21 Reasons to Visit the Flower and Garden Festival
by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars® Senior Editor
This article appeared in the March 11, 2014 Issue #755 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
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.
This year marks the 21st annual Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, and while I haven't visited each of those 21 years, I have been to quite a few of them. I must say that this year I enjoyed the festival even more than usual, despite the fact that the first two days of my visit were less than stellar, weather-wise.
Still, as I squelched through the park with soggy sneakers and frozen fingers those first couple of days, I managed to find quite a lot to make all of my senses -- sight, smell, hearing, touch and especially taste -- very happy. And the last few days, when the temps finally climbed back up in to the 70s, we (my senses and me, that is) were all even happier. Here's why I think you will be happy, too, should you visit this year's Festival, which started March 5 and runs all the way through until May 18.
Reason 1: The topiaries, of course. This year, there are 99 of them, according to Disney's Horticulture Manager Eric Darden, who is in charge of coordinating the 75-day extravaganza. Disney characters from classic to current, made from all natural materials trained around wire forms, are showcased around the park. Like the Fab Five? You'll find them easily -- Goofy, Donald and Daisy are at the park entrance, in a scene depicting a whimsical butterfly hunt; Mickey and Minnie are a bit further in, on the back side of Spaceship Earth. If you prefer more contemporary Disney characters, you'll find the Disney Channel's Phineas and Ferb immortalized in greenery, along with Pixar favorites like Buzz and Woody, and Monsters Inc.'s Mike and Sulley. The newest additions are my personal favorites: Miss Piggy and Kermit. Yes, they are featured primarily to promote their upcoming film, Muppets Most Wanted (due in theaters March 21), but given that Disney now "owns" these treasured creatures from my youth, I'm not upset if they do as much as they can to exploit them. Beyond Kermie and Piggy, you can find other old favorites like the Norway Troll, the Outpost's Rafiki, Simba, Timon and Pumbaa, and Italy's lovely Lady and the Tramp. Snow White and her Dwarfs grace the Germany pavilion, and this year Snow sports a new look -- quite literally. Her features are painted on, allowing the gardeners the chance to give her a true facial expression. While she is the only topiary with this new look this year, don't be surprised to see others receive the same treatment in years to come. Finally, topiary-viewing isn't just for daytime any more. Many of the exhibits are illuminated at night, creating an entirely different feeling to the gardens.
Reason 2: The flowers. Maybe it was just my winter-weary eyes, but the flowers around the theme park seemed to explode with color more than ever before. (Well, once the rain ended and the clouds dissipated, at least.) There's just something -- dare I say "magical"? -- about the way the floral carpet brightens the banks of the lakes in Future World East and West. I just love drinking that in with my eyes. Eric Darden agreed with me, and claimed that there are about 70,000 bedding plants in use around the park for this festival. I believe him. There are flowers simply everywhere. He also noted, "We have more color than we've ever had before. I can't think of a Flower and Garden Festival where we've put more flowers in it." To drive home this point, Darden mentioned the new Gardener's Palette area, located near Universe of Energy. Calling it a "gardener's garden," Darden said that the spot showcases the use of color in the garden in a unique way. And, always looking for a way to "plus" our experience, the Disney gardeners have added a surprise to the beautiful floating mini-gardens -- did you know there were about 220 of them, by the way? Some have been accented with twinkling lights at night.
Reason 3: Tinker Bell's Butterfly House. I always enjoy walking through this enclosed space, watching the butterflies flit and float all around -- who doesn't? Somehow, even when the space is filled with people, there's something magical, almost ethereal about the winged lovelies. This year it seemed there was even more variety than last, or maybe I just hit it lucky and was able to see a greater number of the various kinds. I definitely WAS lucky in that several times four or five butterflies clustered in one small area for a few minutes, allowing me to snap a number of memorable photographs. I also noticed several guests were able to entice butterflies to light on their extended fingers. One delighted little girl was afraid to move or even breathe lest she disturb her visitor and I smiled as I watched a few other children laughing when they noticed a zebra longwing hitchhiking a ride on their father's shouldered backpack, unbeknownst to him. In addition to the living creatures in this space, there are several new, gorgeous glass creations, made by the same artist who created the glass poppies for last year's Oz play area.
Reason 4: The new Hummingbirds at Home exhibit, presented by the National Audubon Society. This walk-through hummingbird garden, located behind Mouse Gear in Future World, offers tips on how to attract the tiny birds with plants like Ruby-Red Penta, Coral Honeysuckle, Firebush, and Salvia. As someone who's had a hummingbird feeder on her deck for years, I was intrigued by the addition of this new exhibit, but alas, the cold and rain kept the little creatures away during my visit. Blogger Kristin Ford spoke to naturalist Don Kendzior about the garden and hummingbirds in general in her recent blog:
Reason 5: The Flower Power Concerts. I know some of you youngsters out there won't remember many of these acts -- and let's face it, some of them, like Chubby Checker and Gary Lewis and the Playboys, are even a little before MY time. (Hard to imagine, I know.) But how can you resist the chance to see The Village People or Herman's Hermits with Peter Noone? Honestly, these 40-minute sets are some of the best entertainment that money can't buy (the shows are included with your Epcot admission), and if you happen to be old enough to recall the glory days of these performers, you'll enjoy the stroll down Memory Lane as you listen to them run through their medley of hits (or hit, as the case may be). I thoroughly enjoyed The Guess Who this past weekend, even though they are without former lead singer Burton Cummings. Current lead Derek Sharp was a more than adequate substitute. Make time in your schedule to catch one of these shows on the weekends, at 5:30, 6:45 and 8 p.m. in America Gardens Theatre.
