How to Organize a School Carnival
If you’ve volunteered to organize the annual school carnival or fall festival for the first time, this article is for you. No need to reinvent the wheel and figure it all out from scratch – we’ve already done that and we’re here to share the info with you. From budgeting to finding volunteers, here are the basic steps to organizing a school event.
For a school of 200 – 1,000 students, you’ll want about 8-15 games. It’s obviously not much of a carnival or festival without games. Many schools make them, and some even have a collection of fairly nice games created by handy parents. Others use some handmade games and rent others. Obviously, handmade games are cheaper, but renting games means getting a wider selection of higher quality games, having someone else set up and break them down, and not needing to store them. Imagine just heading home while someone else cleans up! But if you don’t have the budget to rent, here are some common handmade carnival games that are fairly easy to make:
DIY Bottle Ring Toss carnival game – easy to make with just a few dozen bottles and a couple of soda crates. Don’t try to use bottles without the crates – you’ll end up with shattered glass on the school playground or gym floor (ask us how we know).
DIY Fish Bowl carnival game – plastic (not glass!) ivy bowls can be purchased inexpensively on Amazon. You’ll need 2-4 dozen and some ping-pong balls. If you plan to be outside, add some small fish bowl rocks to hold the bowls in place in case of wind. Skip the water, and please, please skip the live fish.
DIY Basket Toss carnival game – simply nail a basket or two to to a piece of wood, and get some whiffle balls to toss. For even less work, just line up some dollar-store buckets or baskets on the ground. Spray-paint the baskets for more effect. Remember to weight them down a bit with something, so they don’t blow away or get knocked over too easily.
Football Toss: If you happen to have a tree nearby, you can suspend a tire (or pool noodles taped into a circle) from a rope and make a football toss. You can also purchase some relatively sturdy but inexpensive games from SWOOC Games or GoSports.
Of course, if you rent games, you will have a much larger selection. At Kidsmart we have over 50 different carnival games you can rent.
If your district allows inflatables, this is a popular activity at a school carnival. We recommend a large obstacle course or two, instead of a bounce house. Many more children can go through an obstacle course than can jump in a bounce house. You won’t have to worry about timing different groups of kids, or separating them so that small children and large children aren’t jumping together (an important safety consideration).
In addition to games, most school have some fun things for kids to. The most common are:
DJ: Look for a DJ that not only plays music, but also engages the children in different activities. Call us for a recommendation if you are in Northern Virginia. If you are only planning music and dancing, you can DIY it just as well with an Iphone and speaker.
Juggler, magician, or clown act: This is another volunteer-free way to provide kids with a fun activity. Ask Kidsmart for a recommendation in your area.
Haunted House or Obstacle Course: These require a lot of work, but you have some parents interested in creating one of these, the results can be pretty spectacular.
Field and Lawn Games: You may be able to borrow some of these from the PE teacher. Think tug-of-war, egg&spoon races, cornhole, and so on. Even putting a soccer goal and some balls out on a field will get kids playing. Some of these games can be purchased inexpensively, others can be borrowed or even rented. At Kidsmart, our Giant Connect 4 goes to every carnival – it’s a crowd pleaser that everyone loves, and it requires no volunteer to run it.
Balloon-Twister: This is a great addition to your carnival, because it’s faster than face-painting, meaning more kids served, and also gives them something to take home. The balloon-twisting station is guaranteed to be one of the most popular places in your carnival. Be sure to station it near the center of the action. In Fairfax, invite Focus Family Academy Martial Arts to your carnival for a free balloon-twisting station manned by instructors.
Face-painting: You might get lucky and have a parent who is a face-painter, and who is willing to volunteer their time. Otherwise, you will need to pay for this activity – expect to pay $250-$300 for 2 hours in the DMV area. One thing we do not suggest is having teens or volunteers paint faces. For one, professional face-painters use only FDA-approved, hypo-allergenic paints. For another, the difference will be very noticeable, both in the speed of faces painted and the quality of the work. A better alternative, if you cannot hire a professional face-painter, is to have a tattoo station instead.
Local Entertainment: Local martial arts schools are often happy to perform at your carnival for the chance to sign new clients. Your school probably also has students taking dance classes, or maybe a spirit squad, or other performance group that would like to perform. You can even have a full-blown talent show, if you have the time and the volunteers to do it.
