We didn't give much credence to the scare factor of a haunted house that's attached to one of those costume stores that pop up right around Halloween — in a vacant strip mall, natch. But after a half-hour at the Haunting, we exited the building feeling as though we'd been through a new and improved Disneyland ride. The sets here are over the top: There's a full-scale haunted graveyard and mansion, featuring creep-tastic live dancers doing "the thriller," a pirate ship complete with drunken Johnny Depp look-alike, and a madhouse where screams, wheelchair creaks, and flashing strobe lights will threaten your sanity. Be forewarned; the hell-raising staff isn't afraid to split your party up, leaving you to face chainsaw- and butcher knife-wielding fiends alone in the dark. This year, the 60,000-square-foot attraction is called "13th Floor," and it's been open since September 23, along with its San Antonio counterpart.
Superstition Springs Center
As far as we're concerned, you can do entirely too many (formerly private) things at the mall these days. Recently, we noticed you can get your eyebrows shaped, your feet massaged, and your ears (or something else) pierced — all at a mall kiosk, while droves of people watch! That's just wrong. But there's one relatively new addition to the mall scene that we embrace wholeheartedly: the carousel. At a handful of Valley malls, usually near the food court, you can take yourself (or your kids) for a good, old-fashioned ride in the kind of air-conditioned splendor you're not going to get at the state fair, which usually lands here long before summer's really ended. The best carousel in town, as far as we're concerned, is the one at Superstition Springs Center. It's the only double-decker around, we're told, meaning Junior's view from atop that zebra is going to reach all the way to Dillard's. The hand-painted animals are beautiful, the ladies running the ride are sweet (even when we paid a half-dozen times in a row), and just sitting here thinking about it makes us want to head down the U.S. 60 for a spin. Make sure you hit the food court after you're done, to avoid seeing that Dairy Queen Blizzard for a second time.
Scottsdale Civic Center Mall
Throwing a party on a budget but want a cool location? How about right behind the Scottsdale Civic Center library, a stone's throw from the Scottsdale Center for the Arts and Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art? Grab a spot right by Louise Nevelson's Windows to the West sculpture.This is a no-reservation, first-come, first-squat location. There are some picnic tables, but you can also haul in your own tables and chairs for the day. The entire area is surrounded by grass, so kids can play games on the lawn and burn off all the birthday cake they've consumed. Crafty!

Best (Almost) Free Place for a Kids' Indoor Birthday Party

Michaels Arts and Crafts

Michael's in Mesa
Got a kid on your hands who loves arts and crafts and wants you to play art teacher for their birthday? If you're not up to all that glue and glitter in your house, book a party at your local Michaels Arts and Crafts store. The classroom is totally free for birthdays; you need only buy the craft materials on site. They'll even assign you a staff person to help during the crafting party, and you can bring in cake and juice. Crafty!

Best Place to Rent a Hula Dancer for Your Kid's Birthday Party

La Fiamma Entertainment

Are you the kind of person who likes hula girls? How about hula girls at a kids' birthday party? Well, we are — on both counts. Something for Daddy, something for a backyard filled with 20 little girls. And these aren't a bunch of middle-aged white ladies trying to work off unwanted pounds. They are the real thing. The young lady who came to our house in the spring, decked out in full hula-girl regalia, was a Valley transplant from Hawaii who brought her own music for us to play on our outdoor stereo system. And she delighted the little girls, whom we had supplied with inexpensive grass skirts from a party store, for an hour, teaching them the fun points of the Polynesian art form. Some mastered the dancing better than others, but they all had a giggles-galore good time before birthday cake was served. And hula isn't the only dance style available from Phoenix's La Fiamma Entertainment. The company also employs carnival, samba, Bollywood, modern, and fire dancers for all types of parties. Price for our dancer was $200 for the first hour, and $50 for each additional half-hour (we found that an hour and a half was plenty of time for a yard full of 5- and 6-year-olds). Included in that price for our party was the cost of materials for lei-making. You've got to supply your own roasted pig.
Inspirador
Who knew there was a 12,000-square-foot wedding facility in historic downtown Chandler? Located in the town's walking district, this massive — yet, somehow, quaint — facility offers brides a blank canvas to create their dream wedding in an air-conditioned facility that isn't a boring hotel or resort. If you have a theme in mind, this place is perfect, because there is nothing to get in your way — in terms of décor — and interrupt the flow of your tattoo- or elegant lace-themed wedding. This site is beautiful without forcing you to take on their decorating.
Hotel Valley Ho
Entirely too often, "boutique hotel" translates to "grungy old hotel with a flimsy new façade and icky rooms." Not at Hotel Valley Ho, built circa 1956, which underwent an extensive top-to-bottom renovation several years ago and emerged smelling like an Icelandic moonflower (really — it's the hotel's "signature scent"). From the lobby entryway to the booths tucked in the back of Café ZuZu, the hotel restaurant, the attention to detail is stunning and the scene Midcentury Modern years before the trend truly caught on. If you can tear yourself away from the 32-inch flatscreen TV in your funky room (bright red couches, striped green chaises), schedule an architectural tour of the property — or just relax by the lovely pool, no brainpower required.
Royal Palms Resort and Spa
The lush setting of this boutique resort can make you forget, even if only for a moment, that you are still in Phoenix. The 119-room resort sits against beautiful Camelback Mountain in the shadow of the overly extravagant Phoenician. The laid-back resort and spa is all about luxury and customer service — the staff is noted for being extremely friendly and helpful without being pretentious or overbearing. Once you settle into your private retreat off the vintage 1929 building, it's going to be difficult to leave. Each room is dripping with class and boasts some of the most comfortable beds in the metro Phoenix area. Muster up the strength to leave your room for a stroll around the meticulously maintained grounds or a glass of wine in the courtyard.
The Clarendon Hotel
If you're just looking to swim in some treated water, any hotel pool in the Valley will do. But if you're looking for a bona fide swimming experience — complete with multi-sensory special effects — then the Clarendon's pool is the only place to go. This boutique hotel's got the most impressive pool area in town, "The Oasis." In addition to being a work of art, complete with a 20-foot-tall glass water wall and a Sicis Italian mural with platinum and gold accents, the pool is state of the art. It features underwater speakers, water jet massagers, a jacuzzi that accommodates more than 50 people, and bubbling fountains. At night, the pool looks particularly majestic, as nearly a thousand stars become illuminated on the pool bottom. If that doesn't sound hedonistic enough for you, there's also a bar inside that serves fine wine and offers free Wi-Fi, so you can surf the Net for naughty pictures. But we have a feeling that the pool will get your undivided attention.
Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa
Ron and Nancy Reagan honeymooned there. Irving Berlin wrote "White Christmas" by the pool. John McCain and Sarah Palin chose the Arizona Biltmore as the spot to concede the 2010 presidential race. Now you can stay there, too. No, really. We know what you're thinking: The Biltmore's way too pricey. But come summertime, the place empties out like nobody's business — and that's when the Biltmore wants yours. So make a reservation, pack a bag, and point the family station wagon straight to paradise. The rooms are big, the halls are wide, and the place is empty, so no one cares if your kids gallumph all over the place. A complex of several pools — with, most important, poolside cocktail service and even a swim-up bar for the grownups — features a stomach-churning slide and plenty of space to float. Best of all, the stars come out and a screen goes up at night, and the kids can float in the hotel's giant inner tubes and watch movies while you veg out on chaise lounges. In the morning, the kids can romp on the super-green grass while you grab coffee and pastries or something fancier. Go ahead — you deserve it.

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