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Every day, honest-to-goodness storybook weddings happen in a place where magic is real and children are fueled by mouse-shaped ice cream bars dunked in chocolate. It's a place where no matter who you are, you can meet a princess, and for a day, even become one. This place is, of course, Walt Disney World.
Perched beside the Grand Floridian Resort and overlooking a 200-acre manmade lagoon is Disney's Wedding Pavilion. All white-on-white with blue-gray cupolas, the sun shining through pastel stained-glass windows onto heart-cutout pews, it's the platonic ideal of a wedding chapel, the kind of thing a bride would conceive of in her mind or perhaps with a dose of bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.
In a basque-waist ballgown dotted with embroidered flowers that match the rose petals lining the aisle, she appears. A small tiara is perched atop her golden hair, which is twisted and knotted into the kind of ponytail Rapunzel would have sported had she been granted access to Pinterest while trapped in her tower.
The princess and her prince hold hands as the ceremony begins, perfectly framing a window that perfectly frames Cinderella Castle, Magic Kingdom's cinematic emblem. He vows to provide a happy home for her and their pups, she promises to not make him go to Disney World for every vacation. They seal their commitment on the command of "you may now kiss the girl."
I couldn't be more thrilled for my friend Maranda Howard to marry her very own Prince Charming Tom Wulz and live happily ever after. Even if we've never met before today.
You see, I have found myself here, right outside Orlando, Florida, fibbing to in-laws about my relationship to the couple and trying to blend in with the other seated guests because I've wormed my way so deep into the secret online community of Disney Brides — DisBrides, for short — that I actually attend one of the seven weddings I've been blindly invited to.
It's a beautiful spring day: April 20th, to be precise. I once spent 420 rebelliously puffing on a joint before a high school orchestra recital. Now, I'm at Disney World, blowing bubbles and holding back tears at a stranger's wedding.
The princess and her prince hold hands as the ceremony begins, perfectly framing a window that perfectly frames Cinderella Castle, Magic Kingdom's cinematic emblem.
The ceremony begins at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, because Disney weddings happen 'round-the-clock; serving Mickey waffles at intimate breakfast receptions and breaking for 10 hours until nighttime festivities commence is de rigueur. "Morning" is really a relative term at the mouse house. Brides and brave-faced loved ones arise as early as 3 a.m. to begin hair and makeup prep, employing glam squads whose typical call-times occur in the middle of the night. The guests, too, rise promptly — weddings that take place inside Disney's Florida theme parks begin two hours before regular parkgoers enter, which means they can start as early as 7:30 a.m., or two hours after parks close.
At most affairs, Mickey Mouse is quietly omnipresent, from the mouse-shaped crystals embedded within bridal bouquets and boutonnieres to hidden Mickeys within the cake's frosted design to dresses hung on customized dress hangers to the Main Street, USA postmark hand-stamped onto invites mailed from the Magic Kingdom. If you invite Mickey and Minnie to your big day, they'll even send their regards back — unless you can manage something better than a response card from the world's most famous married mice.
After the morning ceremony, we head up to the 15th floor of Disney's Contemporary Resort, where the California Grill restaurant offers a tilt-shift view of the balloon vendors and vacationing families down below. Following toasts to "the happiest life in the Happiest Place on Earth" and well-wishes that "your home always be a magic kingdom," Maranda and Tom's guests settle into their second round of coffee and await their turn at the omelet bar as children ignore thoughtful, customized coloring pages depicting the Wulzes as Han Solo and Leia.
If any attendees are skeptical of Disney magic, that cynicism dissipates the moment Mickey and Minnie appear in gold-accented formalwear while, naturally, the DJ plays "Hey Mickey." The dance floor swells when the mice do-si-do to a raucous rendition of "Rocky Top" and clears as they cut in on the newlyweds for an interspecies slow dance. When Maranda and Tom kiss after cutting their three-tier, two-flavor cake, Mickey and Minnie playfully cover their eyes.
Where else in the world could one couple rightfully steal the show at another's wedding?
It should come as no surprise that Disney, responding to fanatical consumer interest, has devoted an entire division of the company to weddings since 1991. Disney Fairy Tale Weddings & Honeymoons aids in facilitating the 5,000 Disney nuptials that occur each year at Walt Disney World in Florida, Disneyland in California, Disney's Aulani resort in Hawaii, and aboard Disney Cruise Line ships, as well as ceremonies and celebrations at international Disney parks.
