Thursday, April 14, 2016

Party Review: Safari Run (Sunnyvale)

For years, people have been asking me for reviews of local birthday party venues. Toddler X celebrated his first birthday at home, however, and his second and third at a local park, so we simply had nothing to review. But this year, with El Nino in the February forecast and Toddler X at an age where we couldn't just cancel due to rain (I'm pretty sure he wouldn't let that slide!), I decided we needed to reserve an indoor spot in advance.

Fortunately (and I'm saying this in Peppa Pig's dad's voice), I'm a bit of an expert on local play places. Toddler X has loved almost every spot we've visited -- how to choose?

My Considerations in Choosing a Party Venue

Many of our favorite indoor play venues offer party packages on weekends, and I was booking about a month and a half out, so I figured we had a reasonable chance of getting a slot (more on that below). The question, then, was which venue would be the right match. Here are the factors I considered:

1. Where is Toddler X at his best? This included two considerations -- first, obviously, I wanted a venue that Toddler X would love, but second, I wanted a spot where I wouldn't have to supervise him and his pals all that closely. As I was planning the party in the midst of an exhausting first trimester of pregnancy, I have to admit that mama relaxation was foremost in my mind. While Toddler X loves our local pretend play places, a forced sharing of toys among a bunch of 3 and 4 year olds seemed like it might require a good bit of supervision/intervention. Likewise, while Toddler X could spend all day at the various inflatable spots, I've seen the physical play inside bounce houses get very...well, physical. I didn't want to be playing referee (or -- yikes! -- paramedic).

Which brought me to the indoor play structure spots. Perhaps it's because we spent so much of his first three years at playgrounds, but Toddler X just seems to be at his best when he's climbing, running, and sliding. Watching his friends over the past six months on play structures indoors and out, I've realized that four is a great age for independent and safe exploration. A play structure is a place where I can just let Toddler X run free and enjoy himself.

So, there you go: an indoor play structure spot was our winner.

2. Sole use of the play space. While I do trust Toddler X on play structures at this age, I also know that I'm always more relaxed at fenced-in playgrounds than at open ones, and during calmer times at the big indoor structure places than at busy ones. It can be disquieting to lose sight of your kid, and at a large venue, with intricate structures and lots of people around, it can sometimes take a few minutes to find him. Again, with my own relaxation in mind, I decided to limit our choices to venues where we would have sole use of the play space during our party. The only spots that feature this option are Safari Run and La Petite Playhouse.

3. Location. Finally, it came down to convenience. The vast majority of our friends are in the South Bay, with just one coming from the Peninsula. La Petite Playhouse is great, but it's in Redwood City. Safari Run, located right off Lawrence Expressway, just a short distance from the 101 interchange, is convenient for just about everyone. Safari Run it was!

(You may wonder if price was also a consideration -- yes, it was, but it was one I dealt with at the outset, as soon as I decided to have a party at an indoor venue where we'd have private use of the space. As I glanced around at different venues, it quickly became clear that many were in the same price range for the basic party package -- starting in the high $300s, and going up from there -- and Mr. X and I decided that, given my current level of pregnancy exhaustion, we were just going to have to stomach that cost this year.)

Having run through my list of considerations, Safari Run was clearly our best fit. Toddler X and I had visited before, and he really enjoyed it. At our previous visit, I found the space to be extremely clean and well-maintained, and the staff friendly and professional. As soon as we made our decision, we began to get excited -- and I'm delighted to say that the overall experience exceeded our expectations. Here's my review:


Our experience at Safari Run was awesome. Fantastic. I could not have asked for more. One of my primary goals (I'll admit it) was lack of work for me, and the folks at Safari Run literally took everything off my hands. From the moment we booked, I had to do nothing else besides decide on what food to serve (they contact you for that a week in advance) and order a cake. On the day of the party (described more below), I simply pulled up into the parking lot, and everything else was taken care of -- the party moved like clockwork, with no effort from me. I spent the party time chatting with friends on comfy couches, laughing at the kids' delight as they flew down the tiger slide, and occasionally remembering to snap pictures. It was heavenly. I would highly recommend Safari Run for a birthday party for ages 4 and up, and recommend it, with just a few reservations, for a 3 year old party. Here are the basic pros and cons (I elaborate below):

  • Pros:
    • Ridiculously easy on the parents. I had to do almost nothing -- from the moment we arrived, the staff anticipated every need and managed the entire party (seeking my input where appropriate). I have never felt so relaxed at an event where I was the host!
    • Fantastic structure and play area. The play structure, slides, and play area were a huge hit with the kids. Everything was immaculate and well-maintained.

