Flower and Garden Festival



by Debra Martin Koma
Senior Editor, AllEars®

This article appeared in the
March 10, 2009 Issue #494 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Eric Darden

When the Flower and Garden Festival kicks off on March 18 this year, a particular countdown clock will be reset, and will start to tick off the days until the event is over... 75 days later.

The man at the helm of this floral fiesta is Eric Darden, in his 6th year as Horticulture Manager of Epcot's International Flower and Garden Festival. And as busy as he is this time of year, just before the Festival launches for its 16th showing, he took some time to sit down with me to talk about what goes into bringing such an event to fruition.

Darden, a 22-year cast member who started his career at Disney as a gardener, says that getting Epcot to look its flowery finest for the festival is a full-year proposition, with planning for the next year beginning almost as soon as the current year's festival opens. It starts with a team of two, Darden and another cast member, and eventually grows to a full complement of cast members spanning a wide range of disciplines -- not just horticulture, but operations, merchandising, entertainment, and marketing.

"It takes so many people to create this event," he explains, adding that a large part of his job is to bring the most creative people together so that they can generate ideas. "We take a lot of pride in knowing that people are willing to come to Walt Disney World just to see the Flower and Garden Festival, so we are constantly thinking, 'How can we beat what we did last year?' Because we should be getting better every year."

This year, the festival's theme is "Celebrations," which coincidentally meshes with Disney Parks' "What Will You Celebrate?" campaign. To "tell the story," the festival exhibits will interpret various classic Disney tales using more than 50 Disney character topiaries and 300,000 bedding plants.

"This is the most topiaries we've used since 2001," Darden notes. "We tend to give things a rest, we don't do exactly the same things every year, as we try to make each year better, and different, from the year before. This year, with all these topiaries, I think the guests are going to be wowed, not only by the quantity, but by the quality."

The opening display that guests entering Epcot will encounter portrays "Cinderellabration," the coronation of Cinderella on the dais with her Prince Charming. Other guests featured in this exhibit will be Belle and Beast, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and brand new topiaries of Sleeping Beauty (Aurora) and her prince Philip in an "organic" carriage. Elsewhere in the park, there will be an array of topiaries, ranging from characters like Aladdin and Lady and the Tramp, to butterflies and perfume bottles (in the France pavilion in World Showcase).

"Over the years we have actually changed the way we think about the topiaries," Darden notes. "We originally only wanted to use live plants, but we realized that if we wanted to really show the personalities of the characters in the topiaries, we needed to use other materials, dry materials. That's what our guests want -- to see the characters' personalities, and that's our biggest concern. It's trial and error, but I think some of our team members are really talented at preserving the character integrity," he adds, citing the set of Lion King figures as among his favorites.

But it's not just a topiary festival, Darden is quick to point out. The festival encompasses all sorts of plantings and gardens, such as the 100 floating mini-gardens, each three feet in diameter, on the two ponds that border the walkway between Future World and World Showcase. And there are 750 container gardens of flowers, herbs, plants and vegetables in clay pots, barrels and urns throughout Epcot. As Darden says, "We don't do anything here that you can't do at home, it's just a matter of scale. We may have 800 containers and you only need two or three, but I want people to see that they can do this at home, too."

The festival is also about education and live entertainment, as anyone who has visited the event before knows. Returning this year are the guest speakers of the "Great American Gardeners" series and Flower Power Concerts, which feature popular musical acts of the 1950s and '60s. And Minnie's Magnificent Butterfly Garden, located in Future World East behind the Odyssey pavilion, "will always be there," Darden notes, citing its extreme popularity.

Other exhibits, however, have been replaced. There won't, for example, be much represented in the way of vegetable gardening this year. In fact, Darden says about 25 percent to 30 percent of the gardens are new each year.

"We've found most gardens have a lifespan of 2, 3, or 4 years," he notes. "So we come up with new ideas to replace them -- that's intentional."

One of the new gardens, the Pixie Hollow area, located near the Butterfly Garden, is going to be a standout, Darden claims, with topiaries of Tinker Bell and her friends. There will also be a daily Fairy & Princess Procession in this new play area, one of four strategically placed around Epcot to encourage childrens' participation in the festival as well. This area will also feature a hands-on activity, where children will be given the chance to plant seeds for "Fairy Dust Impatiens", specially designed for the Festival by a Disney supplier.

