Welcome to the Storyteller’s Cottage, where we bring literature to life! Today I’m going to show you how to host an immersive Alice in Wonderland tea party using all the secrets I’ve learned from my years of building real-life events based on my favorite books and stories.
Remember, if you'd like to watch this discussion on our YouTube channel (with lots more pictures) instead of reading through this whole long post, please click here!
The key to creating a really engaging immersive event is worldbuilding. Some of you may be familiar with the term in relation to writing, but I’m using it in a slightly different way. Worldbuilding can refer to dreaming up a fantasy world then writing a story set in it… but in our case what I’m describing is essentially replicating the most evocative elements of a literary setting, so that the guests at my event feel as though they’ve "fallen down the rabbit hole", and landed inside the actual book.
Now obviously, when you’re working within the limits of your home or a borrowed space, you won’t be able to build the same kind of immersive experience as, say, Disney could do, since they’re not only building something from scratch, but they’re working with an unlimited budget. We wish! What I’m going to show you is how to use what you have to create an experience that is suggestive enough of a well-known place that your guests can easily use their imaginations to fill in the rest.
For example, if I set up an Alice in Wonderland tea party using coffee cups with software logos and pizza for the snacks, it’s going to be pretty hard to mentally get into the whimsical Alice zone. But if I find a space where I can take out or cover up some of the elements that might disturb our willing suspension of disbelief, and add in a few really iconic items that SAY alice in wonderland to anyone who’s a fan, my event is going to be not just fun but really memorable.
Throwing this type of party is partly a love letter to a favorite story, and partly a sort of gift to your guests… you’re offering them a really unique opportunity to spend a few hours away from the real world, in a place that’s been enchanted into being … built out these warm elements of happiness and optimism and cordiality and delight. It feels great to share that kind of allied fellowship.
BUILDING ALICE'S WORLD
So what belongs in the world of Alice in Wonderland? Close your eyes and think for a minute about the images that first come to mind when you hear “Alice in Wonderland.” There’s her blue dress and white headband, the mad hatter and his funny hat with the price tag on it, the white rabbit with the big watch, the Queen of Hearts, those card soldiers, the teapot with the mouse in it, the caterpillar smoking on the toadstool … and of course the Cheshire Cat. More generally, you’re probably imagining a sort of springtime setting with grass and trees and flowers, lots of green with pastels. Now hold onto that.
You may be thinking, “Oh no, I don’t have any themed Alice decorations, I’ll have to go out and buy all kinds of things.” No. Stop right there. Before you start spending money, first take a tour of your house. This is actually going to be more like a treasure hunt than a tour. Take a look around with a prop-master’s eye for things that give you that same Alice feeling. You may not have the exact card soldiers from the story, but I’ll bet you have a deck of cards. And you may not have The White Rabbit, but you can probably come up with some kind of bunny, whether it’s a garden statue or even a stuffed animal. And don’t feel like you need the exact pocket watch that the White Rabbit carries around … instead, collect a bunch of clocks.
Do you see how when I put these items together with a little bit of springtime color and some cute flowers, I’m starting to get a serious Alice vibe happening here?
Pull together the props you have, then take stock. What one or two images or items would pull everything together for you?
Here’s my collection. I have a rabbit, my clocks, some nice floral items that really say spring… and just as an aside, I’m cheating a little bit because I do collect teacups so I have a bit of an advantage for this particular theme, but honestly, if you felt like you might be throwing a few more tea parties in the future, it’s worth taking a trip to the thrift shop to pick up a few teacups to have on hand because they really bring the charm to the party. At my local Goodwill store the teacups are only one or two dollars apiece. So as long as you have space to store them, it’s a solid investment.
One other thing you'll need to brainstorm about is your serving pieces. If you don't have these adorable, traditional tiered plates, you can actually make them by turning a teacup upside down and placing a plate on it. Then just grab as many different pastel colored plates and bowls as you can find, and the eclectic combination will underscore the springtime whimsy of your theme.
Let’s talk about YOUR setting. You don’t need a fancy dining room, or a special room at all. Just choose the space that lends itself best to the size of your party and your color scheme. You can move furniture to make space near a window and set up some folding tables covered with pretty tablecloths, then carry over all your houseplants to create that garden effect. You can pick a spot near some floral curtains or near some shelves where you can display a bunch of teacups, or you can even set up outside if the weather’s cooperating. The most important thing is to choose a spot where you have room to set up your iconic elements, and there aren’t too many non-Alice distractions.
This being a tea party, the food and drinks are really the centerpiece of the event.
A traditional tea party generally consists of 3 courses:
1) Scones, with some kind of clotted cream and jam
2) Sandwiches with the crusts cut off
3) Small Sweets
You can bake everything from scratch yourself, but that's hard. Tea parties actually lend themselves to modifying foods that you can find at the local grocery store. You can buy the scones, and if your local store doesn't have clotted cream, you can substitute creme fraiche, or even cream cheese. Add some jam and you're all set.
