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Inside Disney World's Landscaping Army

David Braun
National Geographic News
August 28, 2003
 
At Walt Disney World Resort in Florida there is much that is bigger and
better than almost anywhere else, including the landscape "show" of more
than seven million trees, shrubs, and flowers that form part of the
popular travel destination's entertainment.

Some 4,000 acres (1,600 hectares) are landscaped for the 47-square-mile (122-square-kilometer) resort's theme parks, hotel properties, golf courses, and campground, forming perhaps one of the largest public gardens to be found anywhere.


Disney's 750 horticultural professionals plant three million bedding plants annually and tend 175,000 trees and more than four million shrubs. There are 13,000 rose bushes alone. Some 200 plants have been sculpted by topiary experts into different designs and there are at least 800 hanging baskets.

Then there are the 2,000 acres (800 hectares) of turf which keep an army of gardeners marching behind their mowers year-round.

Plants found on Disney's property come from 50 countries—from every continent except Antarctica—and many parts of the United States.

Small wonder that all this requires 65,000 sprinkler heads on 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) of water pipes—and that the resort has a large, sophisticated nursery staffed by 30 professionals.

To find out what's involved in planning and caring for such a huge landscape, National Geographic News interviews Dennis Higbie, director, Walt Disney World Horticulture.

Walt Disney World presents an impressive list of statistics about the acreage and number of plants it manages. But how eco-friendly is all this? Specifically, doesn't all this require a lot of weed-killer, fertilizer, feeding, and the like—and won't all that flow into the surrounding river system, groundwater, and ocean? What about the lawn mowers cutting all that turf? Any pollution issues there?

Our waterways are monitored routinely by the Reedy Creek Improvement District for contaminants and overall water quality. At the first sign of any imbalance in the system, steps are taken to locate and eliminate the cause.

Regarding the pollution issues, all of our mowing is done in the most efficient manner possible. We have teams of cast members that strictly mow in order to get it done as quickly as possible. Our equipment is routinely serviced by our maintenance department to ensure that it is operating at peak efficiency.

The resort has planted species representing all the continents, except for Antarctica. Isn't this a threat to the surrounding native vegetation if alien species escape and start competing with the native plants?

The Walt Disney World Resort landscape design and maintenance is done with care to avoid the introduction of invasive exotic plants. We comply with all legal requirements and regulations existing at the time of installation of any portion of our landscapes with regard to permitting and incorporating non-native plants into the landscape.

A large majority of the plants used in Walt Disney World Resort landscapes are native species. We consult regularly with horticulturists and botanists from several universities and other institutions to select appropriate species. Of course many non-native species are not invasive, and, where non-native species have been used we monitor the surrounding areas to verify the plants remain within the designed landscape.

Disney Horticulture has either established or participates in a number of efforts to remove invasive exotic plants from our landscapes and surrounding natural areas. Examples would include the control of water hyacinth and hydrilla in our waterways and the removal of Brazilian pepper from landscaped and natural areas.

Pest management must be a problem with more than seven million trees, shrubs, and flowers. What sort of problems crop up and what solutions are used? Specifically, can you detail the program that uses beneficial insects—what species are used to control what pests?

Disney's Pest Management frequently inspects and monitors the pest and beneficial populations across the Walt Disney World Resort property. Using sprays of insecticidal soap, dormant oils, and Bacillus thuringiensis (also known as Bt) to aid in the control of insects such as aphids, mealybugs, whitefly, mites, and caterpillars to name a few. When other alternative pesticides must be used, spot treatments take place spraying only the affected plant or area.

To help aid in the control of the pest populations, we released over ten and a half million beneficial insects last year. These beneficial insects are ordered in from a supplier and then released across property. Ladybug beetles and lacewing larvae are examples of predators that help control aphids, whiteflies, thrips, mites, and other soft-bodied insects. Cryptolaemus, also known as the mealybug destroyer, helps to control mealybugs. The big-eyed bug (Geocaris punctipes) and the minute pirate bug (Orius sp) aid in controlling small caterpillars along with other soft-bodied insects. Predatory mites offer good control for mites since they thrive in humid conditions, unlike pest mites that thrive in dry conditions.

There are more than 100 varieties of rose—13,000 plants—in Walt Disney World. What challenges does Florida present to growing roses, a plant associated more with the cool, misty climate of England? Does the resort develop its own hybrids? Where are the best spots in Walt Disney World Resort to enjoy the roses, and at what times of the year?

