Back in the early ’90s, Walt Disney World was looking for ways to pump up attendance at Epcot, which had opened a decade earlier. Someone hit on the idea of holding a garden festival to attract hard-core gardeners who weren’t drawn to theme parks.
The parks already had a horticulture department to care for the perfectly coiffed landscapes, said Eric Darden, who was a foreman on the topiary crew then and is the festival’s horticulture manager today. “We already knew how to do a lot of neat stuff. We already had topiaries, hanging baskets, bedding plants.”
So began the EPCOT International Flower & Garden Festival, first held in 1994. That first festival ran 38 days. The 20th festival, which opens Wednesday, will run 75 days — twice as long.
The heart of the festival is still aimed at serious gardeners. It has produce and herb gardens, container gardens, floating gardens, 30 million blooms, Tinker Bell’s Butterfly House with 1,000 butterflies, Radiator Springs Garden from the movie Cars, garden activities for kids and 150 hands-on gardening demonstrations and seminars with celebrity hosts from HGTV and DIY as well as master gardeners and extension agents.
And serious gardeners responded. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people who bring pictures of their garden or yard and show us what they did,” Darden said.
HGTV joined the festival as a sponsor in 2011, adding star power to the gardening seminars. Each of the celebrity hosts spends a weekend — Friday, Saturday and Sunday — at the festival, conducting two seminars a day.
When Disney releases the line-up of TV hosts who will conduct seminars, “people schedule their vacations to see their favorite hosts,” said Gary McCormick, who’s in charge of partner development for HGTV. “Some people are there every weekend to see the HGTV hosts. We basically have standing room only for most of the presentations.”
This year at the festival, HGTV is adding a Garden Retreat as well as HGTV’s new products — a plant collection (mixed annuals and decorative shrubs) and solar lighting.
But it’s the add-ons that draw parkgoers who are not-so-serious gardeners: more than 100 topiaries of Disney and Pixar characters, playgrounds for kids, the “Flower Power” concert series featuring musicians mostly from the ’60s and ’70s, and — new this year — a food marketplace. The idea was borrowed from the popular Epcot Wine & Food Festival and based on garden produce, including shrimp and grits with Zellwood corn, a salad made with heirloom tomatoes and another made with watermelon. Plus, there are libations from the garden — alcoholic (Hot Sun Tomato Wine, Dole Whip with Spiced Rum) and non-alcoholic drinks (Frozen Desert Violet Lemonade and Wild Berry Slush).
“This is a big family festival, and a lot of the items on the menu are geared toward families,” said Jennie Hess, a Disney spokeswoman. “There’s a special try-it menu to get kids to expand their palates.”
Topiaries are among the festival’s biggest hits, and as always, there are additions — this year, Mike and Sulley from Monsters Inc. Disney topiaries are not ordinary garden shrubs pruned into special shapes. They are wire mesh frames stuffed with sphagnum moss, the surface of which is planted with colorful flowers, grasses, mosses and seeds to create a sort of 3-D painting of each character.
And lest you think this isn’t a Disney production through and through, this year features the Land of Oz Garden play area with a yellow brick road and the crashed hot air balloon from the Disney movie Oz the Great and Powerful — a prequel to The Wizard of Oz — which opens Friday.