If you’re interested in detailed info on planning 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. And you can see photos of every venue available for private events at Walt Disney World HERE.
Here’s a Table of Contents, in case you want to skip ahead…
- Event Venue
- Anniversary Cake
- Dinner Menu
- Floral & Decor
- Frozen Ever After Ride Mix-In
- IllumiNations Fireworks
The moment I learned that Disney would be replacing Epcot’s fireworks show, IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, I knew our next anniversary party had to include one last viewing of this sentimental favorite from UK Lochside. The first time Patrick and I ever “saw” IllumiNations was during our wedding-night dessert party at this venue, although we spent so much time facing The Roots’ cameras that we hadn’t really seen the show until we went back to Epcot on the first night of our honeymoon!
But as I started to plan this party, I felt daunted by the prospect of topping our last event, a Tiki Dino-versary Party under the brontosaurus animatronics inside Universe of Energy (also a farewell-to-this-attraction party, unfortunately).
So I bombarded my Disney Catered Events sales consultant with crazy, apparently impossible ideas: First it was dinner inside the Imagination Pavilion DVC Lounge (possible, as long as you start after 8pm) with an appearance by the Dreamfinder character with Figment puppet (not possible, according to the Entertainment Department and the guy Patrick knows who oversees all the puppets for WDW).
Then it was dinner inside or on the upper terrace of the Mexico Pavilion with an appearance by the Three Caballeros. But the only place they will allow you to do an event in Mexico is a random spot on the main walkway facing the wall of La Hacienda de San Angel and the shop—no view or anything!
I mean, maybe this would have worked if they’d allowed us to use the character meet-and-greet spot in the lush jungle across the way, but dining in this location seems like tailgating in the parking lot of an El Torito…
So eventually I admitted defeat and settled for just dinner and just fireworks at just UK Lochside. But I do love UK Lochside! And I finally got that ride mix-in on Frozen Ever After we’d missed at the last party! And, thanks to Disney Catered Events’ minimum expenditure requirement, I got to/had to add all the flashy floral and decor I wasn’t able to afford when we planned our wedding reception!
I’ll break everything down by category for those who are interested in planning their own events at Disney. All photos of the party (except the first five of the cake) were taken by Kimberly Mitchell of Portrayable Photography, who did a great job stepping in on the recommendation of the Roots when they were unavailable that night.
Besides being beloved for its role in my wedding, UK Lochside is one of my Top 3 spots for viewing IllumiNations. 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.
The one drag about UK Lochside is that they replaced its benches with a trio of permanent umbrella tables a few years ago. This limits what you can do with table linens and chairs (and makes the tables SO dark!), so I wasn’t able to have full-on glitter linens and silver Chiavari chairs like I wanted. More on that in the Floral & Decor section…
I love how close the Friendship Boats pass to the location (although, really, Disney…? You hadda leave the bussing tray right out next to my fancy highboys?).
I cannot WAIT to tell you about this cake…
Since the benches are gone, they can set up part of the buffet against the front fence. The rest was set up against the back fence.
I’m gonna skip right to the cake now because it was my favorite part of the whole event! Originally, when I was planning for the Imagination Pavilion Lounge with Dreamfinder and Figment, my theme for the party was “Crazy ’80s Epcot,” based on this photo:
This is how nerdy I am about cake: I started to get an idea for a metallic silver anniversary cake with puffy fondant rainbows like the ones on these costumes, and I was so excited about how cool it was going to look, I actually couldn’t sleep that night!
Usually Patrick helps me draw the inspiration photos I send to Disney’s pastry teams for all the elaborate cakes I want, because he’s a professional artist and I draw like a 2-year-old. But this one was a surprise, so I had to muddle through on my own. Luckily, I was able to find a line-drawing of a basic 2-tier cake shape online to start with, or else the cake probably would have turned out like a saggy trapezoid! This is what I sent to the Grand Floridian’s Wedding Cakes team (yes, I used ALL the red arrows!).