At Walt Disney World specifically, three levels of weddings are offered: Memories, the least expensive, that allows four guests and can be booked with up to 24 hours notice; Escape, an 18-guest option for smaller parties or budgets; and Wishes, a traditional and customizable larger-scale event. (For what it's worth, planning your own fake event on the official Disney Weddings website is truly more fun than it should be.)
You can have Darth Vader intimidate your friends and family ($1,150), Minnie and Mickey swing by in outfits of your choosing ($1,650), or host your favorite princesses (3 for $2,150) at your reception.
Wishes weddings are like a lottery winner's choose-your-own-adventure game; the possibilities are endless and indulgent. Couples can have their first dance in the undersea wonderland that is the Living Seas' massive panoramic aquarium or celebrate their day in the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror courtyard before having the attraction all to themselves. Rolling up in a vintage Rolls Royce (about $900) or Model A Ford ($650) is as easy as hiring garishly costumed actors to attend your wedding as uninvited guests (around $2,400) and watching your actual guests squirm. You can have Darth Vader intimidate your friends and family ($1,150), Minnie and Mickey swing by in outfits of your choosing ($1,650), or host your favorite princesses (3 for $2,150) at your reception.
In fact, Disney Fairy Tale Weddings will sell you the entire princess dream.
Want Cinderella's glass coach drawn by six white ponies to deliver you to the Wedding Pavilion ($2,950) as two trumpeters ($1,200) and a majordomo (about $800) announce your arrival? Not a problem. Want to transform your ballroom reception into Cinderella Castle with a ceiling-height facade complete with flowers, topiaries, and a set of fountains ($13,000)? Done.
Hell, if you're gonna throw down that kind of cash, why not just get married in front of the real thing? For the first time ever, Disney Fairy Tale Weddings now offers morning ceremonies on the Magic Kingdom lawn's East Plaza Garden overlooking the iconic structure. Vows are exchanged during park hours, guaranteeing enough onlookers to rival a true royal's wedding, with Cinderella's carriage escorting the bride-to-be down the middle of Main Street like a parade.
According to Korri McFann, director of marketing for Disney's Fairy Tale Weddings, the new East Plaza Garden offering is the only one that allows brides to wear their gowns inside the Magic Kingdom during operating hours. "It is the ultimate fairy tale and the ultimate real-life princess option, absolutely," she confirmed. East Plaza Garden weddings have a $25,000 ceremony venue fee, but cost at least $75,000 with minimum expenditures. (Disneyland offers morning and evening celebrations in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle, where Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon famously renewed their vows.)
Disney Fairy Tale Weddings also sells princess-themed invitations, bridesmaid dresses and flower girl frocks; through a licensing agreement with The Walt Disney Company, Alfred Angelo introduces a new line of gowns inspired by nine Disney princesses every year. With options for modesty additions like sleeves and dresses that come in white and also special character colors, there's something for every kind of bride. (For Maranda, it was a limited-edition Alfred Angelo recreation of the floral wedding dress in 2015's Cinderella; the original took a staff of 16 more than 550 hours to create.)
It makes sense that a global conglomerate that invented the dream princess wedding has also figured out how to fulfill it, and in that way, it's easy to be wary of the Disney wedding machine. Disney is a company that spoon-feeds its youngest fans tales of royals and balls and happily-ever-afters, and then gives them the opportunity to spend money (and in some cases, a lots of it) to turn those very specific dreams into reality when they're older. It even makes the option known to all who visit Walt Disney World. As your nose is pressed against the monorail glass, just one stop away from finally entering the Magic Kingdom, a voice in the speakers bellows, "Coming up on the lagoon side is Disney's Wedding Pavilion. Couples may exchange vows in a fairy-tale setting, complete with a picturesque backdrop of Cinderella Castle."
But it's important to remember that the entire wedding industrial complex is playing Disney's song, only in a lesser key. Disney weddings aren't weird, weddings are weird, and not just because of all the things you're told to spend money on. The anachronistic rituals, the heteronormative traditions, the very act of committing yourself to another person despite this country's dismal divorce rate — it's all pretty ludicrous.
On this falsely prim, perfect day in two people's lives, everything suddenly becomes make-believe.
On this falsely prim, perfect day in two people's lives, everything suddenly becomes make-believe. We don white to prove purity, we recite prayers in holy chapels underneath a pious officiant's gaze even if we've neglected religion since childhood. If the norm has become a tulle-filled, fondant-covered game of prince-takes-princess pretend, why not at least live out that lie in the most utopian setting possible?
