ORLANDO, FLA. — The wedding auditorium is nearly empty. There are no invited guests. No maid of honor. No ring bearer.
Yet at precisely 11 a.m. on a recent Wednesday morning at Disney World's glistening white wedding pavilion, the Rev. Delmar Glock, a Lutheran minister, turns to the young bride and groom standing before him.
Slowly the former missionary begins speaking to them about Christ and the church in his most dignified Japanese.
As he speaks, Jenji Iijima, an engineer at Toyota who lives in Nagoya, Japan, looks tenderly into the eyes of his beloved, Mariko Miyazaki. She wears a white silk gown with a long train, he a gray tux. Both are rented.
The two have left family and friends behind to get married here alone at Walt Disney World. There's a Disneyland in Tokyo, but it's nearly impossible to book a slot to get married there. So they came here to Orlando, Fla.
About 2,300 couples will be married at Disney World this year, with about two-thirds of those being from Japan.
That so many couples will travel halfway around the world for a hug from Mickey on their wedding day is testament to the high cost of getting married in Japan - and depth of Japanese feelings toward Disney characters.
The impetus to come to Disney World owes in no small part to the "cuteness factor," says Hodea Hirata, an assistant professor of Japanese at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
Young Japanese tend to love animated and especially Disney characters. Comic books are read by all ages. And since many couples go abroad for the wedding, why not get married with their favorite animated stars?
"Mickey and Minnie are so popular in Japan," says Yoshiko Arai, president of Orlando-based Bridal Arai, a company that last year supplied 900 visiting Japanese couples with rental tuxes and bridal gowns. "It's a wonderful experience for them because for 20 minutes [during the reception], Mickey and Minnie are theirs."
An elaborate wedding in Japan - with reception, honeymoon, gifts - can cost $70,000, says Ms. Arai.
A simple wedding and reception like the one Jenji and Mariko are enjoying today with a three-day honeymoon stay at Disney World can easily run $3,500. But the price is low compared with what it would be back home, Ms. Arai says. If they remain in Japan, many couples must scrimp by making arrangements through companies that are essentially "huge wedding factories," says Professor Hirata.
All three weddings today at Disney World are of Japanese couples. Last year Mr. Glock conducted about 550 Japanese weddings. Two other Japanese-speaking clergymen each conducted hundreds more. Some couples have a Shinto ceremony in Japan before they come.
One thing Japanese couples married at Disney World almost always request is "a regular US wedding with an older white-haired minister who speaks fluent Japanese," says Rebecca Grinnals, Disney World's senior wedding-sales manager. Most such details are taken care of by Disney and a bridal-tour company before the couple leaves.
"I present to you Mr. and Mrs. Iijima," Glock says to the almost empty auditorium, breaking into English for the first time. "Let's give them a big hand." A journalist and two Disney employees - the only onlookers - clap from a rear pew as music swells.
As the couple turns to face the empty auditorium, Shiomi Humphrey, a wedding assistant from Bridal Arai catches the scene on her video camera so relatives back home can share the event.
That's not the only high point of the day, however. For the Iijimas, another is about to occur 10 minutes from now when they meet for the first time someone they have both loved for most of their lives: Mickey Mouse.
Disney World maintains one key rule: No Disney characters are allowed in the wedding, though many would like that.
"We like to maintain the dignity of the ceremony," Ms. Grinnals says. But after the service, the happy couple can have as many characters as they can pay for.
The newlyweds are whisked by limousine just a hundred yards away to a resort. And there, at a reception on a windy balcony, their big wish comes true. In walks Mickey Mouse and Minnie, his mouse spouse, arm in arm. She is dressed in a peach-colored dress, hat, and matching pumps. Mickey wears a traditional black tux. The two humans are delighted.
"They really enjoy this the most," says Ms. Humphrey, translating for the couple. "In Japan it's almost impossible to get their picture taken with a [Disney] character. They love Disney. It's like a dream come true."
Just then a solo violinist breaks into "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" from the movie "Cinderella." Mickey, meanwhile, helps cut the cake. Then he dances with the bride while Minnie dances with the groom. Humphrey keeps videotaping.
"We just sort of stumbled into the Japanese part of the business," Grinnals says. It's also true, however, that no dream wedding is too big or too costly for Disney. For $150,000, a blushing bride can be whisked by glass-pumpkin carriage to Cinderella's castle for a wedding in the Magic Kingdom - and the park kept open late for wedding guests.
Such windfalls are welcome. But Disney schedulers say small Japanese weddings are just perfect, too.
"Our Japanese guests will get married on a Wednesday at 9 a.m.," Grinnals says. "Most people won't do that."