Party Ideas

To Surprise or Not To Surprise: Activities for a Great Celebration

From our friends at Education by Entertainment

By GigSalad

How do you plan a surprise party without ruining the surprise? Dr. Ronald G. Shapiro, professional speaker and creator of Education by Entertainment Programs, shares planning tips and activity ideas to help!


Your very special adventurous friend, the one who is always doing special things for everyone, never forgets a birthday, anniversary, or graduation, and never asks for anything for him/herself has a special milestone coming up in a few months. You want to honor your friend with an event they will never forget. What should you do?


To Surprise, or Not to Surprise?

A surprise celebration seems like a great idea, but is it? It might be fun but there are risks. The honoree may:

      • Not show up! Never know when an out of town trip may come up, especially if the event is surrounding a birthday, a graduation or an anniversary.
      • Not appreciate being completely surprised. They may love to organize events honoring others, but they may not like to be the center of attention.
      • Need to work that day. You could try to arrange time off with their management. The management should really not agree to arrange this with you, but if they do your friend may not appreciate it. For example, your friend may be a server at a restaurant. They may be looking forward to earning very high tips at an event you arranged for them to miss.  
      • Like to have someone special at their celebration, or perhaps, worse the honoree really may not want to have someone at their celebration. You need to know this.
      • Want a special type of celebration or not want a certain type of celebration.  
      • Be disappointed in the days leading up to their surprise that no one thought of them.

You can eliminate all of the above risks and still include lots of surprises for your honoree by having a partial surprise event. Your honoree helps plan:

      • Day, date, beginning and end time of the celebration and where to meet you (not where the celebration will take place).
      • Who absolutely should and who absolutely should not be invited.
      • By telling you the types of celebrations/foods they would enjoy and not enjoy (including dietary restrictions).

Your honoree now knows they have not been forgotten. They can enjoy anticipating the event, but can also enjoy the element of surprise because they will not know much about the event.  


If your friend is really adventuresome and lives near you, make a sign inviting guests to the celebration. Create additional anticipation for your friend by blindfolding them while they hold or point to a sign announcing the event. Let them know the sign they are holding or pointing to is inviting everyone to their surprise event, but do not let them know what it says. Make a great photo and use it for the invitation.     

The sign needs to contain relevant information such as:

      • Date, time, place of the event
      • Dress for the event
      • RSVP address and due date
      • The words “Shh… I’m blindfolded because this event is a surprise; don’t discuss it with me.”


Photo Album

Since you want your event to be memorable, please be sure to plan the photo album Table of Contents as you plan the event. Indeed, I use my plan for the photo album to plan the event. Have more than one person making photos just in case you have camera or memory card failure. Know what setup you want to create for the cover photo, chapter headings, etc. and be sure that you include these in your event plans. (For guidance on planning your event, here’s a handy checklist of the most important questions to answer!)

Make a word cloud for your honoree by asking each guest to send you one or more one-word descriptions of the honoree. Input the list of these into Wordle™ or a similar tool to make a beautiful word cloud to include in your photo album.

Birthday Signs Instead of Birthday Cards

Ask all guests to make and bring a sign printed on thick 8.5 by 11 or A4 paper congratulating the honoree. Make photos of the guest and their sign, presenting the sign to the honoree, and holding the sign with the honoree. These photos as well as the signs themselves will make a meaningful memory for the honoree. Collect the signs as soon as the photos are made and slide them into page protectors and place the page protectors in a loose leaf notebook to give to the honoree.

Later, you may choose to print the photos and place them next to the signs. (Be sure to have colorful markers and extra paper for guests who forget their signs or collect the signs electronically in advance and have them pre-printed for the guests or both).   

If your friend is really adventurous, it is time to have some fun with a second set of signs. Have each guest make a second sign delivering a positive message to the honoree such as best friend, ever; smartest person; etc. Blindfold the honoree as these signs are presented to them and photos are made. Collect these signs and place in photo album as above, but don’t let the honoree see them until the album is presented.  

The Whiteboard Activity

Honoree stands in front of a white board (or a wall covered with heavy paper, foam core or the like (optionally blindfolded) facing forward while guests each write a message for the honoree on the board as shown in the photos below. Take great photos of the:

      • Guests writing messages.
      • Honoree in front of the completed board (possibly holding a sign or a gift).
      • Guests and honoree with the board in the background.  
      • The first revealing of the board to the honoree.



