18 August 2021

Walt Disney World 50 for 50: Help Shape Shrubs

I don’t love embarrassing my parents, I truly don’t, but sometimes there is a photo that’s just too good not to share. Especially when it highlights something so magical. No, I’m not talking about my dad’s hair, I’m talking about the topiaries scattered around the Transportation and Ticket Center, and elsewhere around the parks and resorts. These were taken in 1980 and, for those of us who grew up visiting Walt Disney World in the 1970s and 1980s, recall a time when topiaries roamed freely about the resort.

Okay, so roamed may be a hedge to far, but you get the picture. During the first two decades of Walt Disney World, guests could see various topiaries of creatures and characters in all corners of the resort. From a pack of pachyderms marching their way around the Seven Seas Lagoon towards the Contemporary Resort, or a caravan of camels on their way to the Magic Kingdom, to giraffes, crocodiles, and other creatures from far off lands posing perfectly wherever they happened to call home. The thing I loved about these topiaries is that they did require a bit of imagination for them to come to life.
Let me explain, or better yet, we’ll let Disney’s horticulture experts from Secrets of Disney’s Glorious Gardens explain, “The shrub topiary style uses metal frames to help shape shrubs into characters. Shrubs are planted in large wooden boxes at each point where the frame touches the ground. For instance, to create the giraffe for Disneyland’s It’s a Small World (sic), Disney’s horticulturists would use four shrubs – one for each foot. As the shrubs grow, the gardeners trim the weekly until they completely engulf the frame. Depending on the size of the figure, the process can take three to ten years.
So, these shrub-based topiaries don’t have a lot of the accessories we see in many of the topiaries found at Walt Disney World today. There aren’t additional plants grafted to the structure to provide a splash of color. Plastic or painted eyes and lips aren’t added to the figures to make them appear more lifelike. The topiaries from these early years were simple, they gave you a carefully manicured hedge that resembled something familiar, but it was up to each individual guest to impart their own sense of wonder on the figures to give them life, to provide them with personality. Much in the way my dad’s carefully curated hairstyle gave him personality.
I’m not saying I don’t enjoy the topiaries of today, or that you shouldn’t prefer them over the old style. It is just my personal preference, and this is coming from the guy who thinks the International Flower & Garden Festival is the best festival at Epcot, so, clearly, I feel like there is room for all sorts of gardens and topiaries. It would be nice, however, to have a few more free range topiaries featured around Walt Disney World these days.

By the way, the spot where my parents took these photos is now the Transportation and Ticket Center's coffee stand. My dad and I took some photos here a couple of years back, but had to move down one section of wall bench. That's part of the magic now, 50 years in to the resort's creation, those moments where you can stand where you stood, or where loved ones stood, and recapture a memory or add a new memory to the personal story you have with the place.

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