When Marissa Branch was 6, she made her first trip to Walt Disney World with her parents and grandparents. It didn’t go well. Everything about the amusement park, from its gargantuan scale to the characters, “absolutely terrified” her, she said.
It would take Ms. Branch, 29, nearly two decades to return. That next trip — this time with her boyfriend, Shelby Blackstock — was the opposite of her nightmarish childhood experience. Instead, it would further a romance with all the elements of a fairy tale.
Ms. Branch and Mr. Blackstock, 32, met on Tinder in 2014. But once they started exchanging messages on the dating app, they realized they already knew of each other through the IndyCar racing circuit. At the time, Ms. Branch worked as a promotional model for Cooper Tire; Mr. Blackstock was a racecar driver.
They quickly struck up a friendship, hanging out with mutual racing friends and chatting with one another over text and FaceTime. Though they clicked right away, “neither of us thought it was a good idea to date,” Ms. Branch said.
For one thing, the two lived in the different states. Ms. Branch resided in Indianapolis, where she worked as an operating room assistant at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital and did modeling work on the side as she tried to figure out her career path. She was also navigating a challenging family situation: her parents’ divorce.
Mr. Blackstock lived on the shores of Lake Norman in Cornelius, N.C., and spent his time competing in up to 25 races each season. He was busy training, traveling, managing sponsorships and, as Ms. Branch put it, “living the playboy lifestyle.” But he always fit in FaceTime calls with her, which allowed them to grow closer.
During this time, Mr. Blackstock said Ms. Branch was “his anchor.” She said he was her “backbone of support.”
“I could ask him deep, dark questions and secrets,” Ms. Branch added. “He would give me the brutal truth, but that’s exactly what a person wants to hear. I respected him for that.”
In the spring of 2016, during a particularly rough week for Ms. Branch, she called Mr. Blackstock after finishing an upsetting hospital shift. On a whim, he invited her to Lake Norman for the weekend. Ms. Branch was caught off-guard. Did she want to drive the eight to nine hours to North Carolina?
Ultimately, she did. “I thought about it and just leaned in,” Ms. Branch said.
They spent the weekend on Mr. Blackstock’s pontoon boat with some of his closest friends. The trip was just the “therapy” that Ms. Branch said she needed. It was also when she realized that Mr. Blackstock was the one.
“We’re sitting there, in the pitch black on this lake, and a shooting star goes by,” she said. “That’s got to be a sign.”
“When I went home,” she added, “I knew that I wanted to be with Shelby.”
But first, she wanted to make some changes. Upon returning to Indianapolis, she left her job at the hospital and enrolled at the city’s branch of Aveda Fredric’s Institute, where she later received an aesthetician license. When she finished the program, it was time for her next big change: moving to North Carolina to begin life as a couple. Together they moved into a new home in Charlotte, where the two fell into the swing of daily life.
“We’ve actually grown together into the people we need to be in order to be together,” Mr. Blackstock said. “It is the root of our relationship, and it’s made us so strong now.”
Their early days as a pair included many nights playing Xbox and that serendipitous trip to Disney World in June 2016. It was Mr. Blackstock’s idea.
“I grew up watching everything Disney and going to all the parks,” he said. “I know it’s a kid’s playground, but we’re big grown-up kids.” It went so well, he added, that “we decided to go back every year.”
Not long after, the couple shifted gears. Mr. Blackstock decided to spend less time racing cars so he could focus on real estate and investment projects. He and Ms. Branch also moved to Nashville, where they currently live, and where she now works at a cosmetic surgery private practice. They relocated to be closer to Mr. Blackstock’s family: the city is home to his mother, Reba McEntire, the country music superstar, and his father, Narval Blackstock, a television producer, who are divorced.
Joining their ranks was yet another monumental shift for Ms. Branch, who was soon attending events every night of the week, many of which included the flashbulbs of the paparazzi. Everything was V.I.P., whether it was the red carpet of the Country Music Awards or prime seats at a Predators National Hockey League game.
His family’s fame did not prevent Ms. Branch from seeing “everybody for who they truly are,” Mr. Blackstock said. “That was pretty amazing.”
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As they continued to date, Ms. Branch became more and more excited each time a Disney World trip would pop on the calendar. Would this be the time when Mr. Blackstock proposed?
Over the years, these annual bouts of anticipation became a running joke among her girlfriends. So by the time the couple visited Epcot for New Year’s Eve in 2020, she didn’t expect that he would actually pop the question. Mr. Blackstock, to his credit, did advise her to wear white and book a manicure, though she blew off his request. Just before the evening fireworks, he insisted on a photograph by the lagoon. Then he pulled out a ring.
When it came time to pick a wedding venue, the Magic Kingdom theme park in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., was the obvious choice. (The planning process and event took place before Disney became a target of activists and, later, Florida politicians for its responses to a new state education law that critics call “Don’t Say Gay.”)
On Feb. 12, couple were married at the theme park in front of a brightly lit Cinderella Castle. Ms. Branch donned a Galia Lahav ball gown with a tiara fit for a princess; Mr. Blackstock wore an Alton Lane suit. Tom Ellis, their friend and Mr. Blackstock’s best man, who was ordained a Universal Life Church minister for the occasion, officiated.
The most important aspect of the wedding, they said, was to bring together their families. Ms. Branch’s parents and brother attended, and it was the first time Mr. Blackstock’s parents and three siblings were together in more than five years.
“It brought the entire family together,” Mr. Blackstock said. “It shows you that no matter what you’re dealing with, you go to the happiest place on earth and anyone can mesh. That was a perfect wedding day.”
Another priority was for the event to feel like a wedding, not just a day at the theme park. Or a night at the theme park — to wed privately without general visitors meant their ceremony would take place at 11:45 p.m., after the Magic Kingdom closed to the public for the day.
The evening, planned with the help of H Three Events in Nashville, kicked off with cocktails and dinner at nearby Epcot, where their 114 guests, some of whom were vaccinated, watched the evening fireworks.
Having a reception first meant that attendees were in very good moods by the time of the ceremony at the Magic Kingdom, where they arrived to find a flower-filled aisle on Main Street just in front of the famous castle. It wowed even the groom, who described the setup as “the most magical.”
Even more surreal, he said, was marrying his best friend. After a dramatic first kiss as a married couple, Ms. Branch and Mr. Blackstock opened the dance floor by cutting their cake and inviting friends and family to “a giant DJ dance party in front of the castle,” he said.
In true fairy-tale fashion, the night would not end before the newlyweds took a ride in an illuminated horse-drawn carriage.
On This Day
When Feb. 12, 2022
Where Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
First Look Because their wedding would take place at night, the couple had their first look two days before the ceremony, opting for a prenuptial “golden hour” portrait session in their wedding attire at sunset. “We had this quiet moment to ourselves,” Ms. Branch said.
Glam Squad The bride received the Hollywood treatment with her mother-in-law, Ms. McEntire: wedding day beauty by the hair and makeup artist Brett Freedman.
Kiss the Bride As he leaned in for the couple’s first kiss during the ceremony, Mr. Blackstock’s foot slipped in the railroad track than runs down Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, causing the couple to take a dramatic dip. “I almost body-slammed her,” he said. “But in the photos, it looks incredible.”