Every year when the anniversary of our Epcot wedding rolls around, I rack my brains about how I can possibly top our Tower of Terror anniversary party or our Aulani vow renewal. Most years we just do a staycation somewhere in SoCal. But when rumors started swirling about a Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster going into the Universe of Energy pavilion, I had to move up the timetable on an idea I’d been percolating as a possible 10th anniversary surprise: Dinner in the Primeval Diorama!
Patrick has always adored the Universe of Energy’s Audio-Animatronic dinosaurs. I have too, but I refuse to sit/snooze through the other 42 interminable minutes of Ellen’s Energy “Adventure,” where there are 17 pre-show warnings about the length of the ride and its lack of bathroom breaks. Which means Patrick never gets to ride EEA. So, obviously, the perfect solution is to rent out the entire ride for a dinner party under the dinosaurs! And, fortunately, the price is a whole lot less if you don’t keep the ride running. (Why would you WANT to?! Except as some sort of group sleep study?)
If you’re interested in complete details on how to plan a private event at Walt Disney World, check out this post or this podcast episode. I also have complete pricing and booking details for every private event venue at Walt Disney World in Carrie Hayward’s Fairytale Weddings Guide.
I’m going to combine the planning of this party and how it turned out into one post, which means this post is going to be LONG. Like “Ellen’s Energy Adventure” long. Fortunately, the Internet allows snacks and potty breaks. So, with a tip of the ear hat to Al Lutz, grab that pu pu platter and a Dole whip float and buckle up!
Table of Contents
I recommend starting with the soundtrack so you can listen to the party’s Tiki-fabulous playlist while you’re reading!
- IllumiNations Pre-Reception
- Ride Mix-in
- Primeval Diorama Venue
- Tiki Dino-versary Soundtrack
- Floral & Decor
- Tiki Luau Menu
- Volcano Waterfall Cake
All photos are courtesy of our crazy-talented pals, the Roots!
I left these kind of till the last minute, so I didn’t have time to design them myself. Fortunately, there are tons of semi-custom invitations on Etsy. I liked ChuckandAxel‘s Tiki-inspired designs the best, and they were extremely easy to work with. I just told them where to put each of our three wedding colors and came up with wording that would let people know when they could expect to be fed and didn’t give away the dinosaur surprise.
To me, there’s pretty much no point in having an event at Disney if it doesn’t involve fireworks, so we started the night with IllumiNations. We were able to book UK Lochside, the site of our wedding-night dessert party and one of my Top 3 spots for viewing the show. I love that it’s set so far back from the main path and right on the water, which makes for amazing photos and feels like the show is happening just for you. This location technically has a 20-person minimum, but if you are trying to book a Disney Catered Event here with a smaller group, keep checking with your sales consultant as the date approaches. They will usually move you there if no one has booked it 30 days out.
Because dinner wasn’t starting until about 10 pm, I wanted to have something fairly substantial to tide my guests over. One of the best values in Disney catering is their build-your-own stations: DIY Mac ‘n’ Cheese, Mashed Potato Martini Bar, Build-Your-Own sundaes, etc. You only need to serve that one thing, but it’s plenty of food and everyone can customize it to their tastes. I chose a Build-Your-Own Nacho Bar and, I gotta say, outside of the dinosaur surprise, it was the hit of the party! They put out homemade tortilla chips, ground beef, chicken chili with beans, nacho cheese sauce, lettuce, cheddar cheese, salsa, sour cream, guacamole, olives and jalapeno. It sounds pretty standard, but these were some of the best dang nachos I’ve ever had. Everything was really fresh, the guacamole was actually good, and somehow the neon nacho cheese sauce didn’t taste like plastic!
Other planning details: I moved the start time to about 8 pm, rather than the standard 8:30 pm for IllumiNations parties when the show starts at 9 pm. When you do a ride mix-in after the show, they hustle you out of the venue as soon as the fireworks end, so I wanted to be sure we’d get plenty of time there. There is no cost to extend the party time as long as you don’t extend the food service (and even then, they just charge you a pro-rated per-person amount for the food). For in-park events there is a $10/person viewing fee for everyone who doesn’t have park admission. We had our local guests meet an event guide at International Gateway to be escorted to the party. I got a one-way SUV to bring the rest of us in backstage.
I know you guys have seen IllumiNations a bazillion times, so I’ll try not to bombard you with photos, but… I love it so!
See what I mean about how close UK Lochside is to the show?
After IllumiNations, the plan was to surprise everyone with a Frozen Ever After ride mix-in. Instead of paying to buy out a ride after the park closes (which costs thousands of dollars), you can “mix in” as the last group of the day to ride that attraction. You get escorted to the front of the line (if there even is one at that hour) and your whole group rides together. The price is $15 for each person who doesn’t have park admission, and if you’re a bride in a huge or trailing gown, you may not be permitted to ride—it’s left to the discretion of the CM loading the ride.