People will be hungry, and you’ll want to provide some food. You may even make a few dollars (or more than a few) off the sales. Here are some ideas for food:
Concessions Rentals: Rent a cotton candy, popcorn, hot dog, and/or sno-cone machine and have volunteers make them. This is a good option if you want to make money on the sales, since the cost of the equipment and supplies will probably be less than what you bring in. 2023 prices run about $100 per machine in the DMV, and $15-25 for every 50 servings. If you need to choose just one, cotton candy is the most popular concession at a carnival. Hot dogs will also sell very well.
Food Trucks: This is especially easy for you, since you don’t have to do anything other than find one willing to come. Be sure to have information about how many people you expect at your carnival (a school of about 800 in the DMV usually has about 400-500 people at an event if the weather is nice). Even better, see if you can find a truck that will allow pre-orders, in order to cut down on the line. The downside of food trucks is that they are slow, since they have to cook each order individually.
Ice Cream: Ben and Jerry‘s in Northern Virginia will often bring a truck or set up a stand at your event. You won’t have to do anything, so this is a great option if you lack volunteers. Likewise, Scoops2U, Rita’s Ice, Kona Ice, and Capital City Snowballs will also come to your event. Check local ice cream stores and ice cream trucks in your area for more options.
Pizza: Pizza is one of the easiest and fastest things to serve. You can work with a local pizza place (well in advance) for a large order, and then simply sell slices for a few dollars each. Many pizza places will give you a significant discount. In Fairfax, try Paisanos Pizza.
For most schools, this is the hardest part of a carnival. Here are some of the best ideas for dealing with a volunteer shortage:
Use students. 6th grade students and up are capable of working carnival games. They will need an adult to supervise, but that’s only one or two adults, versus 8-10 adults needed to run the carnival games themselves. High school and middle school students may also need community service hours, and your carnival can count for those hours. In Fairfax, you will need to find out who is the contact in the school for coordinating those hours, or better yet, try reaching out to parents who may have older children in the upper schools.
Add more self-run activities. Instead of 8 carnival games and 2 or 3 field games, try 4-5 carnival games and then add more field games and other activities. You can use one adult to monitor the entire field or yard game area, instead of having one person at each game. Some of the lawn and field game choices available at Kidsmart are: Connect 4, Tumblex (plastic Jenga), Cornhole, 2 or 4-Player Slingshot, Giant Jacks, Baseball Toss, Ladder Ball, Tug of War, and Sack Race.
Most schools give away prizes at carnival games. There are 4 ways to handle prizes.
Candy: Some schools on a tight budget use only candy as a prize. This is the least expensive type of prize. The downside is that it’s a little boring for the kids after a while, and it’s also a lot of sugar that parents don’t necessarily want their children to have.
The Cheapest Amazon Prizes: Buying bulk bags at Amazon is another common way to handle prizes. These prizes are the lowest quality and are in the 5-20 cent range, but the bags tend to contain a lot of filler, like stickers, tattoos, and broken bits of unusable prizes. If you choose this type of prize, you must check the bags carefully, as they often contain stickers and tattoos that are inappropriate for children.
Collections: Some school organizers collect prizes all year long, through donations from parents (like left-over party favors) and by picking up items on sale at the dollar store, Walmart, or similar.
Purchase Prizes from a Carnival Prize Retailer: Some common ones include Oriental Trading, Carnival Savers, and American Carnival Mart. This gives you the ability to choose exactly the prizes you want, but it can be pricey. If you are in the Northern Virginia or DMV area, you can purchase discounted prizes from Kidsmart. We also offer Prizes on Consignment – you pay only for the prizes you use, and we take back the rest. Kidsmart sells prizes in the 20 – 50 cent range for 30 cents each, with no filler, stickers, or tattoos. To figure out many prizes you’ll need, read our blog post on it HERE.
So there you have it! Games, entertainment, food, volunteers, and prizes – everything you need for a great school carnival. Now, how to pay for it?
Here in Northern Virginia, the average school carnival or fall festival budget is about $2500 (2023-24 school year), but some schools manage on less than $1,000, and others spend up to $5,000. Before knowing how much you should spend, you’ll need to answer a few questions:
Will you sell tickets/wristbands or will the PTO or school cover the whole cost of the carnival?
