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 the gigantic scale to the characters, “terrified her,” she said.
It would be Mrs. Branch, 29, took 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 promote 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 each other through the IndyCar race track. At the time, Ms. Branch was working as a promotional model for Cooper Tire; mr. Blackstock was a race car driver.
They quickly became friends, hanging out with mutual racing buddies and chatting with each other via text and FaceTime. Although we hit it off right away, “neither of us thought dating was a good idea,” Ms. Branch said.
For starters, the two lived in the different states. Ms. Branch lived in Indianapolis, where she worked as an operating room assistant at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital as well as modeling while trying to chart her career path. She was also in a difficult family situation: the divorce of her parents.
Mr. Blackstock lived on the shores of Lake Norman in Cornelius, NC, and spent his time competing in up to 25 races per season. He was busy training, traveling, managing sponsorships and, as Ms. Branch put it, “living the playboy lifestyle”. But he always fit in FaceTime conversations with her, bringing them closer.
During this time, Mr. Blackstock said that Ms. Branch was “his anchor.” She said he was her “backbone of support.”
“I could ask him deep, murky questions and secrets,” Ms Branch added. “He would tell me the brutal truth, but that’s exactly what anyone 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 a troubling hospital shift. On a whim, he invited her to Lake Norman for a weekend. Mrs. Branch was taken by surprise. Did she want to drive the eight to nine hours to North Carolina?
Finally she did. “I thought about it and leaned over,” said Mrs. Branch.
They spent the weekend on Mr. Blackstock’s pontoon boat with some of his closest friends. The trip was just the “therapy” Mrs. Branch said she needed. It was also when she realized that Mr. Blackstock was the one.
“We’re sitting there, in the pitch dark on this lake, and a shooting star passes by,” she said. “That must be a sign.”
“When I went home,” she added, “I knew I wanted to be with Shelby.”
But first she wanted to make some changes. When she returned to Indianapolis, she left her hospital job and enrolled in the city branch of the Aveda Fredric’s Institute, where she later received a cosmetology license. Once she was done with the program, it was time for her next big change: moving to North Carolina to start life as a couple. Together they moved to a new house in Charlotte, where the two fell into the swing of everyday life.
“We’ve actually grown together into the people we need to be to be together,” Mr Blackstock said. “It’s the root of our relationship and it’s made us so strong now.”
Their early days as a couple included many nights of Xbox games and that serendipitous trip to Disney World in June 2016. It was Mr. black stock.
“I grew up watching everything Disney saw and I went to all the parks,” he said. “I know it’s a kid’s playground, but we’re big grown kids.” It went so well, he added, that “we decided to go back every year.”
Not long after, the couple switched. Mr. Blackstock decided to spend less time on race cars so he could focus on real estate and investment projects. He and Mrs. Branch also moved to Nashville, where they currently live, and where she now works in a private cosmetic surgery practice. They moved to be closer to Mr. Blackstock: The town 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 another monumental shift for Ms. Branch, who soon began attending events every night of the week, including the paparazzi’s flashlights. Everything was VIP, whether it was the red carpet at the Country Music Awards or the best seats at a Predators National Hockey League game.
His family’s fame prevented Mrs. Branch doesn’t like “seeing everyone for who they really are,” said Mr. Blackstock. “That was pretty amazing.”
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As they continued to date, Ms. Branch grew more and more excited each time a Disney World trip appeared on the calendar. Could this be the time when Mr. Blackstock proposed to her?
Over the years, these annual outbursts 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 him to ask the question. To his credit, Mr. Blackstock advised her to wear white and book a manicure, although she declined his request. Just before the evening fireworks, he insisted on a photo by the lagoon. Then he pulled out a ring.
When it came time to choose a wedding venue, the Magic Kingdom theme park in Lake Buena Vista, Florida was the obvious choice. (The planning process and event happened before Disney became a target of activists and, later, Florida politicians for his reactions to a new state education law that critics are calling “Don’t Say Gay.”)
On February 12, the couple married in the theme park in front of a brightly lit Cinderella Castle. Mrs. Branch wore a Galia Lahav ball gown with a tiara fit for a princess; Mr. Blackstock was wearing an Alton Lane suit. Tom Ellis, their friend and Mr. Blackstock, who had been ordained pastor of the Universal Life Church for the occasion, performed.
The most important aspect of the wedding, they said, was to bring their families together. The parents and brother of Mrs. Branch attended, and it was the first time in over five years that Mr. Blackstock’s parents and three siblings had been together.
“It brought the whole family together,” said Mr Blackstock. “It shows you that no matter what you’re dealing with, you’re going to the happiest place on earth and anyone can intervene. That was a perfect wedding day.”
Another priority was to make the event feel like a wedding, not just a day at the theme park. Or a night at the theme park — getting married in private with no general visitors meant their ceremony would take place at 11:45 PM, after the Magic Kingdom closed to the public for the day.
The evening, planned with the help of H Three Events in Nashville, started with cocktails and dinner at nearby Epcot, where their 114 guests, some of whom had been vaccinated, watched the evening fireworks.
Hosting a reception meant those in attendance were in a very good mood by the time of the ceremony at the Magic Kingdom, arriving at a flower-filled aisle on Main Street, just in front of the famous castle. It surprised even the groom, who described the arrangement 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 up 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 fairytale fashion, the night would not end before the newlyweds took a ride in an illuminated horse-drawn carriage.
On this day
When February 12, 2022
True Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort, Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
First sight Since their wedding was to take place at night, the couple had their first look two days before the ceremony and opted for a nuptial “golden hour” portrait session in their sunset wedding attire. “We had this quiet moment to ourselves,” said Ms. Branch.
Glam Squad The bride got the Hollywood treatment with her mother-in-law, Mrs. McEntire: wedding day beauty through the hair and makeup artist Brett Freedman.
kiss the bride As he leaned forward for the couple’s first kiss during the ceremony, Mr. Blackstock in the railroad tracks that then ran down Main Street into the Magic Kingdom, causing the pair to take a dramatic plunge. “I almost hit her with my body,” he said. “But in the pictures it looks incredible.”