Planning A Surprise Wedding – From A Bride Who’s Done It!

Planning A Surprise Wedding – From A Bride Who’s Done It!

There are few things in this life that I enjoy more than a good surprise. Like, the kind where you have to pick someone’s jaw up off the floor because you totally got them good.

By Lauren Nobis (née Halvorson)
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All images courtesy of Kaihla Tonai

When my bearded man asked me to marry him, we knew we wanted to do something epic. We wanted our day to be totally true to who we are, as stress free as possible and something people remembered as one of the best days of their lives, not just ours. We both love surprises and, after getting a little inspiration from Hollywood (because who doesn’t want to act like a celebrity once in a while?), we decided we were going to throw a surprise wedding!

Here’s my step by step guide for how to throw a totally rad surprise wedding of your own:

Step 1: Keep it a secret (but tell your parents).

Do not tell anyone. I know, this sounds harsh, but it’s the key to doing this right. We quickly realized that this was a little overwhelming and that the burden of planning it entirely by ourselves was a bit more than we wanted to bare – so we chose to tell our parents. First, they were incredibly honored to be a part of the “inner circle” and had lots of valuable insight regarding how to pull it off. Also, I think our parents would’ve been a bit hurt if they found out at the same time as our co-workers. We wanted to make sure they gave us their blessing to bamboozle all of our loved ones! Second, we didn’t have to do every single thing ourselves. When I needed a female’s advice, I had the two best gals to turn to: My mother, and my mother-in-law to-be. When we needed to build something or move something heavy we had two incredible men that were willing to move heaven and earth to make this day perfect for us. Our parents were incredibly helpful, loving, caring and truly turned this into a dream wedding.

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Now that we’ve decided you will tell your parents, let me reiterate: DO NOT TELL ANYONE ELSE. Not your best friend, your most trusted cousin or even your cat. Once you tell one, you risk offending someone else. Everyone will understand why you told your parents, but beyond that you risk hurting relationships by telling one friend and not telling another.


Step 2: Pick a date, location and cover story to match.

Our most difficult step in planning our surprise wedding was coming up with a date and finding a location that could hold anywhere from 20-200 people (depending on how many showed up). Do this early on, as it will likely be the most difficult part of your journey. Keeping secrets is TOUGH. Think about the time you got someone that totally rad Christmas gift that you were just dying to tell them about but you had to wait for them to see it… And multiply that feeling by a million. My advice: the engagement short. We planned our wedding in three months (yes, twelve weeks). It was enough time to get everything done, but not so much time that we caved and told people. Also, keep it simple so you can keep it straight. You will get a lot of questions, so you want your answers to be consistent. The more details you give the more opportunity you create for a slip up.

The only surprise weddings we had ever heard of before our own were presented as “engagement parties”. Though that’s a great idea, it’s not entirely unheard of anymore and guests may get suspicious. If you truly want people to be shocked, think of something really important that will get loved ones from near and far to come out. Also, pick something a little more out of the box. Some suggestions: A birthday party, a Jack and Jill bridal shower, a graduation party, a family vacation… Or, you could always do what we did: A PROPOSAL!

We kept our engagement a secret, and he told everyone he was going to propose to me at this cool campground (where we love to hike) and have a big bonfire after with everyone to surprise me. It worked. We had 170 people show up (Yes, one hundred and seventy!) and they were shocked. Since they didn’t even think we were engaged, they had no idea a wedding was on it’s way. It was incredible.

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Step 3: Find Your Dress.

As soon as you have a date and a good vision of what you want your day to look like, it’s time to get your dress (or whatever you decide to wear for your big day!). Dresses can take months to come in, especially if it’s a “real” wedding dress. Do your shopping early and make sure you’ve got something awesome to wear on your big day.


Step 4: Pick a team of vendors you trust and let them work their magic!

If you’re opting for a surprise wedding, chances are you’re probably a fun, adventurous couple. Find some awesome vendors, share your vision, make sure they know about the surprise, and then let them do what they do best. You’ll have enough on your plate that you don’t need to micro-manage everyone. I promise if you let them do their thing you’ll be thrilled with the outcome.

If the budget allows, I’d highly recommend getting a wedding planner to help you. I am a wedding photographer, so I had a lot of great friends in the industry that I trusted  would do a great job of executing each of their individual roles… But, if you don’t know where to begin, this would be an awesome time to have a planner on your side. If you want your event to be stress free, a planner is the way to go! If you’re on a budget, you can totally do it yourself–it’s just a little more work.