"We really do want to get the kids involved in gardening and get them outside," Darden explains. "I want to hear people say that the Flower and Garden Festival is the best time of year to bring kids to Disney World, because there is so much for them to do."

Also for the little ones, Darden says the festival will have as many as 10 different hands-on activities scattered around Epcot. There will be, for example, a topiary scavenger hunt, in which children (and adults!) can obtain a list of clues from the Festival Information Center to search for the various topiaries around Epcot. In addition, the park is introducing the use of "Weevos," an innovative play structure by Landscape Structures Inc., designed specifically for children between the ages of 2 and 5.

"We'll also have the companion play structure, the Evos, which is for kids over 5," Darden adds, "as well as a special outdoor elliptical-type machine for adults. Along the Rose Walk (which connects Future World to World Showcase, over near the Imagination pavilion), we're going to have a new themed play area called 'Let's Get Moving,' where we'll feature our Fab Five topiaries of Donald, Goofy, and so on. We'll really have something for everyone -- the whole idea is to get everyone active and outside."

Other new exhibits this year include the Green Garden, in which guests can gain insights on how to create their own environmentally safe garden, including information about low-water-use, native plants and recycling.

"We're going to have two houses, one for the I. M. Green family and one for U. R. Wasteful family, and we're going to try to show different ways you can improve your practices," Darden explains. "Perhaps the one house will have a leaky faucet, while the other collects water in rain barrels to be reused -- little things like that. The nice thing is that these are things that are not only responsible, but will save you money."

With all these different gardens and plantings, how does Disney keep it all looking so good for all 75 days?

"We want to make sure that the guest who sees the gardens today experiences the same 'show' as the guest who came yesterday and the guest who will come tomorrow," Darden says. "That's why we actually replace nearly all the bedding plants about halfway through the show."

In the case of the unpredictable -- a cold snap, a pest infestation -- Darden says they are prepared, with enough back-up plants in their greenhouses, but that doesn't mean that it's easy. For a March festival start, he notes that plants have to be started in January, and it's often difficult to get the varieties he needs that early in the year.

"Central Florida especially is a challenging place to garden," Darden admits. "We never get that dormant phase that so many plants need, so we have a very limited plant palette, and have to be creative in the plants we use."

For that reason, Darden employs the use of plants that come in a variety of vibrant colors -- lots of impatiens, petunias, snapdragons, violas or pansies -- especially in the first half of the festival, as they are more what he terms "winter crops." This is not to say that the second half of the festival is any less colorful, of course -- it's just that you may notice different types of plants if you make a return visit to the festival later in its run. That said, Darden can't deny that he does enjoy the start of the event.

"For me," he says, "the best day is the night before the day before the festival opens. That's when they do the installation of Epcot's front entrance festival exhibit. It's this instant transformation -- you come in at 7:30 the next morning and it's like, 'Wow! Look what we did!' It's fun... for about an hour."

And then Darden will go in to his office and reset his countdown clock for Flower and Garden Festival 2010.


Some more random fun Flower and Garden Festival facts:

-- The Flower and Garden Festival started as a 38-day event, then went to 45 days, then to 60, and is now 75 days long. This year the festival runs from March 18 through May 31.

-- More than 500 native butterflies representing up to 10 species reside in Minnie's Magnificent Butterfly Garden. Among the garden's two dozen nectar plants are Cape Royal plumbago, passion flower, coral honeysuckle, blazing star, butterfly bush, scarlet milkweed and canna lily.

-- At least 25 different plants, grasses and mosses of various colors, including pink and red begonias, dusty miller, palm fiber, palm seeds, ficus and lichen, are used to create and define features of the festival topiaries. More color has been added to the topiaries than in any previous topiary presentation.

-- More than 15 floral, herbal and spice ingredients of 10 popular perfumes are revealed in the Fragrance Garden presented by Guerlain at the France pavilion.

-- Forty-five "flower towers" of impatiens line Innoventions Plaza.

-- 300 Walt Disney World horticulturists are needed to install the festival landscape, topiaries and many exhibits; 100 Epcot horticulturists maintain topiaries and other festival displays.


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.