The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival features over 100 incredibly detailed topiaries of beloved Disney characters. These impressive topiaries take an enormous amount of skill, planning and effort to create. From the initial design process to growing and caring for the topiaries, it is a labor of love that brings these whimsical characters to life year after year.
The Design and Creation Process
The creation of a single new topiary begins over a year before the next Flower and Garden Festival. Disney horticulturists and imagineers collaborate to design characters and scenes that will delight guests. Concept art and 3D models guide the planning, ensuring the final products accurately capture the magic of Disney animation. Once a design is approved, metalworkers construct tubular steel frames to provide structure and support for the topiaries.
These custom frames can cost up to $100,000 each to fabricate on-site at Walt Disney World. They are engineered to last for years and withstand Florida’s intense sun and storms. The frames serve as the “skeleton” for the topiaries and horticulturalists carefully cover them with sphagnum moss. This is an intricate process that can take weeks of meticulous hand-stuffing to complete. Irrigation lines are threaded throughout the frame, so the topiaries can be watered easily once installed around the park.
With the frames prepared, it is time to add the “skin” – thousands of small plant plugs inserted into the moss. Creeping fig vines and other greenery are pinned into place with hairpins. This living mosaic of foliage will grow to entirely cover the moss structure. The plants are misted several times a day with nutrient-rich water to encourage rapid, healthy growth. Horticulturists also incorporate non-living natural materials into the topiaries to add realistic details. Elements like shoes, facial features, clothing and accessories are crafted from dried mosses, palm fibers and seeds. These meticulous embellishments give further dimension and whimsy to the characters.
Growing and Caring for the Topiaries
The topiaries require intense care and maintenance to flourish in Epcot’s environment. A team of horticulturists attends to them daily, providing water, nutrients and plenty of pruning. Misting systems run for 8 hours each night to supplement natural rainfall. This ensures the topiaries receive 2–3 inches of water per week. Pruning is essential for shaping the topiaries and managing rapid plant growth in Florida’s climate.
The team trims back each creation weekly, carefully snipping any stray stems and foliage. This encourages dense, compact growth into the iconic shapes. It takes 3 to 10 years for most shrubs to fully fill out the topiary frames with lush leaves, vines and flowers. During the Flower and Garden Festival, the topiaries are illuminated at night for a truly magical effect. The lighting systems are equipped with timers and operated remotely to minimize labor needs.
Caring for Topiaries Year-Round
After the festival concludes each spring, the intricate topiaries remain on display at Epcot through the summer months. Moving them risks damage, so Disney horticulturists continue providing daily care in their festival locations. When cooler weather arrives in fall, the teams gently extract each topiary to transport them back to the nursery.
They are pruned back by approximately 1/3 to accommodate off-season storage needs. As winter approaches, the topiaries go dormant and require minimal care aside from monthly light watering. The same frames and moss structures are reused year after year. Each spring, as the festival launch date nears, the topiaries are transported back to Epcot for fresh plant plugs and another season of growth and delight.
Type’s of Topiaries Used
Different type’s of topiary design’s used:
Free-Form Topiary: These topiaries feature more abstract, free-flowing shapes rather than a distinct character. They utilize vines and foliage to create natural-looking forms.
Standard Form Topiary: These feature geometric shapes like spheres, cones, cubes etc. They are precisely clipped shrubs or trees.
Sphagnum Moss Topiary: This technique involves covering welded metal frames with sphagnum moss and inserting plant plugs to grow foliage over the frame. Irrigation lines are threaded through. This allows creating detailed character topiaries.
Woody Shrub Topiaries: These use more traditional woody shrubs like boxwood or privet that are clipped and sheared into shapes. This requires slower growing plants but allows more intricate designs.
The sphagnum moss topiaries with metal frames are the most common technique used for the Disney character topiaries. This provides the structure needed for detailed shapes. Horticulturists incorporate natural materials like dried mosses and seeds to embellish the topiaries and make details like facial features. The topiaries are illuminated at night for added magic. It can take 3–10 years for the shrubs and vines to fully cover each frame.
Topiaries were first introduced at Disneyland in 1963, shortly after Walt Disney was inspired by topiaries he saw on a trip to Europe. The earliest topiaries were simple animal shapes and silhouettes rather than detailed characters. When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, topiaries were incorporated as expected features around the hotels and at special events. However, these stuck-in-the-ground topiaries using wooden frames were difficult to move.
By the 1982 opening of Epcot, Disney developed a new moss-based portable style to make the topiaries mobile. This involved covering welded metal frames with sphagnum moss and inserting plant plugs to grow foliage over time. The technique allowed creating detailed character topiaries. Over the years, the topiary art form expanded, especially with the debut of the annual Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival in 1993.
The festival features over 100 Disney character topiaries that take months of planning and care to create each year. Today, intricate sphagnum moss topiaries on metal frames remain the predominant technique used by Disney horticulturists. Natural materials are incorporated for embellishment. It can take 3–10 years for the topiaries to fully fill out. The same frames are reused annually and paired with fresh plantings.
Walt Disney initiated the topiary tradition, which evolved over decades into a signature Disney Park’s art form, involving detailed character topiaries cared for year-round and displayed at special events like the Epcot Flower & Garden Festival.
Creating Disney topiaries for Epcot’s International Flower and Garden Festival is truly an art form. It requires immense creativity and patience over months and years to achieve the final whimsical results. Guests who stroll World Showcase each spring may take the smiling Mickey and Minnie topiaries for granted, never realizing the care and effort involved. But for the horticulturists who design and nurture the topiaries all year long, it is a labor of love. Their skill and dedication transforms simple materials into countless “oh-so-cute” Disney characters ready to be discovered and enjoyed by guests from around the world.