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The gasps were audible as families approached the entrance. The “Oh, my gosh”es and “Look at that” and “You want your picture taken with Woody?” were frequent phrases. Most families waited their turn for a professional photo in front of the Toy Story-inspired sculptures as they entered Epcot during this latest Flower & Garden Festival. As expected, this 18th year of the spring festival was nothing short of picture perfect at the Central Florida themepark. At least 350,000 bedding plants and millions of little details went into painting the entire Disney venue with splashes of living color. “When you go into horticulture you never really expect that you’re going to have people lining up in queues with cameras and take a picture of your work, and when you see that it’s very gratifying, ” shares Eric Darden with a smile.
As Festival Horticulture Manager, Darden has cultivated a crew that knows just which type of ficus or alternanthera to plug into the sphagnum moss on the park’s giant topiaries. Darden says this year’s characters are some of the best they’ve ever shaped. They’re constantly focused on character integrity. Sheriff Woody from Toy Story gets palm fiber boots and other accessories, down to the last belt loop. Darden explains, “When I talk about how detailed we have to get, particularly with the Pixar characters, because I’ve never worked with folks who want their characters to be so perfect, which makes it a challenge, but a lot of fun, because the end product is just so stellar: We actually had to put belt loops, so we grew the ficus strategically over the palm fiber to make it look like he had belt loops on his britches. When I saw our team doing that I thought, ‘we’ve reached a new level of detail.'”
Another favorite of Darden’s has been Mater, the lovable tow truck from the Cars stories. He says this was the most challenging topiary of all when it came to detail and precision. The palm-fiber tires and other painted components look very realistic from even a few feet away. The welded frame had to be made a few inches short all the way around to allow for 3- to 6-inches of plant growth over the frame. The final product met the dimensions required by both Pixar and Disney’s character integrity representative.
Although this year’s themed emphasis was on the Pixar characters, the horticulture crew rose to the occasion for showing off dozens of other classic characters, as well. Minnie Mouse wore a stunning red begonia dress and bow while picnicking with her friends. Floral princesses danced their way around the park. Winnie the Pooh and friends included Rabbit next to a real display of vegetable gardening. Rabbit was growing cabbage, kale, fennel and carrots. Tinkerbell and her Pixie Hollow friends hosted a rainbow of gardening colors, magical forest and children’s playground. Bambie and friends welcomed everyone into the live butterfly house.
Darden says that that the festival opened in March using many cooler weather blooms like violas, snapdragons and petunias. By mid-April, crews were replacing those with warmer season annuals like begonias, impatiens, marigolds. Each carefully planned greenscape and character motif painted a backdrop for visitors to unconsciously enjoy, even if they were more focused on autographs or rides. For visitors interested in details like plant names and gardening ideas, those were there, too.
Even before the 75-day event wrapped up in late May, Darden was already hard at work on the next festival. “I love working at Disney in horticulture. The standards are very high. Our goal is to please our guests. The way you please guests is you get better every year. Believe me, we’re already thinking about how can we make next year better than this year.”