Kim Kardashian may have pulled off the perfect Minnie Mouse birthday party for her two-year-old this month, but last Sunday, I hosted a Harry Potter Neighborhood Scavenger Hunt for my daughter’s thirteenth birthday that earned rave reviews from seventh-graders.
When I first proposed the idea at home, my new teen and my husband shook their heads. “No one will have real Harry Potter stuff,” my daughter observed.
“The neighbors won’t know what to do when kids come to the door,” my husband added.
I refused to be deterred. My mother, who passed away last May, was the queen of party-planning. Birthdays, bridal showers, graduations—for decades, she organized and executed them with creativity and panache.
I’m short on panache, but long on stubbornness. If my daughter was going to demand a party on a rainy, cold January night in our house the size of Harry’s Hogwarts bedroom, then I was going to provide the guests with an excuse to run up and down hills in the dark for an hour before settling down to pizza and cake.
And the truth is, I adore a good scavenger hunt.
As a form of entertainment, it’s almost a century old. Hollywood gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell first presented the idea to wealthy New York socialites in the 1930s, asking them, as part of the game, to aggravate police officers and gather items like a mustache hair from Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson.
These days, smartphone apps offer hunts all over the world. I uploaded one in San Francisco and discovered an alley plastered over with scarlet and gold Chinese money envelopes before landing in the midst of a guzheng concert in a park. In Portland, Oregon—a city almost as familiar to my family as our own—we discovered the mammoth copper statue of Portlandia wielding her trident and a replica of the Liberty Bell behind City Hall and a giant bronze tree in the Beverly Clear Children’s Room at the public library—landmarks we never would have seen without going on a scavenger hunt.
The Wet Dog Café and Brewery on the Oregon coast offers a children’s menu with a hunt inviting them to search the entire restaurant. While parents guzzle microbrews, kids (and me) count the old license plates on the walls and check off items that include a Tin Man and a flying Santa Claus. San Francisco’s de Young fine arts museum offers a scavenger hunt. So does the Museum of Natural History in New York City, where visitors can search for exhibits from the Ben Stiller film Night at the Museum.
When my daughter was little, I created scavenger hunts in our local art and history museums. I’d tempt her with a page of thumbnail images to match with the actual object. Still, she and my girlfriends doubted my ability to pull off a Harry Potter hunt. “On my street, neighbors would never open their doors,” one friend cautioned.
Fortunately, I’ve lived on a dead-end street for two decades. My neighbors have keys to one another’s houses. And they regularly offer each other the proverbial cup of sugar along with complimentary cat-sitting.
I created a list of 20 iconic items from J.K. Rowling’s novels, split it in two, and then explained in parentheses that the Sorting Hat could be any type of headgear, and Gringott’s gold could be any coin. The Sorcerer’s Stone could be a pebble. The famed Letter from Hogwart’s could be a piece of junk mail. All were objects my neighbors could gather quickly and easily for the party’s two teams.
I emailed my neighbors the list, and asked if two teams of teens could knock on their door between 4-5 p.m. They were, overwhelmingly, delighted to help out.
“We got the Sorting Hat!” My daughter’s friend Elliot ran down our dim, rain-soaked road with a yellow hardhat held aloft. “And the Sword of Gryffindor!” she added, holding up a toothpick.
Her three teammates ran up behind her, joined by my daughter’s team who pounded down the hill with headlamps lighting up their treasure—the Hufflepuff goblet (a paper cup) and the Elder Wand (a single chopstick).
Like socialite Elsa Maxwell, I’d also put hair on my lists. Team One had to procure one from Rowling’s three-headed dog, Fluffy. Team Two was charged with finding one from the beard of Dumbledore. Fortunately, my family has a dog that sheds regularly, and our silver-haired neighbor gamely offered to pose for a smartphone close-up of his beard.
The birthday scavenger hunt, on a budget and pulled together quickly, was a great success.
Ten teens ran around outside in the rain for an hour, chatting up neighbors who got so into the game that they printed out letters from Hogwarts and emptied their drawers to find old lockets and a marble that looked remarkably like a Quidditch ball. The kids returned home wet and laughing, rewarded with gag gifts like those you’d find in Rowling’s Zonko’s Joke Shop, ranging from stink powder to life-sized rubber cockroaches.
“That was awesome,” they chorused as I passed out pizza slices.
My mother—and maybe even Kim Kardashian—would have been proud.