CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Bringing Home the Magic of Disney Horticulture and a Fresh Look at the 2015 EPCOT Flower and Garden Festival.

A few weeks back I was on the phone finalizing some of my plans for my magical vacation to Walt Disney World where I would be attending the EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival. The cast member on the other end of the line was a really great guy. He then asked me if I had ever been to the Flower and Garden Festival before. I told him not as a guest, but mainly as a former cast member. He asked what I did when I was a cast member and I told him Horticulture at EPCOT and Downtown Disney.
The cast member, Guy, we will call him, asked me what I do now, what I learned and what some of my favorite parts of doing horticulture and taking care of the landscapes at EPCOT were. I told him I learned a lot from my experience, but that what I was taught in school was the science of environmental horticulture. The way Disney does horticulture is not only a science but it also is an art form, what I call "entertainment horticulture." I learned that the way we manage landscapes can vary greatly depending on the nature of the landscape. After all, horticulture is where science meets art.
I shared with him some of the Disney horticulture “magic” and things I learned while part of Disney horticulture which if you read on, I will share some of that with you. Suffice it to say, a lot of fairies use a lot of pixie dust to make the magic happen! I do my best to keep some of the magic alive in my garden today and I wanted to share two things with you today. First the “magic” of Disney’s horticulture and how you can incorporate that into your garden and then the 2015 EPCOT International Flower and garden Festival!

Disney does a fantastic job with roses! One of my favorite varieties is the Knockout rose. They are so easy to maintain! Shear them to prune, and they just keep re-blooming. Although generous amounts of fertilizer and mulch, I mean pixie dust, also help the process along.
They use a variety of warm and cool season flowers to help keep the park fresh all year long. Although the climate in Florida allows for year-round gardening, they do have a rotation for plant material. Every eight weeks, each bed is replanted with new annuals. There are also four season at Walt Disney World for their beds. At Christmas you notice red poinsettias, and red, pink, and white impatiens. In the spring and fall, those get replaced with red, pink, white, and a little purple pentas and red geraniums, which need deadheading on a frequent basis! In the summer Disney plants a lot of caladium. I mean a LOT! We used the standard colors of reds and pinks, but whites were especially popular under the shade of trees. The contrast created by a bed planted with white caladium and a beautiful magnolia tree with its deep green foliage had a remarkable way of brightening up that space and drawing you in! 

Disney has a different color theme for each country in EPCOT's World Showcase as well. For example, Mexico uses warm colors and a more natural looking landscape. Norway uses pastels and white. China is very formal and has little in the way of annuals. Germany uses reds, Italy uses all colors except yellow. The AA as cast members call it, the American Adventure to guests, use...? Red, white, and blue, you guessed it. France uses pastels, and Canada and UK can use pretty much any color in the rainbow. Consider a theme for your garden that consists of two or three colors and stick with that. Too many colors can overwhelm the eye and take away from the dramatic effect of the garden. Use different textures instead if you want to create something more visually appealing.

Disney is also known for the use of hanging baskets and pots. Italy, for example, has pots. Every park has hanging baskets. When you plant your pots or baskets, plant your outside row of flowers on a 45 degree angle facing you, that creates a fuller look as baskets and pots fill in and the flowers face you rather than face the sky where you will be less able to see the full effect of the color.

Where you and I have limited financial resources, we know we are going to buy a plant for an entire season. Knowing it may grow to 12 inches, you and I might buy a four pack and plant them on 6 inch centers, throw some fertilizer down, apply a good three inches of mulch and call it good. Disney knows the plants are not going to be in the landscape long enough to mature. Instead they buy a larger plant and plant the plants closer together, apply some fertilizer, mulch, and viola, an instantly mature full looking landscape. This approach works well for the art form that is Disney’s horticulture but for the average landscape is both economically and environmentally irresponsible.  

