Review: Epcot Gardens of the World Tour

| April 2, 2014 | 2 Replies

Post by Jeff Alves

My wife Val & I just moved to Florida and we had our favorite sister-in-law (Tracy) visiting to help with our interior decorating choices. Tracy enjoys gardening so we thought it would be nice to repay her by booking a special tour for the three of us.  The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival is currently taking place, so signing up for the “Gardens of the World” tour worked out perfectly!

The Flower And Garden brochure described the “Gardens of the World” tour thusly:

“Guided tours designed especially for garden enthusiasts! A Disney Horticulturist will be your host on a three-hour tour of special displays and award-winning international gardens. Register at Guest Relations or call 407-WDW-TOUR.”

We called on a Monday and were able to make reservations for the following Thursday without any problems, so I don’t think this is a very heavily booked tour. When making the reservation, we were instructed to meet our tour group outside the Epcot turnstiles to the right and to be 15 minutes early. We were also told that we should not bring any large back-packs or similar bags. Cameras are permitted but there may be some “backstage” no photograph restrictions. As it turned out, there was only a very brief excursion backstage at the very, very end.

It was a beautiful Thursday morning when our group met at the assigned place and time. There were supposed to be 13 intrepid explorers but there were two no-shows so we were a party of 11 plus our guide Clay. I was tempted to ask Clay if that was a stage name considering its “earthy” connection. While we were waiting for the start, we got acquainted and were outfitted with special electronics that allowed us to hear everything Clay said during the tour.

We proceeded to the entrance turnstiles and encountered a long line. The group did not get any special treatment here and we (somewhat) patiently waited in line. There were a lot of people at Epcot that morning waiting for opening, which happened to be an Extra Magic Hours early opening park that day. Clay let us know that this would not affect the length of the tour and we would get our money’s worth. It turned out that he was correct as our tour ran a bit longer than its planned noon endpoint.

Once through the turnstiles, Clay filled us in on the topiaries in the flower bed in front of Spaceship Earth and how they set the stage for this year’s Flower & Garden theme, “Butterfly Hunt.” You’ll notice that Goofy has a butterfly net but wasn’t having much luck actually capturing one, while Donald is having his typical bad luck dealing with a bee. This flower bed is known to the horticulture staff as the “helicopter bed.” It got that name back in October 1982 when, on the day before Epcot opened, somebody hired a helicopter to get a picture of Spaceship Earth, which to that point Disney hadn’t released pictures of. Well, the helicopter hovered over this flowerbed to get their picture, but in the process the downwash pretty much ruined the plantings there. All was put right before the opening, but to this day the bed is known as the helicopter bed. Curious as to what the other beds are named? They are the Logo bed (behind Spaceship Earth), the Teardrop Bed (between the fountain and the bridge to World Showcase), and the Christmas Tree Bed (where the Christmas Tree stands during the holidays).

Walking past Spaceship Earth, Clay pointed out several different palm tree varieties, the names of which escape me. This is probably a good place to mention that I’m not a gardener by any stretch of the imagination. I also didn’t take Latin in high school so any scientific name of the various plants just went right over my head, but it also brings up an interesting point. When asked why all the plants don’t have identifying signs Clay explained that it was to prevent sign overload. With so many varieties of plants in each bed, it would be overwhelmed with signs. Instead, Disney puts a few signs in each bed with the goal of identifying each species somewhere in the park. So, if you spot a plant that you want to know the name of, keep looking and you’ll eventually find your answer.

Remember the “Teardrop Bed?” For this year’s Flower and Garden Festival, it has a unique display celebrating the Soccer World Cup which is being held in Brazil this year. Frequent visitors to Walt Disney World are familiar with the large groups of Brazilian tour groups. Suffice it to say that they represent a large segment of the park’s audience and Disney turned this bed into a playful soccer field, with Goofy trying to make a goal. This is also one of the few beds where you can actually get into the scene and have your picture taken trying to block the goal.

As we progressed, it was apparent that Clay’s real job was a Disney Gardener, not a professional tour guide. He was very open and stumbled occasionally when explaining some of the points. That was a real plus for us as it told us that we were getting real-world information, not a polished presentation. In response to questions, Clay told us that his normal responsibilities are in World Showcase, primarily between the American Pavilion and France, with Japan taking most of his time due to the meticulous nature of the landscaping there in keeping with the theme of the country.

As we progressed through Epcot, Clay made the point in many areas that “instant landscaping” was a principle of maintaining the “show” for everybody no matter when they visited. Instant landscaping is what makes things seemingly spring to life overnight. The flower beds along the water’s edge between Future World and World Showcase actually take three days each to create.

The actual work is done at night and they complete one-third during each night shift. Similarly, when a new look is needed for a particular area, it just happens overnight and is fully show-ready when the guests arrive the next day. I was actually a little surprised at this since I have seen comments in the past about some displays needing to “grow in” during the early stages of the Flower & Garden festival but in looking around it was obvious that there wasn’t any place that needed to grow in. You might notice gardeners at work during the day time doing some culling of dying plants and weeding some of the beds in order to maintain the overall look. All the removed plant material is used for compost.