At Disney, there's also a spirit of embracing weddings of every kind. From accommodating dietary restrictions to making sure those with physical impairments can enjoy the parks, Disney strives to be inclusive of all guests, and no matter what kind of wish your heart makes, you are welcome. Disney Fairy Tale Weddings began taking bookings from same-sex couples in 1997, long before a single American state would recognize the unions as legal.
Terry Zenz, a bride who wed her now-wife on a Disney cruise ship, opted for a Disney Fairy Tale Wedding because of her love of the brand, but also because of its longstanding gay-friendly reputation. "We didn't want to go through the ‘who will be offended being invited to a same sex wedding?' game and try and figure out who would show up and who wouldn't at home," she explains. They happily decided on a small on-board celebration instead. Though the couple did have to cross out "bride" and "groom" on planning packets, Disney "treated us just like any other couple, in a very good way! We got congratulations and excitement from the person who booked our cruise all the way through to our onboard coordinator and the crew and even the characters."
For Maranda, there's never been another option. "Anyone that's ever been my friend or dated me knows I want to get married at Disney World," she says. Growing up in Tennessee, Maranda visited the parks each year with her family, but Tom wasn't much of a Disney person beyond enjoying the classic films; until they got together, he didn't even know people could get married at the parks. His naivete was short-lived, as he now considers himself a die-hard Disney World fan. "The idea of getting married at Walt Disney World has appealed to me since Maranda first told me about it," he says. "Our wedding was actually more amazing than I thought possible."
Their romance was a fairytale in itself — he was right there all along, under her nose. The two went to middle and high school together, where they were acquaintances, but nothing more. Tom even trained Maranda at her first job at a grocery store in high school, but both were seeing other people and he was heading off to college. Years later, a friend who was tired of Maranda "dating losers" set her up with his roommate: the same Tommy Wulz she'd known all those years ago. They dated long-distance between Knoxville and Chattanooga for a couple of years, and as they bonded over road-trip Disney sing-alongs, his love for her grew.
She says she'd always "been that little girl just dreaming of being a princess," and soon he swooped in as her prince. Two years ago, in front of Cinderella Castle, Tom proposed during Maranda's annual family Christmas trip as hundreds of parkgoers looked on. "There used to be a joke in my family that if a guy proposed to me and it wasn't at Disney World, I wouldn't say yes," she teases. "After truly getting to know her, it seemed very appropriate that this princess should get married and engaged in the Happiest Place on Earth," Tom explains.
The couple were "on cloud nine" for the rest of the day, fielding congratulations from strangers and from Disney staff, and enjoying some unexpected recognition from vacationers sharing their monorail car that night who divulged that they cried when they witnessed the proposal. Upon returning home, things were different. "Everybody's just so nice at Disney," says Maranda. "People aren't going to give us free cake and tell us congratulations in the real world."
Disney will bake your cake, Disney will plate your dinner, Disney will take photographs while you dance to Disney music played by a Disney DJ.
Disney Fairy Tale Weddings prides itself on being a one-stop shop that makes it easy to plan your entire function without needing to hire outside vendors. Disney will bake your cake, Disney will plate your dinner, Disney will take photographs while you dance to Disney music played by a Disney DJ.
Each couple is assigned a Disney wedding planner free of charge, but for as straightforward as it seems, Disney wedding planning can be terribly confusing, especially given the time constraints the company imposes. For Wishes weddings, dates can be held and contracts can be signed only 12 months out; Escape and Memories lead times are even shorter. There are details brides want to sort out well ahead of their planning meeting, which is why they flock to Disbrides on Disney Brides Diary, a closed Facebook group that operates more like a virtual sisterhood than a message board.
This brain trust of nearly 4,000 women help decide each other's gowns, sell off their centerpieces in regular online garage sales, and connect fellow members who create and sell Disney wares they may want for their big day, like hand-painted canvas shoes. This is where I meet Maranda, one of the many friendly, helpful DisBrides. "It's really awesome," she says, "because it's a group of girls who all have this major thing in common, and something about Disney just brings people together."