Roses actually do quite well in our Central Florida climate. Our rose plants, as well as most of Florida's, are grown on a Rosa fortuniana rootstock, which enables the roses to withstand higher temperatures and decreases their susceptibility to nematodes.

We do not develop our own hybrids, however we do display AARS (All-American Rose Selection) winning roses in special gardens on the Walt Disney World property. One of the most beautiful spots on property to view roses is the AARS Rose Garden, located in the Magic Kingdom, between Tomorrowland and Cinderella's Castle. The roses are at their peak in April/May and again in November/December.

Do your horticulture professionals take part in any research, present papers?

Disney's Horticulture partners with the University of Florida on an on-going basis to trial new procedures and products. This is a mutually beneficial relationship between our two groups. In addition, several of our Horticulture cast members have presented research papers and been published. One recent example includes "Responses of St. Augustine Grass to Fluridone in Irrigation Water" by W. Andrew, W.T. Haller, and D.G. Shilling, Journal of Aquatic Plant Management Volume 41 January 2003.

What does Walt Disney World do to cultivate indigenous plants? Are there any areas reserved for native Florida plantings?

Disney's Horticulture cultivates and maintains a wide variety of indigenous Florida plant species within our landscapes. An abbreviated list would include Florida anise (Illicium floridanum), Firebush (Hamelia patens), Gumbo-limbo (Bursera simaruba), Carex albolutescens, Sand Live Oak (Quercus geminata), and Elliott's lovegrass (Eragrostis elliottii). These and other native species are used throughout our landscapes.

Presently there is a small exhibit of native plants at Disney's Animal Kingdom as a part of their year-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge program.

Disney's Horticulture has been partnering with the local chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society to identify future opportunities to highlight the use of native species in the landscape.

What does Disney do to help conserve/restore the native wilderness outside the developed parts of the resort—and in the surrounding area?

Approximately half of the 30,000 acres (12,000 hectares) at The Walt Disney World Resort are conservation lands, water bodies, and other green spaces that will never be developed. Within these areas:

• Over 7,500 acres (3,000 hectares) were set aside by Walt Disney himself, and are now known as the Wildlife Management Conservation Area.

• More than 1,200 acres (485 hectares) of wetlands were restored or enhanced.

•Experimental programs are underway to restore agricultural lands (orange groves and cattle pastures) into habitats for the protected sand skink and other listed wildlife species.

• Over 300 acres (120 hectares) are monitored and managed specifically as habitat for gopher tortoises and other protected wildlife.

In addition, Disney established the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund in 1995, the year Disney's Animal Kingdom was announced. The DWCF is a global awards program to fund nonprofit conservation and wildlife organizations focused on endangered animals and their habitats. The program is administered by the Conservation Initiatives department within Walt Disney World Public Affairs. Annual applications are issued to respected scientists, universities, and organizations and reviewed by a committee of scientists, educators, veterinarians, and other professionals.

It may also interest you to know that the Disney Wilderness Preserve is celebrating ten years of cooperation between The Nature Conservancy and The Walt Disney Company. This project set the tone for sustainable development in Florida with a U.S. $45 million commitment to purchase nearly 10,000 acres that were donated to The Nature Conservancy to manage as a living laboratory of landscape research and restoration.

Can you give me some brief details about the "savanna" that was planted for the animals to eat? How extensive is this? Do the animals eat only African plants? Do their diets need to be supplemented with other food?

The savannas at Disney's Animal Kingdom and Animal Kingdom Lodge are amazing themed landscapes which were initially planted at least a year and in some cases two to three years prior to the animal introductions. The plant palette includes African species such as Acacia karoo and Peltophorum africanum as well as look-alike species. An example of a look-alike would be the use of Enterolobium cyclocarpa to represent large "fever trees." We have planted the actual fever tree, Acacia xanthophloea, on the savannas but they rarely reach maximum size in the central Florida climate.

The animals exhibited on these savannas are both browsers (eat mainly leaves) and grazers and the landscape provides them a variety of plants that they can consume. While the different species of hoof stock may choose different plant species on which to feed, they do not feed solely on African plant species. All of the animals in our collections receive supplemental nutritionally balanced diets.

The Animal Kingdom Horticulture team routinely adds plants to the savannas to keep up with the animal impacts from consumption and traffic. In some instances plants that are less palatable will be included in areas that we want to discourage consumption. In other areas highly palatable species will be planted for animal enrichment.

