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Brides Pay Princely Sum to Be Cinderellas

More people of modest means are opting for opulent weddings. Some want carriage rides and fireworks. Packages start at $40,000 at Disneyland.


The marriage of Renee Rodriquez to Michael Matthews was a first-class affair, from the engraved formal invitations to the designer gown and the platinum china.

"It was extremely regal," said Carmen Blandino, the Glendora wedding planner who helped orchestrate the ceremony at the stately St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Dallas. "It was royal American."

Royalty, however, didn't pick up the $42,000 tab that included extras such as limousine and shuttle bus service, a makeup artist for the bride and a towering wedding cake designed to look like a pile of presents.

That task fell to the bride's parents, two Dallas school district workers who dipped into their retirement kitty to help pay the bills.

"I don't regret anything," said mother of the bride Yolanda Rodriguez, whose family still was buzzing about the gala months later. "It was perfect."

Opulent weddings are nothing new for the well-to-do. But in recent years, more people of modest means have been springing for ever more lavish ceremonies. Nationwide, the average wedding cost has risen to $22,360, according to Conde Nast Bridal Group, a division of Conde Nast Publications Inc. That's a 47% increase since 1990. The trend has helped fuel an array of businesses offering such diverse services as bridal carriage rides and fireworks displays.

Mike Ivey, who runs an Irvine company that provides disc jockeys and lighting, chalks up the cost increase to brides trying to outdo--or at least keep pace with--one another.

"They seem to get caught up with what their girlfriends have done in the past," Ivey said. So they take steps such as ramping up room decor with fancier chairs, elaborate centerpieces and ambient lighting.

"You never saw lighting at weddings 10 years ago," Ivey said. "You never saw crushed velvet linen.... Now it's almost become the standard that you're going to have some kind of fancy linens. The same with flatware. People are renting trees to bring into a ballroom. I never saw that 10 years ago, and it's become commonplace now."

Two trends of the last decade helped boost wedding extravaganzas. One, the booming economy, made extras such as limousines and designer gowns--once out of reach for the masses--more affordable. And secondly, the median age for getting married has risen, meaning couples increasingly have the means to kick in their own money if parents can't foot the bill for expensive options.

Since 1982, the average age of a bride has climbed to 27 from 20, according to Conde Nast Bridal Group. And the length of engagement has doubled to 16 months, which means more time to spend more money and plan more elaborate weddings.

Whether the wedding industry will remain flush is an open question, given the uncertainties in the economy and the stock market.

"Certainly, there's a lot of daddies out there going, 'Oh man, I didn't expect this when I signed those contracts,' " said Eileen Moneghan, president of the Assn. of Bridal Consultants in New Milford, Conn.

But for the most part, weddings are a lagging economic indicator. And many weddings this season, planned months or even years in advance, still reflect the free-spending spirit.

Brides are shimmying into gowns that cost as much as the entire wedding once did. A Vera Wang designer gown, for example, can cost up to $12,000. Many couples hire both a photographer and a videographer to record the big event.

Entertainment may include chamber music, strolling violinists and a full orchestra. An entire restaurant may be rented out for the rehearsal dinner.

Location is critical. Hotels are still common, but couples also are booking museums, sprawling estates and even lighthouses. Increasingly, couples stage "destination weddings": ceremonies in far-flung locations where nuptials give way to vacations.

Blandino, the consultant who planned the Rodriquez-Matthews wedding last year, said she recently orchestrated a medieval-style wedding at Benedict Castle in Riverside, a structure fashioned after a castle in Spain. The groomsmen dressed like musketeers and wore swords.

Disneyland began offering after-hours ceremonies in the theme park in May 2001. The bride and her father can be ferried through the park in "Cinderella's Crystal Coach," led by a white horse and a footman. And after vows are exchanged, they can celebrate at a reception in Fantasyland in front of King Arthur Carrousel.

Prices start at about $40,000 for packages that include the ceremony and reception. Disneyland also will provide extras, such as rides, fireworks and a visit from Mickey, for an additional fee.

The park hosted its first after-hours wedding last year, and the second was held Sept. 15, when Rebecca Dent and her fiance, Brian Devers, tied the knot in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle. Dent, a 25-year-old grade-school teacher from San Diego, had accepted Devers' wedding proposal in front of the castle too.

"It is my dream to do this, and we are both so excited," she said before the wedding.

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