A Post-Winter Garden Party

by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars® Senior Editor

Feature Article

This article appeared in the
March 8, 2011 Issue #598 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Canada at the Epcot Flower and Garden FestivalJust when I thought the winter was never going to end, I had the good fortune to visit Epcot's 18th Annual Flower and Garden Festival. Talk about a much-needed breath of fresh air! Fresh air scented with the fragrance of sweet alyssum and roses and pansies — fresh air, which, thankfully, was clear and dry, in contrast to the cold, damp season I had left behind me in northern Virginia. The so-called "flower quilts" that hug the shores of the Future World lakes were as festive and vibrant as ever, with bright purple, red, pink and yellow bedding plants. Just drinking in all that color seemed to chase the memories of winter out of my bones.

This year's event began on Wednesday, March 2, and will run 75 days — through May 15. I didn't arrive at Epcot until Saturday, when the festival was already in full swing, but I more than made up for the lost time by covering just about every square inch of the park over the next three days.

So what did I find this year as I frolicked among the flowers? While it wasn't all sunshine and roses, I'd say overall it was "bloomin' fantastic!" But let's start at the beginning…

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As a veteran festival-goer, I always like to start my visit by taking a look at what changes Disney has made to this annual event. Probably the biggest new "thing" at the festival this year is the sponsorship of HGTV. I saw its influence most notably at the Festival Center (the former Wonders of Life pavilion), where guest speakers from the cable network's various series will be featured on several different stages multiple times each week. Kicking off the first weekend was Genevieve Gorder, host of HGTV's "Dear Genevieve," as well as a judge on "HGTV Design Star." Gorder drew a sizeable crowd as she spoke on the "art of sculpting space." The area designated for her talk seated about 100, and there were many other spectators standing at the rear — if you want a seat for these talks, I'd suggest you get there at least a half-hour early. And you'll find a whole host of HGTV experts in the coming weeks who are well worth waiting for, including Vern Yip of "HGTV Design Star" and Brian Patrick Flynn ( "Design Happens").

I thoroughly enjoyed the newly expanded Butterfly House, which now has a "Bambi" theme and is located in Future World West behind Club Cool. The area is more than double its former size and the number of butterflies seems to have increased proportionately. There's something a little magical about standing there with so many of the airy creatures fluttering around your head, not to mention how special it is to watch the faces of little ones as they see the butterflies flit from here to there. By the way, even though they are not new, I just love the butterfly topiaries that stand sentry at the entrances to the house — they are beautiful as ever.

Pixie House at Epcot Flower and Garden FestivalWhile the Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden on the opposite side of Future World isn't entirely new, the "meet and greet" with Tinker Bell and her fairy friends is. Kids seemed to really enjoy the chance to meet Tink, as the line waiting to speak to her seemed to stretch to Never Land. I noticed that Terence, the new "sparrowman" (the proper term for this male fairy) character, was also greeting guests — what a charmer. Also, as you browse around the Fairy Garden enjoying the lilting Celtic music in the background, don't miss the miniature pixie houses that dot the landscape. My favorite is the one made from a tea kettle, but the one constructed in an old roller skate is pretty adorable, too.

Keep a look out for Blossom and BA in their flower-bedecked golf cart, as they motor around dispensing tips on how to better enjoy the Festival. I never saw them in previous years, so I'm assuming they are a new addition (forgive me if I'm wrong), and they certainly were entertaining and most helpful. And also, along the Rose Walk that connects World Showcase to Future World West, don't miss this year's sand sculpture — it's a truly impressive creation promoting Disneynature's upcoming feature, "African Cats."

Another new exhibit is Rapunzel's Tower, which is located between the Italy and Germany pavilions. The tall tower features the heroine's lovely, long blonde locks cascading down from the window, while music from Disney's animated film "Tangled" fills the air.

