Planning your (Military) Disney Wedding

Making the decision to get married is absolutely exciting, but the process of actually going through the ceremony of committing to your betrothed can be a logistics nightmare.  If you live in a rural area and have a large extended family, you might be able to pull-off a do-it-yourself (DIY) wedding, but for many of us that just isn't an option.

Which leaves one of two options:  Renting a venue, handling vendors, and orchestrating the wedding with a very hands-on approach; or hiring a "turn key" venue or wedding planner that handles all of the details for you. The idea of negotiating with about eight different companies and trying to make sure that we avoided unnecessary hidden fees or bloated packaged options was a nightmare, and we simply couldn't afford to pay someone to take care of it for us.

Luckily, Disney came to the rescue.  Well, more specifically, the US Department of Defense resort, Shades of Green, came to our rescue.  A destination wedding may seem like a good way to waste money, but compared to the Arkansas average ($14,000) or the U.S. average of $25,000, the $5,000 wedding at Shades of Green was a steal.  The wedding packages offered by Disney itself are fairly expensive (to the tune of $10,000 - $20,000 for the ceremony alone), but the mostly "turn key" $119/person package at Shades of Green, hit the sweet spot.

Just being eligible doesn't mean that a Shades of Green wedding is right for you, however.  To help you make that decision, I took some pretty good notes while planning our $5,200 wedding and $4,000 honeymoon to help you understand what's involved with a Shades of Green wedding, a first trip and honeymoon to Disney World, and how to come out without requesting a second mortgage.

 

Step One (365 Days):  Set a date

The most important step is to pick a date that works for you and your fiance six to eight months in advance, and to take a look at the different wedding packages that Shades of Green offers.  Their bare bones wedding package, essentially a Las Vegas wedding with more class, is a flat rate $2,500 while their platinum wedding package runs $119/person and comes with a cocktail hour, a reception with buffet or plate service, a spa treatment before the wedding, makeup for the bride, a bridal suite, and a whole host of other benefits.

We had a family friend make the center pieces for materials, borrowed a few apothecary jars from family, and purchased the purple table runners from a fabric store (about $200 in total). The remainder of the decorations, the champagne flutes, lighting, and cake cutters were all provided by Shades of Green.  We arrived two nights early (I highly recommend this, as it gave us an entire day to decorate, set up, and put out fires) and stayed in the Bridal Suite until the morning after the wedding.  Two nights are included, so we had to pay for one out of pocket, but it beat changing rooms twice, and the extra space was a life saver.

 

Step Two (330 Days): Announce

This is where having this website came in handy, I just added a wedding page and used it to deliver information (such as registries, a map to the resort, etc), and it served as the informal wedding announcement for the longest time.  It was also how we tracked RSVPs, and when people submitted their RSVP, it added them to our mailing list which we used to send out schedules, the attire information, resort information, and everything else that everyone needed to know.

A sampling of our Newsletters:

 

 

Step Three (250 Days): Research

$19.23

This can be an overbearing task filled with useless Google searches and pink blogs filled with advertisements and cheeky pictures of little kids plastered everywhere.  It would have been a nightmare trying to plan the honeymoon through blogs.  Luckily, there's a book for that:  PassPorter.  Get it, read it, and love it.  Seriously, you'll thank me later.

This book is an absolute must for first time Disney World vacationers. Complete with packing lists (4 out of 5 stars), resort descriptions (3), park descriptions (5), ride descriptions (4), park-day itineraries (5) to help you navigate a one-day visit to each park, meal plan break downs (4), restaurant guides (3), and tips to help you navigate various perks (extra magic hours, Disney Express and FastPass), the $30 book will help bring your first time experience to a whole new level.

Note of Caution:  There was only one thing that I found to be blatantly incorrect about PassPorter and it was their characterization of Disney's Animal Kingdom as being a "half-day" event without kids.  We spent an entire day there from park open to park close and felt like we could have spent a little more time there, if we didn't have three other parks to visit. That said, the book was pretty exhaustive and was a fantastic first-time visitor guide. 

 

Step Four (200 Days):  Make a Tentative Honeymoon Plan

Just before the six month mark prior to your wedding, you need to have a tentative plan for your honeymoon.  Six months prior to your stay, you can book reservations for Disney restaurants and this is an important step - these typically fill up exactly 180 days in advance, especially for the more prestigious (and romantic) spots, like Be Our Guest.  I used undercover tourist and Pass Porter to get this information; enabling me to look at not only the crowds, events, and hours in one location but also a suggested itinerary based on the crowd-sourced wisdom of Pass Porter's community.

