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The Art Behind the Magic: Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

The Disney Imagination Campus team
by The Disney Imagination Campus team

As we jump into spring, the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival is in full bloom! Some of the most impressive aspects of this festival are the elaborately designed topiaries that span the width of the park, featuring favorite scenes and characters from Disney animated features.

The Walt Disney World Nursery supports both the interior plants across Walt Disney World property as well as plant construction for special events, such as the International Flower and Garden Festival.

Let’s join Debbie Mickler, the Area Manager of the Walt Disney World Nursery who has been a part of every festival since 1994, to learn key insights of the design process used to create these beautiful topiaries for the festival every year.

Topiary Gardening

What is it?

Topiary gardening is the art of fashioning living plants into ornamental shapes. There are four different types of topiary design used at the Walt Disney World Resort: Free-Form Topiary and Standard Form Topiary which are formed using your imagination and sharp shears, and Shrub Topiary and Sphagnum Topiary which use a type of frame to shape and hold the weight of the figure. 

How do we use it?

Free-Form Topiary is formed using garden sheers to trim and cut the plant into a circle, square or other imaginative design.

Standard Form Topiary is created when a plant is grown to a designated height and then encouraged to bush or from a “head” on top so that it looks like a small tree.

Shrub Topiary is formed using a sculpted metal frame to assist the plant in training and shaping. Because of how they are grown, shrub topiary can take three to ten years to produce.

Sphagnum Topiary are grown using heavy steel frames that are then fitted with sphagnum moss and fast growing vining plants.

Where do we use it? 

Walt Disney World Horticulturists and Imagineers use all four types of topiary to creatively design Disney characters and scenes out of plants and plant material. You can find several different styles of Free-Form Topiary throughout the World Showcase, however Sphagnum Topiary is the most common topiary used during the International Flower and Garden Festival. The Lady and the Tramp topiaries in the Italy Pavilion are sphagnum topiary created with sphagnum moss, creeping fig and Mexican feather grass.

Sphagnum Topiary Design

The horticulture department works closely with Walt Disney World Imagineers, welders, architectural engineers and artists when designing a new sphagnum topiary to be featured in the park.

Disney animation serves as the inspiration for new designs. When a new project is just starting out, artists create sketches and 3-D models to help guide the team in the planning process. Once finalized, these sketches and models are passed off to the welders who create the frame.

After the frame is completed, the irrigation team installs tubing into the frame to ensure that the plants stay well-hydrated for the whole season of the festival.

Next, the topiary frame is well-stuffed with hydrated un-milled sphagnum moss. This forms the entire internal portion of the topiary that allows the outer plants to grow and thrive. Once the frame is filled, holes are cut into the sphagnum moss to add the plug sized plant materials that make up the outer wall of the topiary that Guests see.

Sometimes, horticulturists make use of dried plant materials to enhance the look of the topiary. Very versatile materials such as palm fiber, coco fiber mat and sheet moss are used to make the faces, boots, shoes, hats, etc. Simple hairpins are used to hold everything in place and maintain the perfect design that upholds the character’s look. Finally, after everything has been reviewed and approved by the WDI Art Director, artists use airbrush paint to blend with the natural horticulture and bring the character to life.

It takes about 3-4 months for the topiary to reach its full bloom after being planted so that it is show ready for the start of the International Flower and Garden Festival.

There are close to 100 topiaries on display at Epcot this year and there is a team dedicated just to their maintenance and care during the festival.

As you can see, it really takes a team of people to bring these characters to life. The next time you visit the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, reflect on the Art Behind the Magic that cultivates these spectacular topiaries for Guests to enjoy!

Ready to learn more? Check out the Arts & Humanities workshops at our East Campus at Walt Disney World Resort and our West Campus at Disneyland Resort for a discovery of the real-world application of the art, design, and storytelling behind our most popular attractions! Sign up for our e-newsletter to stay up to date on all things Disney Imagination Campus and explore all our academic workshops to see how we inspire imagination-powered learning.

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