Reason 6: The kids' playgrounds. This year, they seem to be better and more popular than ever. Darden suggested that Mike & Sulley's Monstrous Garden was possibly the best play area the Festival has ever had, and I witnessed many little ones who seemed to agree every time I passed by the play structures along the Imagination Walkway. In addition, there's a newly appointed "Cars"-themed play area located appropriately over near Test Track. Mater's Parts, Plants and Play Garden encourages kids to search for missing car parts, along with other hands-on activities. There's also a play garden in World Showcase sponsored by GoGo squeeZ, found between the France and Morocco pavilions. (If you're lucky, you'll be there when they're handing out juice pouches.)
Reason 7: The HGTV personalities. This year's HGTV Designers' Stage, located in the Festival Center, kicked off its series of celebrity presenters with Vern Yip, from the show HGTV Design Star. If you're a fan of the network, you'll appreciate some of the other upcoming personalities who will take the stage Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at noon and 3 p.m., among them Chris Lambton ("Going Yard"), Matt Blashaw ("Yard Crashers") and John Gidding ("Curb Appeal"). (Sadly, although their faces are in the HGTV ads found in the festival guidemaps and Garden Passports, the popular Property Brothers Jonathan and Drew Scott are NOT on the schedule.)
Reason 8: The merchandise. I'm not much of a shopper, but I found some fun and unusual souvenirs and items that would make great gifts for the garden-lover. One motif I noticed in much of the merchandise was what I called "Angry Bees Donald." Donald Duck, with his recognizably grumpy countenance, seemed to be plagued by buzzing buddies on mugs, t-shirts, totes, even on the official festival poster. Perfect for the Donald-lover in your life -- and I know a few! There were also some really cute shirts and headbands, not to mention an adorable "garden gnome"-style plush Duffy the Disney Bear ($30).
Reason 9: The gardening experts and workshops. Not only are there hands-on activities, like planting bulbs that you can take home with you, there are daily talks by Disney Horticulturists and other local and nationally recognized garden experts on The Greenhouse Stage. The talks are scheduled at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. every day, and there are Planting Pointers presentations at 1 and 4 p.m. All can be found in the Festival Center.
Reason 10: Tours for Green Thumbs. If you're really interested in seeing how Disney makes the festival magic happen, you can take the three-hour Gardens of the World tour, only offered on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday during the festival run. It's $64 plus tax (for ages 16 and up) and gives you a chance to tour the park with a Disney horticulturist who shows off the special displays and shares some secrets. (Kristin Ford took the tour last year -- you can read her review here: http://land.allears.net/blogs/kristin-ford/2013/03/gardens_of_the_world_tour_retu.html ) There's also a tour of the English Tea Garden offered several times a day -- it's free, so be sure to stop by The Tea Caddy to sign up early in the day if you're interested. And of course, there's always the Behind the Seeds tour -- it's not exclusive to the festival, but if you're a gardener you'll be interested in this behind-the-scenes look at the Disney greenhouses in the Land pavilion. Sign up there -- it's $20 per adult, $16 per child.
Reasons 11 - 21: The 11 Outdoor Kitchens that circle the World Showcase Lagoon! OK, I can hear you say that I'm cheating, citing each of these 11 kiosks as an individual item, but in my opinion each one has something worth trying. You know what these Outdoor Kitchens are, right? Introduced last year as Garden Marketplaces, the renamed Outdoor Kitchens bring the element of a mini-food festival to the flowery event. As Epcot Executve Chef Jens Dahlmann noted recently, the kitchens "connect the dots," really illustrating the relationship between growing your own produce, harvesting it, then cooking it. Over the course of four days, I made my way around the World, trying to get a sample from every stop, and I can assure you that there is truly something for everyone. Of the new menu items, my personal favorites included the Potato and Cheese Biscuit with Smoked Salmon Tartare and Fresh Baked Lemon Scones from the Buttercup Cottage near the UK pavilion; the Confit de Canard (duck confit with parsely potatoes) and the Orange Blossom Macaron with white chocolate ganache, both in the Fleur de Lys kitchen near France; and Eggplant "Scallop" from the Urban Farm EATS kitchen near the entrance to World Showcase. Returning favorites were the refreshing and surprising Watermelon Salad and Shrimp and Grits, both in the Florida Fresh kitchen, and everyone's favorite, Frushi -- fruit rolled with rice "sushi"-style in pale pink soy wrappers. So good! I really enjoyed almost everything I tried -- except I must extend my apologies to Chef Jens -- I did not find the Bacon Cupcake with Maple Frosting in The Smokehouse at all "Piggylicious." I admit, though, that I'm not a fan of that smoky flavor the bacon renderings impart to the cake -- if that's your thing, you may well love it. My totally unscientific survey of about a dozen people found several who did! Let us know what you think if you try it.
So, have my 21 reasons to visit the Flower and Garden Festival convinced you? In re-reading what I've written, I think I've convinced myself that I need to go back before the festival wraps up in May. Maybe I'll see you there, and we can come up with 22 reasons to go back again next year.
(Disclosure: I was an invited media guest at the Flower and Garden Festival on one day during my recent four-day stay and some of my expenses were paid by Walt Disney World. However, the opinions expressed above are solely my own.)