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It’s time to get on the party bus

January 24, 2018

For some parents, a child’s birthday party is a chance to transform their home into a themed-out wonderland, with DIY decorations displayed around a homemade cake’s Pinterest-inspired princess and pirate toppers.

For others, the annual celebration instills panic, dread and procrastination.

Some Houston companies offer innovative birthday parties that reduce stress for both camps, by rolling up to a party site, parking and inviting children inside for activities.

Tumble Bus offers gymnastics-themed parties for kids ages 2 to 5.

The repurposed 1990s school bus is decked out in red, white and blue. Inside, seats have been removed to make room for a colorful gymnasium, with a balance beam, mini trampoline, rope climbing, rings, inclines, monkey bars and even a zip line that runs the length of the bus, with riders landing in a ball pit.

The walls are padded with carpet and the floor has a foam pad.

Along with her employees, who are moms like herself, owner Cathy Shimfessel leads birthday parties in an obstacle-course format, with children rotating between challenges. It’s not unusual for older party guests and siblings over the age of 5, who are not permitted on the bus, to ask to participate, too.

The experience of stepping inside a city or school bus is novel for many of the young guests, Shimfessel says.

“Kids at this age love buses,” she says. “It’s a huge, big thing” to them.

Preschoolers also like being active, she says, and can develop motor skills by tumbling. Often after the one-hour play period, kids head inside the home to eat cake and watch the guest of honor open presents.

Décor on the bus, which visits day care centers and private preschools during the week and does party booking on the weekends, changes monthly. Soon it will have an Olympics theme, so someone hosting a Tumble Bus party in February can make use of winter games-inspired activities. Using pieces of wax paper, they can “ice skate” on an incline built inside the bus or mimic skiing in a speed race.

A one-hour Tumble Bus party is $175.

GameTruck is another national franchise with vehicles that host parties in Houston. Inside the tractor trailer, individual consoles play video games from a PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 or, the pièce de résistance, the new Nintendo Switch.

Depending on the vehicle, capacity inside ranges from 16 to 32 players. Bluetooth surround sound playing pop music adds to the “party atmosphere,” says local franchise owner David Richardson.

Children and teens love the chance to practice their skills on a variety of game sets, he says, and the on-board coach helps the uninitiated get started. It can be hard to wrap up the 1 ½- or 2-hour play time and get the kids to exit the bus, he says, and parents love the concept, too.

“You don’t have to worry about anyone tearing up the inside of your house,” Richardson says. “All the fun is happening inside the bus.”

Prices are based on number of players, but start at around $350 for a two-hour period.

Games2U is an Austin-based company that also provides video-game parties in the Houston area, in addition to outdoor laser tag and rock climbing walls.

Elizabeth Autenreith used Sparkle Spa Bus for her daughter Avery’s 7th birthday party last fall. Avery had attended spa-themed parties and wanted to host one herself but requested the party be at her house rather than a hair or nail salon, Autenreith says.

Sparkle Spa Bus (sparklespabus.com), a tricked-out pink bus, allows guests to make a grand entrance on a pink carpet sectioned off with colorful boas rather than a velvet rope.

Inside, guests wear a terry cloth robe over their clothes and choose from services like pedicures, manicures, and hair and makeup touch-ups.

Avery chose the “You Glow Girl” party package. At the end of the pampering session, a black light revealed glow-in-the-dark fingernails and makeup. “They turned the music up really loud and all the girls went crazy,” Autenreith says.

Autenreith says the staff on board, clad in tutus and bright accessories, were “energetic.”

A 1½-hour Sparkle Spa Bus party starts at $325. Rockstar Spa Bus, based in Katy and serving a 30-mile radius, provides similar events (rockstarspabus.com).

“Any time you have something at your house, it’s a bit more stressful - no matter if it’s inside or outside the house,” Autenreith says. For this reason, she has tried to steer her daughters away from at-home parties in the past. Overall, though, she was pleased with the spa party and how it “kept the girls’ attention and kept them entertained.”