IMMOKALEE — Weddings in casinos are not uncommon. But for 13 couples it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
They took their vows by an ordained radio show host on the 11th day of the 11th month of 2011 at 11:11 a.m.
Amid chiming slot machines, dealers in bustiers, and flashing lights teasing big wins, B103.9's Big Mama led the couples in holy matrimony Friday at Seminole Casino Immokalee.
"It was a lot better experience than I thought it was going to be, " said Tina Baginski, 40. She and her now husband, Thomas Papley Jr., 42, of Fort Myers, and the other couples were married simultaneously.
Dressed in a white floor-length gown with a big black costume cross hanging from his neck, Big Mama — Jason Jones — married the couples for free. The rules stated that couples renewing their vows were not permitted.
"This is a real wedding, I am an ordained minister, I will be signing marriage certificates," Jones said, "and people will be walking out of here as couples."
Individual wedding cakes adorned with chocolate and "best wishes," free-flowing Champagne and empanadas were provided by the casino.
The dimly lit bar and lounge at the casino entrance was transformed into a wedding hall — rose petals spotted the red carpet, and cushioned chairs and mini tables with candles and flowers lined the perimeter. One step off the red carpet were lines of slot machines, blackjack tables and patrons.
Jones said he became ordained to host the event on the auspicious date.
"I think it's a real lucky day," he said. "I look at the clock at 11:11 and it's supposed to be someone's thinking about you. Now, these people, have that number that's going to be significant for them for the rest of their lives."
Big Mama and the Wild Bunch — B103.9's morning show hosts — organized the group wedding.
As guests sat in the seats, grooms patiently waited in three lines of four people, Jones announced the bride's name. When the bride walked down the aisle, a diagonal red carpet running from the entrance of the lounge to the center, she stopped next to her soon-to-be husband.
Cheers, clapping, and heartfelt tears from brides — some dressed in ornate gowns carrying billowing bouquets and others in business attire — overshadowed the blaring love songs and slot-machine dings of winning guests.
Once each bride arrived Jones began the ceremony, right at 11:11 a.m. The group then together said their "I do's" and exchanged rings. Within a few short minutes, 13 grooms were kissing their brides.
"It was an amazing, wildly successful event," Jones said as he signed marriage certificates after the ceremony.
For some couples this was not the wedding they envisioned. Others signed up as a joke. But for Baginski and Papley the price sold them. They could be married for free.
"I don't think we would have done it if it was our first," Papley said. "But it's a good opportunity, it's free."
Papley, who reads meters for Bonita Springs Utilities, said he wanted to marry Baginski since they began dating, 497 days ago. The lucky couple also won a carat diamond engagement ring, Papley said.
"And now we're going to win big after the wedding," Papley said about playing slots and card games after the ceremony.
Beth Sparks, 29, and Joshua Gacusana, 30, were planning another ceremony on Friday evening for family and friends unable to make the casino event.
"Neither of us will ever forget," Sparks said about the unique date and the location. "But I'm also marrying my best friend. I can't forget that."