This brings up a little pet peeve of mine about this year's festival — in years past, it was clear that many of the exhibits were meant to be a commercial for other Disney projects, such as the dolphin topiaries last year that advertised the Disneynature film that was soon to come. I totally understand about "integrated marketing," but this year the advertisements seemed to be so numerous and much more blatant — Rapunzel's Tower mentioned the "Tangled" Blu-Ray and DVD Combo Pack, while the Lion King topiaries announced the combo pack coming this fall; the Bambi vignette in the butterfly house sold the film's "Diamond Edition" release; the Winnie-the-Pooh grouping pushed the Winnie-the-Pooh movie coming to theaters on July 15… it just seemed a bit much to me. Ah well, I guess it's what they call "synergy."

One of the biggest disappointments this years is that some of the new topiaries I anticipated the most were no-shows. Press releases in advance of the festival touted an all-new entrance display that was to feature topiary characters from Toy Story 3. Well, Buzz Lightyear and Woody were there, and I must say I was impressed with the attention to detail on each of these new figures — Woody even sported a pull-string on his back. But where was the nefarious Lotso Bear? Nowhere to be seen. Instead there was a topiary number "3" prominently perched on a pedestal — a rather lame substitute for what I suppose should have been the new strawberry-scented figure. In fact, as I was taking photos, a number of people around me asked, "What's the 3 for?" I assume it's for Toy Story "3", but the cast members I spoke to weren't sure what happened to Lotso, or whether he'll eventually be making an appearance sometime before May 15.

Similarly, new topiaries of the characters Lightning McQueen and Mater, from the Disney-Pixar "Cars" films, were supposed to be the main event at the entrance to World Showcase. Instead, the topiary flags mentioned in the festival's press release are in place — but the Cars creations are conspicuously absent. Again, no explanation was provided, even though the topiaries are highlighted on the guide map. It made me a bit curious as to what might have happened, and I'm sure it was disappointing for many others who may not be back in Walt Disney World again this year before the festival wraps up.

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Timon at Epcot's Flower and Garden FestivalIn addition to the new topiaries and exhibits, a lot of those seen in previous years are being presented in new ways. For example, if you've been to the Flower and Garden Festival in the past, you may find that your favorite topiaries have been relocated. For example, Bambi, Thumper and Flower have moved from Canada into a new home in the Butterfly House. The Lion King topiaries (Rafiki with baby Simba, Pumbaa and Timon) are up near the Outpost around World Showcase. And Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy and Pluto make up a playful kite-flying vignette along the back side of Spaceship Earth.

The Fragrance Garden in World Showcase's France pavilion is again sponsored by French perfumers Guerlain. Topiaries shaped like the company's classic perfume bottles take the stage in the pavilion's fountain, and scattered around the formal gardens are scent boxes that highlight the essences used to create the famous fragrances. If you really want to make some sense of the scents, you can sign up at La Signature for a 20-minute tour — it's free, and is given daily at 2, 4 and 6 p.m.

Speaking of tours, the UK pavilion is again offering 20-minute tours of its English Tea Garden. You can sign up at the Tea Caddy for the guided tours, offered at 4 and 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 2, 4 and 6:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday. For those who want an even more in-depth look at the festival displays, a three-hour tour, Gardens of the World, is hosted by a Disney horticulturist on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays (call 407-WDW-TOUR for reservations) for $59.

If bonsai is your bailiwick, it's again featured in the Japan pavilion, right along the water, framed beautifully by the Torii Gate. There's also a bonsai display in the Festival Center, sponsored by a local bonsai club. And even though Bambi and friends have changed address, the Canada pavilion's garden is still, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful in World Showcase.

Don't miss the exhibits made out of all-natural components explaining the Chinese zodiac. Located in the China pavilion, these little figures representing The Year of the Rabbit, the Rooster, the Tiger, etc., were miniature works of art composed of wheat, dried corn and beans, nuts, and moss. They're easy to miss, so be sure to make a special effort to look for them.

