Social distancing requirements amid the COVID-19 pandemic may have canceled kids' birthday parties, but parents are finding new ways to take the celebrations online. While video chat apps like Zoom, Google Hangouts or FaceTime are an option for gathering kids together in the virtual space, there's still the challenge of what to do once there. A few companies are working to solve this challenge for parents who are looking for ideas to make their child's birthday special in the time of COVID-19.
One business that's been heavily impacted by government-mandated retail closures is Sky Zone, the indoor trampoline park that's home to dozens of kids' birthday parties per day. The company operates Sky Zone parks in more than 160 locations across the U.S. and Canada, mainly to franchisees, which have now temporarily closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
To help give back to families who still want a party while staying at home, Sky Zone has shifted its current focus to virtual birthday parties. The move not only offers parents the benefit of the hassle-free party planning that a typical events space provides, it also gives Sky Zone a way to keep employees working during the business closures.
The party, however, is not a new source to replace the business's lost revenue or a way to make payroll. Instead, Sky Zone is offering to host the party for free to parents for up to 10 guests. Parents will have the option to tip the party host at the end of the event to support Sky Zone team members.
To request a party, parents fill out an online form with their information, then wait to hear from the Sky Zone representative who will schedule the party and create a digital invitation with a link to join the party room. Parents forward the digital invite to their friends and family however they choose. Then, on the day of the event, everyone joins the virtual party, which is hosted via Zoom.
The party itself is a 20 to 25-minute experience with the party host leading the kids through games and activities to get kids moving, like Simon Says, Dance Battles, Trivia and even teaching the kids a TikTok dance. They'll also lead the group in singing Happy Birthday to the Guest of Honor while parents bring in the cake.
The offering was first launched on March 26, 2020 and already Sky Zone has hosted 30 parties and has more than 100 others scheduled.
The benefit of this party over a DIY group chat is that the staff hosting the party are already used to working with kids. Plus, it's an easy way for overworked parents to get the party handled when they don't have time to organize more time-consuming events, like a drive-by birthday parade, in-home scavenger hunt or the other alternative birthday party options some parents have turned to in this time of crisis.
Another company venturing into the virtual party space is gaming platform Roblox .
Already a huge online hangout for kids in the pre-COVID-19 era, Roblox usage has been booming in recent weeks as kids stuck at home look for ways to socialize with both online and real-life friends in the virtual world. Today, Roblox claims more than 120 million monthly active users and is now No. 35 on App Annie's 2020 ranking of the top 52 mobile game publishers by revenue.
The company says it was inspired by the stories of friends, family and classmates connecting on its platform during the pandemic, including those who were hosting in-game birthday parties.
COVID-19 didn’t stop these kids from having a fun birthday party with friends. They were playing Epic Minigames on #Roblox—a great example of the #metaverse in action! https://t.co/W8eNghlWIA @TypicalRBLX @lifehacker pic.twitter.com/n5G6wrEIYX
— Roblox Corp (@InsideRoblox) March 27, 2020
Together, with its developer community, Roblox on Friday launched the new "Play Together" game sort, which makes it easier for players to find those games where you socialize with others -- like visiting a virtual shopping mall, going camping or riding virtual water slides, for example. The games in the Play Together game sort also offer VIP servers often for around 10 Robux. That allow users to play with family, friends, classmates and others they choose in a private virtual space -- like a virtual birthday party.
To create a VIP server, you first visit the individual game's page on Roblox, then click on the "Servers" tab and then the button "Create VIP Server." Give your server a name, then invite others using the link provided. (Note that this is opting you into a subscription, so you'll need to cancel it after the party ends -- unless you want to retain the option to have private playspaces like this going forward.)
If you can't figure out this process, trust me that your child can show you the ropes here.
While Roblox is popular with both boys and girls alike, a private match on Fornite is an alternative for some parents. The majority of Fornite players (roughly 73%) are male, so this could be an option for non-coed parties, for instance.
For younger children and toddlers whose virtual party may only involve gathering together extended family -- like grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, for example -- there's Caribu.
The family-friendly video calling app helps little ones get over their awkwardness about chatting online by offering a variety of in-app activities. For birthday parties, Caribu's paint and drawing feature could be a fun, mess-free activity. The app also includes other simple games like Tic-Tac-Toe, interactive word puzzles and word searches.
To help keep families connected during the COVID-19 pandemic, AT&T is sponsoring 60 days of free access and unlimited use of the Caribu app, which offers in-app subscriptions for its full content library, which includes kids' e-books.
For tweens and teens, the group video chat app Houseparty is another option that works across mobile and desktop.
Houseparty has also seen significant growth due to coronavirus-related lockdowns and home quarantines, particularly in Europe. During the week of March 21, Houseparty downloads surged at 423 times the average weekly number of downloads in Q4 2019.
What makes Houseparty an option for a virtual party experience is that it's not just another way to group chat -- friends can play online games in the chat, including Heads Up!, Trivia, Chips and Guac and Quick Draw. These are free to play, though there is an option to purchase more decks through in-app purchases for some games.
Evites with built-in video chat
Even if you do choose to go the DIY route to host a simple FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Zoom or Skype video chat, there are ways to make the invite more special than just a text. For example, the digital invitations service Evite has updated its app and website to now allow party hosts to add a video chat link to their personalized invite.
The company is also beta testing its own Evite video chat, which is a more integrated option that allows up to eight guests to be able to join from a tab within the invite.
Hobnob's digital invites app has also updated to make it easier for friends to send invitations for online-only events through Zoom, Facebook Live and YouTube Live.
Personalized Zoom invites
This free online tool lets you customize your Zoom video call invite URL with a title, explanation, image and RSVP requirement. This latter RSVP feature means that only those you've specifically invited via email will be able to access the provided link and join.
While a Facebook Live stream may not have a party host like Sky Zone, or built-in options to play games like Caribu or Houseparty, it does offer an easy way to share a celebration happening at home with others. Though children won't have their own Facebook account (hopefully!), parents can send out invites to the parents of the child's friends or family members through a Facebook Group invite, for instance, or by posting a message about the virtual party on their own profile. Participants can then watch the stream together as the child opens gifts left on the porch (and wiped down) and celebrates at home with family.
While technology can help to facilitate these virtual events, parents can take extra steps to make a virtual party special. Some local businesses that used to send characters -- like superheroes or Disney princesses -- to kids' birthday parties are now offering to record video messages or even join a virtual party the parent is hosting. Neighbors and friends can decorate the yard or leave chalk messages. Surprise balloon drops, car parades, scavenger hunts and other activities can make the party memorable for other reasons besides being the child's first quarantine birthday.