I’d requested Frozen Ever After because it’s new and flashy and we’d never ridden it. Your Disney Catered Event planner may tell you that mix-ins aren’t available for this ride, but they are—your planner just has to clear it with the park operations team. What isn’t available is a guarantee that you’ll actually get to ride. I didn’t know at the time that Frozen breaks down A LOT. So I was heartbroken when one of the event guides came over just before IllumiNations and asked me to pick an alternative ride mix-in because Frozen was down. I asked them to keep checking its status over the radio even as we were being escorted toward Future World, but when we got to the point of no return (The Odyssey: Epcot’s Official Point of No Return) it was still a no-go.
Instead, we got Test Track.
When they’d asked me to pick an alternative ride mix-in, I was given two choices: Soarin’ and Test Track. Like an IDIOT I instinctively picked the mix-in we hadn’t done yet. Everything was fine until right before that last set of doors opened and I realized that me and my elaborate pin-up girl hairdo (courtesy of Patricia LeJeune) were about to go 65 mph in a convertible! Sorry, Patricia!
Primeval Diorama Venue
We tumbled out of Test Track and made a pit stop so I could attempt to salvage my victory rolls (there isn’t enough hairspray in the world…), then headed toward the Universe of Energy Pavilion. By the time you pass the Wonders of Life Pavilion, there’s only one place left to go, so the element of surprise vanishes. On the other hand, my guests were probably elated to discover we weren’t going to the Wonders of Life Pavilion!
Surprise or no, it was fun to see everyone’s jaws drop as we followed a narrow path through the prehistoric foliage and emerged in the ginormous Primeval Diorama.
Cast members triggered the ride audio right as we crawled out of the jungle, so for the first five minutes we all just wandered around in a daze, snapping super-close-up pictures as the (definitely 100% authentic) sounds of dinosaurs washed over us.
Getting this venue wasn’t easy. I requested it as soon as I heard the rumor about Ellen’s Energy Adventure being replaced by a Guardians of the Galaxy coaster. Disney still has not officially announced anything, but considering how that other Guardians of the Galaxy rumor turned out, I was convinced I shouldn’t wait until 2018 to make this event happen.
At first Disney told me that they stopped doing events at Universe of Energy eight years ago due to engineering concerns about serving food and beverage on the ride track. I then asked to do an event inside DINOSAUR at Animal Kingdom, but the best they could do was dinner in the courtyard. When I asked why food and beverage could be served inside the Great Movie Ride, which has an identical ride system, but not Universe of Energy, my sales consultant went to bat for me with the parks team. I was on pins and needles for a month until they finally said yes.
Then there was some back-and-forth on the start time. Usually Disney won’t start a private event inside an operating attraction or other guest-accessible location until at least 2 hours after the park closes. But 11pm is awfully late for dinner, plus it left an awkward gap between the IllumiNations part and the main event. So I kept bugging my poor planner about it, and eventually he got the park to let us start dinner right after the ride mix-in.
One funny thing was that there were TONS of cast members staffing our party. Like, more than there were guests. And they were all super-excited! Anything we needed, they’d run right off and find/fix it. Even during the planning process, my sales consultant and planner were so helpful and willing to try my crazy ideas (or get as close to them as possible). That kind of customer service is definitely one of the best aspects of having a Disney event.
Tiki Dino-versary Soundtrack
When we did our Tower of Terror anniversary, I brought a small speaker for my iPhone but ended up not needing it because the park left the background area music loop playing for us. Unfortunately, Universe of Energy doesn’t have such a thing. I asked about playing the background sound effects throughout the party, but it turns out that the audio is only triggered by a ride car passing through the area. So Disney could trigger it once when we first arrived, but after that… spooky silence in a giant warehouse full of creepy dinosaurs!!!
My planner was very concerned about this on my behalf and suggested all kinds of solo musicians, even a didgeridoo player (which seemed even more creepy to me than silence)! I finally decided what I most wanted was to assemble my own soundtrack. But an iPod hookup with speaker was going to be a thousand bucks, so it was back to the bluetooth speaker…
The one I got is the Anker Classic Portable Wireless Bluetooth Speaker, but I’m not sure I can recommend it. It is small, good-looking and has great sound—even in a cavernous space like the Primeaval Diorama. However, its “20-hour” battery died 45 minutes into the party, even though I’d fully charged it right before we left the hotel room. It was super-embarrassing—after brushing off my planner’s concerns that I’d be too tied up with the speaker to enjoy my party, there I was scrambling to MacGyver an iPhone speaker out of a coffee mug! My friend saved the day by lending me her backup battery, so we eventually got 20 more minutes out of the speaker at the end of the party.
