Beginning this week, gardening enthusiasts can experience a special guided tour during the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. Horticulturalists lead visitors on a walking journey through every country in World Showcase during the Gardens of the World Tour. This is the 20th year for the tour, which is only offered to the general public during the festival. I was among the guests on the first tour of this season.
After receiving our audio headsets, we began with an introduction to the landscaping practices at Walt Disney World. Our tour guide and Gardener Specialist Brenda Sandberg has been with the theme park for 6 years and began our tour by explaining the park’s pesticide use. Sandberg said that Epcot’s 90 horticulturalists use weak pesticides in limited quantities for the safety of the animals and people who come in contact with the park’s many plants.
Walking through Future World, Brenda pointed out the unusual names of some of the flower beds. For example, the dominant, raised bed in front of Spaceship Earth at the front of the park is called the “helicopter bed” among cast members. The name came from an event the day before the grand opening of the park in 1982, when a helicopter hovered over the area to allow a photographer to shoot promotional photos. The wind generated from the rotor blades caused all the flowers to be blown out of the bed, leaving the horticulturalists scrambling to replant everything under a tight deadline. Anecdotes such as this one make the tour interesting for any Disney fan, not just avid gardeners.
As we made our way to World Showcase and traveled through the countries, we were treated to many details about the individual plantings. I was amazed by some of the subtleties I have never noticed in all my years of visiting Epcot. Did you know that the foliage around the Mexico pavilion is designed to include species from a rainforest? If you walk up the path on the right of the front of the pyramid, before the character meet-and-greet area, you will see everything from multicolored bromeliads to a chiclet tree.
Can’t tell the difference between the China and Japan pavilions? China has more natural landscaping and a more contemplative setting than Japan, whose water gardens are louder and flower colors bolder. Another fun fact: China’s pond cannot stock Koi fish because birds of prey found the large open pond to be an easy buffet. Japan’s layered and hidden ponds make a better home for the Koi fish because they are tucked away in a protective corner of the landscaping.
For many, this tour is an opportunity to find out how the gorgeous topiaries featured in the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival are nurtured and maintained. I had hoped we would go behind-the-scenes to see such demonstrations in a greenhouse, but most of this tour takes place in the guest areas of the theme park.
We did learn that there are three types of topiaries at Disney World: free-form, standard and character. The free-form topiaries are, of course, ones where nature is allowed to take its course. Standard topiaries can take a decade or more to grow because plants at the base of a metal frame are trained to grow and cover the shape over time. Character topiaries are built using plant “plugs,” which gives horticulturalists the ability to use a variety of materials. Also, the plugs allow the character topiaries to be rebuilt in a much quicker fashion than the others if plants are damaged or die. All three types of topiaries can be seen outside the United Kingdom pavilion.
The Gardens of the World Tour is designed for those ages 16 and older, and with good reason. It’s really an educational tour with a lot of information presented over the course of a three-hour stroll throughout Epcot. My 8- and 10-year-old children would have been really bored if they had been allowed to participate. Plus, there is a lot of walking and standing. Our guide planned ample bathroom breaks during the tour, and some of those stops were at locations with water fountains. Be aware that unlike Epcot’s Segway tours, though, this one does not provide bottles of water to its participants, so you may want to bring your own.
Those who complete the Gardens of the World Tour receive a collectible pin that is only available to participants. They also receive a festival poster, which sells for about $20 in the park’s retail outlets. The tour, itself, is $60 plus tax per person, and discounts for Disney Visa cardholders, Disney World annual passholders and Disney Vacation Club members apply. Tours begin at 9 a.m. Tuesdays, Thursday and Fridays through May 17 and can be booked by calling 407-WDW-TOUR.