    • Great space for the parents to sit while the kids play. It feels like a lounge -- comfy and classy couches, magazines, even a tv if you like, all within the greater play area. I sat there with my friends sipping bottled water and chatting while our kids had a blast.
    • Friendly and professional staff. I can't say enough good things about the staff -- they were courteous, poised, prepared, friendly, and oh so good at throwing parties! They were great with both parents and kids, and they were a huge part of why I felt so relaxed.
    • The inclusions. I was delighted to realize that there was no need for me to bring any decorations, plates, napkins or silverware -- all was included. Before I realized this fact, I had visited Diddams and spent $50 on the above (not including the balloons I planned to buy on party day). What a delight to find that the party room (not the play structure, but the area where you go to enjoy cake) is nicely decorated, and that paper goods are included. It felt great to return the unused goods!
  • Cons:
    • Guest limits. This was the biggest negative for us. You're limited to 20 kids over the age of one, and while you can pay more for additional children, you also have a hard limit of 45 total guests -- yourself, adults, babies and children included. As (i) most of our guest list was friends I made in our new moms' group four years ago (most of whom now have a second child over age one), (ii) the standard at my friends' kids' parties over the past four years has been for spouses and siblings to come as well, and (iii) we wanted Grandma and Pops to attend, we were effectively limited to inviting 11 of Toddler X's pals to be sure to stay within the 45 person limit (10 siblings, and the possibility of both parents with each family, plus Grandma and Pops). We weren't able to invite his preschool buddies or an extended friend group, which was kind of a bummer. (If both parents aren't expected to join each guest and siblings aren't invited, this shouldn't be a problem for others' parties.)
    • The food situation. Safari Run is clear up front about what's allowed and not allowed in terms of food, but it wasn't until I started choosing what we'd serve that I realized it could be difficult to find the right balance, especially when you're trying to please both preschooler and adult palates. You are allowed to serve hot items ordered from their vendor (pizza, nachos, quesadillas, etc.), plus bring two cold items, both of which must be "catered"/sealed. In other words, you can bring sandwich trays, veggie trays, etc. from Costco, Safeway, or other stores, or unopened bags of popcorn or chips, but you can't make a salad or fruit plate at home and bring it in. I imagine this is due to food safety concerns, but it can be a bit of a hassle to figure out what to bring. I'll describe more below.
    • The cost. I have to admit, having thrown Toddler X's last two parties at a local park, and served brunch-y foods like bagels, yogurt, juices and coffee, the cost of this one initially took me aback. However, I must say that as we walked out to our car after the party, totally at ease after a relaxing afternoon, with Safari Run personnel ahead of us already loading up the trunk with our presents, the leftover cake, gift bags, and the like, Mr. X and I looked at each other and said, in unison, "That was SO worth it."
Here are the details:

The Booking Process

The booking process at Safari Run is a piece of cake. The website clearly lists the various party packages available, what's included, and the cost, and allows you to view available times on a calendar. (This was more convenient than some other places I looked at, where you had to submit a preferred time and they offered you the closest thing -- I'd much prefer to view all options and make my choice.)

Party times include Friday evenings beginning at 4:00 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 a.m. - 9:30 p.m. Looking at the calendar, times that are booked are in plain text -- available times include a green hyperlink, so they're quick and easy to spot.

Booking early (I'd say two months out) is key to getting the time slot and day you'd prefer. Morning and early afternoon spots book first, and Saturdays fill up before Sundays (for example, the 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. Saturday spots may be booked months in advance). However, if you can be a bit flexible, you should be okay booking a month and a half out, which is what we did (we ended up with a 2:00 p.m. Sunday slot -- not ideal, but it worked out just fine).

Once you've selected your time from the calendar, you select your party package from four options -- I'll discuss those in more detail below. You add it to your cart, create an account, and pay a deposit with a credit card (the balance is due the day of the party). You get a confirmation email, and that's it! Nothing more to think about until a week out from your party date, when they contact you by email (and if you forget to reply, as I did, they follow up by phone) to get your food order and answer any questions. Then you just show up on party day!

The Party Packages

Safari Run offers four party packages at different price points, and all are well-explained on the website. We opted for the basic package, Monkey 1, as it fit our needs and we weren't looking to spend a ton of money. If you want a bit more party time (Monkey 1 only comes out to 1 hour 40 minutes; Monkey 2, 3 and 4 are 2 hours 30 minutes), you may want to consider one of the bigger packages.

