The Perfect Surprise Party: How to Pull It Off in 3 Phases

Even a "spontaneous" throwdown will benefit from good planning -- just not by the guest of honor.


What to get for the friend who has it all? What about everyone she loves in one room together? Few gifts can top a surprise party, but you'll need a solid plan to leak-proof your scheme. Read on for our best tips.

Phase One: The Planning

Set your site. For best results, think simple. Dinner or drinks at a favorite spot or someone's home is an easier sell than, well, anything that requires more than bowling shoes. The element of surprise will ensure a memorable time, even in a familiar setting.

Lock down the list. This is no open house -- accountability is crucial. There's nothing sadder than a crowd of two yelling, "Surprise!" Connect with your guests for an accurate head count, and make sure your invite bears a clear hush-hush warning. If you go the Facebook route, check and double-check your privacy settings, and put a note right in the title (e.g. "Megan's Surprise Party ... SHHH!").

Be sure to reserve the guest of honor, though of course you needn't reveal why! Make a "slant plan" for dinner or drinks that can easily divert to your own benevolent agenda.

Proceed with caution. This may surprise you (ha), but not everyone has the surprise party gene. Good intentions to give your type-A friend a thrill could leave her too stressed to enjoy the experience. Consider a "semi-surprise," where you talk through a rough sketch but take care of the heavy lifting yourself. And think twice about springing one on flaky last-minute bailers -- or floaters, whose wide circles could make it tough to plan something cohesive.

Phase Two: The Ambush

Crowd control. Touch base with your guests the day before the party. Stress the importance of arriving either early or at least 15 minutes late. Stragglers walking in with the birthday guest will ruin the reveal! If you're celebrating at someone's house, let guests know where to park off-site. And tame the gift horse. To avoid an awkward shuffle, you'll probably want to set a no-gifts policy. Let guests know that their presence is present enough, and anything more than that should be exchanged at another time.

Rig the entry. Is your friend the type to show up stag, or will she want someone's arm to grab when the room explodes? This is her big moment, so do what you can to make it a comfortable one. If your setting allows, hand out confetti and noisemakers ahead of time -- and be sure to have a designated photographer at the ready. #nofilter

Phase Three: The Party!

The details. An undeniable perk of the surprise party? Minimal decorating costs. If you can, get your hands on an old-fashioned Polaroid camera, and let guests make a game of capturing other sweet (or silly) "candid" moments. And instead of a cake, dole out mess-free cupcakes filled with a peanut-buttery surprise.

Martha's no stranger to the surprise party! Watch her throw one for her mom, Big Martha:

Have you ever thrown a surprise party? Share your ideas in the comments!

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