Image owned by undercovertourist.com

Image owned by undercovertourist.com

Image owned by PassPorter

Image owned by PassPorter

We crossed out rides that we had no interest in riding, selected several restaurants for each day (assuming that we would eat breakfast at the resort, and either dinner or lunch at a table-service, and a fast meal or snack for the remainder of the day), and ultimately decided a few key pieces of information that we needed to know before calling or logging on to Disney to make reservations.

 In hind-sight, there were a couple of things I wish I had known during this step:

  1. Never, under any circumstances, eat at the Crystal Palace buffet.
  2. Eat at Be Our Guest only for dinner; never lunch and only breakfast if you're hungry.
  3. Don't make dinner reservations in Epcot; just eat at the kiosks; if you do, eat at Biergarten.
  4. Don't let wait times be the sole factor in fastpass selections; some rides (Space Mountain) are interactive and fun during the waits, while others (Kilimanjaro Safari) are miserable.
  5. Eat at Sci-Fi Drive in Theatre it's fantastic, and see all of the shows in Hollywood Studios; even the ones marketed as "for kids" or "sing-along."

 

STEP FIVE (200 DAYS OUT):  SIGN UP FOR MY DISNEY EXPERIENCE and purchase tickets

For most other Disney guests, you would want to have signed up for My Disney Experience long before the 180 day mark, but since Shades of Green doesn't communicate with the trip planner, there has been no rush until this point.  This is where you'll make reservations for dining and fastpass to better enable you to take that clunky and unwieldy rough draft of your schedule and turn it into a confirmed and sleek Disney-Approved plan.

Names, Images, and basically everything in this picture is owned by Disney.

Names, Images, and basically everything in this picture is owned by Disney.

If you haven't already, you'll also want to purchase a four or five day park hopper military salute pass for you and your betrothed from a nearby military base.  They're typically sold by the ITT (Information, Travel, and Tickets) office or a Military Welfare and Recreation center.  You purchase these at about $177 each (compared to $305) and they mail you a certificate that you exchange at will call.

Make sure not to lose these because, while you can link them to your My Disney Experience account, if you lose them they are not replaceable. If you want a Magic Band (and I suggest you get one - they are very convenient), you can purchase these in one of the gift shops at a park, and after a few minutes with a cast member, you'll be indistinguishable from any other guest.

I would also recommend picking up the Memory Maker pass.  It costs $170, but every thrill ride has an in-ride video or picture that you can download, and the parks are littered with photographers who will take your photo (with a scenic view or a Disney character), link it to your account by scanning your Magic Band, and allow you to download the photo.  We ended up with roughly 200 photos from the service and it allowed us to keep our phones in our pockets (except for the nightly finales) for far longer.

The pictures above (and those like it) are yours to keep and utilize in any "non commercial" means you deem appropriate without copyright issues, Disney also gives you about twenty stock-photos that you can use in slightly more limited manners.  I guess for blog posts like this one? I'm not sure why you would put stock photos on your fridge, but who am I to judge?

STEP Six (180 DAYS OUT):  Make reservations

This is a bit of a tedious process for Shades of Green guests; most other resort guests can make their reservations 180 days out from the first day of their stay at Disney.  Shades of Green guests, and those not staying on Walt Disney World, must make reservations exactly 180 days out.  Meaning that if your honeymoon lasts ten days, then you must log on on day 180, 179, 178, 177 (etc) for every day of your honeymoon to make dining reservations.

That said, with the exception of a few "must-eat" places that were on our list (Be Our Guest, Beirgarten, Sci-Fi Drive in Theatre), there weren't many reservations that needed to be made; it was just an incredibly painful process to actually land each reservation on the day we wanted.

 

STEP Seven (160 DAYS OUT):  actually plan the wedding

It might seem counter intuitive to plan the wedding so late in the game, but with the exception of a few major details (dress, number of guests, etc) the wedding is mostly already planned by Shdes of Green.  It took us approximately eight hours to plan and set up our wedding at Shades of Green.  These people receive thousands of wedding parties every year and they have it to an art; it may not be 100% "turn key" but the vast majority of the heavy lifting is already done.

Write a check, take a few multiple choice questions, and show up.  They'll even send a wedding coordinator to chauffeur you around the day of your wedding.

 

STEP eight (120 DAYS OUT): wedding shower!