The basic package, Monkey 1, offers:
  • One hour on the play structure. This time is totally exclusive to your party guests. It's such a cool feeling to have a huge structure to yourself after being used to visiting play areas during Open Play hours, when the general public is present!
  • 40 minutes in the party room. The party room is where you'll be able to enjoy cake and food (which you bring or order from them), with a long, central kid-sized table, and several cafe tables around the perimeter where adults can hover.
  • Plates, napkins, utensils, and balloons for decoration in the party room.
  • Downloadable party invitations.
  • A custom birthday sign, which is set up in the entryway, along with a cart for gifts.
Monkey 2 includes all of the above, and adds on:
  • Up to 50 minutes in the Tiger Alley room, where you can hire your own entertainer or the birthday kid can open gifts (bringing party time to 2 hours and 30 minutes)
Monkey 3 includes all of the above, plus:
  • Use of the rock climbing wall (still within that 50 minute Tiger Alley time limit)
And finally, Monkey 4 adds on:
  • A goodie box or t-shirt for each child, and
  • A Safari Run t-shirt for the birthday child, which guests can sign.
Each package includes up to 20 children over the age of 1 (including the birthday child), and approximately 20 adults. You can add additional children for a fee (varies depending on package), but -- and this is a big but -- you CAN NOT exceed 45 people, total, including babies and adults, at the party.

The price breakdown is as follows:
  • Monkey 1: Base price is $380; additional kid (over 20) is $13.
  • Monkey 2: Base price is $410; additional kid (over 20) is $15.
  • Monkey 3: Base price is $480; additional kid (over 20) is $17.
  • Monkey 4: Base price is $590; additional kid (over 20) is $23.
Advance Planning

Having booked your party, there is almost nothing else you need to do to prepare. Your only considerations are the cake, goody bags (assuming you didn't choose the Monkey 4 package, where they're included), and food. The two allowable cold food items, you must purchase yourself. All drinks and hot food items are purchased through Safari Run.

About a week before your party, you get an email with a menu of available items and prices, and confirmation of the details of your party. If you don't respond to the email (um...yeah, that's me), they very professionally follow up with you.

Given the time of our party (2:00-3:45 p.m.), we didn't plan to serve a complete meal, so we opted out of the hot foods (pizza, quesadillas, etc.) and planned to bring our own two cold dishes. We chose to only order bottles of water for our drinks. (One thing I loved: we ordered multiple cases, but at the end of the party they let me know that we hadn't used all we'd ordered, so they deducted the cost of the unused case from the total. I wouldn't have even known that we hadn't used what we ordered, so their honesty was refreshing -- I didn't feel like they were trying to "nickel and dime" us.)

The cold dishes were the only aspect of the party that required some thought. I wanted something that both adults and kids could snack on, but when you're limited to exactly two items, it can be tough. A fruit plate and a veggie plate sounded good at first, but then I thought that kids would prefer something more carbo-ish to snack on (popcorn, pretzels, or the like). I considered pinwheel sandwiches, a chip and dip plate, and several other things, but it was tough to narrow it down to two. (Or maybe it was just my very indecisive pregnancy brain!) Eventually, we decided to go with a fruit plate from Zanotto's (I can not recommend this highly enough!) and mini scones from Panera (yum!).

Picking up our cake and two cold food items and packing our goody bags were literally the only things I had to do to prepare for the party.

Party Day!

The party day experience was flawless. We were instructed to arrive about 15 minutes before our designated party time. When we pulled into the lot -- a special spot is designated for the host family -- we were amazed to see a Safari Run employee already on her way out with a rolling cart. She introduced herself (super friendly!), wished Toddler X a happy birthday, pulled her cart up to our tailgate, and promptly started loading our food, cake, goody bags and miscellaneous other gear onto the cart. We didn't have to carry a single thing in -- score!

Inside, we were greeted at the desk by an equally friendly and professional employee, while the one with the cart began setting out our stuff. She had a few simple questions for me in terms of preferences -- would we like the food out now, or wait until the party room; would we like the waters set out during the playtime; is there any particular way we'd like the candles arranged on the cake; etc. -- and then she was off.

Toddler X was delighted to find a cart stationed near the entrance with his name on it, wishing him a happy birthday. He had brought his Mickey, Pluto and Donald stuffed animals along -- it was a Mickey theme -- and an employee helped him arrange them on the cart. As guests arrived later, they placed their gifts on the cart, and the cart was simply wheeled to our car after the party. The efficiency was amazing!

It's worth noting that as we arrived (15 minutes before our party), there was still another party's worth of kids in the play area, getting their picture taken. I had a moment of worry -- would our party be delayed because they were still in there? Shortly before our party began, that group moved into the party room, however, and a few moments before 2:00, we and our first guests were welcomed from the entry area onto the play structure. Again, the efficiency was amazing. Now let the fun begin!

