Inside the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival

Behind the magic at the Walt Disney World nurseries

Photo does not have a caption

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival officially kicked off Wednesday with new Disney topiaries, presentations and new seasonal dishes. But what you probably didn't know is just how much work it takes to get the topiaries, plants, flowers, gardens, all of it-- ready to be put on show, as cast members say.

[WEB EXTRA:  Epcot Flower Fest | Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival Guide]

It takes more than 500 cast members in the horticulture department alone, as well as other maintenance crews and cast members at the park itself. In that department, it takes gardeners, gardener specialists, arborists, irrigation specialists and more to make it all come together.

The horticulture department supports the parks and resorts with all of their tree, flower and plant needs. Everything from topiaries, hanging baskets to the floating gardens-- they produce those specialty items right there on property.

This year, there are more than 85 individual topiaries alone that have been created just for the festival. Heather Will-Browne, a horticulture area manager who has been with Disney for about 44 years, said it takes months to get the characters just right.

"It takes a long time," said Will-Browne. "Once we figure out the designs we want to do, we then have it sculpted, we have it critiqued by everyone, then a wire frame is made. We have to then stuff it with moss, put irrigation in it, all before we can put the individual plants on it."

Some of the topiaries take up to a year to create from start to finish because of the meticulous work that has to be done by hand.

Cast members take individual little plants-- different kinds for different features of the characters-- and then pin the plant plugs in place using hair pins.

The characters with faces have those features sculpted out of moss and some are even painted to get the right look.

New for this year, are several huge butterflies, as well as a special surprise: Elsa and Anna from "Frozen" at the World Showcase Plaza. There's also a Miss Piggy & Tour de Fleurs Garden at the Italy Pavilion.

Other notable topiaries include Sully from "Monsters, Inc." He's the tallest one-piece topiary, weighing in at 4,300 pounds when wet, and made up of 3,076 individual plants. Goofy is the tallest overall, though he's made of two pieces that have to be carefully put together using a crane.

But it's not just the topiaries that give the parks so much character. You'll find thousands of hanging baskets around the property as well.

"We produce over 1,500 baskets every season in our hanging basket house, so 5,000 every year," said Will-Browne. "You throw in the holiday where we do poinsettia baskets, too, and there could be as many as 10,000 hanging baskets hanging around the park Every set of hanging baskets has to be coordinated with and match the bedding plants that are in the ground, and we grow them ourselves because there's never been anyone that can grow them the way we do. It's a big basket that takes about three months to grow. It may be 50 pounds when we're done."

There are also the famous flower towers you find at Epcot.

"They are really special," said Will-Browne. "They take a lot of time to grow, because if you can imagine cake pans stacked one on another, on top of each other, that's how our flower towers grow. We have to plan them well in advance."

Will-Browne said it's a lot more work than people realize.

"I don't think anyone has any idea at all how much work, how much talent it takes," she said. "The weather can mess you up. I don't think anybody realizes how hard it is to grow it. You hear people say all the time, 'Just throw it out and grow it', but it really takes some nurturing and some care."

For some perspective, if you're just talking about flower beds, Will-Browne said they use 3 million plants a year for those beds alone. That means a lot of hard work and a lot of love.

"We tell a story with our plants," said Will-Browne. "If you can imagine going to the Mexican Pavilion or going on the Jungle Cruise ride, without plants, you'd have nothing. We are so enormous for helping you feel the mood, set the stage. That's our job."

The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival runs from March 4 to May 17. Guests are able to do everything from checking out the gardens and displays, to  workshops and trying spring-inspired dishes at outdoor kitchens. Most of the experiences are included with admission to Epcot.

About the Author: