Cleared of millions of plants that were put on display for the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, the greenhouses at the Walt Disney World nursery behind Animal Kingdom look like they’ve been looted.
What’s left are later-blooming plants that will be set out when the first group starts to fade, plants and hanging baskets intended for other parks, a test plot of bedding flowers, a few other odds and ends, and lots of empty growing space.
About 35 million plants a year are used throughout Disney World, many of them at this festival. They’re in flower beds, pots, hanging baskets, flower towers, floating gardens, specialty gardens, the butterfly house, at the base of trees they can climb just about any place you can imagine.
Along with the blooms are workshops and seminars, educational gardens (medicinal plants, growing in small spaces, how to provide wildlife habitat), a butterfly house that explains the migration of monarch butterflies, weekend concerts and Mike & Sulley’s Monstrous Garden, a children’s play area.
Eleven “outdoor kitchens” sell appetizer-size servings of food. Each kitchen also has a small garden that grows ingredients used in that stand’s dishes and emphasizes the link between food and gardening.
For many park-goers, though, the plants and programs are just background for the real stars of the festival: more than 100 Disney character topiaries.
Mickey and Minnie appear as farmers in an American Gothic-like pose, complete with pitchfork. A 14-foot Goofy stands at the entrance, tangled in a garden hose. Anna and Elsa of Frozen make their debut appearance. So do Chip ’n’ Dale, caught in the act of stealing Donald Duck’s carrots. Cinderella and Prince Charming dance near the France Pavilion. Lightning McQueen and Mater of Cars are on the Cactus Road Rally walkway.
All over Epcot, people get their pictures taken in front of topiaries. Sometimes so many people are waiting that there’s a line. Many come just for that — and for the food and beverage sales that were added three festivals ago — an idea borrowed from the popular Epcot Wine & Food Festival.
“We come for the food more than the gardens,” said Casey of Fort Meade, Fla., who didn’t want her last name used. “But we did take pictures of the Cars thing,” she said, gesturing in the direction of Cactus Road Rally.
Others are more interested in the gardening aspects. “I like looking at all the flowers and topiaries, and walking through the butterfly tent,” said Jennifer King of Orlando. “The flowers and topiaries are just gorgeous.”
Fans may not realize all that the nursery staff does to get that look — the park spilling over with colorful, perfectly groomed gardens.
The festival started in early March, and although Orlando has a growing climate similar to South Florida’s, there’s still danger of frost. Few of the blooms are cold-hardy, so the staff covers plants and topiaries with military surplus parachutes in a cold snap. This year, because there were so many cloudy days, flowers were slow to bloom and some arrangements were not ready for the start of the festival.
The festival runs for 75 days, to May 17 this year, and there’s a seasonal change about halfway through. Cool-weather plants may bolt and go to seed when the days get hot. Much of what remains in the greenhouses are heat-tolerant replacement plants, to be set out later.
Kathy and John Wolfenden moved from New Hampshire to Central Florida three years ago but say they’ve been coming to the festival since it began. They love the flowers and the art on display. “Now that I’m living in a condo, I love the container gardens,” Kathy Wolfenden said. “They’re really pretty this year.”
Eric Darden, the festival’s horticultural manager, says the second-most-frequent question guests ask during the festival is about container gardening, especially how to put together mixed plantings in baskets and pots. No. 3 is about growing vegetables.
And the No. 1 question? The Disney topiaries. Not that visitors want to go home and make one like they do with the containers, Darden says, but they have a lot of questions about them.
The topiaries are not simply bushes pruned in the shape of a character. They are custom-made wire forms stuffed with sphagnum moss and covered with plants, mosses, seeds and other materials — mostly shades of green, but also browns, russets and yellows.
Traditionally, human characters such as the princesses have had featureless green faces. But last year, Disney tried something new. The face is sculpted, a mold is made and the new mask is covered with a thin layer of moss that is painted. Eyes, eyebrows, lips and other features are painted on as well.
It is an expensive and time-consuming process — the masks for Anna and Elsa were started last July and finished just days before the festival opened — so the topiaries are not all being changed at once, Darden said. Cinderella and Belle still have faces of green ficus, no lips, no eyes.
