Cinderella carriage turns celebrations into fairy-tale events

Hazel and Maisie O'Neill have typical crazy weekends. The 12-year-old twins tend to their family's cows, mules, horses, chickens and rabbits at their Freeland home. They have soccer practice and games. They have homework as sixth-graders at Hereford Middle School. They go out with friends.

But these two recently have added another activity to their to-do list. They assist their grandparents by turning weddings, parties and celebrations into magical events by providing horse-drawn carriage rides.

On Sept. 3, they helped Windsor Mill resident Takisha Thomas have the fairytale wedding she's always dreamed about. Thomas, her father and her grandfather arrived at the wedding pavilion at Padonia Park Club in a Cinderella carriage pulled by a white horse.

"It was beautiful. The carriage was decorated in pink flowers and there were lights and music," Thomas said. "The guests were amazed when we pulled up in a carriage instead of walking down the aisle. It was just what I imagined."

The O'Neill girls and their grandparents, George Fitzpatrick and Jackie Gilbert of New Freedom, Pa., had plenty of work to do before the evening wedding.

The girls gave a 2,000-pound Percheron draft horse named Doc a bath and brushed him until he glistened.

They helped load Doc, all sorts of harnesses and the white Cinderella carriage into a truck and trailer. They also packed a change of clothing — tuxedo, gloves and top hat for Fitzpatrick, the carriage-driver, and dresses for the girls and their grandmother.

The two generations unloaded everything at Padonia Park's rear lot, got Doc hitched up to the carriage and changed clothes. When Gilbert gave the word, Fitzpatrick picked up the bride, her father and grandfather and clip-clopped around the grounds before making a spectacular entrance at the wedding pavilion. They also gave the bride and groom a ride after they said their vows.

The carriage is a replica of the 1950 Walt Disney "Cinderella" movie carriage that Cinderella's fairy godmother creates from a pumpkin.

"We called Disney World and asked where they bought their carriages," said Gilbert, who handles bookings for their company, Once and 4 All Carriages. "We had it built in Michigan and it's one of the favorites for weddings, Sweet 16 parties or princess birthday parties."

They also have an Amish picnic wagon that can be used with or without its surrey top, and a funeral hearse. Two white draft horses, Doc and Dan, live at the O'Neill's farm in Freeland and have no problems pulling any carriage at a slow, smooth pace.

"We love helping with weddings," Maisie said. "We've done about six weddings and it's so much fun to see the brides. One bride fed her whole bouquet to Doc after the wedding."

Gilbert said the whole crew normally stays at a wedding or party for several hours to ensure that everybody who wants a carriage ride can get one.

"The event is your day to do what you want," she said. "We'll do whatever we can to make your event the best."

Grew up with horses

George Fitzpatrick, 69, is a Philadelphia, Pa. native who grew up riding horses and fox hunting.

He played Triple-A ball for the Chicago White Sox before he joined the Army's Military Police and served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968.

When he returned from Vietnam, he joined the Philadelphia Police Department's mounted unit and made the rounds on horseback. By the time he retired in 1988, he had moved on to investigating organized crime.

Fitzpatrick also patrolled Philadelphia's Fairmount Park on horseback as a park guard.

Shortly after retiring from the police department, Fitzpatrick found a dilapidated Conestoga wagon that had been driven cross-country in 1976 to celebrate the nation's bicentennial. He bought it, restored it, rode it in parades and entered it at the Devon Horse Show, in Pennsylvania.

Fitzpatrick also bought an original horse-drawn Philadelphia police wagon, restored it and won some ribbons at the Devon Horse Show with it. He then donated it to the Philadelphia Police Memorial Museum.

He and Gilbert formed a carriage rental company 10 years ago and stayed busy in the metropolitan Philadelphia area. Granddaughters Hazel and Maisie visited them several weekends a month and the girls rode horses and got lessons in driving carriages.

But Gilbert and Fitzpatrick wanted to be closer to their daughter, Renee O'Neill and her family. So this year, they settled on a farm just over the border in Pennsylvania and started marketing carriage rides in Maryland.

Gilbert delivered brochures to wedding venues and the one she dropped off at Padonia Park Club attracted Takisha Thomas' attention.

"I didn't even know there were carriage companies out there, but the idea of a fairy-tale wedding has been in my mind for years," she said. "They were great to work with and everything was beautiful."

For more details, go to www.onceand4allcarriages.com.