Editor’s Note: Most of these images are from weddings before the coronavirus pandemic and do not reflect Walt Disney World’s current social distancing and health and safety protocols.
For Disney fans, Walt Disney World is the place to celebrate milestones. As soon as you check into a Disney hotel, you’re asked if you’re celebrating something because there’s a free button for everything, from birthdays to your first park visit. But one of the most coveted is the purple “Happily Ever After” button.
Since 1991, more than 45,000 couples have tied the knot at a Disney property around the world through Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings & Honeymoons. The event-planning division headquartered in Franck’s Studio—yes, from Father of the Bride!—at Disney World specializes in over-the-top details you won’t find anywhere else, from a glass carriage pulled by six ponies to augmented reality projections on a wedding cake to crystal-hidden Mickeys in the bouquet. Most of the magic is pretty expensive, but you might be surprised at just how much wedding you can afford. If you’ve always dreamed of a Disney wedding, here’s a deep dive into the world of nuptials at the mouse house, from which theme park is the most affordable to the behind-the-scenes realities of these themed celebrations.
The Disney Difference
A Disney vacation is all about the magical details of your experience and how Cast Members (Disney lingo for employees) go above and beyond to make guests feel special. That culture of over-the-top, dedicated customer service is applied to this side of the business, too, with an emphasis on making weddings seamless. And Disney is so sure that everything will go smoothly that you don’t even have a rehearsal. It’s all ironed out beforehand with the complimentary fairy godmother (wedding planner and day-of coordinator) who comes with any booking.
Before outlining all the magical logistics, it’s important to note just how big Disney World is. At 40 square miles, it’s the same size as the city of San Francisco. And when there’s not a global pandemic, Disney World is its own bustling mouse metropolis with more than 25 resort hotels, nearly 100 full-service restaurants, and more than 50 wedding venues. The scale is massive. And the wedding choices are endless, with dozens of architectural styles and themed settings to choose from. Nevermind the famous castle—you can fake an international wedding in 10 different countries in EPCOT, have a Florida beach wedding without actually driving to the coast, or even get married on the alien planet from Avatar.
It’s a one-stop-shop. Instead of a traditional wedding planner wrangling multiple vendors and rentals, Mickey is your caterer, florist, DJ, photographer, and more. The only day-of services Disney does not provide are hair and makeup, the officiant, and obtaining a marriage license. However, they do have a hefty list of pre-approved vendors, including religious officiants. And Florida makes it easy for out-of-towners with online applications and mail-in licenses. If you want to elope, Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings can whip up magic pretty fast. You’ll only need 21 days’ notice. However, like Disney restaurants and FastPass+ reservations pre-COVID, top picks go fast and it pays to reserve well in advance. You can start planning up to 16 months ahead of your date and events can be booked up to one year prior to your wedding date.
Fairy Tales and Price Tags
Much like Disney World’s hotel categories (value, moderate, and deluxe), event locations are broken out into tiers with venue fees starting at $2,500 (for a couple of spots outside the parks) and soaring up to $30,000 for Cinderella’s Castle inside Magic Kingdom. But the venue fee can change depending on the time and day of the week. And that’s only the beginning of the bill. Because each venue has a required minimum spend. Meaning, in addition to the venue fee, you have to spend a designated amount on your wedding florals, decor, food, etc. And the higher the venue fee bracket, the higher the minimum spend. So, even though the cheapest location costs $2,500, with the necessary minimums, the cheapest wedding at Disney starts at $5,000. And that also means Cindy’s pad isn’t just $30K. The minimum spend for just a ceremony at the castle is $50,000.
If you have your heart set on a wedding inside the parks, the most affordable option is World Showcase at EPCOT, where locations at each pavilion can be booked for $4,500. Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom also have locations for $4,500 such as the Tower of Terror or in front of Tree of Life, but the minimum spend is higher (to the tune of $7,000 vs. $25,000). And then there’s Magic Kingdom. In addition to the castle, you can book the East Plaza garden for $25,000 or the Main Street Train Station for $15,000. But again, they come with steep minimums anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000.
