It seemed a conventional enough wedding for a modern couple-he 40-ish, she in her 30s, and both pilots. The setting was her father’s 40-acre ranch on the Manatee River, and the simple, dignified ceremony was set to take place under an old oak tree. The musicians were in place and the white tent was festooned with green garlands and russet roses. The 70 stylishly dressed guests nibbled on elegant tea sandwiches and sipped champagne as they awaited the wedding processional.
Then the bride rode in on a horse.
The groom, also on horseback, cantered in right after her; and when the bride dismounted, her dad walked her up the path to the oak tree.
"In context, it was lovely," says Mary Kenealy, wedding coordinator to the wealthy, who organized the pair’s nuptials. "And it had meaning for the couple, since they’ve bought a ranch in Ocala."
Welcome to Southwest Florida, where residents add the same dash of individuality and theatric flair to their weddings as they do to their mega-mansions and boutique vacations. Forget the prosaic white limousine; Sarasota brides are apt to show up at the altar in a sailboat or horse-drawn carriage. Here, a "nice centerpiece" can mean silver champagne buckets overflowing with roses, and as for wedding cakes and personalized ceremonies, the sky is the limit-literally.
Certified bridal consultant Bobbi Hicks once coordinated a ceremony set among the clouds. "The bride and groom were up in the air in a double parasail over the Gulf of Mexico," Hicks relates. "There they were in white gown and tuxedo, dangling above the guests’ heads. The hard part was rigging the microphones because the couple wanted to be heard and recorded exchanging their vows."
Kenealy recalls the elaborate planning that took place for the wedding for 550 at the Ringling Museum for the marriage of Bill and Carla Griffin’s daughter Keily to Randy Salser. Kenealy used both the Italian sunken courtyard and a clear span tent behind the David statue. The china came from California, the lighting crew was from Atlanta, and the musicians were from New York. The tent took a week to erect because it had a sub-floor, floor and then carpeting. Sarasota’s Beautiful Cakes By Ron made the wedding cake and 500 individual white wedding cakes in five different designs for the guests to take home. And each departing guest received a bottle of private label wine.
For that event, Kenealy orchestrated a staff of several hundred and did practice runs with the limo drivers and valet parkers. She had the band come in two days before the wedding to rehearse in the venue, and she made sure the lighting crew uplit the palm trees around the museum courtyard for maximum tropical drama. One person was delegated to do nothing all night but watch the candles in the centerpieces. "When they would drip down to where they might scorch the flowers, I had someone snuff them out and replace," Kenealy says. The wedding took a full year to plan, but it went off without a hitch. The coordinator describes the production as "grand but low -key, absolutely tasteful and beautiful."
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens staff are still talking about the January 2001 wedding of Gloria Gaona, stepdaughter of part-time Sarasota resident Stephen Schimmel. The bride arrived at the flower and candle-bedecked altar (Schimmel brought in more than 2,000 additional flowering plants) in a horse-drawn carriage, and an orchestra and gospel choir performed throughout the festivities. Later, guests enjoyed hors d’oeuvres under the banyan trees before returning to the activity center, where Michael’s on East catered a seven-course dinner that included stone crab, duck and rack of lamb. "He loves food, and he expects the best of everything," says caterer Phil Mancini about Schimmel.
Schimmel was so pleased with the setting of his daughter’s wedding that he gave the botanical gardens a sizeable endowment in his and wife Rosalba’s name to construct a glamorous new wedding pavilion with state-of-the-art heating, lighting and acoustics, and a stunning view over Sarasota Bay.
"Every wedding is a dream wedding," declares Jim Carlton of Tiger Lily, a downtown Sarasota florist shop. With his partner, Arthur Faria, Carlton has done wedding flowers for Middle Eastern princesses and scions of wealthy European automobile houses (the discreet pair won’t name names). Tiger Lily went all out recently when one wealthy Sarasota couple renewed their vows after three decades of marriage. Faria says the bride was stunning in pink Thai silk and rubies, and the attendants the very soul of elegance in black dresses and diamonds. A stage manager coordinated operations at the couple’s mansion where the reception was held, and Faria and Carlton spent an entire day building enormous flowering cherry bough arrangements and massing French tulips and roses in three-foot silver urns.
Flowers also played an important role in the wedding of Dick Angelotti’s daughter, Kim, who was married four years ago at the Ringling Museum. To create the rose topiaries that adorned each table, Flowers by Ron manager Gail Conquest had to plan months ahead. "I had to order a whole field of flowers [in South America] to be saved, then cut and shipped to me for the wedding," Conquest says. "It was incredible; I ordered more roses than I did for Valentine’s Day total." The creamy pink roses went into lavish creations for the head table and the topiary centerpieces. A single rose sat by each napkin, and the custom-made gazebo that housed the enormous wedding cake was also festooned in roses and ribbons.
A wedding cake became the centerpiece of one Tampa couple’s wedding, which turned into an occasion to showcase the groom’s talent-he is a concert pianist. Phil Mancini of Michael’s on East brainstormed a piano concept that ran through the entire reception. The bride surprised the groom with a five-foot edible grand piano by Beautiful Cakes by Ron, scaled to the dimensions of a baby grand, with roses filling the open lid and adorning the piano seat. The head table was custom made to resemble a grand piano, and for dessert, guests nibbled on miniature pianos fashioned out of dark and white chocolate.
Meg McDonough’s guests knew they were in for a bit of a surprise at her wedding to Aussie realtor Roger McDonough. "Theater is my background, and I wanted my wedding to be memorable," Meg says. Guests sipping champagne outside the Lakewood Ranch Country Club (the couple was the first to hold a wedding there) were astonished when a helicopter appeared out of the distance and circled dramatically before alighting on the lawn. A bagpiper escorted out the groom, who wore a kilt as a nod to his Scottish heritage, and the bride descended the staircase in her private collection organza gown from Venice Brides.
Rather than a wedding cake, the pair offered guests a fresh strawberry topiary adorned with white chocolate roses and turtledoves, with petit fours and champagne and chocolate dipping sauces at the base. "It was very chic, very unusual," Meg says. "I may have been overly involved with all the details, but we had a blast." A former fashion editor, Nancy Waites, now Burges, knows all about style. So when she held her wedding reception at the Charles Ringling pink house, she added her personal touches to the already impressive home and grounds. She scattered pieces of wrought iron furniture through the garden and among the three tents. A champagne bar was set up on a sisal rug under a tree hung with paper lanterns, and double rows of torches and potted palms lit up the pathway down to a fabulous Sarasota sunset at the dock.
The groom, John, is a Merrill Lynch banker based in New York, but a Briton by birth. So the wedding guests, who came from as far as Australia, England, Switzerland and France, were put up at the Colony and ferried to the wedding and reception in chartered buses. At the reception, a 12-piece orchestra performed everything from Waltzing Matilda to Mozart and Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass.
Then there was the grand finale. "We hired a little motorboat with two white leather chairs," Nancy says. "It pulled up, and everyone threw confetti," and the happy couple was whisked away into the sunset.