Wild about Weddings
South Lake Tahoe a major location for any type of wedding
Considering the national average for divorce currently hovers around 37 percent, some people might believe this is the biggest gamble in Lake Tahoe - getting married.
Making the stakes a little higher is the fact that often the typical South Lake Tahoe wedding arrives following a quick decision by a young couple to elope or involves people who have been married previously and are seeking simplicity in their next ceremony.
Of course, there are first-time couples with a well designed plan who travel to Tahoe for their big day simply because they love the area's natural beauty, a rare combination of gorgeous lake and mountainous terrain.
However, more typical are Tom and Deborah Gaylord of Sacramento, who became man and wife on a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon this June at Chapel of the Bells in South Lake Tahoe, which has grown in stature over the past 30 years as a prime wedding location.
After an elaborate church wedding as a first-time bride and a second one in a church - both of which ended in divorce - Deborah rolled the dice a third time with Tom (who had been married once before) in a more casual Tahoe affair.
How casual was it? Deborah says she wore Capri pants, a lavender top and flip-flops.
"Tom had on khaki pants and wore his cowboy boots," laughs Deborah, whose daughters created her bouquet and also made a small cake for their wedding of about 15 friends and relatives. "It was peaceful and very charming."
The Gaylords actually went the traditional rout in Tahoe, where the choices are many and the vows can be said in a modest setting like Chapel of the Bells or done swinging from the gondola heading up to Heavenly ski resort.
"We do all kinds of weddings in Tahoe," says Tiffany Porter, the wedding coordinator for Chapel of the Bells. "But a high percentage of our wedding are just walk-ins right off the street. They are getting married in casual jeans or shorts."
While that attire doesn't even rate a second glance at the many south shore wedding locations, there are some outfits that certainly draw attention. Porter recalls a couple and their guests who were all in "Star Wars" mode when the "I dos" were exchanged.
"But it's not Vegas up here, it's nothing too wild," Porter said. "Most people we get to know a little bit before their wedding and what they want to do, and the ceremony is real respectable."
Formal wedding attire - long, flowing gowns and dignified tuxes - are part of the Tahoe scene as well. But Chapel of the Bells owner and minister Robert McIntyre just never knows what might be coming down his aisle from day to day.
"Last summer I had a couple, she was in the full gown and he was in a tux; then the very next ceremony the bride is wearing a thong bikini and the groom has on a T-shirt and swim shorts; and neither one had shoes on," recalls McIntyre, who says around 35 percent of his business comes from the Bay Area and the Sacramento region.
This is a man who has seen both sides of the business. A minister for the past 12 years, he got married in 1996 at Lakefront Wedding Chapel, another prime-time south shore location.
McIntyre, who was a minister for many years at Lakefront, doesn't mind praising the competition.
"I still believe Lakefront is the prettiest chapel in Lake Tahoe," said McIntyre, who at age 59 has been married just once. "They are right on the water. My wife and I had a beautiful ceremony."
It seems like one big happy family at times among the south shore chapels. McIntyre's wife, Annette, owns a beauty salon in town and is the on-call beautician for the Fantasy Inn, another Tahoe wedding chapel mainstay.
J.B McIntyre, Robert's twin brother, also presides over services around the lake; he's one of the many on-call ministers.
"When we need a minister quick we just call them on their cell phone," said Jana Walker, who owns Lakefront and is also a minister.
Speaking of calls, there is probably not one more peculiar than when you dial the toll-free number for the Fantasy Inn's wedding coordinator and get patched through to Caroleanne Johnson, who just happens to handle business from her home in Kissimmee, Fla.
"She's probably in a baseball cap, out in her garden, taking your call in Florida," laughs Robert McIntyre, who used to work with Johnson at the Fantasy Inn.
Many people consider Johnson something of a marriage expert, because her own wedding occurred at age 18 and she now resides in her 41st year of marriage to Bob Johnson. The couple has three children and three grandchildren.
Johnson, 59, has been in the business for 13 years and was so highly regarded that shortly after she moved from Lake Tahoe to Kissimmee a year ago she was coaxed into coming back as the coordinator, this time with an office over 3,000 miles away.
Melinda Foster and Richard Schwanz, who are nurses in Modesto, tied the knot at the Fantasy Inn on Nov. 10, 2001. Melinda, 53, was so happy with the service and room accommodations she has already booked a surprise November 2006 vow renewal, which is becoming a hot industry trend.
"The Fantasy Inn made it very easy for us, we did everything over the phone," Foster said. "They were very accommodating, everything went well and the prices were good."
Johnson says the Fantasy Inn provides something the other chapels can't - an on-site honeymoon suite. The many themed rooms are meant for romance. Many of them feature hot tubs and mirrors throughout. But that doesn't mean a Fantasy Inn wedding is everyone's fantasy.
"Heck no, this place is too cheesy for me to get married at," said Folsom's Brandy Gonzales, who spent a night at the inn with her boyfriend in early June.
The Fantasy Inn reportedly does more than 500 weddings a year. Like much of the competition, the inn is a hectic location during both Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve, the industry's busiest days of the year.
Johnson says the typical client is the couple "around age 24" or the "40-somethings on their second marriage." El Dorado County issues about 7,000 marriage licenses for South Lake Tahoe each year and industry officials say a similar number of couples bring a license, which means the area does an estimated 15,000 weddings a year.
While places like the Fantasy Inn, Chapel of the Bells and most of the Stateline casinos provide the more traditional Tahoe wedding, Lakefront is trying to go another direction. Among Lakefront's adventure wedding choices are skiing, hiking, cycling, dog sledding, hot air ballooning, mountain biking or rock climbing.
"There's nothing like climbing a rock and then saying, 'I do,' " Walker said.
But more conventional Tahoe weddings are done simply, with not much fanfare, and create only a small dent in the finances. Lakefront starts its weddings at around $300 and the Fantasy Inn has a bottom tier of about $500. McIntyre says it's tough to beat Chapel of the Bells' prices, which he says range from $250 to $442.
He gets no argument from Tom Gaylord, who departed Chapel of the Bells with a new bride at a reasonable price.
"We had both been married before, so we just wanted something simple," said Tom, 40. "It was convenient, it was a good ceremony and it was cost effective. It was just what we wanted."
Now if the marriage survives for this Sacramento couple, this Lake Tahoe gamble will definitely pay off.
- Jeffrey Weidel is the Editor of The Press-Tribune. His column runs every Saturday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.