As you can see, I’m a bit Type A when it comes to cake designs—I’m pretty sure there are JPL rocket schematics that have less detail than this!
But what really helped was that the Grand Floridian assigned my cake to a pastry chef I actually know! We met when I interviewed her for the Disney Wedding Podcast, and she very kindly kept me updated on the progress of my cake as it was being made. She also helped me know what to ask for in the BEO (Banquet Event Order: The bible of your event followed by every Disney cast member who works on it) and on the design so that the cake would turn out how I’d imagined.
In fact, it turned out even BETTER than I’d imagined because she used her own creativity to improve the design, adding a Hidden Mickey belt buckle to the back and elegantly solving the problem of hiding the light below the Spaceship Earth topper!
But maybe my favorite thing was something I didn’t discover until the next day, when I opened a box of leftover cake to find the top tier had slid off its cake board, revealing a FROSTING SMILEY FACE!!! It turns out her signature is to make a smiley face out of the frosting used to secure each cake to its board, and nobody has ever noticed before!
Oh, and the flavors! So, my favorite Disney cake flavor combos are…
- Red Velvet with Cream Cheese Buttercream Frosting (not Disney’s Cream Cheese Mousse Filling, which tastes like cheesecake to me)
- Chocolate Chip Cake with layered Chocolate Ganache and Peanut Buttter Buttercream Frosting (again, not mousse)
But a few years ago, Disney introduced a Churro flavor for wedding cakes, and it has been a huge hit with all the brides. It’s a cinnamon cake filled with white chocolate cinnamon mousse that has milk chocolate feuilletine (flaky pastry crunch) mixed in. I was skeptical, imagining something like a dry coffee cake or muffin. But I had to try it, so I asked Disney to make the smaller top tier churro.
You guys. It was AMAZING! The cake is so moist, and the filling tastes like Cinnabon smells! I barely even touched the leftovers of the red velvet tier, but I almost single-handedly polished off the remains of the churro tier over the course of our vacation.
Now let’s see a few dozen more photos of that cake, shall we?
I briefly toyed with the idea of doing a Crazy ’80s-themed menu (Handwich, anyone?) the way we did a ’50s luau party menu at our Tiki Dinoversary. But when I started brainstorming ideas with a friend who is a caterer and private chef, she reminded me just how awful most ’80s food actually was. You can bring back the leg warmers and fanny packs and big hair all you want, Gen Z, but I DARE you to eat sun-dried tomatoes as much as we did in the ’80s!
So I put in one nod to the ’80s (see: Bacon-Wrapped Dates) and then filled out the rest of the menu with things the brides on my podcast have been raving about for years. Also, fruit for Patrick and a beef short rib suggested by the chef because apparently it’s déclassé to serve only starch at your party!
- Bacon-Wrapped Dates
- Cheeseburger Spring Rolls with Tomato Curry Aioli
- Tropical Fruit Salad and Mint Drizzle
- Food & Wine Festival Schinkennudeln from Germany (ham and cheese noodles!)
- Mashed Potato Martini Bar: Mashed Yukon Gold Potato, Sweet Potato and Peruvian Purple Potato with a topping bar to include gravy, bacon bits, cheddar cheese, sour cream, butter, steamed broccoli (??!!??), sautéed mushrooms, brown sugar, marshmallow and candied walnuts (yeah, I dunno what the deal was with the broccoli, but I kept it in case Patrick felt like being weird)
- Rosemary and Red Wine Demi-Braised Beef Short Rib
Because we needed to meet a food and beverage minimum for our venue, my planner suggested adding an ice-cream-based action station (yes, on top of cake) instead of the scoops of vanilla ice cream I had requested for the cake. I decided to add the Nitrogen Fried Spheres that have been so popular with brides, which I’d tried at one of Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings Bridal Showcases.
Here’s what it all looked like!
