Add Pizzazz to Your Annual Summer Gathering

by Phyllis Cambria

As summer begins, you're probably making plans for your annual picnic or family reunion.  Chances are the event will be identical to previous years.  Hot dogs, hamburger, chicken and/or ribs, salads and watermelon will likely be on your menu and volleyball, softball and swimming on your activity list. Ho-hum.

Here are some ideas to add pizzazz to your picnic, without necessarily increasing your budget.


If you have held your picnic at the same spot for more than two or three years in a row, consider moving it.  Look for alternative locales.  If your barbecue is generally held in a park, move it to the beach.  If you're at the beach, move it to a lake.  Even if you have to keep it at the same park as always, try to set up your event at another location in the park to offer a slight change of vista.


Create a theme for the picnic.  Themes not only add a little excitement, they allow you to make small changes to your plans that have a big impact. Best of all, themes can provide focus to your plans and help you stay on track. "Under the Big Top," "Country Fair," "It's Best Our West," or "Out On Safari" are all popular, easy-to-execute and affordable themes.

Your menu may stay the same if you wish, but by changing the atmosphere or even how it is served, your familiar fare will take on new appeal.


For an "Under the Big Top" event:

*        Cover the tables with red and white striped cloths.

*        Rent popcorn and cotton candy machines.

*       Hire a face painter or find some volunteers to paint children's faces.

*        Serve peanuts in shells from paper sacks.

*        Dress yourself or other host as the ringmaster to announce activities.

*        Invite guests to bring in pets who can do tricks for the crowd. (Check to make sure that the venue allows animals.)

*        Bring in a petting zoo.

*        Ask a local gymnastics group to perform.

*        Play calliope music.

*        Serve hot dogs and ice cream from rented push carts.

*        Bring in entertainers:  magicians, jugglers, stilt walkers, etc. in keeping with the circus theme.  Most have costumes that would be appropriate to your theme to add to the atmosphere.

*        If you normally rent a plain white tent, see if a striped tent is available.

*        Should you hold your event in a pavilion, fill the structure's ceiling with a large quantity of balloons to create a circus atmosphere.

*      Adorn the party site with circus decorations. 

    Dress the serving staff in clown hats or clown noses.

*     Create a midway of rides and/or games. You can hire companies to come in to  do this or you can rent or buy games and have volunteers staff the booths.  Just be sure to have inexpensive prizes 

For a "Country Fair" theme:

*        Decorate your tables in a gingham print.  

*      Set your picnic table with a collection of cheery country checkered   paper  products.

*        Serve beverages from mason jars.

*        Invite guests to bring in their favorite recipe to be judged in a "best chili," "best barbecue sauce," or "best preserves" contest.

*        Ask guests to exhibit their homemade crafts.  (You might want to have these judged as well by a representative from a local crafts store.)

*        If you have several guests who are weekend gardeners, encourage them to show off their prize produce.

*        Have fun with a pie-eating or watermelon seed-spitting contest.  (Paper plates full of whipped cream are a sticky, sweet, affordable alternative to pie.)

*        Arrange typical country fair games such as three-legged or potato sack races and a tug-of-war with management versus guests.

*        Dress your servers in bib overalls or gingham shirts.

*        Set up hay rides around the picnic area or park.  

For an "It's Best Out West" theme:

*        Use checked or gingham table covers (this is the perfect way to use any extra party products from a previous "Country Fair" party)

 *        Straw cowboy hats make great party favors, centerpieces and bowls for dry snacks.  These can be purchased for as little as $1 each.  

*        They'll get a boot out of these western paper party products.

 *        When you need extra seating, bring in bales of hay.  In some areas, you can rent and return any undamaged bales.

*        Encourage your guests to toast their own wieners on sticks over the fire.

*        Host a "chili cook-off," "baked beans" or "barbecue sauce" contest among guests.  

*       Provide chef hats for your contestants. Pin or stick medals on winner's hats.

*       Use brightly-colored bandannas as table decor, napkins and/or party favors.

*        Locate a nearby rodeo and bring in cowboys and gals who can do rope trick, quick-draw, or archery exhibitions.

*        Hire a square dance caller and get everyone up to learn how to do-si-do.

*        Bring in pony rides for the little buckaroos.

*        Barbecue beef ribs instead of pork for a more western taste to your menu.

*        Set up horseshoe pitching competitions for different age groups.

*        Serve sarsaparilla, lemonade or root beer in handled mugs instead of the usual punch or canned colas.

*        Use sheriff's badges as name tags by writing on them with a permanent marker or affixing a name label.

 *        Rent a chuck wagon as the place to dispense the chow.

*         For a colorful addition to your western theme, add Indian headdresses. 

*        Don't forget the party favors that kids love so much.

For an "Out On Safari" theme:

*       Pith helmets can be used as serving bowls and party favors.

*        Use stuffed toy jungle animals for centerpieces.

*        Dress your waitstaff in animal print shirts or khaki shirts and pith helmets.  

*  Play Pin the Monkey on the Palm Tree.

* For adornment, crowd control, or prizes, "brand" your guests with an animal print slap bracelet.

* For pure jungle chic during the picnic and all through the year, give your
guests animal print sunglasses.

*        Hang toy monkeys from the trees.

*        Give the kids butterfly nets to catch "wild" prey.