It took me about two months to craft the playlist for our wedding reception, but I had one week this time, so I cheated. The bulk of our Tiki Dino-versary playlist is one double-album, The Exotic Moods of Les Baxter, but that is because it is SO GOOD! Martin Denny, Les Baxter and Arthur Lyman all made high-quality Exotica/Cocktail/Lounge music in the ’50s and ’60s, but I’ve discovered I like Les Baxter the best because he has so many jazz influences. Some of his stuff is right up there with Henry Mancini, who was all over our wedding playlist. Arthur Lyman is good for wacky jungle sound effects, which worked perfectly as a soundtrack to our dinner, and Martin Denny puts his own spin on Space-Age Pop. I added in a few songs played at our wedding and tried to arrange the mood to shade from mysterious and exotic in the beginning to full-on party at the end.
- Bahia Arthur Lyman
- Jungalero Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Lujon Henry Mancini
- Oasis Of Dakhla Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Off To Work - The Incredibles Michael Giacchino
- Taboo Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Amazon Falls Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Jungle Flower Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Quiet Village Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- The Ancient Galleon Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Tahiti: A Summer Night At Sea Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Congo Train Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Voodoo Dreams Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Legend of the Rain Arthur Lyman Group
- High Priest Of The Aztecs / Pyramid Of The Sun Les Baxter & His Orchestra 5:41
- Papagayo Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Temptation Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Pantan Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Lost City Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Pool Of Love Les Baxter & His Orchestra 2:08
- Hypnotique Martin Denny
- Busy Port Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Spice Islands Sea Birds Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Nightingale Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Love Dance Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Safari Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Jungle Drums Arthur Lyman Group
- Manila Martin Denny
- Tropical Arthur Lyman Group
- Tune From Rangoon Martin Denny
- The Left Arm Of Buddha Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- La Pampa Y La Puna Martin Denny
- Cubana Chant Arthur Lyman Group
- Blue Jungle Les Baxter & His Orchestra
- Procession Of The Princes Les Baxter & His Orchestra 5:28
Floral & Decor
We planned our Epcot wedding on a shoestring budget, and I wasn’t able to afford centerpieces at the reception. This time I only had one table to decorate, so I finally got to go all-out. I was assigned the same Disney Floral planner who did my wedding, and she even dusted off my old BEO to familiarize herself with my preferences (“Note to self: Strangely obsessed by dahlias…”).
Even after planning all these Disney events, I’m still trying to gauge the most successful ratio of “tell Disney exactly what you want” to “give Disney free reign to make magic for you” for things like cake designs and decor. I asked for a phone conference to discuss floral and am really glad I did, because when you send images on Pinterest, they seem to think you want EVERY… SINGLE… THING in each photo. The call allowed us to get on the same page really quickly, and she could easily give me pricing without multiple emails back and forth.
I decided on a low centerpiece made of tropical fruit, greenery and a few flowers, based on this inspiration pic, but with no visible dish. One thing I chickened out on at the last second was some new firefly lights Disney offers—those probably would have been cool. But what I got was gorgeous and exactly what I’d asked for! I paid a little extra so that we could take the centerpiece with us at the end of the party. It was so heavy that we had to give away some of the fruit like weird party favors (“Anyone want a punctured papaya covered in Fun-Tak?”) Nate and Jensey gamely lugged the thing back home, and then it languished on their dining room table for a week—but I visited it every day!
Disney gives you the website of their decor supplier so you can see all your options. The fuchsia shantung tablecloth turned out to be way more purple than it looked online, but it worked perfectly with the purple orchids in the centerpiece. I asked for Monstera leaves for placemats—it turns out they don’t cost any less than regular placemats, but they look rad!
One of the only things I regret about our wedding was getting frumpy chair covers, and I’ve always wished I’d just splurged on upgraded chairs. Since I only needed 10 this time, I went with bamboo folding chairs, in keeping with the Tiki theme. The chair delivery fee also covered delivery of replacement flatware, so I asked for gold. I was worried all these elements were going to be too fancy for our goofy Tiki-Dinosaur theme, but I loved how they ended up looking together and in the room.
Tiki Luau Menu
When you plan a catered event at Disney, they will send you menus, but these are just suggestions. You can completely customize your menu by requesting dishes from Disney restaurants, family recipes, items from the Food & Wine Festival or pretty much anything you can dream up. Just have your planner tell the chef what you’re thinking, and s/he will come back with a quote.
I wanted the food to look like it was straight out of a ’60s luau-themed cookbook, but with silly dinosaur names for everything. That’s how we ended up with Glazed Gorgosauraus (baked ham with pineapple rings and maraschino cherries), Pteriyaki Pterodactyl Wings and Pineapplesaurus Rex tropical fruit skewers jabbed into a pineapple.