The festival began in 1994 as a way to bring in more people during the slow weeks on either side of spring break, and to appeal to serious gardeners who might otherwise not be drawn to a theme park. Since then, it has doubled in length, from 38 days to 75.
Disney does not make its attendance figures public, but Josh Humphrey, owner and site operator of www.easywdw.com, which tracks crowds at the parks, says the fall Wine & Food Festival has a much more dramatic impact on Epcot attendance than the garden festival, although the addition of the food stands in 2013 has helped boost attendance.
Free concerts are held every Friday, Saturday and Sunday this year, with a new singer or group performing each weekend.
In 2013, Disney added the outdoor kitchens, but with garden produce more heavily emphasized than at the food festival. About 30 dishes are offered during the garden festival, compared to more than 100 during the Wine & Food Festival, and organizers make a point of creating different menus for the two festivals.
One of the new kitchens this year is Urban Farm Eats, which features a kale salad with dried cherries, almonds and goat cheese; a quinoa vegetable “Naanwich” with arugula pesto; and tilapia with winter melon slaw and mint oil. Next to it is a garden that produces many of the ingredients, including a pyramidlike tower of herb plants.
“In the years we’ve been doing this, it’s the best garden I’ve seen,” Darden said. “It shows people how they can grow food they can eat, and do it in a small space.”
Eating amid Epcot’s blooms
There is plenty of good food to be found from the outdoor kitchens of the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. These were my favorites:
▪ Seafood ceviche: Shrimp, scallops and grouper, with mango and avocado. (Botanas Botanico, between the France and Morocco pavilions)
▪ Duck confit: Pulled duck confit with garlic and parsley potatoes. (Fleur de Lys at the France Pavilion)
▪ Watermelon salad: Watermelon, pickled onions, baby arugula, feta cheese and balsamic reduction. (Florida Fresh by the Germany Pavilion)
▪ Naanwich: Quinoa vegetable “Naanwich” with arugula pesto and dried tomatoes. (Urban Farm Eats near the World Showcase Promenade)
▪ Strawberries: Beijing-style candied strawberries with sesame. (Lotus House at the China Pavilion)
If you prefer table-service dining to stand-up snacking on the festival’s small plates, here are some good options.
▪ Tutto Gusto Wine Cellar: The gusto plates for two with combinations of meats, cheese and other antipasti are perfect for a light dinner, and the lengthy wine list has some luscious reds. Next to Tutto Italia Ristorante at the Italy Pavilion.
▪ Chefs de France: I like the tomato and goat cheese flatbread and the incredibly tender cabernet-braised short ribs with polenta at this brasserie-style restaurant. At the France Pavilion.
▪ Spice Road Table: Great small plates at this Mediterranean restaurant — lamb sausage, garlic shrimp, stuffed grape leaves, fried calamari, and of course, hummus and olives. At the Morocco Pavilion. Good spot for watching the “IllumiNations” show.
▪ Trattoria al Forno: For breakfast at Disney World’s newest restaurant, try the waffle with espresso-mascarpone cream. Yum! If you don’t like dessert for breakfast, have the poached eggs and fennel sausage over polenta with tomato gravy. In the space formerly occupied by Cat Cora’s Kouzzina on the Boardwalk. Go out Epcot’s International Gateway by the Yacht Club and Beach Club resorts and cross the river to the Boardwalk.
The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival
Details: The 22nd annual festival is hitting its stride. It started in early March and runs through May 17. Epcot is open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., although the World Showcase part of the park doesn’t open until 11 a.m. Concerts, cooking demonstrations and garden seminars have been scheduled for weekends during the festival. Upcoming concert performances at America Gardens Theatre — with thrice-a-night performances each Friday, Saturday and Sunday — include: Jon Secada, April 17-19; The Guess Who, April 24-26; Taylor Dane, May 1-3; Little River Band, May 8-10; and Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone, May 15-17. Concert prices are included with Epcot admission.
Cost: A one-day Epcot pass is $97; a children’s ticket (ages 3-7) is $91. Most festival activities are included with park admission. Most dishes from the Outdoor Kitchens are in the $4-$8 range.