Of course, Disney is rumored to have no weeds. I can assure you, this is absolutely positively 100% true! I know, because I pulled every weed you could find. A little Disney secret, err, magic is proper mulching techniques greatly helped keep weeds down! I’d like to point out; Disney used ORGANIC mulch- pine needles, chipped wood, etc. No rock mulch to be found on Disney property. Why? Because of how bad it is for the environment, and it simply is not “show quality.”

Elsa works her magic to create the effect of frozen fractals (flowers) all around.

So now that you know some of the magic, what about the EPCOT Flower and Garden Festival? I spent some time walking around EPCOT. It’s a sight to behold as EPCOT is filled with millions of blooms and over 100 topiaries! This year the theme was "EPCOT Fresh" and they incorporated edibles into the landscape.

The flower fields are replaced completely during the show. During the year, this entire berm is Bermuda grass. The sod is cut and removed for the Flower and Garden Festival. New sod is laid after the show. During the show 4 full time cast members spend their early mornings weeding and deadheading the flow field which contains nearly 700,000 annual plants.

EPCOT always looks beautiful, but after experiencing the Flower and Garden Festival, EPCOT feels insipid when the festival ends and the park’s landscapes return to normal. What makes the festival so grand isn’t just the colorful flowers planted in beds throughout Future World around the World Showcase, but also the topiary creations which bring your favorite Disney Characters to life (mine is Peter Pan) as well as the tours, horticulture classes, and presentations offered by many knowledgeable and well respected individuals in the hort industry. 

Over in Garden Town gardening programs are offered every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11-4. Programs feature information provided from Disney Gardeners, Great American Gardeners, and to the credit of Disney, University of Florida Master Gardeners and Extension Agents from Land Grant Universities who provide research based gardening solutions for your life in the form of latest trends in home gardening, techniques to help you be a successful gardener, as well as some of the Disney Horticulture secrets with some very fun and creative hands on activities that will engage gardeners of all ages. 

Disney also has an Ask an Expert station for you to stop and get one on one advice about your garden for those in Extension!

Other things that make this festival so wonderful is that is really truly is designed for all ages. Young children can enjoy the butterfly garden, the cactus garden that recreates radiator springs, mini gardens all which tell a story, and other kid-friendly activities all throughout EPCOT. Adults; as well as all the learning, there is music from many artists, including the Village People. (Tony, that’s for you.) Cooking and food demonstrations on how to cook what you grow. (Seriously, what do I do with this Kohlrabi? Nasturtium- do you eat that? Why is there and orchid flower on my plate?) As well as many amazing foods and drinks to try, all inspired by the fruits, flowers, and veggies you grow in the garden!

Annuals may be incorporated into topiaries to provide more colorful flowing and dimension in the characters. Annuals are changed out on some topiaries. Cool season annuals such as Violas and Pansies are used and changed out for impatiens and other plants that hold up to the florida heat later in the season.

Disney has moved away from the old hedged style topiaries due to the high level of maintenance.

Finneas and Ferb receives full sun all day long, where other topiaries may receive mostly shade. Watering and replacement of plant material are dependent upon environmental factors.

Simba is actually made of painted reindeer moss while the feet and arms of Rafiki are made of palm boots.
A steel frame provides the support for Snow White's ficus dress.

Each topiary has it's own irrigation system built into the frame. Chicken wire issued to provide support for sphagnum peat moss and the plugs of creeping figs. Total growing on time is approximately two months. Occasionally, figs need to be trimmed or replugged.
Buzz Lightyear is staged in front on Mission Space, adding to the theme and atmosphere of the attraction.
Tinker bell adds to the Butterfly House.
A favorite among fairies and children alike!

Additional annuals are added to the Canada Pavilion
 to simulate Butchardt Garden.
I have to pay homage to my 'friend' Peter Pan.
Look up to find him though.
Disney has learned the art of directing your eye in different directions
and optical illusion.
Disney uses flowers around the topiaries
to continue
to paint a scene.
In this case, blue salvia helps to create
the illusion that
Tic-Toc Croc is in water.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful tour of Disney World through the eyes of a horticulturalist. Planting flowers at a 45 degree angle in hanging pots is a new idea. I like it!

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