HOWEY-IN-THE-HILLS – It’s that all-important moment, when the bride and groom stand together and say those eternal words, “I do.” If they’ve chosen their location carefully, it’s in a spectacular place that provides the entire wedding party with memories for years to come.

That location, said Kathy Pagan, should be an obvious choice: Lake County.

“We are marketing ourselves more and more as a destination wedding location,” said Pagan, tourism specialist for the county.

That’s especially true, she said, if brides want a location that combines the beauty of the outdoors with historic buildings that offer plenty of old-style charm.

Mission Inn Resort & Club in Howey-In-The-Hills won WeddingWire's Bride's Choice Award as a great setting for a romantic wedding.

“Brides have a view that, ‘I want to be away from it all,’ “ Pagan said. “Here we have one stop shopping, especially with the Mission Inn Resort. Brides find weddings are such a huge expense that they can get more for their dollar than with the theme parks as their venue, and this is a central location. We’re very easy to get to.”

The Mission Inn Resort & Club, located in Howey-In-The-Hills, just got an important public relations boost when it received the prestigious annual WeddingWire Bride’s Choice Awards for 2011, given to those who have demonstrated excellence in quality, service, responsiveness and professionalism within the wedding industry.

The votes came in from the online wedding review site’s own readers; recent clients shared their wedding experiences on WeddingWire, and awards were given to the top wedding professionals across 20 service categories, from wedding venues to wedding photographers. The awards were based on professional achievements throughout the past year.

Timothy Chi, WeddingWire’s chief executive officer, said the inn at Howey-In-The-Hills clearly earned its high praise.

“We applaud Mission Inn for their professionalism and dedication to enhancing the wedding planning experience last year,” he said.

“Once people come here, we know they fall in love with it,” said Kristina Cullison, the Mission Inn Resort’s director of marketing.

That love begins, she said, with the resort’s very special look.

“We’re situated on 11,000 acres of natural beauty,” she said. “It just makes for that dream location. We do happen to be blessed by nature. We’re a really great draw for special occasions like weddings, and we are absolutely known for our exquisite courtyards. We have a few courtyards here for an intimate gathering, or for a larger group. They’re overlooking lakes and greens and nature. Compared to other facilities, especially around here, sometimes you just have one or the other. We just happen to have that perfect combination. You can really make it a destination wedding here.”

Amy Raith of Orlando runs Amy Raith Hair and Makeup Artistry, which specializes in giving brides that perfect look on their big day. She said hosts like Mission Inn, which can combine a beautiful outdoor spot with a historic and opulent building for the reception definitely appeals to wedding planners.

“I would think so, only because there’s two polar opposites,” Raith said. “Either they want nature or they want something ritzy indoors. Every location, I feel, even if it has an indoor setting that’s really nice, they always have an outdoor area as an option. I feel as long as brides have those options, they’re open to going anywhere.”

A perfect example of that, she said, is the Highland Manor in Apopka.

“It has a huge tree in front of a lake, and they do the wedding in front of huge trees because those trees are so beautiful,” Raith said.  “If they wanted a reception indoors and wedding outdoors, that would be the gist of it.” 

Another beautiful Lake County spot, Raith added, is Bella Collina Resort in Montverde, which has a following as a popular spot for weddings amidst a backdrop overlooking rolling hills and the greens on its championship golf course.

“It is beyond gorgeous,” Raith said.  “It’s like a little Italy. You don’t even feel like you’re in Florida.”

To help promote these locations, Lake County Tourism has a Web site,, for anyone who wants to plan their perfect wedding somewhere in the county.

“We go to wedding expos throughout Central Florida, so we’re there on the front line talking to brides,” Pagan said.  “We have other venues in Lake County that are absolutely beautiful, like Lake Dora in Mount Dora and the Lake Ridge Winery. We have the topography that is so unique here.

“Brides have a vision – ‘I want to get married in the hills,’ and that’s the winery,” Pagan added.  “Or just among this gorgeous lake in the picturesque town that’s been called the New England of Florida, and that’s Mount Dora.  And it’s so unique and peaceful at Mission Inn.  Brides just love it because we’re more relaxed out here.  This is your special day.  This is a huge investment.  They want to feel like this is their day, and this is the place, and they get that with Mission Inn.

“In Howey-In-The-Hills,” she added, “we are the heritage Florida. We are the vintage, the traditional, and yet every modern amenity is available here. Brides can have the most extravagant photographer and the newest trends from New York come here, but the whole feeling is you’re out of the way and this is your peaceful world with small town charm.”

Getting recognition from WeddingWire – particularly since it comes from the brides themselves – is also great for the resort, Pagan said.

“The fact that we have so many positive voices raving about our location is fantastic,” she said.  “This will help us all get the word out about the great locations in Lake County. I have had friends from Orlando and other areas, and they choose Mission Inn for a wedding.  It’s very exciting to see that national recognition. We couldn’t ask for more. It’s wonderful.”

“The award is nationwide,” Raith added. “If you work at weddings and you put on your site about the Brides Choice Award, that really says something. I think that says a lot.”  

Mission Inn Resort is known for its popular courtyard weddings.

Cullison hopes that recognition gives Mission Inn a boost next month when the resort hosts Lake County’s largest bridal event on Feb. 20 from 1-4:30 p.m. It’s sponsored by the Lake County Wedding Professionals and Grand Rental Station, and features 80 of the county’s wedding professionals under one roof.

“This is our second annual bridal event, and it gets better every year,” Cullison said.  “It’s a great day. We do it on a Sunday afternoon, and it is a fun and informative time for the brides.”

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