For my daughter’s first birthday years ago, I made a smash cake decorated with animal crackers. Though her party was a bit of a circus (we had 30+ guests), you wouldn’t really call that the theme. With a one-year-old in the house, “simplicity” was the real theme. And with 5 minutes to decorate a cake, there’s nothing simpler than animal cracker cake toppers.

If you’re hosting a circus party—and you have a little more than 5 minutes—these hand painted animal crackers make adorable circus party cupcake toppers. It’s a simple way to dress up these cute cookies to add a colorful menagerie to your table—with no baking or icing required!

circus party cupcake toppers


assorted animal crackers

What you’ll need

• Animal crackers

• food color (I used gel colors)

• paint brush

• water (or vodka—don’t worry, it evaporates!)

I used Nabisco Barnum’s Animals crackers from the snack bag. These crackers are also available in the fun little boxes, with the same animal shapes but slightly larger than those in the snack bags.

Round ’em up

If you’re looking for particular shapes, you’ll want to buy several bags or boxes, as they contain a random assortment and some may be broken. Sort your shapes and choose crackers that are whole and have clear edges and details. Start by dusting away any crumbs from the tops.

food color palette for circus party animals

Prepare your palette

If you have a rainbow of gel colors you won’t have to mix too much, but I was working with the 4-color pack, which includes red, yellow, green, and blue. How do you get orange and brown and black from those colors? See the simple color mixing chart above. I was trying to create a vintage look, but you could also make pink elephants and blue giraffes. Have fun with this!

giraffe animal crackers

Start with a light wash of color on each animal. For our giraffe, that’s an orange-yellow shade. Let them dry, then follow the detail of the cookie cutter/stamp to add details with your “paint.” For the giraffe, that’s brown spots and a darker eye. Let this layer dry, then finish up with background colors or shading, if desired.


painting animal crackers

You can make your cookies as detailed as you’d like! Be creative with the colors and add patterns, too. I turned the mountain lion into a leopard by adding spots, but you could paint rainbows or flowers for a psychedelic carnival.

circus peanut lip balmMy finished crackers found a home atop a swirl of buttercream on the cupcakes, but they’d look adorable on a circus party cake or packaged in favor bags, as well. (That is, if you weren’t already sharing leopard print favors or Circus Peanut lip balms with your guests!)

What’s your favorite circus animal (cracker or real life)?

How to hand paint circus party cupcake toppers