Our group passed carefully through the trees under the dark sky -- 30 people following but one lantern. After crossing the train tracks and finding a well worn path, we continued on to the village.
It wasn't long until we reached the clearing. Beyond this market square was our destination: a time-worn fort with crumbling plaster, its exterior gray except for a drapery of hot pink bougainvillea. This was the old Fort Harambe, where the wedding celebration was to be held.
Despite what people may think, not every Disney wedding is a Mickey and Minnie affair, though those are available. To the contrary, Disney offers a range of themed locations -- options are only limited by a couple's imagination. The wedding I recently attended was held in Animal Kingdom's African-themed village.
At the reception, of my dining companions, Lisa, shared her own Disney wedding story with me. She, too, held her reception in a park, choosing EPCOT's Living Seas as a venue, where her guests were surrounded by beautiful sea life. A dessert hour was held in the Italy pavilion.
She went on to tell me of a friend's wedding, which adopted an old Hollywood aura at Hollywood Studios' Brown Derby Restaurant. From there, guests were taken in groups to ride the Tower of Terror to pose, if you will, for their souvenir wedding photo. Hopefully before dinner.
In Florida, Disney offers four different collections of wedding packages that can be tailored for any couple. The Disney Weddings website gives a great overview of the options.
Our hosts chose from the Wishes collection, and kept the celebration intimate with just over 30 guests and a lovely interfaith ceremony at Disney's Wedding Pavilion. (Note that Catholic ceremonies may not be held here.)
After seeing the newlyweds out with a cloud of bubbles, our party headed by bus to Animal Kingdom. This was especially cool as they let us slip in the back door -- hence the hike.
The festivities were held in the courtyard of the real-life Tamu Tamu restaurant, which lay within the walls of the faux fort. Inside, strings of bare light bulbs faintly illuminated a setting of lantern-topped tables with trees that permeated the airy wooden roof. The dinner selection nodded to the African theme, featuring spiced steak and Ethiopian wat-style chicken with herbed roasted vegetables and blue-cheese laced potatoes. The cake, shaped like a vintage suitcase stuffed with a map, was surrounded by quotes that added to the "Casablanca" feel.
Annemarie, the lovely bride, told me that the location, though both lovely and unique, was also a practical choice. If holding a park wedding, you have to wait two hours after that park closes. Animal Kingdom closes earliest, whereas others can stay open as late as 9 p.m. to 12 a.m. -- even later depending on the season.
Although she was delighted by how everything turned out, Annemarie points out to future brides that planning a Disney wedding can have its traps, especially for less Type A brides like herself.
"I found that if I didn't call or email, I'd never hear from them," she said. "It might not be a problem for brides who had more to do -- our wedding was so simple -- but I was conscious of that."
Disney's rules and restrictions - like that whole timing thing - can also be a lot to navigate, she adds. Check out her perspective here.
There were no giant mice that night, no pumpkin coaches (though also available) and nary a castle in sight, but there was still the sense of being in an enchanted place. It reflected the personalities of the laid back couple, while still seeming like an elaborate destination wedding.
Before we could get too comfortable in our "Out of Africa" fantasy, before the clock struck midnight, we had a dark, wooded hike back to reality.
The window behind the altar provides a backdrop view of Cinderella's castle. If the ceremony is timed right, the newlyweds will get a fireworks show overhead.
The reception's seating area is regularly used for this quick-service restaurant, but it was spruced up with strung lights, Moroccan-inspired lanterns on each table, rich table linens and flowers.
The reception's white chocolate and vanilla centerpiece. Of course, it was joined by a dessert buffet of creamsicle parfaits, s'mores, Frangelico-spiked drinking chocolate and more.
To go with the couple's "Casablanca" vibe.
A signature cocktail for the occasion. Some deliciously diabolical concoction featuring vodka and grenadine.
A sign posted on the Tamu Tamu walls advertises "that romantic vision of Africa" -- a fitting detail for a wedding.