Are You Thinking About Throwing a Surprise Party for a Relative or Friend?

"Look Jim!" I chuckled. "We don't have to take you out for your birthday dinner, there's a barbeque right here." Jim grabbed a hold of the latch and swung open the large outside door to the Angle Armoury building. At that same moment a chorus of voices shouted out from inside the building. "Happy Anniversary!" Stunned, I instantly glanced over at Jim still holding the door open. Jim glanced back at me. Then a lady yelled from inside. "Gordon and Trish!"

Trish and I were completely taken aback and were completely dumbfounded! We had no idea that our relatives and friends had gathered here to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary! I was in a daze. It took us several minutes to wrap our minds around the fact that we were NOT going out for our son-in-law Jim's birthday celebration!

How did they pull this event off without Trish and I becoming even the slightest bit suspicious that something was afoot? Well, here are the details as they happened and this may be a template that you can follow that may help with planning your surprise party, whether it is for a milestone birthday, a coming home celebration or a wedding anniversary like ours.

The Idea
Our eldest daughter Amanda had the idea for planning our 30th wedding celebration and approached her twin sisters, Melissa and Kimberly about it. Kimberly, who is in the military, suggested that they use the Angle Armoury in Kelowna for the venue, as she had access to the facility and the bar. When you have an idea for a surprise party share your idea with other family members or colleagues. They may be able to suggest the perfect venue to hold it or help you pull it off seamlessly.

The Distraction
The three of them discussed a distraction or ruse for Trish and me to accept as a plausible event. Amanda's husband Jim's birthday was on May 18th and that date was chosen for the celebration. That date would obviate a plan to celebrate his birthday and therefore alleviate any stress on behalf of the planners, because it was the perfect diversion from the actual event. The fact that our 30th wedding anniversary, which is on June 2nd, never even crossed our minds. No suspicions would be triggered and no red flags would go up. Why wouldn't we be celebrating Jim's birthday? Viable distractions work well and won't signal anything out of the unusual. If the planned event is more important than a missed birthday celebration, then the sacrifice will be worth it. Or you can always have a follow up celebration for that missed birthday.

The Plan
As Amanda, Kimberly and Melissa live in the Chilliwack/Vancouver, B.C. area, all the planning for the milestone anniversary event took place in Vancouver. Amanda phoned Uncle Marvin and Uncle Ron (Ron is Gordon's brother and Marvin is both Trish and Gordon's brother-in-law) to ask them to give speeches at the event. The venue was secured and a cousin brought a barbeque to the event. The girls phoned the couple's long time good friends, relatives, etc. A baker (co-worker of Jim's parents from a bakery where they had worked together) and his wife from the church that Gordon and Trish attend were asked to bake the 30th anniversary cake for the occasion.

It is important to make an exhaustive list of everything that needs to be done for an event like this. It is important, if not paramount, to form a small committee and delegate the tasks that need to be done to accomplish the goal of staging a flawless surprise party. One person, usually the person who had the initial idea, should be in charge of the arrangements. At the first meeting the various jobs should be delegated, such as phoning or E-mailing the guests, arranging for the food, special cake, beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) plates (paper or china), utensils (plastic or cutlery), serviettes, condiments, coffee urn, teapot, coffee, tea, sugar or sweetener, etc. Communication between committee members is essential to ensure that all those that have been invited have responded, with either a yes or no. That the food, whether catered or potluck is confirmed, as well as the cake will be ready and delivered on time. The Special Event Committee Chairman should check things off the list as they are completed. Shortly before the event there should be one last committee meeting, either face to face or videoconference to ensure that everything to the last detail has been accomplished.

The Pre-Event Planning
Our three daughters, Jim and Amanda's two children, Rayn and Phoenix arrived at our home on the Friday before the Saturday event. Amanda arranged that Trish and I would take the children to a popular kid's movie at the Grand Ten in Kelowna. This diversion allowed Jim and our daughters to scour our photo albums for photographs and got additional pictures from my brother Ron to use for a static display and audio-visual presentation. Decorations for the venue were put up. Locally, another cousin, Lonnie phoned people that were coming to organize the potluck items that each of them would bring for the event. She got a number of people to make salads, others to cook food and some to bring baked goods or desserts. Gary, another cousin was asked to bring his barbeque to the venue and his job was to cook the meat for all the guests.

That evening Trish and I went to our usual work, cleaning the offices at a golf course. Amanda suggested that we take our grand daughter along with us to help. Meanwhile, during that 3-hour period that we were away, Amanda put together the stills and photos from our wedding album, family albums, etc. Uncle Ron helped with the project as well. Amanda casually asked Trish and me some time before the event what the name of the song for our first dance was at our wedding. It was "Fools Rush in" by Elvis Presley. That song was used as the audio for the slide presentation.

The Day of the Event

We awoke on May 18th to have a lovely breakfast of bacon and eggs with toast and hash browns, after all, we were celebrating Jim's birthday. That was firmly etched on my wife's and my mind. Later that morning Jim and I traveled a short distance to Summerland, in the southern Okanagan Valley, to play 18 holes of golf. It was my treat to pay for our green fees. It was my birthday present to Jim. Sadly, for me, Jim won the game, but we had fun!