If you're visiting Epcot during the week, Disney experts are on hand to share their tips at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. at the Festival Center's Greenhouse Stage. These limited-space sessions include interactive hands-on discoveries during which you can make something to take home. Also in the Festival Center, experts from the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) present "Planting Pointers" — gardening ideas for everyone — daily at 1 and 4 p.m. You also can "Ask an Expert" — a UF/IFAS "Master Gardener" — gardening questions from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

The Festival Center also houses a marketplace, with artists and garden merchants from around the country. You can also snag Festival merchandise at several other locations around World Showcase. Rachel Tribble, the 2011 Flower and Garden Festival "Featured Artisan" who created this year's poster, appeared at the Garden Retreat shop at World Showcase Plaza this past weekend, but if you missed her, don't worry. She's scheduled to return for nearly every weekend for the remainder of the event.

Finally, don't forget the "Flower Power" concerts held at the America Gardens Theatre in World Showcase. These acts, mostly from the 1960s and '70s, perform three times nightly, 5:15, 6:30 and 7:45 p.m., and lines form early. Returning performer Jose Feliciano kicked off the series this year. Coming up later in the series are personal favorites Davy Jones (of the Monkees) and Peter Noone (Herman's Hermits), Chubby Checker, The Nelsons, and — new to the festival this year — Marilyn McCoo & and Billy Davis, Jr. (The Fifth Dimension) and Melissa Manchester. If want to be sure to catch any of these performers, consider lining up at least a half-hour before showtime. They are a great way to catch some quality entertainment while stirring up some memories of days gone by.

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The littlest gardeners will be glad to discover that the Flower and Garden Festival has not forgotten about them. In addition to Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden, there are several spots that feature playsets for children to climb and crawl around on — one located at the end of the Pixie Hollow garden, another in World Showcase near the Art of Green Living exhibit in the France pavilion. There are also some hands-on activities at the Pixie Hollow garden's "Tinker's Nook." Along the Rose Walk, there's another kids' area — GoGo on the Go Challenge, which has games and hands-on activities related to healthy eating.

The kids will also enjoy the "Sounds of Nature" exhibit, located adjacent to the Pixie Hollow garden. Two disc-shaped seats face each other and promise to project whispered sounds across the distance. There's also a little music-making apparatus, sure to entertain even the adults, who can't seem to resist trying to play a little a tune (as we witnessed!).

Guerlain again has its "Bee Scavenger Hunt," which encourages kids to spot all the bees hidden around the France pavilion's garden. HGTV is also sponsoring a little scavenger hunt for the kids — be sure to ask a cast member about it, and you'll be given a sheet with a list of 15 items to look for.

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As I said at the outset, even though there were a few letdowns (most notably the missing topiaries), overall this year's event is extremely well done. The flowers all look amazing — the bedding plants and the floating gardens were exploding with color, and even the temperamental roses were at their fragrant peak. Clearly the weather this year was much more conducive to good growing than last year's frigid temperatures. And the topiaries that are in place reflect just how sophisticated the Disney horticulturists have become at capturing the personalities of the characters they are representing. Buzz Lightyear, for example, looks just like his cartoon self, right down to his generous square jaw. There's a terrific line-up of guest speakers, not only from HGTV and Disney, but other nationally recognized experts, and even the new festival merchandise looks fresh and appealing.

It could be that my winter-addled brain was just happy to see green and growing things again, but I don't think that's it. I think this year's Flower and Garden Festival is a garden party that you don't want to miss!


The 18th Annual Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival runs until May 15.

Photo Gallery (with many more photos to come!):

See more photos from AllEars.Net Guest Blogger Ashley Livingston:

Share YOUR opinions on this year's Flower & Garden Festival in our Rate and Review Section.

2012 Dates for Epcot's Flower & Garden Festival (also to be presented by HGTV): March 7 – May 20, 2012


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.