Lisa Marie Commander-Thomas serves as the group's de facto den mother, keeping the conversations on topic, the endless flow of information organized, and the girls feeling special with anniversary and birthday announcements. She joined in 2012 when it was still run by a engaged 17-year-old; two years later, she had gotten married at Disney World and was newly in charge. There's true support and deep friendship among the group's thousands of hopeful, engaged, and married strangers-turned-friends, which is most clear in a group file titled "Emergency Bridal Party Availability."
Women from Australia to Arizona have volunteered their names and contact information, ready to serve alongside a bride on her wedding day if duty calls — and more than a few times, it has. When one group member's maid of honor admitted days before the wedding she never bought a plane ticket nor booked a hotel room and wouldn't be coming, fellow DisBrides problem-solved online. One girl jumped in and asked what color the bride would like her to wear and proceeded to buy a dress, make travel arrangements, and stand with her at the altar. That's how tight-knit this community is: If your real friends fail you when it matters most, your DisBrides always have your back.
I stumbled upon the world of Disney Brides by creeping on the wedding of a high school friend. Everything about it was mesmerizing: the picturesque ceremony along the Maharaja Jungle tiger trail at Disney's Animal Kingdom, the other-worldly reception below a faux snow-capped mountain, the Pinterest-worthy engagement with park admission bracelets.
As I finalized the minutia of my own New York City nuptials, picking out pairs of back-up Spanx and fasting on a diet of powdered soups, I escaped into her dream world. Later, when I really fell down the rabbit hole and became a member of the Facebook group, I was immediately enveloped in its warmth. Here I was, a total outsider, receiving a flurry of notifications with sight-unseen wedding invitations, as Lisa made sure I was able to witness the singular event that draws all these women together. The lesson Cinderella's mother instilled in her rings especially true among this band of brides: "When there is kindness, there is goodness. When there is goodness, there is magic."
"This is a bunch of people trying to be there for you, and I feel like that's really rare anywhere, but especially on social media."
Lisa has fostered a place where people somehow treat each other better online than their own family and friends do in real life. "This is a bunch of people trying to be there for you, and I feel like that's really rare anywhere, but especially on social media," she says.
"To me, it's pretty rare," echoes Maranda. "Where I'm from, anyway, girls are super catty and finding girls that are nice to other girls is so hard." Her entire ceremony was livestreamed to the group. Fellow brides watched gleefully, commenting, "I feel like we are all at a DisBride wedding together"; another avoided a work client to watch the vows in real time.
If you're a DisBride, you also rely endlessly on Carrie Hayward for help, since she literally wrote the book on Disney weddings. It's called PassPorter's Disney Weddings and Honeymoons and is an unofficial guidebook she wrote after struggling to plan her own Disney wedding in 2008. Through its many updated versions, it continues to be considered a bible-like resource within the community.
"It was all kind of shrouded in mystery unless you knew about Carrie," says Lisa. "Everything I was afraid of was immediately eliminated and the budget worksheet in the back was the greatest thing I've ever seen in my life." Carrie also hosts the Disney Weddings Podcast, where she interviews couples about their events both subdued and extraordinary, like the Star Wars-themed function where dinner was served on a Han Solo trapped-in-carbonite table or another in which 30 guests dressed as Disney characters.
Carrie is the ultimate expert, and she knows just how pressured the planning process can be. "They're such pros, they don't need that much time," she notes of Disney, but it can be stressful to wait until the last minute, or at least last minute in wedding planning world, to get all the details sorted out.
Lisa's Facebook group and Carrie's podcast are where a bride can learn the intricacies of Disney World weddings well in advance of her planning meeting. She can find out her florist friend can't arrange decor if the reception is outdoors, or that bars must remain closed while characters are at your reception, or that, although there is no explicit rule stating it, you cannot wear your wedding dress into the parks during regular hours.
These resources can also help brides determine if they can even afford a Disney wedding in the first place. Holding these events is presumed to be expensive, but by sharing pricing spreadsheets called banquet event orders, or BEOs, with fellow brides or using tried-and-true budget tips — like choosing an off-season weekday morning or booking one of Disney World's Swan and Dolphin Resort in-house wedding packages — they can make it work.
"Not everybody's on that tight of a budget, but when you are, it can be soul-crushing to realize you can't have certain things," Lisa says. "So, when they come on this board and they find out ‘yes, I can have these things,' we just opened up the whole world for them." Carrie agrees: "I can't tell you how great it feels when somebody says, ‘I never thought I could afford a Disney wedding.'"
"Not everybody's on that tight of a budget, but when you are, it can be soul-crushing to realize you can't have certain things."
