Springtime is a particularly special season for the horticulturists at Walt Disney World. It’s when a year’s planning and preparation culminate in a burst of glory–500,000 plants, trees and shrubs, including 100 topiary characters that paint the Epcot theme park in a fiesta of color.
On a recent visit to Orlando, Florida, I enjoyed an early viewing of the 18th Annual Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. My host was Eric Darden, horticulture manager of the festival. We toured the nurseries behind the scenes, then he showed me around the numerous flower bed displays and Disney character topiaries while explaining the amazing facts, figures, and logistics behind the event.
By the time the 75-day festival has run its course, on May 15, more than a million visitors to Epcot will have enjoyed the lavish floral displays — the embankments of flowers, the floating floral islands, the detailed living sculptures of beloved Disney characters, and the giant new butterfly house. Many will also have attended the special garden-theme series of lectures, concerts, and workshops.
“It’s my favorite time of the year,” Darden said as we embarked on a tour of the flowers on a warm spring morning. “Walt Disney said, more than anything else his parks need to be pleasant places to be. With this festival we take that experience to a new level of enjoyment.”
The topiaries — 100 in all, of which 65 represent Disney characters — are perhaps the most striking feature of the festival. “Until the 1990s our topiaries used to be little more than representations of the Disney characters,” Darden said. “Today, our topiaries are able to capture even the emotions and personalities of the characters. This year we have produced our best work ever. The Toy Story characters had to be made to an astonishing level of detail, right down to the belt hoops on Woody.”
A close inspection of these leafy characters shows that they are not your ordinary trimmed hedges of yesteryear. A modern Disney topiary is both a work of art and a marvel of engineering. While every part of the topiary is made of plant material, the Disney horticulturists use a wide variety of plants to create different textures and colors.
How are the elaborate topiaries kept fed and watered, I wondered. “Inside there are tubes that deliver water to different parts of the character, like the legs and arms,” Darden explained. “It’s much like an irrigation system that delivers water to different zones in your yard.” During the festival the horticulture team monitors each living statue to make sure every part of it is trimmed and thriving.
“You’ll never see topiaries as good as these anywhere else,” Darden proudly exclaimed. “We pay as much attention to the characters in topiaries as we do to the characters in the films.”
The Flower & Garden Festival is accessed with the entry fee to Epcot, but visitors can get a lot more out of it than pausing to admire the floral displays or have their photo taken in front of the vegetable embodiment of Winnie the Pooh.
The new butterfly house has been more than doubled in size. It is filled with hundreds of native butterflies flitting among butterfly-friendly foliage. Visitors may linger to observe newly hatching butterflies emerging from their metamorphic slumber.
The Water Wise Herbs & Vegetables Garden is an opportunity to learn about how to use the minimal amount of water to grow fresh produce. “Besides,” Darden said, “I always say no garden festival is complete without a section on herbs and vegetables.”
At Epcot’s Festival Center there is a packed program of lectures and displays to share tips and secrets of gardening. Topics include “Groceries from the Garden” and “Gardening for All Generations.”
Experts from the University of Florida are on hand daily for planting pointers and other advice. Or you can do what I did: spend an absorbing few hours simply exploring and enjoying the extravagant celebration of Epcot’s ultimate showcase–the world of flowering plants.
David Braun was invited to participate in the media preview of the 18th Annual Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. Admission to the festival is included in the entry fee to Epcot, but special tours designed for garden enthusiasts are conducted on some days of the week for $59 per person. More details here.
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.