I also requested punch in a smoking volcano bowl, and they came up with “Luau Jungle Juice.” Unfortunately, I think someone was so eager to get the volcano going that they started the dry ice too early, cuz it never really did more than this…
Volcano Waterfall Cake
The cake was another area where I was maybe too specific, but I think it still turned out well. I sent the chef a Photoshopped Franken-cake made of all the different elements I wanted (Flowers! Palm trees! Waterfall! Lava-splosion!). Did I briefly worry that it would look more like a birthday cake than an anniversary cake? Yes I did. But… flowers! And palm trees! And waterfall! And LAVA-SPLOSION!!!
I am very proud of myself for only freaking out a teeny little bit when I realized that the sugar flames were slowly flopping over instead of shooting straight up. And I didn’t even notice that they’d forgotten to put pink and orange flowers on the cake until right this very second!
As a Disney cake obsessive, I get a lot of questions about which flavor combos are the best, especially from brides who aren’t able to do a cake-tasting. This is tough because one of my most cherished beliefs is that dessert never should be sullied by fruit or liqueur. So if you want to know what other brides love, it’s Amaretto Crunch Cake with Amaretto Mousse and any cake filled with Tropical Mousse or The Grey Stuff. If you want to know what I love, it’s red velvet cake with cream cheese buttercream frosting (not mousse — Disney’s tastes like cheesecake… blech!) or chocolate or vanilla cake filled with layered chocolate ganache and peanut butter buttercream frosting (again, not mousse).
And my No. 1 Disney cake tip is: Spring for scoops of vanilla ice cream! Nobody at the party turned down ice cream with their cake, therefore I can mathematically extrapolate that no one on the PLANET will turn down ice cream with their cake.
This was a tough one. I basically only plan these parties to try to surprise Patrick, so most of what I’m focused on is the first impression. Which lasts, like, 30 seconds. After that I have absolutely no idea what to do with everyone. Eating never takes up as much time as I’d like. Neither of us is much of a dancer. And Disney characters are not really our thing. But when my planner mentioned they had Donald in a dinosaur costume, I temporarily forgot how dang much they charge for characters and got interested.
What do you think of when you picture Donald in a dinosaur costume? Something like this, right?
Now lookit what Donald in a dinosaur costume actually looks like and tell me YOU didn’t do a spit-take too…
What Patrick and I are really into is Disney theme park history. I kept thinking that the perfect entertainment would be having an Imagineer come talk to us about the history of Universe of Energy and how WED Enterprises created everything. My planner put out feelers, but I guess all of the Imagineers were working late that night trying to figure out how to fit a dinosaur in a Gamora costume.
Then I realized—duh!—our pal Michael Crawford is one of the foremost authorities on Disney history, with a special affinity for Epcot. He generously agreed to share his knowledge of the Primeval Diorama with the rest of us over dinner, and what we learned was fascinating!
Basically, every feature of Universe of Energy was either the first or the largest Disney had ever created, and sometimes both! The amazing matte painting behind the dinosaurs was the biggest Disney had ever made, and it was painted by hand. The ride vehicles were the largest too, and they were later replicated in the Great Movie Ride.
This show was a challenge for WED because there was no dialogue to help them cover 300 million years of prehistory in 5 minutes. In the first few seconds, you pass from the giant millipedes of the Carboniferous Period to the towering brontosaurus of the Jurassic Period, 100 million years later.
Then it’s a quick fisticuffs between a stegosaurus and NOT a baby T-Rex but an allosaurus (I totally knew that!) and we’re off to the Cretaceous Period. That was as far as they’d let us walk in the ride, so I can only assume that after that show scene all the dinosaurs lived happily ever after!
Originally there were a lot more show effects, like rolling fog that cleared as the ride vehicle entered the room, gradually revealing the dinosaurs. There were more water effects in the show scenes, swampy odors, and teetering rocks symbolizing the beginning of the end of …something—who knows? Maybe the lovers’ spat between the stegosaurus and the allosaurus? I’m sure they worked it out and all the dinos had a pizza party at the end!
The dinosaurs also got a rather garish new paint job at some point—I can’t remember when, but judging by the amount of neon, I’m going to say it was the ’90s. I guess we should just be grateful none of them are wearing Zubaz!
I think everybody’s favorite piece of trivia was that—while most of the flora and fauna hew closely to scientific theories about prehistory in the early ’80s—at no time have there ever been snails this large on our planet:
At the end of the night, the Cavalcade of Cast Members gave us a five-minute warning and we all paused to soak up the atmosphere one more time. I walked slowly from one end of the scene to the other and back again, trying to absorb every detail.
If you look again, it almost seems like they’re laughing at the same joke!
I was already sad that I’d never be this close to the show scenes again, never mind that we may never even get to ride the dang thing again. But what a way to bid the Primeval Diorama farewell!