Additionally Animal Kingdom Horticulture and outside vendors produce thousands of pounds of cut browse weekly. This browse is positioned throughout the animal habitats such as the savannas for the animals to feed on which in turn reduces the impact on the planted landscape.

For horticulture enthusiasts, what special tours and events are organized to see and learn more about this amazing collection of plants? What advice do you give people who visit the resort and want to seek out some of the more interesting and unusual landscaping on their own?

Disney's Horticulture offers several programs, through the Disney Institute, for our guests. One of our most popular programs is Gardens of the World tour, where guests tour Epcot with a horticulture instructor and learn how the basic process of plant design is incorporated through the World Showcase pavilions. Individuals can learn more about the tour by calling 407-WDW-TOUR.

For those who want to learn about the plants in a specific location in the parks or resorts, I would encourage them to seek out a horticulturist working in the gardens. Our staff is very knowledgeable and looks forward to sharing their knowledge with our guests.

How are plants matched to the various themes of the resort? For example, what's been done to set the appropriate environment for the different countries showcased in Epcot, DinoLand, and elsewhere?

A long tradition of themed landscapes has evolved at Walt Disney World. One of the newest landscapes ironically represents one of the oldest habitats. The plants in Dinoland (particularly the Cretaceous Trail) showcase some of the oldest genera of plants on Earth. The area is replete with a collection of gymnosperms, including cycads, Araucaria sp. and the Dawn Redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides. A variety of ferns and early angiosperms such as Ginko biloba help to set the stage in Dinoland and to tell the story of plant evolution.

How many plants are cultivated—if any—for use in the preparation of meals served in Walt Disney World's restaurants and hotels?

Last year The Land produced over 27,000 pounds (12,250 kilograms) of vegetables and herbs for our Walt Disney World restaurants. The vegetables include lettuce, cucumbers, and peppers.

In addition, we grow specialty herbs for use in demonstrations by our chefs during the Epcot Food & Wine Festival.

Quite a bit of Walt Disney World's landscape is concrete, isn't it? For example the Tree of Life and some of the savanna. What's the policy on this?

There are a few structures on property that are made to look like plants for the purpose of fitting into our "Show." Some examples include the concrete baobabs located on Kilimanjaro Safaris in Disney's Animal Kingdom which are actually animal feeders.

The "tree" that houses the Swiss Family Robinson in the Magic Kingdom is made of concrete and vinyl leaves for structural reasons—a live tree would not stand up to its daily use by hundreds of guests a day. However, we did unofficially bestow on the tree its very own Latin name—Disneyodendron eximius,which translates to an "out of the ordinary Disney tree."

The topiary is really well done. Please give some details of what's involved. Where are the best places to enjoy this art form?

We display basically three types of topiary throughout our resort—geometrical, shrub character, and sphagnum moss character. Geometrical consists of simply pruning a shrub in a pattern—for example, the cup-shaped oak trees at Disney's Contemporary Resort or the spiral Eugenias found throughout Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom.

The two character types of topiary—shrub and sphagnum moss—are a bit more complicated. The first steps for both include a Disney artist create a sculpture for the figure and then an artist welder create a "skeleton" out of steel with the dimensions of the sculpture.

For the shrub topiary, we place that steel skeleton over a small plant in a large box. As the plant grows, we train it to follow the shape of the steel frame. Only fast-growing plants that are evergreen, and insect- and disease-resistant can be used for this type of topiary. A shrub topiary can take anywhere from five to 15 years to mature.

A more immediate form of topiary is the sphagnum moss topiary. In that case we stuff the steel frame with un-milled sphagnum moss. We then plant vines or small clumping plants in the moss. As the vines start to grow, we secure them to the moss-filled frame with hair pins. This type of topiary can be planted and ready for show in a matter of weeks.

Does Walt Disney World sell any seedlings or seeds to the public?

Not currently.

How popular is the annual Flower & Garden festival? What's involved? Who takes part?

The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival is one of the largest outdoor flowers festivals in the world. We just celebrated our tenth and most spectacular year ever. Guests come back year after year to see our floral and topiary displays as well as to participate in our workshops and speaker series, featuring nationally known gardening experts.

Corporate participants are also on display with the Festival. Participants include The Home Depot, Fiskars Brands Inc., and The Flower Fields.
 

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