Speaking of growing in, have you noticed how sophisticated the topiaries have become? In the “old days” it took years and years to make a topiary by the old method of trying to train a plant to follow a skeletal structure. While you will still see this style in the parks, as in the Mary Poppins topiary in the United Kingdom Pavilion, now most topiaries are made using an underlying metal structure (often with built-in irrigation) which is covered with Sphagnum moss and on which the features and colors are carefully placed using various other plant material. As Disney has worked on this technique they have become more and more detailed. Perhaps the best example of this today are the figures of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Each figure has a face that is so carefully created that you can easily tell which dwarf is which.

Much of our time during the tour was spent in World Showcase. We learned that each country’s pavilion has its own color palette. For example, Germany is red, while France is more in the pastels. Of course the USA is red, white and blue. You’ll notice that the accent colors in each country reflect its own palette. Also, landscaping in the country is reflective of what you would find if you actually visited there.

Many people would think that the landscaping in China and Japan would be the same, and on first glance they are very similar. On closer inspection you realize that the China landscaping is more natural and subservient to the man-made buildings that they surround. In Japan, the landscaping is very carefully trimmed, with lots of rounded shapes, maintaining a sense of order.

Perhaps a good illustration of how landscape subtly contributes to the overall scene is in the Mexico pavilion, which actually has two distinct styles. The area around the pyramid reflects the jungle-like environment that you would encounter in the interior part of the country, especially where the Mayan ruins are. The gardeners in this area do their trimming with a light hand so that the landscape looks wild and somewhat blocks the hard edges of the pyramid. However, across the promenade the landscape reflects a more arid, desert style. You’ll notice sparse plants and barren, rocky soil around this part of the pavilion.

Clay explained that gardeners do a lot of their work during off-hours so you don’t see the magic happening while guests are in the park. His normal schedule is 7 am to 3 pm, five days a week. That allows him to really get into his work, using any power tools that may be needed onstage, and be done making things show ready before the guests can enter the park a few hours later.

We also found out that Disney is very, very safety conscious. Gardeners aren’t allowed to use ladders to reach high spots for pruning or watering, but instead must use special lifts because it’s safer. You know the grass and flowers on the roof in Norway? Yep, all trimmed from a lift before the guests get into the park.

Again, the landscaping is intended to establish a sense of place within the park. In Epcot, especially around World Showcase, it was necessary to create visual barriers and transition zones between countries. This is done by using lots of fairly generic sycamore trees so that once you are in front of the country you don’t see the others on each side. They also make a great effort to use plants that are native to those countries to the extent that they will survive the Florida climate. When that isn’t possible, they use look-a-like plants to maintain the theme.

One last thing we learned is how landscaping adds to the forced perspective effect that Disney uses in several places around Epcot. For example, in the walkway between Future World and World Showcase the trees are slightly smaller as you head towards the countries. This makes the walk way look longer than it really is. Another good example is in France where the trees and flower beds taper as you walk from the promenade up to the actual show buildings, making it look like the buildings, and the “Eiffel Tower” sitting on top of them are actually further away.

Because it can get so hot in Central Florida in the summertime, irrigation is very important to the plant life. In many cases the flower beds and plants have built-in irrigation systems that provide the optimum amount of water. However, there are still lots of plants, especially hanging baskets, that require copious hand watering in order to survive the Florida summer. Being ecologically conscious, Disney uses reclaimed water for this purpose.

Overall the tour was just over three hours long and you are on your feet for the entire time. Yes, there’s a lot of walking during the tour. I believe we walked three miles while doing the tour. Mobility impaired guests aren’t barred from the tour since all areas are accessible. We had one person in our party in an electric scooter and she was able to participate in everything we did.

Our tour ended in Canada where we learned some secrets about how the mountainous background of the pavilion was created and how the plant life is maintained. Some of this is behind the scenes stuff that I won’t go into here. We also learned that the garden that you see when you enter the pavilion is patterned after the Butchart gardens on Vancouver Island. The story goes that the family became rich quarrying limestone deposits but the wife was distressed at the barren wasteland that was left behind. She prevailed on her husband to work on reclaiming the landscape and beautifying the tailings. When you look at the gardens in the Canada pavilion, you’ll notice that in the center is a pond where the banks are reminiscent of an abandoned quarry.

At the conclusion of our tour, we were given two gifts – a special pin for the tour and a Flower & Garden poster. We noted that the poster is a $25 value in the Festival Center, which makes the cost of the tour very reasonable. The tour is offered Monday, Tuesday, Thursday & Friday from 9:00 am – 12:00 noon. The cost of the tour is $64 plus tax per person, with discounts for Disney Visa, Annual Passholder and DVC members. The tour is restricted to guests ages 16 and up. Theme Park admission is required.

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Category: Disney World, Florida Events

  • Tina McNeil

    Leah, I think I saw you at Animal Kingdom when my husband and I were there in early March. I didn’t want to bother you, for one, because you seemed so deep in thought and I even wasn’t positive it was you. Great article, I love the flowers and topiaries at the F&G Festival.

    • Leah Zanolla

      Yep, I was at Animal Kingdom! Next time, stop and say hi, I would have loved to have met you! :)