While Jim and I golfed, the venue for the real event, our 30th wedding anniversary celebration, at the Angle Armoury in Kelowna, was taking shape. Decorations were put up, a table with photos and memorabilia was set up, the video/audio equipment for the short video production was hooked up and tested, and the cake bakers delivered the lovely 30th Wedding Anniversary cake. A table with refreshments and finger food was also set up. Lastly, the nephew with the barbeque set up the grill just outside the main entranceway. Our daughter Kimberly directed the Angle Armoury set up. Lastly, all the guests who were arriving were asked to park their vehicles at least a block or two away from the venue to avoid them being detected and identified as vehicles belonging to family members or friends. This is very important!

When Jim and I returned home, we had a quick bite to eat. Of course, we didn't want to spoil our appetite for Jim's birthday dinner at a nice restaurant in Kelowna. Trish announced to our daughter Amanda. "Rayn (Jim and Amanda's daughter) can help me bake a birthday cake for Jim." Amanda replied. "No, Jim doesn't want a birthday cake." Trish replied. "We got to have a birthday cake for Jim!" Amanda relented. "OK, but just a small cake." Then Trish and Rayn gathered the cake ingredients together and started putting them together. Rayn, who was 8 at the time, mentioned that there were going to be other members of our family joining us to celebrate Jim's birthday. Well, that revelation almost resulted in the cat getting out of the bag! Amanda hastily countered. "No, Rayn doesn't know what she is talking about." Trish replied. "Well, we just have to make a bigger cake!" Amanda acquiesced. "OK Mom, go ahead, but really, we don't need a bigger cake! So Trish and Rayn made a bigger cake.

Even though this was a very stressful turn of events for Amanda, not realizing that an 8 year old could innocently spill the beans, and spoil the surprise element of the party. She coolly deflected her daughter's comment in a convincing manner that gave Trish no reason to doubt her. Nevertheless, that was a close call!

At around 4:30 p.m. we all got nicely dressed up, and headed out the door to head to Kelowna for Jim's birthday dinner. There was one last hook, to avoid any suspicion from Trish or me. Kimberly had made arrangements for our group to stop on the way to dinner for Jim to come in to the Angle Armoury to play a new military war game on their simulator. When we arrived there Trish wanted to stay in the vehicle while the rest of us would go in to watch Jim play the game. Amanda casually coerced her mom to come in. "No Mom, come in and check this out. It's pretty cool!" Trish relented and thankfully joined us for an amazing celebration that we will never forget!


Planning a surprise birthday, milestone-wedding anniversary, retirement or special event celebration party, is no easy task. You need a dedicated team with diverse skills. To begin with, a good leader, either yourself or one who is capable and experienced, must be able to plan the event to the last detail, and follow it through to the moment the party yells "Surprise!"

1) Choose a genuine celebration, like a birthday, to plan the event around. That way no one has to lie about the upcoming celebration. The subject or subjects being honoured won't suspect that something is going on behind their backs. The last thing you want is to create any suspicion from the subject/s.

2) Set up a small committee. Delegating the various tasks that need to get done is a unique and sensitive skill. It is always wise to ask those on the committee what they would like to do for this event.

3) Choose a date and time for the event. Determine the budget for this event, and how the funds will be acquired. Source and book a venue that will suit the type of event you plan. If you require a kitchen to prepare food or utilize a caterer, then you will need a larger venue. If you are having finger food and pastries, then a meeting room will be fine. If you or members of your committee have friends or contacts that can help you source a venue for the event, bake a cake, provide decorations, offer catering services, entertainment, etc., This is the time to get in touch them. You may even get some of these services or items for free, or at a reduced cost.

4) Draw up a guest list and confirm those that will attend the event. Follow up before the food is made, ordered or catered with your guests to again confirm their attendance. This will give you an accurate number of people that will attend the event.

5) If there is going to be entertainment; either live or recorded, that will need to be arranged and booked. Live music groups will need approximately an hour to set up their equipment, tune their instruments and practice. Disc Jockeys will need a half hour to one hour to be able to set up their equipment and test it. Also, if there is going to be a video presentation included in the formal part of the celebration, they will need time to source photos and edit the production, with music, together. They will require from two weeks to a month's lead time for this task.

6) If other memorabilia, such as photos, books, papers and items, etc., are being displayed on a stand, table, etc., a team member will have to contact those attendees that have these items and organize the display. This too, will take several weeks to gather these items.

7) Food and Drink will need to be decided upon by the group. Once decided, a team member will need to either get quotes from a caterer, ask those that will be coming to the event to bring a cold or hot dish and/or dessert, noting what items everyone will be bringing. The team member responsible for this task may ask a potluck contributor to provide another item if there is duplication of a popular food.

8) Speeches during the formal part of the event should be kept to a five-minute limit in order to keep the event flowing smoothly, and keep the audience captivated.

There will be other details that come up during the planning and implementation process of the event. Some of them will be expected, while other will be unplanned. The leader will need to be prepared to deal with these as they come up.

Lastly, when and how the honoured individual or couple plan to arrive at the party venue needs to be discussed, understood by everyone and organized in detail. Will they arrive in their own vehicle or will they come with someone else. Failure to implement this strategic party arrival plan flawlessly will result in the failure of this event being a surprise. A lookout person outside the venue to alert an inside contact via a cellular phone or walkie-talkie will give ample time to prepare the party participants (when the individual or couple opens the door) to yell in unison... Surprise!

A detailed step-by-step guide to plan, organize and pull off the perfect surprise party for that special couple, family member or friend celebrating their milestone wedding anniversary, birthday or retirement celebration.

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