Olympic Swimmer Janet Evans' Sea-Inspired Wedding at an Aquarium

Janet and Bill

Photographed by: Annette BuhlLocation: Long Beach, California, United States

From the very beginning, the relationship of Janet Evans and Bill Willson was happily afloat. A full decade after they had both graduated from USC without ever crossing paths, Janet and Bill finally met aboard a friend’s boat in Newport Beach during the Christmas boat parade. Although a native of Orange County, Bill was living in San Francisco at the time, and after six months of dating by commuting between the two cities, Bill moved back home to southern California to be with Janet. Grateful to have the separation of many years and countless miles behind them, Bill soon proposed to Janet on her birthday at the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara, a symbolic seaside city in which to embark on the next chapter of a relationship that truly developed along California’s coastline.

With eight months available to devote to planning a truly unique wedding, Janet and Bill knew instantly that a ceremony and reception held at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach would be anything but typical. It made perfect sense, too, that they would remain loyal to their love of the water, given the setting where they’d first met and the fact that Janet was an Olympic swimmer with four gold medals to her credit. It was a challenge, however, transforming the casual, public spaces of the aquarium into the private, sophisticated setting they envisioned for their big day. They saw the amazing potential, however, and with creativity and resourcefulness, the couple’s clever ideas materialized.

With valuable guidance from their wedding planner, Janet and Bill decided that reflective textures would work best to compliment the aquarium’s distinctive indoor spaces. They built the décor around shades of pink accented with gold taken from the blush colored flowers that would adorn Janet’s wedding gown. Tables were covered with opalescent pink runners and surrounded by gold chiavari chairs. Instead of designing oceanthemed centerpieces, the couple integrated large traditional floral arrangements of dozens of blush colored roses and hydrangea into the venue’s natural surroundings. This allowed the resident fish and seascapes to stand out among the otherwise minimal embellishments. “In the end,” explains Janet, “the pink and gold really mixed with the blue of the aquarium, and it looked like this shimmery, underwater world!”

As their 210 guests gathered together, Janet and Bill were married in a traditional ceremony led by the charismatic Dr. Robert H. Schuller who is widely known for his televised religious services. After their moving ceremony, Janet and Bill took some private time to stand alone on an upper balcony and look down upon on all the people who had joined them to celebrate their marriage. A wedding always passes faster than a couple would like, and in those five minutes, Janet and Bill were able to suspend time just long enough to really appreciate all that was unfolding around them.

Special attention was paid to the design and layout of the cocktail hour so the couple’s guests could thoroughly experience the individuality of the aquarium. From the upper terrace where the cocktail hour was held, guests were treated to romantic evening views of Long Beach Harbor and the famously docked ship, the Queen Mary. Memorable seating was provided by draping the cement, stadium-like structure of the seal exhibit in iridescent blue material and cushioning it with huge fluffy pillows that read “Janet and Bill Willson” so guests could relax with their drinks and be entertained by the night swimming seals and sea lions.

Inside the venue, a seated dinner of line-caught salmon and free-range chicken in a mango salsa, accompanied by scalloped potatoes and mixed field greens was served. In between the dancing and touring the nighttime spirit of the aquarium, the couple shared their five-layer, white chocolate mousse wedding cake with their guests. Each tier of the cake was inscribed with the quote “I have found the one whom my soul loves” in pink and was segmented by levels of white chocolate seashells dusted with pink crystal sugar.

The favors that Janet and Bill chose for their guests to take home were like little tokens of their beachcomber’s cake. A gold box filled with two Godiva chocolate starfish, one white and the other milk chocolate, wrapped with pink ribbon and printed with the words “a couple of fishes from the Mr. and Mrs.” was given to each parting guest.

It was a magical night for Janet and Bill, enhanced by a shared vision to incorporate very personal touches into their inimitable celebration. Therefore, it was only fitting that what began as a coastal courtship and culminated in an “underwater” wedding would be followed by an equally suitable and adventurous honeymoon. The couple felt that the Hayman Island Resort on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was the perfect destination to celebrate their maiden voyage as husband and wife.

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