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Walt Disney World -- More Than Mickey
by Daryl Pulis

Most folks have had a chance to visit Walt Disney World at least once. If you have, you've probably been impressed by the beautiful flower displays that are part of the theme parks.

I was privileged to be able to attend Epcot's yearly International Flower and Garden Festival a few days ago. Not only that, but as part of the International Master Gardener Conference, we were treated to special behind the scenes tours and speakers. In addition, we had the entire World showcase to ourselves for two hours. That gave us a chance to really look at the plants and to see how unusual some of them are. We also had a chance to speak to the horticulturists who install and care for the plants. Normally these folks work in the wee hours of the morning, and vanish before the park opens.

The Flower and Garden Festival, which runs each spring, includes special floral displays and topiaries, educational exhibits and speakers. Many of the special displays are co-sponsored by organizations such as the Bonsai Society, which brought in ancient Bonsai to supplement the displays in the Japanese Showcase. Beautiful floating gardens enhanced the lagoon, while "Flower Power" Bands from the 60's played. The musical highlight for me was a chance to hear Arlo Guthrie sing his signature "Alice's Restaurant". The audience cheered and clapped as I remembered attending one of his earliest concerts 34 years ago.

Even if you have to miss the special Flower and Garden Festival, the displays at Epcot's World Showcase are incredible. Each country is themed with plants appropriate to the country. As you pass from Norway to the Mexican jungle, for example, the plants change from flowering meadows to lush tropical, with Palms, ferns and trees covered with hundreds of Orchids and Bromeliads.

Many plants that flourish in the North would faint in the Orlando heat, so clever substitutes are made. In Canada, Canadian Hemlocks are replaced by Deodar cedars, which will take the heat. For "snow" on the mountains, white Lantana is grown in grow-bags which drape over the cliffs. And did you know that the trees themselves are in 5 foot deep containers which were lifted by crane to be nestled in the crags?

There are over 2400 plant species represented at Walt Disney World, collected from every continent but Antarctica. Masses of bedding plants form intricate designs around Disney World, from the huge bed at The Land Pavilion, which holds 20,000 seasonal plants, to the enormous Mickey at the Magic Kingdom. In fact, over 3 million bedding plants and annuals are planted each year!

Most of the plants are grown by Disney gardeners behind the scenes. Hanging baskets are created by hand, each plant plug carefully placed in a wire basket filled with sphagnum moss, then grown out for 3 months for that lush look. Topiaries, those funny dancing bears and other cartoon characters, are of two types. The classic cartoon characters are permanent, made of evergreen shrubs, and are usually a minimum of 7 years old. New characters are done in creeping fig and other vining plants so that they can be displayed as soon as the movie opens. My favorite? The trio of Pandas in front of the China pavillion. Munching on bamboo or rolling in the grass, they look like they'll come alive at any moment.

I hope that the next time you visit the mouse, you'll spend some time really looking at the garden that surrounds you. In a future column, I'll tell you what I found at Animal Kingdom, and of my trip to Leu Gardens.

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