Cake and/or Candle Ceremony

The activity is especially dramatic after dark or inside in a relatively dark room. Candles for each guest (or family) are positioned on a cake, in a candle holder, or each person holds a candle. Everyone lights a candle as they say something really special about the honoree. Be sure to make photos of individuals with their candles as well as of the group as a whole with the lit candles. Consider making a video, too. Consider transcribing the messages to include them in the photo album.  

Find the Present

The honoree is blindfolded and directed to find a special present by asking the guests — who have been shown a description of the present — yes and no questions while remaining blindfolded. The present is a check hidden in the blindfold for a meaningful amount (say twenty one dollars and twenty one cents for a twenty first birthday, a check for honorees graduation year, say twenty dollars and eighteen cents for a graduation in 2018, etc.)

Check out our post, How to Educate and Entertain Guests at Your Event for other recommended games and activities!

Bonus tips!


Alternatives to One-Time Use Gift Wrapping

One gift giving tradition is to wrap gifts individually with nice-looking and expensive paper. The gifts are then unwrapped, paper potentially recycled but often is discarded. Sometimes the gifts are unwrapped at the celebration, but sometimes the hosts decide there are too many gifts to unwrap and the honoree merely takes the gifts home to unwrap. Save paper, trees, and money with alternatives to one-time use gift wrapping like:

  • Making gift bag or wrapping paper reuse a tradition. To do this, instruct guests to use as little tape as possible and use a kind which is easy to remove. Attach a label to the corner of the paper with name of gift giver, name of recipient, date of gift and email of gift giver. Leave room and instructions for at least a dozen subsequent users of the paper to add their information. When the paper is finally used up, the last person to receive the gift emails everyone with the history of the paper. Saves paper and starts a nice tradition!
  • Skipping the paper entirely. Tell guests to bring unwrapped gifts. Arrange all gifts on a table (except fragile ones). Cover unwrapped gifts on gift table with a reusable tablecloth (or set up the table in an adjacent room). When the time comes for the gift presentation, remove the table cloth, bring the table into the room or bring the guests to the gifts for an all-at-once gift revealing. Present the honoree with a list of the gifts, donors, and their contact information so they can easily send out thank you notes. Saves paper and time!
  • Making gift revealing a game. Gift wrap (blindfold) the honoree and have them guess the gifts by feeling of them. Make sure to exclude any sharp or breakable objects. Saves paper and makes gift receiving fun to watch for the right crowd!


Who Goes First?

We present our children guests with take-home gifts (such as stuffed animals). They are not all the same, so we needed to develop a technique to allow the guests to select their gifts without pushing to get to the front of the line or complaining about others getting a better choice of gifts. Here is our technique:


Picture Revealing Party

Did you have fun at the event? Why not have a picture revealing party in a couple of weeks for the honoree and a few close friends? Show the honoree what signs s/he was holding. Maybe tell him/her what the message was and let them guess who presented the sign (or vice versa) before revealing. Have fun!

Next Year’s Birthday Card

Use one or two of the photos from your event for next year’s birthday card.



If you use them, be really cautious. It’s important to supervise the honoree carefully. Don’t leave the honoree unattended or allow trip hazards, and don’t share the blindfold between people.

Bandanas and other types of cloth are almost always “see-through” so we line them with aluminum foil. You just need to be sure the honoree can’t see too much around the nose. If you opt for a commercial blindfold, we recommend the 3D blindfolds like you see in the image below (comfortable, nice-looking, available in a variety of colors, can’t see through the material).

For children, we use cartoon blindfolds. These are not as effective, but the children really like them. Blindfolds can be purchased from a number of online auction sites for less than a dollar. Just order two months in advance (if possible) and order a few from different sellers, as on occasion these take a long time to arrive or may not arrive at all.  

I would like to thank Industrial Consultant, Dr. Margarita Posada Cossuto, and GigSalad Content Strategist, Tessie Barnett, for their helpful contributions to this article.
Dr. Ronald G. Shapiro offers Education by Entertainment programs for businesses, conferences, conventions, schools, colleges, universities and youth groups. He also offers programs for special celebrations such as birthdays. His programs offer participants valuable knowledge through fun, unique experiences. Visit his GigSalad profile to learn more


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  1. Sarah November 20, 2017

    this is a very useful article, thank you for sharing! I never consider how the person being surprised will feel :)

    • Dr. Ronald G. Shapiro November 21, 2017

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Sarah!!! Ron

  2. Kate November 25, 2017

    Great article !! Love this perspective.

    • Dr. Ronald G. Shapiro November 27, 2017

      Thank you so much, Kate!!! Ron


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