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March 3, 2010

An Insider's Look at the 2010 Flower & Garden Festival

by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars.Net Senior Editor

It was a cold, rainy Saturday that found me traipsing through a near-deserted Epcot, touring along with Eric Darden, horticulture manager for the annual Flower and Garden Festival. Gone were the blue skies and sunshine of the previous day, but never mind -- the show must go on, and Darden was more than happy to give me, along with several other local journalists, a behind-the-scenes preview of what to expect from the 2010 festival, whose theme is, somewhat ironically on that miserable day, "Celebrate the Great Outdoors."

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"We are prepared for the cold weather," Darden explained as we trudged along through Future World. "We've had to cover the topiaries, but really it's done little damage to our festival-specific plants. We've lost some tropical plants, some shrubs, but in some ways the festival actually looks BETTER this year because of the freeze."

Better? My ears perked up, anxious to hear how he was going to spin this gardener's nightmare into a good thing.

"No, really, it's had a positive effect in many ways," Darden claimed. "We took the opportunity to replace some things that needed to be replaced -- and it's made a drastic improvement in some cases."

Darden pointed out one area in particular where overgrown plantings had been killed by the extended extreme cold. They had been replaced by low shrubs, effectively opening up the area so that the view was much less obstructed. That, Darden said, was how the view was always intended to be. "The sight-line is clear now. It's so much better, thanks to the cold weather."

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That wasn't something I had expected to hear, given that this year the Orlando area has experienced one of the coldest winters in memory, with many nights dipping well below freezing. I had, in fact, assumed I'd hear more about how starting the festival a few weeks earlier than usual (March 3 this year as compared to last year's March 18 start date, and 2007's April 5 start) had caused a lot of problems.

"Did it (the cold) cause more work? Yeah," Darden admitted. "But we were ready for it. And if you're ready for one frost, you're ready for 10. I think this year's festival is as fine as any we've done."

That kind of preparedness doesn't happen overnight. Darden, who is in his seventh year as festival manager, said his team begins working on the 75-day event a year in advance. With the earlier start this year, the group was faced with several new challenges, which Darden asserted was actually a good thing.

"Starting early forced us to use other plants -- pansies and other winter bedding plants, which have great color," he explained. "I think eight out of 10 gardeners will tell you that it's hard to beat a viola, which is in the pansy family. Our biggest challenge was protecting the topiary."

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Topiary, for the uninitiated, are those large statue-like figures made of all organic material -- moss, grasses, ivy, and other plants shaped around a metal frame to look like a 14-foot tall Goofy, or American Gothic Mickey and Minnie, or, my personal favorites, Bambi and friends (they're in the Canada pavilion).

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According to Darden, the cold weather required that the horticulture staff keep the topiaries indoors longer to shelter them from the elements. Unfortunately, "keeping them in-house is never as good as outdoors," and such cool, wet conditions are perfect for growing fungus, which can destroy the plants. Not something they want to deal with, given all the hours it takes to construct a single figure, and also given that the topiaries are among visitors' favorite aspects of the festival.

Epcot is displaying about 75 topiaries this year, from the aforementioned Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and Goofy, to newer characters like Tinker Bell's pixie friends found in the expanded Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden. Darden explained that while they do re-use topiaries from festivals gone by, they like to add new ones, even though it's a long, involved process.

To construct a new topiary, a Disney artist makes a maquette, or a small scale model, of the figure, just as they do for an animated film. After making castings of the maquette, they take the design to a welder who fabricates the frame, working with the artist. The whole process can take four to five months, then the plants are added, anchored in place by hair pins, but, as Darden said, "planting is the easiest and fastest part."

As we stopped in front of the Scar (the villain in The Lion King) topiary, I marveled at the level of detail. Long, dark Black Mondo Grass gave the lion his shaggy mane, while closely cropped variegated ficus and other greenery covered his face and body, which Darden said weighs in around 1300 pounds. Even without being told I could have identified this Disney bad guy, a testament to the amount of hard work, attention, and money, that go into designing the figure.

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"Disney really cares about the integrity of these characters," Darden added. "That's why you won't see actual faces on human characters like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty -- we wouldn't be able to get them the way we want them, so we leave the face up to your imagination."

In addition to the topiaries and the abundant, colorful plantings around Epcot, a number of themed gardens caught my fancy. My favorite was the Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden, which includes Fawn's (formerly Minnie's) Butterfly House. The pixie topiaries are bright and whimsical, and once the butterflies are released in the enclosed area I look forward to seeing them flitter around. I especially want to be sure to spend some time watching new butterflies emerge from their chrysalises in the little house located off to one side of the Butterfly House.

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Other gardens that we had a chance to see in progress included the Tuscany-inspired Art of Green Living, which plants all sorts of ideas in your head as to what you can do in your own back yard, and the children's play area, Let's Get Moving, located along the Rose Walk between Future World and World Showcase, and the brand new Princess Tiana's Wedding Bayou. Vegetable gardeners are not forgotten, as some exhibits include "edible landscapes" with plants such as olive trees, and many pots and beds feature herbs, cabbages, kale and other veggies.

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We also saw the unfinished Guerlain Fragrance Garden in the France pavilion. This year, the popular "lift and sniff" scent boxes that are usually a part of this exhibit will be divided between two locations -- their usual spot near the buildings in that pavilion, and another location more prominent on the promenade. In addition, the boxes have been redesigned for easier use -- instead of lifting a lid, there is a knob to turn that will release the scents.

