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It’s her party

Ariel Choi of New Tampa turned her ideal Valentine party into reality for her friends. And the secret ingredient? Fun. Well, that and lots of balloons, cute party favors and red, red, red.

By JUDY STARK, Times Homes Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2001

[Times photos: John Pendygraft]
A cutout in the tummy of Prince Charming offers a peek at the box of candy hearts glued to the back. Ariel Choi, 11, holds one of the party favors she made for her guests.
TAMPA -- You are invited to a Valentine party.

Recently we asked Ariel Choi, a member of the St. Petersburg Times' X-team, to take on the role of party planner and show us how to put on a Valentine get-together that would appeal to a group of girls like herself.

Ariel is an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Hunter's Green Elementary School in New Tampa. The X-team is a group of students, elementary through high-school age, who report and write for the Times' Xpress pages, which appear on Mondays in the Floridian section.

First there was a shopping trip to Party City on Fowler Avenue in Tampa, and another to a Publix near the Chois' home in New Tampa. We set a budget of around $100. There were also sessions with her mother, Julia, and her sister, Lauren, 13, to make favors for goodie bags and plan games.

Strawberry filling hides inside the heart-shaped cake.
Old-fashioned heart cookies are decorated with frosting, sprinkles and cinnamon hearts.
Goodie boxes, made from cut-down cereal boxes, are decorated to look like party guests.
Heart-shaped sandwiches are made with pink and red bread ordered from Publix.
The result was on display last Saturday at the Chois' home in Cory Lake Isles, a burst of red and white as festive and romantic as any old-fashioned Valentine card.

What Ariel had in mind was "an afternoon party. I don't like evening parties unless they're sleepovers," she said.

Where adults might envision a tea party for a young girls' Valentine celebration, all lace and ruffles, Ariel had other ideas. "Kids like pinatas," she said. "Lots of balloons and touchy junk. We're not going to be rowdy, but it shouldn't be one of those parties where you can't spill."

As she walked the aisles at Party City, she had clear ideas in mind about what would work and what wouldn't.

She chose a tablecloth and napkins in solid red. "Nothing flowered," she said.

Stemmed plastic glasses? "Too formal." She chose goblets with a low plastic foot to serve ice cream, and tumblers for punch.

Confetti? "Too messy."

Ariel dreamed up a menu for her guests. "A heart-shaped cake in pink or red," she said, acknowledging that "it might seem disgusting to some people." She thought about red bread for finger sandwiches (filled with chicken salad or cream cheese or cucumbers) or red tortilla chips. Sugar cookies in Valentine shapes; decorating them with frosting could be one of the party activities. Strawberry and vanilla ice cream. Red punch, poured over ice cubes made from multicolored punch.

On party day, the dining area was a-shimmer with red and white. Balloons crowded the ceiling, their long red ribbon tails hanging down to just above the girls' heads. The girls had tied white tulle bows trimmed in red rickrack to the backs of the chairs. A vase of red tulips stood at one corner.

The table was covered in red, with red napkins, plastic forks and spoons. ("There's so much red!" Julia Choi remarked.) Ariel used white doilies as place mats, with red paper plates. There were bowls of red, pink and white M&Ms and plates of richly decorated heart-shaped cookies.

The menu had undergone a few changes. The Chois special-ordered red and pink bread from Publix at New Tampa Center on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, which they cut into heart shapes for sandwiches. Ariel and Lauren inform folks that, despite its scarlet appearance, it tastes just like regular bread and worked fine for the sandwiches, whose fillings turned out to be turkey and cheese or bologna and cheese.

Hearty party fare includes sandwiches, cookies decorated by sisters Ariel and Lauren Choi and their mother, Julia; pink punch and vanilla or strawberry ice cream. A scattering of M&Ms frames the place setting.
The girls' mother originally planned to bake a heart-shaped cake, but subsequently decided to let the professionals handle that one. Publix to the rescue again: a heart-shaped yellow cake with strawberry filling and buttercream icing, frosted in a red basketweave pattern on the sides and topped with frosting flowers.

Ariel had bought a Valentine garland on shopping day but didn't figure out what to do with it until the decorating was almost done, when she decided to weave it in and out of the chandelier above the table. It provided a good link between the flock of balloons hovering over the table and the sea of red on the table itself.

"At a party, it's better to have more than less," Ariel said. "If I was invited, I'd rather have more than less, with lots of things kids would like."

Ariel's party advice

  • Buy unfrosted heart-shaped cookies at the grocery store bakery department. They're likely to look a bit better than homemade.
  • To frost those cookies, here's the trade-off: Gel icing in a tube is easier to handle, but it stays soft, rubs off and doesn't taste as good. Frosting in a tube dries firmly and doesn't rub off, but it's very rich (even Ariel admits this) and is harder to manipulate.
  • The balloons were "the most fun, because balloons are cool," Ariel said, "but they were too much work." The Chois rented a helium tank to inflate the balloons but had to knot each one by hand. The plastic balloon clips they bought didn't work.
  • How many balloons are enough? More than you think. To fill the ceiling area in the Chois' dining area took about 100 balloons.
  • The Prince Charming frog favors were a challenge: "It was hard to cut out every piece and do the outlining," Ariel said.

The bent red plastic heart-shaped straws Ariel bought had to be cut down to fit into the low tumblers for punch.

Watch the color scheme. Originally Ariel planned on red, white and pink balloons, but realized that everything else was so red, pink wouldn't work. She stuck to red and white balloons.

Gifts for the guests

The goodie bags for guests were actually goodie boxes, cereal boxes Ariel and her family cut down and decorated with stylized faces of each guest and their names. They created a variety of favors:

  • Airplanes made of sticks of gum for the wings, Life Savers for the wheels and rolls of Smarties (cylinders of round hard candies) for the bodies, held together with a rubber band.
  • Hearts with the words, "You're just write for me," pierced by a pen.
  • Butterflies made of paper wings, pipe cleaners and stick candy for the body.
  • Lollipops pasted to hearts with paper leaves to look like flowers.
  • Prince Charming, the frog, waiting for his kiss, glued to a box of conversation hearts.

What it cost

Here are some of the costs we incurred for the Valentine party:

  • 9-inch heart-shaped cake with buttercreme frosting, $22.75
  • Unfrosted heart-shaped cookies, 14.16
  • Rainbow bread (ours was red), four loaves @ $2.79 each, 11.16
  • Helium tank rental, 27.99
  • Latex balloons, three packs of 72 @ $2.99 per pack, 8.97
  • Plastic tablecloth, 59 cents
  • Valentine's banner, 4.39
  • Heart-shaped cookie cutter, 49 cents
  • Plastic spoons and forks, 3.58
  • Valentine drinking straws, 1.99
  • Heart doilies, 1.49
  • Sprinkles to decorate cookies, 4.99
  • Red cinnamon candies (for eating and decorating), 99 cents

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