Site Visit and Venue Selection
(November 2015, 12 months out)
After making the tentative decision to do our wedding at Disney, the next step was to select a venue. Even though we are frequent Disney vacationers, when it came to wedding venues we realized that we hadn’t seen many of the spaces on the list of possible reception venues. We felt like it was too important of a decision to be made by looking at photos and reviews online, and so we decided to take a quick trip down to Disney to see the options for ourselves.
Really, who’s going to say no to a solid excuse for a spontaneous weekend in Disney, right? That said, if you’re a reader of this blog you’ve probably noticed that I'm not big on spontaneity… unless it’s scheduled in. But, I put on my big girl pants and made myself go to Disney World anyway… ;-)
Doing our own recon
We went down the second weekend in November, leaving Thursday morning and returning Sunday. We were out of DVC points and so we decided to stay cash at a moderate resort. We chose Port Orleans Riverside because we were considering it for our guests, and didn’t want to ask people to stay at a hotel we’d never stayed in ourselves and knew nothing about.
Our site planning visit was scheduled for Friday, so we used Thursday afternoon/evening to visit all the wedding venues we were able to get to on our own without a wedding planner present. For the “official” site visit with the planner, you are limited to three venues. On our own, we visited the boardwalk area, as well as EPCOT to view all the venues in the lands. Basically, there is space in almost every land that you can use for a Disney Wedding. We particularly liked Italy and the American Adventure Rotunda. We met some great cast members at the Rotunda who told us about the weddings they'd seen while doing their jobs and how the space was used and decorated. Everyone had really great things to say about weddings at the Rotunda and it was probably closest aesthetically to the venue we'd been considering at home in Michigan.
We also took time to watch Illuminations from the waterfront terrace in front of France (another popular wedding venue). I hadn’t seen Illuminations in years because it’s one of my least favorite offerings at Disney… though I couldn’t remember why exactly, I didn’t think it would be a good wedding venue for us. Though the terrace is lovely, about five minutes into the show I remembered why I didn’t like Illuminations: nothing says romance like FIRE CANONS, right?
I knew I did want to incorporate a fireworks dessert party into our wedding experience, though. Just a less-incendiary one. Which meant we would need to pick one of the venues for Wishes fireworks viewing (fireworks with no fire canons = decidedly more romantic). Those are mostly limited to the Contemporary and Grand Floridian. Though I think Wishes from the Polynesian beach are lovely, the Poly beach is not an option for private events.
Using time wisely:
The next morning, before our site visit we scouted out the locations at Grand Floridian where fireworks dessert parties are held: Sago Cay Pointe, the Marina Patio, and Narcoossee’s. There’s also a less frequently used dock at the Contemporary, as well as the rooftop seating at the California Grill (which we were already well acquainted with, but decided we should probably have dinner there later that night anyway, just to be safe and to see the restaurant with our “wedding eyes”, as the wedding planner was fond of saying). Of the dessert party options we preferred Sago Cay Pointe--- the Marina we felt was odd because you get the boats in your view and the lights from the resort behind you. Sago Cay Pointe, though only a few feet away, feels much more secluded. We didn’t actually get to see a fireworks show there, though, but we used our imaginations.
We even took some time that morning to stage some impromptu “engagement” photos ourselves with our travel camera near the Marina. Keep in mind, we’ve been engaged for nearly a decade and at this point hadn’t signed a contact with Disney or picked a venue, but we thought that since we were already there we better get it done just to be on the safe side. We wanted to pick a backdrop that our Disney friends would recognize right away on a Save the Date card, but that others wouldn’t necessarily see as “Disney” if/when we made the decision to do a Destination wedding. The outcome was… well, hit or miss. But it was a fun way to kill time while we waited for our appointment nonetheless!
After that, we met our Disney Wedding planner and set off to visit the venues that you can only access with Disney Weddings. We started with the Wedding Pavilion, which seemed like a no brainer. Disney's outdoor ceremony spaces are lovely, but having been to a beach wedding and a waterfront wedding in the past, I have bad memories of weddings interrupted by oblivious vacationers nearby. Also: the wedding pavilion is air conditioned. Done and done.
With that decision made, we just needed to pick a reception venue. Easy peasy, right?
Our priority was seeing the ballrooms and private rooms around the resorts that we hadn't been able to access on our own. Between the reconnaissance we’d done the day before and what we saw with our planner, I think we visited 90-95% of the wedding venue spaces at WDW. Which is impressive, when you consider HOW MANY potential venues there are. We didn't go over to Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios, and limited resort options to boardwalk area resorts and the Grand Floridian. The one space we DIDN’T visit and should have was the Atlantic Dance Hall. We had immediately and non-negotiably ruled this venue out because it was where our good friends had gotten married and we didn’t want to in any way step on the uniqueness or special-ness of their wedding by using the same venue. (Note this for later irony). I had used the restroom in the ADH once on a previous trip, but my partner had never even been inside.
Resort Ballrooms (or "HELP, I've made a terrible mistake!")