Time on the Play Structure

The party begins with one hour on the play structure. To make sure you get the most of that time, you can suggest to guests that they arrive a bit early to fill out the necessary waiver, or even fill it out online in advance.

As guests arrive, they are instructed on where to remove and store their shoes. (Note that socks are a must for anyone who wants to climb in the structure -- adults and kids alike. Be sure to let your guests know in advance, and perhaps bring some extra pairs along for those who forget. They can be purchased at the desk as a last resort. Adults who don't plan to play on the structure itself can wear their shoes.) Kids are shown to a nice bank of kid-friendly sinks to wash their hands. I definitely felt that cleanliness was a priority.

Inside the play structure area, the kids were greeted by two more staff members, just as friendly as the first two we met. They immediately got the kids going on the structure and playing with the soft balls spread around on the floor area. It seemed like they had a pretty good feel for how involved they needed to get -- most of the kids at our party made a beeline for the structure and disappeared inside, no guidance needed, but the supervisors did a great job of helping more hesitant kids feel comfortable, and suggesting fun games with the balls and such.

The play structure is fantastic -- it's a perfect size for a party of up to 20 kids (we ended up with around 13 of play structure age, discounting babies), with so much fun to be had. The ground level is also fun, with room for races, kicking the soft balls, etc. Kids were running about and having a blast.

One of the best parts is the lounge area for parents. Located within the gated play structure section -- so close to the kids -- it features multiple comfy couches and tables, complete with magazines and a tv (if you want it). While some parents stood and chatted, many of us grabbed seats on the couches and just relaxed while we watched the kids play. It was heavenly!

About halfway through our play structure time, the supervisors asked if I wanted them to organize some games -- duck, duck, goose or the like -- but I looked around at the kids having a blast on the structure, and thought, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." None of them seemed like they were getting bored, so we let them keep on playing for the full hour.

About 15 minutes before our hour was up, they let me know that the next step would be gathering the kids so we could take a group photo (they were always letting me know the next step -- seriously, so well-organized!), and about 10 minutes before it was time to move on, the supervisors began the process of doing so. We got our photo, then the kids were directed to the hand washing area to clean up.

As they finished, they were led to a hallway outside the party room, and asked to line up against the wall. I've never seen 4 year olds so well-behaved -- the supervisors at Safari Run are kid whisperers! Once everyone was washed and ready, they ushered us into the party room.

One note on the play structure segment of the party: I was concerned that one hour wouldn't feel like enough time, but it definitely did. The kids were go-go-go from the moment the party started -- seriously, one friend offered her daughter a sip of water, and the response was "I don't have time for water!" as she sprinted back to the slides -- and I think they were genuinely tired and ready to move on by the time our hour was through.

I would suggest that you recommend that your guests arrive on time, or even a bit early to fill out the required waiver before the play time starts so that they can take full advantage of it (they can also fill it out online in advance). My friends and I are a notoriously "show up whenever" crew, so we had people wandering in at 2:30, and those kids didn't get very much time on the structure (though they had plenty of fun too!). If most of your guests can plan to be there in the first 10 minutes after the party begins, you'll feel like you really got your money's worth.

The Party Room

As I mentioned in the intro, one of the great features of a Safari Run party is that you don't have to take care of the decorations -- they're included with the package price, as are plates, napkins, and silverware (well, plastic ware). I was a bit nervous, as I didn't know what their decorations would entail, but when we were lead into the party room for snacks and cake, I was pleased with what I saw. The decorations were cute and well-done (animal murals painted on the wall, colorful paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling, balloons), and honestly, bringing in a bunch of Mickey stuff would've been overkill. Unless you are dead set on really carrying out a theme at your party, I would say to just go with the decorations and plates/napkins they provide, and save the extra money.

The party room is a long, narrow room, with a low, kid-sized table running through the middle and bistro height tables for the adults along the walls. The staff had again outdone themselves, splitting the mini scones we brought onto little plates that they arranged along the kids' table and around the bistro tables, and setting out the fruit tray on a bar at the end. The kids immediately settled into seats and began to munch on the scones, while the parents grabbed fruit and distributed it to their kids. (Note that the staff had offered to walk the table with the fruit tray to serve the kids, but I requested the other arrangement -- I can just imagine 15 four year olds trying to decide among seven different kinds of fruit while the server stood there with a huge, heavy tray. I figured the parents could make the decisions much more efficiently.)

