Once upon a time, in a Hillsborough Avenue strip mall, Cinderella wed her Prince Charming.
The setting was a storefront somewhere between a Big Lots and a T.J. Maxx.
But for this royal couple, it was pure magic.
"This is special," said Frank Rivera, 30, as he posed for pictures under a canopy of flowers with his new bride, Liliana, 18. "Everything about it is kind of mystical."
The Event Factory has entranced partygoers for years. Behind the neon red entrance lies a 30,000-square-foot pad for weddings, holiday events, bar mitzvahs, quinceaneras and proms.
There's the Secret Garden, with its halo of roses and trumpeting cherubs, and the Sherwood Forest's maze of twinkling green trees. The showstopper is the Castle Ballroom, with velvet thrones, lofty turrets and fleur-de-lis details.
The glitter quotient is worthy of Liberace.
"We have a whole Cinderella carriage that's pulled by ushers," said owner Harry Simon, 39. "The building has a lot of special effects built into it."
With the flip of a few facades, the Event Factory shifts into an Egyptian pharaoh theme, a crimson holiday affair or a Hollywood red carpet event with paparazzi and flashbulbs.
The glitzy contents come as a shock to passers-by.
"Looking at it from the outside, you don't expect to see things like this inside," said Rivera wedding guest Luz Aponte, who admitted she was hesitant when she saw the discount stores. "It's like being in a different world."
Simon made oversized props and displays for retail companies and corporate holiday parties before opening the hall at 7565 W Hillsborough Ave. seven years ago.
The way he sees it, the surprise is part of the attraction.
"It's very much the shock of amazement of coming in and finding something they don't expect," Simon said. "It's like coming into a movie sound studio."
If the parking lot gives couples pause, the price tag draws them in. In an age when any word coupled with "wedding" packs a financial punch, the Event Factory offers an appealing option for cash-strapped party planners.
"A lot of people don't have the budget to get a lot of different services that are offered on an a la carte basis," Simon said. "We really specialize in trying to give them a package and not nickel-and-dime them to death."
A 100-guest wedding at the Event Factory costs between $5,400 and $9,000. Many packages include hors d'oeuvres, a dinner buffet, a nonalcoholic drink bar, wedding cake, linens and chair covers, china or disposable dishes, a photographer, a videographer and a DJ. Everything except alcohol, which can be brought in, is included. Packages are listed on the Web site, www.theeventfactory.com.
"You go to a lot of hotels, you have to pay this, there are a lot of hidden costs," said Event Factory photographer Kimberly Phipps. "Our fees, that's it. You can make payments, and it does make it affordable for their Cinderella wedding."
Affordable, yes. But catch-all planning may mean sacrificing personalized service, said Robert Hayden, catering director in charge of weddings at the Wyndham Westshore Hotel on Kennedy Boulevard, where reception costs range from $5,000 to $15,000, not counting DJ, photography and florist services.
"When it comes to one-stop shopping, there are still some aspects where you really want to have more of a personal touch and fit," Hayden said.
Aware that brides can be particular, Simon allows clients to rent the facility only and use outside vendors. But some prefer the ease of having the Event Factory staff make most of the decisions.
"We try to help them work through it, so they don't have a lot of stress, where it's going to cost them more every time they turn around," he said.
The trumpeted, fog-misted entrance into a castle ballroom is also a perk that Simon believes is the stuff of every bride's fantasy.
"It's actually the wedding that they've always dreamed of," Simon said. They say, "This is what I've always wanted, to have a castle and be Cinderella for a day."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at (813) 269-5303 or shayessptimes.com.