room. I carted those boxes home from a grocery store in a borrowed truck and had one fly off on the freeway. Ten pound bags of cat litter don’t hold cardboard containers down in 50 m.p.h. winds like they used to. Did I mention there was a semi behind me? Somehow I didn’t kill anybody and the party was a success.

Photo of the courtyard with my daughter on her knees, another child standing holding a balloon and another child scooting away into a cardboard room.

Never get caught in the open!

Photo of a child holding up a giant perfectly round yellow balloon above his head while my 1-year-old son lifts his arms up to mimic or maybe indicate he wants the balloon.

I highly recommend 3-foot-wide balloons. This one is way under-inflated, otherwise it wouldn’t fit through the tunnels.

Photo of the backend of my daughter crawling through a cardboard tunnel with several kids visible in a chamber up ahead.

Quick, tell them your dad is coming. Run!

Photo of my 1-year-old son in the fort.

My son.

Photo of my daughter emerging and running out of a cardboard tunnel.

The birthday girl.


9 Responses to “Part 2: Fifth Birthday Deployment + Fort Pics”

  1. Jeanne says:

    You are the greatest parents in the whole history of parties!

    June 16th, 2009 at 2:48 am

  2. Scott says:

    Next time you build a fort, you should think about using Mr. McGroovy’s Box Rivets (via )

    June 16th, 2009 at 8:56 am

  3. Scott says:

    Oh, I spelled it wrong when I searched your site. Looks like you already know about them

    In that case… why did you guys use tape and not the Rivets?

    June 16th, 2009 at 8:58 am

  4. Felice says:

    I am so inspired by your stories, my little one is 15 months and i have so many ideas, this is why we have kids to enjoy and imprint so many memories in their lives. Thanks for sharing, i can’t wait for “parties” to come

    June 16th, 2009 at 9:00 am

  5. AJ says:

    Jeanne & Felice, thank you.

    Scott, we own box rivets. They are good for refrigerator boxes. Tape provides a time savings over rivets when dealing with smaller, more numerous boxes because there is a certain amount of futzing involved with the rivets.

    Rivets were troublesome for the tunnels because I tried connecting through the box wall and also a pulled-back lid which never quite lined up right after making the pilot hole. I thought, “I’d be done already if I used tape.”

    And, our watermelon boxes are even thicker than fridge boxes, too thick for the rivets. I’d want an electric drill to make the pilot holes.

    However, we did use rivets in a few choice locations where they were a snap to install.

    June 16th, 2009 at 2:42 pm

  6. Jen says:

    What a fun party!!!! Your whole description of it was so funny too!

    June 16th, 2009 at 4:51 pm

  7. Kendra says:

    I love it! Great job. I am uber impressed with the fort – those are the kinds of ideas that seem “simple” in theory… until you’re up til 3am trying to put it all together.

    June 17th, 2009 at 8:43 pm

  8. Maggie says:

    Wow! I feel like somewhat of an unsuitable parent after reading all of that. What a lucky girl she is!

    June 19th, 2009 at 7:57 am

  9. Ari says:

    That. Looks. AWESOME!!!!

    When do the parents get to come by and run around in the fort???? : )

    June 19th, 2009 at 9:03 am