Until you're in the thick of planning, it can be incredibly difficult to determine what you can, and should, pay for. Without Carrie's advice and her book's budget planning sheets, there's simply no way to determine that spending $1,000 for a bus between venues is actually a better way to allocate your money than hosting a Mad Hatter-themed bachelorette brunch.
The unofficial Disney wedding planning business is time-consuming and not very lucrative. Lisa went so far as to trademark the name DisBrides and form an LLC, but spends much of the conservative earnings she makes from approved vendors' finders fees on giveaways for the group. Carrie points to the relatively small pool of Disney brides as proof of limited returns, and though most answers to brides' queries are in her book, she'll never forgo helping them in real time if she can.
"I love answering questions and helping people get the right answers or find out the best way to do things," she says. "My hobby is going on these boards and seeing if anybody has any questions because I love being able to help them." She and Lisa are not in it for a monetary kickback, or even a karmic one — Disney Brides just want to help their fellow Disney Brides out.
At 6:15 a.m., two days after their actual wedding, Maranda is back in her floral Alfred Angelo creation and Tom in his three-piece suit with baby-blue bowtie. Sleep and honeymoon festivities (naturally, they're also honeymooning at Disney) can wait: it's time for their Magic Kingdom portrait session.
It's a point well-known to all Disney brides that your most memorable photos won't necessarily be from the sleepless morning of your nuptials — they'll be from the sleepless morning of your in-park photo shoot.
Offered at all Disney World parks and often scheduled days after the ceremony, it's the only opportunity most couples have to be photographed in full wedding regalia in front of Cinderella Castle. (And yes, that means having your bouquet "refreshed" to the tune of at least $100, re-steaming your dress, and bringing your glam squad back in the wee hours.) It costs $2,000 to shoot in the Magic Kingdom and a second park of your choosing; dissenting brides can plunge gown-first into Typhoon Lagoon's Surf Pool in a "Trash the Dress" shoot for half that cost.
These shoots are just one of the many photo op traditions Disney Brides happily partake in. Posing atop the Grand Floridian staircase after having Richard Gerth, the nonagenarian hotel greeter-turned-Disney celebrity, assist you with your train upon arrival is the ultimate pre-ceremony routine. There's also the dessert party, a separate evening reception with sweets and drinks where guests take in Epcot's nightly projection show and newlyweds turn their backs to it, using fireworks as ambient lighting for even more photos they'll take throughout the duration of the spectacle.
"It will forever be the magical place that I married the love of my life."
Today, Maranda and Tom stand beneath the moonlight to get the perfect shot. Their Disney Fine Arts photographer, Stephanie Caldwell, calls a number on her cell phone and the castle is illuminated. (In-park sessions are always photographed by Disney's own roster of shooters; popular outside vendors, like Vicki and David Arndt, who Maranda and Tom used, can be hired for ceremonies with an additional Disney-mandated fee.)
The two pose as the dark sky rapidly introduces pinks and blues, the kind of cotton candy hues that mimic the treats to be sold at Disney World's Main Street Confectionary in two hour's time. The couple looks picture-perfect, yet just outside of frame, it's chaos. Construction crews in yellow vests put the finishing touches on their shift assignments while a team loudly removes a large concrete chunk out of Main Street. Like Cinderella's own countdown to midnight, the fairy tale facade has begun to melt away. Maranda's gown is fluffed and fanned over puddles on freshly power-washed sidewalks as a worker with a nametag that reads "Mike" unknowingly strolls right through their fantasy.
At one point, Tom steps aside, allowing Maranda and her voluminous train the full photographic moment they warrant. He doesn't seem to notice the staff tending to the moat on a barge nor any of the kinetic work happening around them. He shouts encouraging words to Maranda, telling her how beautiful she looks.
"One of the best parts about getting married at Walt Disney World is the special meaning that it now has for both Maranda and me," Tom tells me after they've returned home. "From now on, every vacation that we take to Walt Disney World will allow us to relive the happiest times of our lives, while also making more beautiful memories. It will forever be the magical place that I married the love of my life."
In this place where their relationship bloomed, their future was decided, and their union was sealed, it doesn't matter what's happening around them, so long as their eyes are on each other. They may not be Disney royalty in the truest sense, but here, at Cinderella Castle, they are home.
Special thanks to David and Vicki Arndt.
Editor: Julia Rubin