If your school or PTO is covering the cost, then the only thing you need to know is how much they have budgeted for the event.
If there will be ticket sales, then is the event meant as a fundraiser, or does it only need to cover its own expenses?
If it must make a profit, then you’ll need to estimate the ticket sales in advance, and be sure that the amount you spend leaves something left over.
How much has the school brought in from ticket sales in past years?
Hopefully, you can get some of this information. This is helpful for knowing what attendance patterns have been like in the past, and how much you can expect to bring in this year.
In Northern Virginia, we suggest the following estimations:
Estimating ticket/wristband sales: Ticket sales at the door are usually equal to a quarter to a third of the school population. Some schools of course will have more, and other even less, especially if the weather is poor or the event poorly advertised. So a school with 800 people, selling tickets for $10 each, can expect to make – conservatively – about $2,000 on ticket sales.
Pre-sale tickets: If you also do pre-sale orders, you can expect to add another 20-30% in ticket sales (surprisingly, this will not decrease your door sales). So with good weather, $10 tickets, and a strong pre-sale campaign, a school of 800 will have about $2500-$3500 to work with as a budget.
First-time carnivals: If organizing the carnival for the first time, without any prior history of ticket sales, a safe number to work with is probably about $1000-$1500. Our suggestion for groups without a lot of data from previous years is to choose a budget that the group can cover, even if the carnival doesn’t entirely pay for itself. Although it most likely will bring in enough, it is unnecessarily stressful for volunteer organizers to worry about losses the group can’t cover.
How to Price Tickets
Give tickets away. Many organizers will be concerned about leaving out children whose parents cannot afford $10 tickets, and rightly so. We cannot emphasize this strongly enough – if you do ticket/wristband sales, you can safely give away tickets to families who need them, and it will not affect your bottom line. It will not affect your sales, because these families would not have attended without the free tickets. At Kidsmart, we have organized enough carnivals to have tested this out in real life, and we are confident that you can give away tickets without going into the red. We even know of Title 1 schools that do this. We suggest giving a few roles of tickets (or sheets of wristbands) to your school counselor and letting them distribute them to anyone they feel needs them. We believe it is important to include all students in school-wide events, regardless of their ability to pay.
Make pre-sale a bargain. Pre-sale tickets should be discounted by at least 25%, in order to encourage people to purchase them. As we have mentioned, this will not decrease your door sales. You can even do an experiment to verify this – make your pre-sale tickets a different color, and see what percentage of them come back on carnival day. You will be surprised how many are not used.
Avoid cash. Finally, a word on collecting money. If at all possible, use non-cash methods. Whether it is online sales or checks, non-cash methods are better than cash sales. No matter how well you think you know and trust your fellow PTA/PTO members, cash on hand lends itself to being lost or stolen. Sadly, this is more common than you think, even in groups full of “nice” PTA ladies. Don’t risk it or make your group attractive to thieves – work with cash as little as possible. For pre-sales, this is especially useful, as it will alleviate the problem of students losing cash along with their ticket orders, or people claiming to have sent in cash, but which you have no record of.
Here are what some typical carnivals look like in the DMV area, and what they might cost:
Small Carnival ($1,000 budget):
5-10 rented games (with tables and tablecovers if needed)
2-3 school-provided or DIY games
1 Concession Machine Rental + Supplies for 300
DIY dance music, field games, and a food truck and/or cold treat vendor
Entertainment from local martial arts academies or other children’s programming vendors
Medium Carnival ($2000 budget):
4 rented carnival games in carnival booths OR 8-10 rented carnival games on tables
2-3 school-provided or DIY games
Face-painter and/or balloon-twister
1 concession machine rental with supplies for 300
DIY dance music and food truck and/or cold treat vendor
Large Carnival ($3000 – $5,000)
4 Carnival Games in Carnival Booths OR 8-10 Rented Games on Tables
4 Field or Yard Games
2-3 DIY or school-provided games
2-3 Concession Machine Rentals with Supplies for 300
Face-Painter and/or balloon twister
DJ or DIY music and dancing
Food trucks and cold treat vendor
We hope this article is helpful to first-time carnival organizers! If you’re in our area, give us a call and see what we can do for your school event. Advice is always free!