*        Try to set this theme party at a local zoo so the big game hunters can see jungle beasts up close.

*        Hand out disposable cameras and have a guide take guests on a photo safari of the zoo.

*        Set up a scavenger hunt using natural items found at the picnic site as the objects participants must find and bring back on their list.

*        For a large corporate event or business promotion, set up elephant or camel rides.

*        Encourage children to draw their favorite animal and then let them save their artwork in an animal print frame.

*        Cover tables in animal print cloth, paper or plastic tablecloths.

*        Buy novelty animal masks for guests to wear.

*        Bring in a face painter (or get volunteers) to turn little faces into jungle beasts.

*        Invite your African-American guests to share some of their ancestral culture with your other guests.

*        Add an aural element to the occasion by playing authentic African music and sounds of wild animals.

*        Make multiple diagonal cuts into your hot dogs, not quite all the way through, and fill the slits with ketchup, mustard and relish. Then tell your younger guests they're eating a "snake."

*        Instead of beef, consider serving your guests ostrich meat burgers.  Many specialty butcher shops carry these beefy-tasting, but low fat red meat.  Look for online sources if ostrich meat is not available in your area.

 *        Let your guests create their own tribal masks with paper maché, paints, feathers and beads.

*        Make a punch and call it "jungle juice."

*       Kids will love the spoils of the hunt party favors in their goodie bags.

Inviting Ideas:

Since the party starts when the invitation arrives, try these ideas to start excitement about the event weeks before the picnic date and answer any typical questions guests may have.

*        For added fun, invite your guests' children and ask them to "bring their parents."

*        Write the invitation using language that compliments the theme. (For instance, use words like chow or vittles for a western theme.)

*        Include not only the date, but day of the week, to avoid possible mistakes.

*        Include an RSVP (yes or no) date and reply contact information.

*        Encourage guests to come dressed in keeping with the theme. It will add greatly to your atmosphere.

*        Designate if it's a "rain or shine" event or if there is a rain date.

*        Assign someone to take responses and answer any questions.  

*        Set up a special voicemail box to field responses. Record your greeting with appropriate theme music playing in the background.

*        If you are holding your event at a new location, be sure to enclose a map and directions.

*        Include the start and stop times of the event.

*        When possible, arrange a car pool service for people who may have transportation problems.

*        Be specific on your invitation if guests, other than immediate family members of guests, are permitted to attend.  Some guests may assume they can bring along other relatives or friends of their children, so be specific to avoid any embarrassing situations.

*        Specifically state whether pets are allowed.  People often believe they can bring pets to any outdoor events.  For safety's sake, except for certain exceptions such as having  pets included in your circus theme, discourage guests from bringing their animals.  If you choose to have them included, insist that animals be tethered or caged at all times. Also be certain to provide a shady area, sufficiently large to keep pets segregated as necessary, plenty of fresh drinking water, bowls, and a place for owners to walk their pet and plastic bags to dispose of waste.

*        If alcohol is prohibited at the site you have chosen, please remind your guests not to bring their own.


Potent Picnic Potables:

The decision whether or not to serve alcohol at your event may not only lie with you.  Many public parks and private venues prohibit the use of alcohol on their premises.  If you wish to serve alcohol, keep in mind the following items.

*        Be sure to have a sufficient amount of soft drink options in addition to any alcohol you may serve, not only for the children, but any adults who may choose not to imbibe or limit their alcohol intake.

*        Act responsibly.  You may not or may not be legally libel for any accidents that may occur by a guest who has left your event, but you are morally responsible to make sure of your guests' safety.

*        If you suspect someone has over-indulged (and it takes only one drink -- a can of beer, a glass or wine or a mixed drink per hour for most people to reach or exceed their alcohol limit by law), be certain that they do not drive themselves home. 

*        Establish a car-pool system, request volunteers to be designated drivers (and offer an incentive if you must) or hire a transportation service to make sure everyone arrives home alive.

*        Arrange for a bartender or two to ensure that no one is either over-indulging or imbibing and are under the legal drinking age.

*        Remember, friends don't let friends drive drunk.  Be a friend to your guests and their guests.

*        For alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage recipes, look for Party Potables on the Web site.


Many people assume that their homeowners insurance will cover them during an off-site party.  Depending on your policy, that might not be the case.  Likewise, when you are working with vendors, be sure to obtain a contract for services.

*        Contact your insurance provider to determine if you have sufficient coverage.

*        Insist that any vendors hired for your event are covered with a minimum of a $1 million policy and provide you with a valid insurance certificate that has you named as an additional insured for the day of the event.

*        Have any contracts for services reviewed by your attorney.  For general guidelines of what provisions should be found suppliers' (entertainers, caterers, photographers, etc.) contracts, check Chapter 5:  "When It's Time to Go Pro" of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Throwing a Great Party (Alpha Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing).

Most of all, make your picnic an event that will be looked forward to, not only by your guests and their families, but also by yourself.  After all, don't you deserve a wonderful day in the great outdoors too?

You will find  guidance on food and beverage quantities needed for your group at Summer Parties by Phyllis Cambria.

Making it a Beach Party?  Fabulous Fun and Frugal Beach Party

Outstanding list of party planning publications in the PPP Catalog.


Phyllis Cambria is a speaker, co-author (with Patty Sachs) of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Throwing a Great Party, celebrations and marketing expert and partners with her co-author in  

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