We went into our site visit fairly confident that we were going to go with a reception at either EPCOT or one of the Disney ballrooms based on the online photos, and we were mainly deciding between ballrooms at the Grand Floridian and at the Boardwalk/BeachClub/YachtClub. Because my partner and I are both visual people and fairly quick decision makers, we were able to visit more than the 3 on our site-visit wish list, because we’d immediately walk into a space and say “nope” whereas (we were told) most couples have trouble visualizing the space and want to see photos and deliberate and discuss. I’m not sure whether this is a good thing per se. Basically, through our site visit we found that we didn’t like any of the venues we’d thought we’d like. The patio space at the Grand Floridian with the monorail running overhead was described by other brides as magical, and I liked it a lot… until the monorail came by! To me, it sounded like being in the NY subway. Much like Illuminations, this was not the romantic atmosphere I was hoping for.
The convention center carpet in all of the ballroom options was also a major deal breaker for me.
The planner brought along an iPad loaded with images from other weddings to show how the spaces could be transformed, but I started to get really worried about the cost and amount of decoration that would be needed to achieve the look in the pictures. I didn't want to spend 1/2 my budget on draped fabric that I wouldn't even get to keep afterwards.
I remember halfway through the appointment as we drove from the Floridian to the Yacht club, I started googling photos on my phone of Greenfield Village’s Lovett Hall Ballroom (which was the main venue we’d been considering in Michigan). I got teary-eyed looking at the images of beautiful wood floors and was convinced I’d made a terrible, terrible mistake. Literally, I cried a little in the backseat but my partner covered it up so I’m pretty sure the planner didn’t notice.
The highlight of the ballroom tour was when we walked into one of the spaces at the Grand Floridian which was being set up for a reception later that night. There, in the corner, was the Disney projector cake!! I work in technology and I’d researched the Disney Projector cake technology as part of my job way back in 2012, long before we were planning a wedding. I’d said back then, though, that if I ever did have a wedding I wanted something LIKE THAT--- never thinking that we would have a Disney Wedding and we could, in fact, have THAT projector cake!
If you’re not familiar with the projector cake, here's a great demo video:
Let me just say, it's so much more beautiful and magical in person! Spectacular!!!
We also had the opportunity to visit The Attic, a former DVC lounge that’s now used only for private parties. We knew it wouldn’t work for us as a reception venue because of the guest size limits, but my partner pretty much fell in love with at first sight as it reminded him of his Great Aunt's house on the beach in Long Island. So we knew we wanted to work it into our itinerary somewhere, possibly as a rehearsal dinner location.
We really liked Ariels, too.... except for the giant fish mobiles, and thought that would potentially also make a great rehearsal dinner location.
A coworker of mine just returned from a Disney wedding (apparently it's a thing!) and that couple's reception was at Ariels, so I picked the coworker's brain about the mobiles. He claims that he didn't even notice the giant fish. I'm not sure HOW that's possible, but maybe with different lighting they're not so... fishy?
Oh, and we ran into Cinderella's Coach back at Franck's studio, which was pretty cool, too! Now when we ride the monorail I always look down at the wedding pavilion for a chance to catch a glimpse of them hanging out down there waiting for a lucky bride!
California Grill Saves the Day.
We had dinner reservations at the California Grill after our site visit and our planner suggested that we arrive a little early and ask the waitstaff to let us into the private rooms (Napa and Sonoma). The rooms were nice, secluded, mini versions of the restaurant. The Napa room overlooks the fireworks much like the main restaurant. We were told that if you book the Sonoma room you view the fireworks from the private balcony instead of from inside. My partner prefers to view the fireworks from the outside balcony, whereas I prefer to watch them from our table behind the windows while eating dessert, so booking the Napa room I knew was something that would be important to me (if we booked a Disney wedding, which at that point I was certain we would not because: carpet!).
I have loved the California Grill since our trip in 2013 (where we only booked it because we had gotten the Deluxe dining plan and had a ton of extra TSs to use up!) On this occation, we ended up seated around the backside of the restaurant which has a less direct view of the themepark and fireworks (normally we’ve been seated right on the themepark side at the tables which touch the windows). It was a nice change, but it reaffirmed for me that if we booked the venue I definitely wanted that Napa view, not the Sonoma.
I don’t remember what we ordered, but it was delicious as always. The California Grill has the best food, and the most amazing desserts! We asked our waiter about Disney Weddings and he gave us some details about the weddings he’d seen, and even brought the chef over to tell us a little about the menus they use for weddings. As we ate we watched the sun set, and after dessert went out on the balcony for fireworks.
Oh my goodness. Wishes fireworks from the rooftop of the Contemporary. Have I mentioned? (Yes, I know I have.) They are amazing. They are beautiful. They are romantic. They give me all the feels.
If you've never had the chance, I definitely encourage you to work the California Grill into your next trip if you can! Absolutely breathtaking!
