What's new at 2014 Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival
If you find gardening at home challenging, imagine what it takes to design, implement and maintain the hundreds of thousands of flowers and plants that are on display at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. I found out when I recently was invited to a "behind-the-walls" media preview of this year's festival.
The centerpiece of the festival is the elaborate and lush entrance garden that guests view with Spaceship Earth as its backdrop. It's the first thing they will see when they first enter the theme park. This year's entrance garden is titled "Spring is In the Air!" and it features Goofy, Donald Duck and Daisy Duck topiaries celebrating spring with a fanciful butterfly hunt. Plus, there will be a real waterfall and pond with water lilies.
In recent years, inspiration for the entrance garden has come largely from Walt Disney's classic short films, said festival horticulture manager Eric Darden.
"I firmly believe that the best entrances we've done are exact lifts from some of Walt's shorts, like 'Hawaiian Holiday,' " he said. "That's what we're doing this year, as well, looking at several of the outdoor ones. Also, we're doing something fun. The billboard advertising campaign of the last several years has shown computer-generated characters so we tried to make our character [topiaries] look like that. Their faces are different, their eyes are different, so it's quite a challenge."
In addition to the intricacies of designing a flower bed that will make a great first impression on Walt Disney World guests, putting it together is no small feat, either.
"We always do it on Monday night -- two days before the festival opens," Darden said. "The idea being that we give ourselves an extra night in case something goes horribly wrong. Nothing has ever gone horribly wrong, but every one of us believes that if we were to change [the installation] to Tuesday night, that would be the year something would go wrong."
The process begins with the cranes entering Epcot through a "back stage" area behind Germany and making their way under monorail beams to the front of the park, where they will be used to set the topiaries in place. Once the topiaries, each of which can weigh several tons, are secured, the horticulture team begins placing the bedding plants.
"Then Heather [Will-Browne, an Epcot horticulture manager] and all of our real color experts will start looking, and there will be gardeners going back to our holding area and grabbing stuff. And then Heather will be walking around just dropping plants," Darden said. "So, we have a plan, and then there's probably another 40 percent of bedding plants put in. At the front entrance, you can't have too much color. Everyone says 'What's your bedding plant mix going to be here?' [And we say], 'Well, it's going to start with this, but what it's going to end up with, I don't know.' Heather's probably the biggest determiner of that."
Will-Browne, who has been a Walt Disney World cast member for more than 40 years, was the first female member of the horticulture team. This year, her color specialty is played out in the new Gardener's Palette area, which is presented by Transitions Adaptive Lenses.
"The fun part is that it is kind of a teaching garden," she said. "We have the color wheel displayed in flowers and then the seasonal gardens and the children's activity -- coloring in the color garden. I think this is going to be something that people really get something out of."
Guests who have an interest in how color can be used in their own gardens can hear Will-Browne speak during one of the Greenhouse Stage presentations in the Festival Center. She is the featured speaker at 11 a.m. May 2, 3, and 4. Darden said that the presentation is one that she shares with Disney horticulture team members, as well.
For the first time in the festival's history, guests will be invited to step into a topiary scene for a special photo opportunity. In the location that houses the cranberry bog during the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, there is a vignette of Goofy and Donald topiaries playing soccer. Guests can pose as the goalkeeper in this scene and have their photos taken.
Among the other new exhibits this year are the Kermit and Miss Piggy topiaries, which are located between Germany and Italy. They were inspired by the upcoming movie, "Muppets Most Wanted," which hits theaters on March 21. The always-popular Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs have gotten a makeover this year. Snow White is the first character topiary to show detailed facial characteristics. The dwarfs have received an upgrade, too, mostly in the materials used for their beards. Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival has 79 character topiaries and 20 additional shaped topiaries.
Other perennial favorites return this year, as well. There are more than 200 floating gardens in the waterway under the monorail. This year, some of the containers have LED lights, so the flowers can be enjoyed at night, like many of the topiaries and playgrounds that also are illuminated. The signature beds of colorful flowers designed to look like butterflies surround the waterway. Nearby, Tinker Bell's Butterfly House beckons guests inside to see the monarchs and the pixie-sized fairy houses.
"It's not an official theme, but you will see a lot of butterflies [throughout the festival]," Will-Browne said.
The 21st annual Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival runs March 5 through May 18. Most of the attractions are included in regular admission to Epcot.
NOTE: If your kids are like mine, one of the things they most look forward to are the playgrounds that only are offered during the 75-day festival. I'll give you a preview tour of those areas on my blog tomorrow. In the meantime, please enjoy this peek "behind-the-walls" taken just a few days before the festival officially launches!