Patrick loved the Bacon-Wrapped Dates. I thought the Cheeseburger Spring Rolls were definitely better than the sorry little ones served at the Magic Kingdom’s Fireworks Dessert Party but not as amazing as I’d expected based on rave reviews from brides. I think the problem was that they’d been steaming in a covered pot, so the wonton wrappers were soggy and chewy instead of crispy and flaky. The Schinkennudeln could’ve been improved by the covering of molten cheese it had when Epcot’s catering team made it for my birthday party menu tasting a few years ago. But the DIY mashed potato bar was fantastic, especially after we discovered that the big white cubes were not cheese but PURE BUTTER! I didn’t even try the Braised Beef Short Rib because I needed the tummy space for more mashed potatoes!
There was a mix-up with the Nitrogen Fried Spheres, and the ladies who served them left the party before we had a chance to try them. So after the fireworks, our catering contact radioed and got them to come back. This was kind of a big deal, since they usually hustle you straight off to your ride mix-in after the show at Epcot. It also makes me feel bad to say I kind of didn’t like them…
They were not the same as the ones at the DFTW Bridal Showcase. Those were a pure chocolate shell filled with yummy things like marshmallows and graham crackers and topped with hot caramel. This was scoops of ice cream dropped in liquid nitrogen to make them all clumpy, almost like astronaut ice cream, but not crunchy. I didn’t think it was possible to wreck ice cream—turns out is IS! But it was no big loss, since we had two flavors of a 50-person cake to eat too!
Oh yeah. Also, there were drinks. I’m bad at drinks. All I drink is water and—when eating cake (so, like, half my life)—milk. I wasn’t sure what to offer to drink, so we did lemonade, water and bill-on-consumption sodas. (Bill-on-consumption means you only pay for the drinks people actually drink, instead of paying for an unlimited package and wasting a bunch of money). It looked like this:
Floral & Decor
As I mentioned, every party I’ve had since our wedding has been an excuse to have all the amazing floral and decor I couldn’t afford when we had our wedding. I keep getting to work with our wedding Floral Coordinator too, so she remembers all my preferences. (“Strangely obsessed by dahlias, hates creased linens!”) And, since Disney Catered Events’ minimum expenditure is now so high, and our tummies can only contain so much food, I needed to add a LOT of floral and decor to this party.
However, this was the place where the Crazy ’80s theme really started to go out the window, because I wanted “pretty” over “cheesy.” Covering Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings for the last 13 years has shown me so many gorgeous floral and decor ideas, and I’m always longing to use some of them. Someday, I will get to do a Disney party full of sequins and crystal and gilt and glamour like this one. But this was not that day, thanks to UK Lochside’s $#@&*! permanent umbrella tables and their &*$#@^! wrought-iron chairs.
Silver chiavari chairs were out because the venue already has chairs and even I wasn’t paying a hefty fee to remove and replace them. The sequined linens could only be placed on the highboy tables because umbrella tables require specially made linens with a big ol’ Velcro strip down the middle to help them fit around the umbrella poles. You can’t do candelabra or any type of traditional centerpiece on an umbrella table either, thanks to that pesky pole in the middle.
So I ended up with kids’ birthday party polycotton tablecloths and pull-apart centerpieces that wrapped around the umbrella poles. And I paid for centerpieces and napkins on every table even though we only used one table, because I am shallow and wanted them to look good in photos.
The centerpieces actually turned out really nicely! I asked for a color-blocked look based on the rainbow colors of the cake and Mickey’s outfit. I also asked for more exotic flowers so it wouldn’t be all carnations and mums. And I paid a little extra to have them in vessels I could keep, so that I our resort room would look like a funeral parlor for the rest of our trip.
Hope you’re not tired of looking at centerpieces yet, cuz I have a bazillion more photos. I paid for these babies, and by gad you’re going to look at them!!!
The one bummer was that the centerpieces were supposed to have rice lights (a.k.a., fairy lights) intertwined throughout, but they didn’t make it. You can’t tell from Kimberley’s long-exposure and flash photos, but it is DARK out there at night, especially since the umbrellas block the light of the single lamp in that area. When I mentioned it to my event planner, she got on the radio right away to bring back the floral people, but after about 20 minutes they finally ended up having to poke light-up drink cubes into the centerpieces (I’m guessing because it would be too complicated to wind the wire of the rice lights through fully assembled floral arrangements).