Step 5: Let go, and ENJOY.

You have a great team of vendors in place, people coming who have no idea what they’re in for, and the rest is up to fate. Take this time to enjoy your little secret with your partner. Let the chips fall where they may and just ENJOY your big day. Things may not go perfectly, but keep in mind that your guests have zero expectations! The most important thing is that at the end of the day you will be married to the love of your life and will have made memories that will last forever.

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Additional tips and tricks:

*If you want a bridal party you have two choices:

1.) Tell them moments before you tell everyone else in a private reveal and let them wear whatever they have on (this option is for the “anything goes” couple).

2.) Buy dresses in every shape/size from places where you can return them and keep the tags on. When you tell your bridal party (in our case, the night before) let them “shop” for their bridesmaid dress amidst all the dresses you bought, pick one they love and keep it. You can return the rest after the wedding as long as you kept your tags and receipts. We got all our dresses from Target, H&M and ModCloth. They were way cheaper than typical bridesmaid dresses, and way more likely to be worn again! My husband told the guys to wear gray pants and a white shirt and said they had a special role in the proposal. We bought them ties and suspenders to give them a cohesive, styled look and handed them out when we told them the night before. This was risky, but let’s be honest–guys don’t ask too many questions. They didn’t have a clue anything was up.

My man had a “meeting” the night before our wedding (the “proposal”) to have them come and find out their roles so they could practice for the big day and everything could go smoothly. They showed up, and shortly after I came in and we told them SURPRISE! It’s not a proposal, it’s a wedding and you’re our bridal party! It was the best ever, and we caught it all on photo and video!

**When you are presenting your final numbers to the caterer, add in a few extra just to be safe. Since your guests don’t know this is a wedding with a catered meal, a few may not think it’s crucial to RSVP and may just show up, while others may bring a date without asking.

**Don’t be shocked if some people get their feelings hurt, especially those who couldn’t make it. We didn’t expect anyone to feel the way a few did, so be prepared for this, and have an explanation ready for them so they know there was a reason and that you truly love and care about them. A few of our reasons were that we wanted to have a wedding that didn’t put a burden on anyone. We didn’t want people to feel obligated to buy shower gifts, wedding gifts, purchase bridesmaid dresses, throw bachelor/bachelorette parties, set up, tare down, etc. We wanted to truly show our friends and family how much we love them and how grateful we are for their support of our relationship by throwing a party they could just ENJOY. We wanted the focus of the day to be on the marriage, on God and on togetherness with our family and friends. We also wanted it to be incredibly unique, something neither of us had ever seen before. In order to accomplish all of this, it had to be a surprise. Once we explained these things, the few hurt people understood and all was right in the world again.

**Don’t leave too much time between when people arrive and when the surprise moment happens! We had a few people start to figure it out, which wasn’t the end of the world–but people love to be the first one to know something, so they started telling everyone they thought it was a wedding which took a little bit away from the shock of the reveal.

**Do a first look! The energy is going to be so high right after your surprise wedding ceremony that you are going to want to enjoy it. Everyone is going to want to congratulate and ask you a million questions and you don’t want to have to rush off to take pictures. Arrange with your photographer to do a first look and have all of your images complete before anyone arrives, so you can just enjoy the rest of the day!

**Most importantly, be true to who you are. The more personal you make every detail of your day, the more unique and magical it will be for everyone in attendance, including yourselves! We got married at a campground in the woods (we LOVE camping), went on a wilderness walk with all of our guests through the magical forest and just took in nature together (we love going for walks in the forest together, and doing that with everyone we love made it so special to us), we had dinner at one continuous table for 170 people (because family dinners are important to us and having everyone together was the highlight of our day), danced all night in a barn (I grew up on a farm in Maine) and ended the night singing, dancing and s’mores eating around a camp fire. I wouldn’t change a thing!

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If you have any questions or are thinking of planning a surprise wedding of your own and have questions you can contact me, Lauren, at . I’d love to help you in any way that I can, as I have a true passion for weddings and would love to help you make yours the most magical day ever!


  1. That’s a great moment i have ever seen hopefully it was best beautiful moment

  2. I love how you used the proposal idea to create a surprise wedding. In my opinion, one should keep in mind to have a great reception for the guests to recover from the shock and let them celebrate the marriage naturally. With that, I recommend finding a wedding reception service to make sure that it will end well as great as how it started.

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