One of the neatest parts of the party came as the kids munched on their snacks. I didn't realize it, but at some point during the play structure time, one of the staff members had tracked down Toddler X and gotten a whole bunch of trivia from him about his favorite things. During snack time, the supervisor announced that they'd play a game, asking kids to guess Toddler X's favorite food, movie, animal, color, etc. It turned out to be really cute, and a fun way to occupy the kids as they ate (and who knew Toddler X's favorite animal was a honeybee??).

Soon it was time for cake. A staff member asked me how we'd like to do the candles (we had brought a separate, small cake for Toddler X to blow out candles so he wouldn't be blowing over everyone else's food), and they orchestrated the whole thing perfectly. They even offered to take a picture of our family together, which we totally would have forgotten if they hadn't mentioned it. Seriously, they thought of everything.

Literally the moment we were done blowing out candles, they started serving the most perfectly-cut pieces of cake I've ever seen. My friends and I were laughing at their efficiency - how did they do that so quickly?! Everyone had cake in a matter of moments, and we enjoyed it for our remaining time in the room.

A few minutes before the party was to end, a staff member summoned me to the rear of the party room to discuss how I'd like everything packaged to go home. Again, they thought of everything, then loaded our extra food onto a cart, which would magically appear next to our car when we arrived outside.

At the appointed time, they ushered us into the final stop, the Tiger Alley room. We didn't choose the Monkey 2-4 packages, which include an extra 50 minutes in that room, and honestly, that was just fine -- the kids were wiped out. But if you do opt for one of the larger packages, that is where you'll be able to have face painting, a magician, music, whatever, or, with certain packages, use of the climbing wall. I imagine 5 or 6 year olds would enjoy that, but for 4 year olds, the basic package was just great.

In the Tiger Alley, we found that they had set up all our goodie bags nicely on a table at the end -- guests grabbed one, and the party was over. We got multiple reports from friends of really good naps that afternoon!

Wrapping Up

After our guests left, I went over to the desk to pay our bill. The staff member again was professional and courteous as she explained the charges (no surprises at all), and delighted as I was with what we had just experienced, I had no problem at all paying for it. You do have the option to include a gratuity for the staff, and I did so -- I can't remember the exact number, but I made it pretty hefty because they were pretty darn awesome. As you budget for your party there, I do recommend planning to include their tip.

As I was paying, Mr. X and Toddler X headed out to the car, where they were greeted by two staff members with carts, who helped load up the food, presents, goodie bags and the like. From start to finish, every detail was covered, including a big happy birthday message to Toddler X, written on the cake box by the staff.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Overall, we were as happy as could be with our Safari Run party experience, and we definitely felt it was worth the cost. The kids had a blast, and there was literally zero stress for us, as parents. The facility was clean, well-maintained, and fun, the staff were just incredible, and the whole process went off without a hitch.

Given the nature of the play structure, the youngest age I'd recommend for a party here is 3 years old, and only if the birthday kid and many of his/her friends are adventurous and agile little climbers (or have parents who are happy to climb with them in the structures). Two year olds will have trouble navigating the different levels of the structure, as will some young 3's.

I would highly recommend Safari Run for a 4th - 7th birthday party, with maybe 4 - 6 being the perfect age. The kids at our party (a 4th) were small enough that the structure still felt like an adventure and a challenge, but large enough that they could manage it themselves. They really had a blast.

While I know it's tempting to include extra kids for a fee, I probably would recommend against that. I think the 20 kid limit actually sets a good number for the play structure area itself, and honestly, our 15 kid party turned out to be perfect (we had two families with two kids each who weren't able to come at the last minute). Younger siblings will enjoy the party too, as there is a baby crawling area with soft play items separate from the main structure. The only age that I can see being frustrated here are maybe 18 month - young 2 year olds, who would quickly tire of the baby area, but still be too small to do much on the big structure. If parents were willing to join in the structure play, though, I'm sure even that age would have fun.

In terms of which party package to choose, though I went in thinking the 1 hour 45 minutes of the Monkey 1 package sounded really short, it actually turned out to be perfect for the 4 year olds -- I think if we had tried to extend it with music or face painting or whatever, the kids might have hit the wall. The larger, extended packages might be great for a 5th or older birthday party, as kids have more stamina and might enjoy a magician or singer.

In conclusion, I was highly impressed with our Safari Run experience, and can't wait to get back for some more Open Play!

Note: The owner of Safari Run was kind enough to give me a small discount on our party package when I shared that I would be writing a review of our experience, but I didn't promise to write anything specific, and that small discount did not in any way influence my experience at the party or my views, as expressed in my review. Everything written here reflects my true experience and feelings.

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