It’s a lot of sticker shock, but there are more affordable venues outside the parks at hotels that can be just as whimsical and themed. California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort overlooks Space Mountain and has a great view of the fireworks. And the non-denominational wedding pavilion at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort is right across the water from Magic Kingdom. The giant floor-to-ceiling windows frame Cinderella’s Castle perfectly. There’s also a value that people forget to consider: Any booking—no matter how small—comes with a complimentary wedding planner and day-of coordinator. That’s a big deal as a day-of coordinator can range from $500-$1,500 for weddings. Another bonus: Outdoor venues have a free backup plan if it rains. Typically with outdoor weddings, you have to rent tents, just in case. But Disney has taken care of this and it’s already baked into your rate.
Happily Ever After on a Budget
Before the pandemic, the average cost of a wedding and reception in the U.S. was $28,000. And post-pandemic, that price is expected to increase. So how much wedding can you get with $28,000 at Disney? A moderate venue with 30-40 guests and maybe some magical enhancements for the cake and florals. The key is to be flexible. A Tuesday morning ceremony is significantly cheaper than a Saturday evening reception, so more couples are opting for brunch weddings (yep, with Mickey waffles!) as a way to get into their dream venue or afford a la carte magic such as a character appearance or Disney entertainment.
Two other factors to consider in the sliding scale of minimums are the catering and the guest count. The sky’s the limit with what the Disney culinary team can do. They can serve your favorite park foods or even recreate a family recipe. And the cakes are jaw-droppingly gorgeous with ornate decorations, designs inspired by iconic Disney movies, and flavors inspired by popular treats such as churros and “the gray stuff” from Beauty and the Beast. But just like park fare, food gets expensive. Prices are based per person with dinner at $190, lunch at $165, and brunch at $140. This does go toward your minimum, but the additional 6.5% sales tax and 25% labor and gratuity service charge do not. And those add up fast.
Behind the Magic
There’s no denying a private wedding with a Disney park all to yourself is dream-worthy, but the reality is that locations inside the park come with additional rules and stipulations. Ceremonies in front of Tower of Terror, Tree of Life, Pandora, and the castle only happen before or after park hours. So if you want your wedding photos to be in the daylight, brace yourself for a 3 a.m. hair and makeup call time. Transportation to park venues often requires going backstage (Disney lingo for behind-the-scenes). And to go backstage, you need to rent official Disney transportation—which is not included in the venue fee. Another major rule for events inside the parks: you have to use a Disney photographer. Certain spots at EPCOT, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios can permit an outside vendor, but the photographer has to sign an agreement with Disney and you have to pay for a media handler for them.
As for Mickey and the gang attending your big day, you can book up to two characters at a time for the reception, but characters cannot attend or officiate the ceremony. A 30-minute appearance can cost thousands of dollars depending on the character and day, but the premium is you don’t have to wait in line for photos and autographs. And if your dress code is black-tie, Mickey and Minnie will come decked out in their best. It’s an outfit you rarely see in the parks.
As COVID protocols have reshaped experiences in the parks, they’ve changed Disney weddings, too. While some venues can hold hundreds of guests, the current limit for guest lists is 70. And social distancing is enforced for all events. Masks must be worn by all guests, vendors, and officiants. Couples must also wear a mask, but there is one exception: During the ceremony, the couple may remove their face coverings for a limited period of time, while proper physical distancing can be maintained. It’s something not permitted at weddings in other states with even fewer case counts and a potential hole in the safety bubble Disney continues to tout. If you’re not ready to visit or host an event this year, there is still something magical you can do for free right now: You can send Mickey and Minnie an engagement announcement. This also works for spare Save the Dates or wedding invitations. Just mail to:
Mickey and Minnie Mouse
The Magic Kingdom
1675 N Buena Vista Drive
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830
The mice aren’t exactly prompt with their RSVPs (it took about six months for me), but they will send you something back!