Watching the fireworks kind of reset my thinking on the whole venue issue. A Disney Wedding would be a magical experience. How could it not be….even if the ballroom carpets are heavily patterned, right? I can deal with patterns. And even if Lovett hall has beautiful wood floors, they definitely don't have anything that compares to Disney fireworks.
Sneaking in some vacation in our vacation.
The next day was ‘free’ and we had tickets for the first Christmas part of the season. We’d managed to hit all the venues and knew that, though we were disappointed by the ballrooms, we did definitely want to find a way to do a Disney wedding. We spent Saturday in the parks and decided to take advantage of the Disney Photopass service to sneak in some “free” invitation photos. I had brought with me some “Bride” and “Groom” books which I thought we could use to make some clever, sarcastic announcements to our friends and family who, after a decade, had pretty much given up on the idea of us ever actually having a wedding of any kind!
I just want to take a second here and note that after many trips with small kids (and even once with an infant in arms!) visiting Disney World as an adult on your own is AMAZING! No diaper bags and no stroller! We cut through the crowds like crowd ninjas! Hi-ya! I felt light and nimble. We covered tons of ground quickly and without kids avoided the time-consuming activities (like princess meals and princess meet&greets and princess gift shops!) I especially enjoyed eating at our favorite "grown up" restaurants without any little people complaining about the too-fancy food! We didn't have fastpasses or an itinerary: mostly we just had a ton of fun, reaffirming that Disney IS for grownups, too.
I wrote in my first post about the financial and customer service considerations that led us to decide to have a Disney wedding in the first place. I’m very glad that we decided to do a site visit, even though it was an added expense. It was a nice weekend getaway for my partner and I (which we don’t have very often) and it led us to make very different choices than we would have if we’d picked venues off of online pictures and reviews only.
In addition to our wedding planner, we talked to many CMs and fellow guests about the venues, other weddings they’d seen, and the weather. We met a particularly helpful woman at the pool at Port Orleans who told us about a wedding she had attended a few years prior, and all the activities that the bride/groom had planned for guests to do while they were there--- this got us thinking about the types of activities we’d want to do with our friends and family, given the opportunity.
In addition to the venue, the site visit also made big changes to our opinion with regard to date. We’d originally been considering an August wedding (so we wouldn’t conflict with school schedules) but everyone we talked to down there said that August weather was just absolutely miserably hot. The weather for our site visit trip couldn’t have been more beautiful, and so we ultimately booked a wedding for early November hoping we’ll get the same or similar temperatures.
Also, we had stayed at Port Orleans Riverside because it was the hotel we’d been thinking we’d use for our guests. We found it to be a really confusing resort and required so much more walking than we are used to (I guess we’ve gotten super spoiled staying at DVC resorts!). We spent our departure afternoon at Port Orleans French Quarter enjoying the pool, though, and decided that that was a much more compact resort and a better fit for our guests. Again, things we wouldn’t have realized if we’d gone off of online reviews only.
Moral of the story
Even if you’ve visited Disney many times and are familiar with the venues, definitely go back and look at them again with your “wedding eyes” on if you can. You’ll be surprised at how that affects your thinking! You definitely need to see the spaces for yourself and imagine the wedding experience you want to create. No one can do that for you, and no one else out there has exactly the same vision as you do; so while online resources are great… they just aren’t enough compared to actually being there.
Oh yeah…. And remember how I said it was ironic that the one venue we didn’t see was the Atlantic Dance Hall, even though we were right there and the planner suggested we pop in? Well, after weeks and weeks of going around and around about reception venue, ADH is the one we finally chose (based on the fact that we’d ruled out everything else, and because of the photos our friends shared of their reception.) So even though we did do a wedding site visit, we still technically picked our reception venue sight unseen!
Our Disney Wedding Selections
We decided to go with an early November Friday wedding. Our dates were defined primarily by availability-- we needed a lot of venues available in a particular sequence and that limited our date options. We also wanted to have Wishes fireworks, so we needed to get in between the Halloween parties (with Hallowishes fireworks) and the Holiday parties (with Very Merry Christmas fireworks). We’d originally hoped for a Saturday wedding but it just didn’t work out.
We also realized that as (or more) important to us than the wedding and ceremony, was finding opportunities to spend quality time with different groups of our friends/faimly. To do that, we decided to cut back on the reception itself so that we could do more with the rehearsal dinner and have a farewell brunch at the end of the trip. We decided to go with an early morning (10am) Ceremony because moving the reception up by an hour saved us thousands of dollars that we could put toward these other experiences.
Here’s what we chose:
Thursday Rehearsal dinner @ California Grill Napa Room
Friday 10:00 Ceremony @ Grand Floridian Wedding Pavilion
11:00-4:00 Reception @ Atlantic Dance Hall
8:00 Fireworks Dessert Party @ Sago Cay Pointe
Sunday Farewell brunch @ the Attic
In my next post, I’ll talk about all the OTHER activities we’ve planned and organized. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot and I’ve got some killer spreadsheets!