Tea sandwiches are actually very easy to make, especially if you start with deli salads. Some of my favorites include ham salad, and I'll let you in on a little secret. If you buy ready-made chicken salad at the store, then add a bit of curry powder and some raisins, and you have something really delicious called Coronation Chicken Salad, and it's always a hit.
Choose bread that has a very tight crumb to it, cut off the crusts, make the sandwiches and cut them on the diagonal to make triangular pieces. Assuming you're making these ahead of time (which you should), wrap them up really tightly in plastic and keep them in the refrigerator until party time. Sandwiches get dry super fast!
Then the desserts are the fun part! Go crazy with any cute, tiny, mini treats that you can find at your local grocery or bakery. The options are almost unlimited -- my favorites are little one-bite brownies or petit fours which you can sometimes find around the holidays. My local store makes these amazing Oreo cake balls which people go bananas for, and sometimes you can even find cute little tarts. Those are hard to make, so that's the ideal item to let your grocery store bakery handle for you.
So now you have all the food that you need. The secret to throwing a party that runs smoothly is having everything prepared ahead of time, and every detail thought through before the guests arrive. You never want to find yourself in a situation where you suddenly realize you have no sugar, or it didn't even occur to you what to do with the teabags once the guests take them out of their cups.
Sit down and think through exactly how the party is going to run and what things you'll need to have out so the guests never have to ask you for anything. For example, will you be using tea bags, or are you going to steep the tea in a teapot. How do you plan to keep the water hot? How will you dispose of those bags? You might want to have a little dish off to the side specifically for that purpose.
What's going on the table? Obviously, in a tea party setting, if you've got a great tablecloth, start with that, whether it's floral or it's green so it gives you a grass-type background. The whimsical Alice in Wonderland theme lends itself perfectly to mismatched dishes and teacups. If you can get ahold of cloth napkins, that's fantastic, or you can just get some cute Alice themed paper napkins.
Think through the obvious stuff: you need a plate, teacup and spoon for everyone. You'll need sugar, lemon, milk, sugar substitute, and your guests will be really happy if you think through potential allergens ahead of time. Maybe you need to have a few gluten free or sugar free options available. Whatever you can think of ahead of time to be prepared for, organize all that ahead of time, so that at the party itself, everyone is amazed at how smoothly it's running!
FUN TEATIME ACTIVITIES
Depending on your particular guests, you might want to plan an activity or two to round out the party. For example, if you're throwing this party for your mom's birthday, and all your guests are family members who really are just interested in catching up, then you may be better off skipping the reindeer games and just letting the conversation flow naturally.
But, maybe you're hosting a party of young girls whose attention spans are a little shorter. This is the situation where maybe you want to plan a craft, to keep everyone busy. Or maybe your guests are all your Millennial friends, and in that case you might want to add a trivia game with prizes just to stretch out the fun. This is where the internet comes in handy.
Take a quick stroll through Pinterest just to see what kinds of crafts other people have done that have Alice in Wonderland themes. Look around to see what kind of craft supplies you have on hand to make this project more affordable for you. Consider making things that guests can take home with them like a bottle that says "Drink Me" or painting a teacup or a plate or something adorable like that. By the same token, the trivia game can be put together fairly easily and cheaply using trivia questions and facts that you find online.
Don't forget you can customize your party any way you want to. Maybe you don't want a typical Alice in Wonderland theme that's based on springtime. Maybe you want a haunted Alice party instead! That's actually fairly simple to achieve just by changing the colors of your table setting. Go with black plates and an orange teapot and throw in some typically Halloween type decor like spider webs and little plastic spider rings and maybe a few odd bones here and there. This is your party - it can look any way you want it to look! You can go heavy on the books and cover the whole place in old books and illustrations printed on pages from old books and give out books as favors or even incorporate passages from the original book into your trivia game.
FUN COSTUME DRESS-UP
And that brings us to the last element of your party, which is the optional dress up. You yourself can dress up, or you can ask your guests to dress up. You can ask them to wear authentic Alice costuming, or you can just go with generic tea dresses. You can wear something floral, wear a dress with a hat and gloves -- anything that you think you and your friends would enjoy.
Adding the extra element of dress up really brings the event into the realm of fantasy. It really makes everyone feel as though they're slipping into another world and essentially that's the fun part of any kind of immersive event.
So many of us read or watch movies or listen to storytelling so we can mentally travel to another place or immerse ourselves in another world... and this being 2020, our current world is a place from which a lot of people would like to escape! Providing an opportunity for them to become someone else for a little while - maybe someone who doesn't have the cares of real life on their shoulders - is a great way to spread joy, happiness, positive vibes, all that good stuff. And Alice in Wonderland is a great way to start hosting immersive events because its so iconic, so whimsical, and fairly easy to achieve. You can make it happen with things you find around your house and Alice in Wonderland makes people happy! You're very likely to get extremely enthusiastic responses to your invitation to join you in Wonderland :)
Have fun planning your party and let me know in the comments how it went!