So that looked like this:
For the highboy tables, Disney usually just plunks down a cylinder filled with gel and a color-changing light. But I had these fancy sequined linens and didn’t want it to look like they’d just plunked down a cylinder filled with gel and a color-changing light! So I asked my floral planner to come up with floral rings that complemented the centerpieces and cost $35 each. I loved them!
One really cool thing was that, because they used succulents for the green part of each centerpiece, we were able to take them home and pot them for our Moroccan-Fantasy-Turned-Lilly-Pulitzer-Garden-Party patio!
Frozen Ever After Ride Mix-In
If your event is held inside a theme park, you can pay $15.75/person for what’s called a “ride mix-in,” where your party is escorted directly onto the last ride of the day. No waiting! This must occur at the end of the park’s operating hours and in the same park where your event is held. Back when we did our Tiki-Dinoversary party, we were supposed to have one of the first-ever Frozen Ever After ride mix-ins. But the attraction was down by the time our party ended, and we had to do Test Track instead.
So I was thrilled when it actually happened this time. And I gotta say… Rides are so much better when you’re the only ones on them! We’d had our second-ever ride on Frozen earlier that day, and I came away wondering if I’d been wrong to be so enthusiastic the first time. But when we rode it a third time as a mix-in, I fell in love with it all over again!
I feel like we need some pictures, so here are a couple Patrick grabbed of the empty queue as they hustled us onto the ride.
The most boring (and frustratingly expensive) part of planning any Disney event is arranging transportation. Whether or not you are required to hire transportation for your in-park event depends on its location. Usually Epcot venues close to the International Gateway do not require transportation because everyone can meet the event guide included in your venue fee at International Gateway and walk in. Some people have also arranged to have the guide meet their guests at Epcot’s main gate.
If your coordinator requires you to book transportation, this does not have to be a pricey chartered motor coach unless you have a large group. Groups of about 35 or fewer will find it cheaper to take multiple $42 one-way SUVs backstage.
In our case, we entered the park using our own admission and walked to UK Lochside on our own. After the party we hoofed it over to Norway for the Frozen ride mix-in. But a few days before the party I realized we would then have to schlep two giant boxes of cake and five floral arrangements back to the Beach Club on foot if I didn’t hire transportation. So I added a one-way SUV to pick us up backstage at Epcot, behind Norway, and boy were we glad to have it! Plus, the glimpses you get backstage as you walk to the vehicle are a fun little bonus!
At this point you might be wondering, “Gee, I sure did love those 8,734 photos of your centerpieces and rant about sun-dried tomatoes, but what about the fireworks?” Well, my friend, I have no photos of the fireworks. I sent Kimberly home just before we devoured all the food and rumpled all the linens and demolished all the cake because I wanted us to really experience IllumiNations for the last time, not stand around posing for more pictures as it exploded behind our backs.
I know a lot of people think IllumiNations is boring, and maybe I’m sentimental about it because the first time I saw it was my wedding day. But it is my all-time favorite Disney fireworks show—because of the music, because of the real fireworks and, most of all, because of the message. So many of Disney’s nighttime spectaculars are just intellectual-property fests with as many characters as they can cram in and generic lyrics about dreams, wishes and magic that seem to have been spit out by a random-Disney-phrase generator. IllumiNations is actually about something, and I love the idea that sharing our individual human stories can help us achieve a better future collectively.
So I’m sad that I’ll never be able to see IllumiNations again, but I’m even more sad that it probably means the end of this type of show at Disney. The closest thing left is Rivers of Light—and that’s legit boring! But at least it isn’t just a bunch of Lion King and Finding Nemo clips all strung together.
If you do want to see some amazing photos of IllumiNations, check out the ones the Roots shot at our last anniversary party!
OK, I’ll put in just one…