As anyone who's visited Florida can tell you, the temperatures stay pretty hot in the Sunshine State, especially in the spring and summer months. So Walt Disney World Resort's (WDW) team of horticulture specialists have quite a task during the EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival — an event celebrating all things that bloom and blossom, which runs from early March through early July.
Just how many flowers and plants adorn the theme park during the festival? Allison Brooks, a manager on WDW's horticulture services team, says EPCOT will add more than 300,000 bedding plants to its gardens this year and maintain 170 floating gardens to decorate Epcot's World Celebration West Lake, each of which contains about 50 four-inch annuals. Then there's the "flower towers," pillars of blooms designed to add vertical color to Epcot — each planted with 250 individual plants — and colorful raised beds that each hold about 140 annuals.
Around 100 topiaries can also be discovered throughout the park, shaped to look like beloved Disney characters like Bambi, Elsa and Mickey Mouse himself. New to this year's topiary line-up are Mirabel, Antonio, Isabella and Luisa from Encanto, who greet guests at the park entrance, and The Princess and the Frog's Princess Tiana, who's surrounded by magnolias and hanging moss in the park's American Adventure pavilion.
Brooks says these new additions are worth seeing in daylight and at night, as Mirabel holds a lighted butterfly and Tiana is surrounded by fairy lights that replicate the fireflies in her bayou.
Truman Anderson, who also works in WDW horticulture services, says the topiaries can take several years to build. "Depending on if it's a fresh new topiary, it can take almost two years to get one ready," Anderson tells Yahoo Life. "It's an incredible process that the team at our tree farm (the nursery where WDW raises plants until they're ready to be planted somewhere on the property) can spend years developing."
There's a 20-foot long dragon topiary at this year's festival, which Brooks says is covered in succulents for a strategic reason. "The dragon is in Japan again and it's amazing — it's all succulents and is very easy for us to maintain because it won't need a lot of watering," she says. "There are a lot of succulents this year."
Also covered in stunning succulents is Encanto's Isabella, who wears a purple and green dress made from the heat-resistant plants. Figment, EPCOT's iconic purple dragon character, is also made from succulents in lavender and violet hues.
One could spend an entire day inside Epcot's gates simply hunting for each of the flowery creations, but there's more floral fun to be had at the festival, which lasts 127 days — making it the longest-running flower and garden festival in the U.S. There's a scavenger hunt featuring Disney character Spike the Bee, where families can search for displays all over the park that list plants by their scientific names, something Anderson and his team have to keep up with.
"We spend a lot of time researching and making sure what we have out there is always correct and always up to date," he says. "The names for plants change every year — [taxonomists] can't make up their minds. They'll be like, 'Oh never mind, now it's in this family,' so we always have to check that everything we put out is always up to date."
And then there's the weather. In Spike the Bee's scavenger hunt alone, Anderson says there's always a chance a plant won't make it through a rainy or hot day and may temporarily disappear from the map.
"Every sign is supposed to have a plant that matches and we're supposed to have flowers like that in the bed, but occasionally something will happen," Anderson explains. "The worst one is always the white daisy. Midsummer, keeping white Gerbera daisies alive is almost impossible in Florida, so we're like, 'Oh, yeah, well there used to be daisies.'"
Florida's summer downpours are also a challenge. Anderson says many a flower bed has needed to be changed out unexpectedly due to damage from excess rainfall. Still, some weather-related wear and tear is expected and even planned for. "We actually go with the seasons," he says. "We have three full rotations because of the length [of the festival]."
Anderson explains there's a "dedicated crew that will continually tweak [the display beds], so if something's going out of season or something's going back in season, they take care of that." For example, he says, "if you come here in March, the Miss Piggy and Kermit topiaries will always look like Miss Piggy and Kermit, but their flower beds will not look the same as if you came back in July."
"Multiple visits are required so you can keep track of what we do," he jokes.
And it's not just plants that will be changed out at this year's festival. At the Farmer's Feast outdoor kitchen, festival food menus will change three times over the course of the event.
"Right now we're in our early bloom, which will be going on through early April," Kevin Downing, a chef at WDW, says of the menu, which includes dishes like chilled vichyssoise soup and char-grilled bison ribeye, in addition to a translucent "Ghost Mary," a creative take on the classic Bloody Mary cocktail. "Then we'll transition to a springtime menu and then right around the end of May, we'll transition one more time to our Summer Solstice menu and feature items that are really themed toward the season and what's available during that time of year."
"Flower and Garden is really about the best of what mother nature can give us as chefs to work with," Downing tells Yahoo Life. "This festival is long: It starts at the beginning of March and really goes through almost three periods, so we wanted to play off that in our menu items."
Menu items also "play off" the festival's focus on plants. In the Garden Graze — a stroll around the park where festival-goers travel to different outdoor food kiosks and collect stamps for trying plant-based menu items like avocado toast, street corn and plant-based short ribs — guests redeem their stamped festival passport for a special prize.
Other festival highlights include a topiary garden, located in EPCOT's United Kingdom pavilion, which Brooks says showcases some of the property's older topiaries. "There's a shrub elephant and he lived at the Transportation and Ticketing Center (the parking structure for Magic Kingdom Park) originally," says Brooks. "He really is a heritage piece ... he's a really early on topiary from the last 50 years since we've been doing horticulture in Florida."
There's also nightly entertainment from local and national artists in the Garden Rocks Concert Series and festival-exclusive merchandise featuring the rarely-seen Orange Bird character.
Epcot's International Flower and Garden Festival is included in Epcot park admission and runs through July 5, 2023.
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