The biggest area left to our imagination, though, was the entrance display, which wasn't to be installed until Monday, two days before the festival opens. Darden called the unveiling of that welcoming display one of his favorite days of the festival. This year, the exhibit features a 14-foot Goofy hooking his own pants with a fishing pole, Pluto in his "pup tent" (pun intentional), Donald Duck as a Mountie, and Daisy Duck roasting marshmallows, along with a six-foot waterfall.

The tour concluded with lunch at Tutto Italia in World Showcase's Italy pavilion. As we approached the restaurant, I noted the gorgeous topiary of Lady and the Tramp, surrounded by pots of pink, purple and white blooms. Even on the coldest and dampest of days, Flower and Garden Festival managed to warm my heart.

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March 20, 2010

Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival Follow-up

Festival Follow-up
by Debra Martin Koma
Senior Editor, AllEars®

It's not often that I get to visit Walt Disney World two weekends in a row, being that I'm from out of state and all, but due to an unusual confluence of events, that's what I found myself doing recently. As a result, I was able to tour Epcot the weekend *before* the annual Flower and Garden Festival started, and then again the weekend *after* it started. It was kinda neat to see the changes just a few short days had made, so I thought I'd share them with you.

When I was in Epcot before the festival started, the main entrance display had not yet been installed, so I was eager to see it. As horticulture manager Eric Darden had told me previously, the display featured Donald and Daisy Duck, as well as Goofy and Pluto, in a Canadian Rockies setting, camping out and "Celebrating the Great Outdoors," the festival's 2010 theme.

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True to form, the 14-foot Goofy topiary showed our canine friend in the awkward predicament of hooking his own pants with his fishing pole, while Canadian Mountie Donald and Pluto looked on. Off to the side Daisy calmly roasts marshmallows, the flames of her fire portrayed by bronze and copper-colored blooms. The scene is beautiful, accented by a waterfall and pine trees in the background, all set against the globe of Spaceship Earth, glinting in the sun.

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Another thing that was interesting to note were the individual topiary exhibits. Darden had commented during our tour that they were constantly looking at ways to improve upon each display, and I saw several cases of their last-minute tinkering. The Lion King exhibit in front of Spaceship Earth, for example, which features Rafiki holding the baby Simba up for all to see, had sparse foliage behind it when I saw it before the festival opened. But on my more recent visit, you can see how space had been filled in with bushy plants to give the whole scene a lusher look.

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In the Twining's Tea Garden in the UK pavilion, too, I saw the work of additional detailing. See the teacups before...

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and after...

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When I had visited before the festival had started, it had been a cold, dreary, rainy day, so many of my shots looked dull and lackluster. This was especially true in and around the Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden. But on my subsequent visit, not only was I treated to a blue sky and more vibrant colors, but the butterflies had been released, and I was able to capture quite a few flitting around Fawn's Butterfly House.

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The finished Art of Green Living Garden lived up to the expectations I had had for it -- truly had become a relaxing place to hang out, so much so that I couldn't get a decent photo of the seating, due to all the crowds. Sorry, you'll have to see it for yourself. But the whole area is just so beautifully designed, like a Tuscan garden area.

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Besides things that had been tweaked since my first visit, a number of activities and events had, obviously, actually started.

In the former Wonders of Life pavilion, operating under the name of "Garden Town" for the duration of the festival, the educational sessions were in full swing. I happened to run into festival manager Darden who was keeping an eager eye on things, who told me that the 2 p.m. water gardens talk that was underway was at full capacity -- 77 people. "There were that many in line 50 minutes BEFORE the talk started," Darden claimed excitedly. "It's a shame that we ended up turning people away, but that's never happened before - the turnout is great!"

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Over in the France pavilion, attendance was great for the Guerlain Fragrance Garden Tour that I took, too. The tour is offered at 2, 4 and 6 p.m. daily. I attended the 4 p.m. tour, which Guerlain Representative Caridad Canales told us is given by an International Program Cast Member. The group of about 20 others and I were led through the fragrance garden by Abou, a young man from Lyon, France, who was giving the tour for the first time.

He started by sharing a brief history of the Guerlain company, founded in 1828. He then proceeded to lead us around the garden, which is marked by groupings of plants whose essences go into Guerlain's many fragrances. At the Flora Nymphea exhibit, for example, there's an arrangement of planters with orange blossoms and lilac, for those are scents that go into Guerlain's Aqua Allegoria collection. At each exhibit, you'll also find a "scent box" that allows you to get a whiff of the fragrances. This year, there are new boxes, with knobs that turn, rather than the "lift the flap" type exhibits of previous years.

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Abou took about 20 minutes to walk us around the garden, also pointing on the hidden bees nestled among the plantings. Explaining that the bee is the symbol for the French monarchy, Abou added that when turned upside-down, the bee resembles a fleur de lis, a well-known symbol often associated with royalty. In addition to this walking tour of the garden, Guerlain also sponsors a scavenger hunt for children who would like to search for the hidden bees scattered around the pavilions floral arrangements. The tour concluded with Caridad handing out small complimentary samples of a Guerlain perfume.

Though this follow-up visit to the Flower and Garden festival did afford me the chance to see and do more, there were still plenty of things I didn't get to see, and a few activities I would have liked to have tried -- like the tour of the UK pavilion's Tea Garden (offered on weekends at 2, 4 and 6:30 p.m.).

Never mind. I'll get another chance -- lucky me gets to visit the Festival a third time next month, when I travel to Walt Disney World as chaperone for my son's school orchestra's trip!

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About March 2010

This page contains all entries posted to AllEars® Team Blog in March 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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