At this point, we knew how many people were coming to our wedding, how many wanted to but genuinely could not could not afford to attend, and people we hadn't yet invited but wanted to attend.  So we printed up a few things and stuffed them into envelopes:  (A) wedding business cards ($22 for 100); (B) a pamphlet we made up in Microsoft Publisher with important dates, last minute RSVP information, registry information, dress codes, finalized wedding party information, and a schedule for the big weekend. Stamps and all, I think it cost us $45.  It may not have been the classiest way to send out invitations, but at this point I think everyone knew we were getting married anyways.

More importantly, we hosted a wedding shower in the local area for everyone, including those who wouldn't be able to make it to the wedding in Disney.  It was an excuse to cater an event - practice for the big one - exchange gifts, catch up with friends and family, and make sure everyone was included who couldn't make it to the big day later in the year.  Plus, we rolled in the bachelor and bachelorette parties into a sort-of after party and had a big game night soon after.

 

STEP nine (30 DAYS OUT):  sign up for fastpass and modify reservations

By now you should have a My Disney Experience account with dining reservations and your military tickets, so you're able to start booking Fastpass reservations.   Remember: Don't let wait times be the sole factor in fastpass selections; some rides (Space Mountain) are interactive and fun during the waits, while others (Kilimanjaro Safari) are miserable.  However, your selections are ultimately up to you - just make sure you have three of them per day.

Something else worth noting: Many shows in Hollywood Studios can be fastpassed for reserved seating, and many popular characters can be fastpassed (Mickey Mouse, Tinkerbell, Ariel).

 

STEP ten (wedding day):  enjoy your wedding and honeymoon!

We arrived at Disney about a day and a half early and decided to grab a few supplies from Wal-Mart for our honeymoon (snacks, waters, etc).  We also placed about 30 welcome boxes in our checked luggage, so we also picked up some cookies from a local bakery, some peanuts, a few blister packets of Tylenol, some sunscreen, and a map of Disney World to put in the box.

We spent the day before our wedding building these boxes, getting acquainted with the resort, and putting out proverbial fires before our big day.  Once a large enough number of the guests arrived, we headed to the grill in Shades of Green for a 'rehearsal dinner' (really just an excuse to get together and eat) and turned in for the night.

The next morning started off with breakfast, getting ready and meeting the vendors, entertaining guests, and then the big eight hour fiesta! Shades of Green introduces you to a day of coordinator that handles the logistics and makes sure you stay on schedule, and puts you in touch with a photographer.  The coordinator was included, but the photographer was an extra expense, but she did a pretty fantastic job.

A morning after breakfast with a few close family members, a rapid room change into a smaller suite, and we were off to Animal Kingdom to start our honeymoon!  We ended up spending 10 hours at Animal Kingdom on the first day, 13 hours at Magic Kingdom the second, 3 hours at Magic Kingdom the third - followed by about 5 hours at Epcot - before spending an entire 8 hour day at Epcot and a 7 hour day at Hollywood Studios.

We took about 100 cell phone pictures during the trip, but a few of our favorites are in the slideshow above.  We also took advantage of the Waves of Honor program to get free admission ($16 to park, $40 for lunch) into Sea World for a day; those pictures are below.


All together, the entire endeavor ran us about $5,200 for the wedding ($4,200 for venue, $800 for photographer, and $200 for decorations) and $4,000 for the ten day honeymoon ($800 for airfare, $750 for tickets (2x Five day park hopper, 2x Mickey's Halloween Party), $320 for souvenirs, $600 for food, $1,200 for hotel, $160 for two-day rental car).  There are certainly cheaper alternatives if you know someone or go to a swanky church, but I think there are two very telling advantages:

  1. The wedding took eight hours to plan and set up and did not rely on Aunt Bertha's special potato salad recipe, nor did it have the stress of finding and negotiating with numerous different vendors.
  2. The ten day honeymoon at Walt Disney World only took about sixteen hour to research and plan, and was a pretty fantastic honeymoon.  By doing our wedding and honeymoon here, we were able to incorporate the cost of the airfare honeymoon into the destination wedding, helping us stretch our budget further.

Shades of Green had a fantastic wedding venue and was the perfect mix of "turn key" versus DIY wedding that enabled us to have the low-stress and high-class wedding that we wanted without it costing an arm and a leg.  Plus, wish Shades of Green being a military resort, it's far more "adult" than the other locations making it a great safe haven from the Mickey Mouse brigade and the endless Disney songs that start to grate on your nerves in Disney.