Behind the Scenes on New EPCOT Topiary Tech

Walt Disney World’s springtime event, the 2024 EPCOT International Flower & Garden Festival, is now underway. With this, the Live Entertainment and WDW Horticulture teams have shared a few secrets about the latest additions. We thought this was fun and fascinating, so we wanted to share this look behind the seeds, if you will, at new topiary technology.

More than 200,000 bedding plants are added to the gardens of EPCOT for the Flower & Garden Festival, including an additional 60,000 plants that create the iconic floral tapestries that make up the World Celebration East & West Lakes. Throughout EPCOT, there are more than 25 gardens ‘destinations’ added to the park, inviting guests to pause as they learn more about the fascinating plant world.  

Inspiring displays include Floating Gardens in World Nature, featuring more than 170 petite plots drifting on the serene waters that border the bridge to World Showcase. New additions to the gardens additions for 2024 include the China Penjing Garden and Gnome Garden in Germany.

I love gardening. Well, not the actual act of gardening–there are actually few things I find less appealing than planting and tending to flowers, vegetables and whatnot. Back when we had a proper lawn, there was also an unfortunate incident during which someone may have accidentally mowed over the garden. The culprit was never found…but I was the only one who mowed the lawn, so some strong allegations were made.

Anyway, what I like is consuming gardens, in both a literal and figurative sense. I also love the NFL, but don’t play football myself. In both cases, I’ll leave that to the professionals. What I love about gardening is the way it engages and enriches the senses, and enhances the environment. Plants are beautiful to look at, and as an added bonus, some taste and/or smell great.

Gardens are one of my favorite things at Walt Disney World to photograph, and a big part of that is because they change with the seasons and years. This is all reflected in one of my all-time favorite Walt Disney World books that I highly recommend, the Gardens of the Walt Disney World Resort. (Fair warning: it’s slightly depressing how many of the glorious gardens from the 1980s are gone.)

This is why I love the EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival, and am always fascinated to learn more about what goes into bringing it to life…

Walt Disney World Horticulture, Imagineering, Live Entertainment, and skilled artisans of the welding shop work together to design, build, grow, and install the diverse topiary displays. This process began nearly a year ago, as artists developed sketches, Imagineers designed 3D models, welders molded frames, and horticulture specialists chose plant materials.

One big addition for the 2024 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival is Groot, the flora colossus from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” trilogy, who has taken root near Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind in World Discovery. The design draws inspiration from the entertaining “I Am Groot” short, “Groot Takes a Bath” on Disney+, where the character discovers his topiary powers.

As part of the evolution of topiary technology, the team seamlessly integrated 3D models into the complete development and production pipeline for the second consecutive year. Leveraging 3D modeling goes beyond ensuring visual accuracy; it plays a crucial role in integrating special effects and lighting presentations for the topiary. The team utilized 3D modeling and printing, enhanced with traditional sculpt material and paint, to ensure the depiction of Groot was as precise as possible.

“The focus on maintaining the integrity of the character, while continuing to streamline the design and construction process, has motivated us to improvise and evolve on how the EPCOT International Flower & Garden topiary team creates and builds these incredible pieces of living art each year,” explained Steven Montalvo, Industrial Designer with Disney Live Entertainment.

In fitting fashion, Groot is holding a dynamic mixtape titled “Green House Mix Vol. 1” with his own soundtrack playing. This marks the first time that music has been incorporated into a topiary at EPCOT!

I think this is pretty cool. For one, Groot is an obvious candidate for the topiary treatment. It’s not something I ever thought of before, but now that I see it, I’m surprised they hadn’t done this before. The music is also a nice touch; I don’t think this would work with every topiary as it’s either not necessary or would clash with the background music, but it’s fitting in this spot.

Speaking of topiary tech innovations, the big one for the 2024 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival is in Mexico. There, you can see the first-ever topiary enhanced with special projection effects, featuring Miguel, from the Pixar Animation Studios film Coco. Miguel can be seen here in his mariachi attire with his great-great grandfather’s guitar and Dante, in his alebrije form, flying over a marigold bridge.

“Once we decided to create Dante, I immediately began testing glowing materials, like solar-charged paint, and various effects to portray his ethereal glow,” explained Brittany Smith, Production Designer for Senior Specialty Design with Walt Disney Imagineering. “With the bright and vibrant colors we see from this realm in ‘Coco,’ it seemed like an obvious choice when Josh and Brittany proposed the idea of using projection mapping technology to enhance Dante’s look during the evening hours,” added Steven.

During the day, Dante looks like the rest of the topiary family. As the sun begins to set, you can start to see hints of the solar-charged paint beginning to glow. At night, Dante’s glow will shine even brighter through the use of projection-mapping technology. Pushing contrast between day and night provides guests with an unexpected element of surprise in the evening.

This is another thing that fits the character of Dante perfectly. I think it would fall flat (or look overdone) if it were on every topiary, but it makes complete sense with Dante and punctuates this display at night. Doing projections everywhere would lose its luster quickly–like ending every sentence in an exclamation point rather than using them sparingly.

At the entrance of EPCOT, guests are greeted by characters from the Walt Disney Animation Studios film Wish. Together, the teams seamlessly blended nature and technology into three new topiaries: Asha, Valentino, and Star. (This process beginning a year ago explains why Wish is the film featured as the focal point topiary display!)

To authentically represent these characters, the team hand-wove Asha’s braids and incorporated lighting effects for Star’s celestial dust. “For Asha, it was very important to the team that her hair had the texture and moved like braided hair,” said Brittany Smith. “The new focus on hair texture stemmed from the team continuing to find new ways to tell stories and create the ‘illusion of life’ much like we do with Audio-Animatronics figures.”

For this all-new topiary, Star leaves behind a trail of twinkling stardust. “We have been evolving the process of adding lighting effects to the topiaries, consistently pushing ourselves to enhance them even more,” shared Josh Harrison, Senior Illusion Integrator with Walt Disney Imagineering.

It takes a talented team of people coming together from various disciplines to bring these topiaries to life. “The collaboration between the teams has made it possible to push the envelope of creativity that allows us to produce these new innovative topiaries and help give that little added magical touch that we are known for,” Josh added.

Once again, my take on this is that it works for Asha, but I wouldn’t want to see it done with every topiary. To each their own, but I don’t think “authenticity” is the most important quality of topiaries. Sure, they need to be on-model, but they can–and should–look like plants. There have been instances in the last several years where Imagineering tried too hard for realism, and the topiary didn’t really look like a topiary. So I kind of think having a goal for ‘illusion of life’ and comparing them to Audio Animatronics is misplaced.

Topiaries are fundamentally different–they are plants–they are not supposed to be creating a suspension of disbelief or attempting to bring characters from the page to the screen to real life. They’re about creating characters in plant form. At least, that’s my take. This Asha topiary still looks great, so it’s no issue here. But there have been times in the past when I wondered if Imagineering made a 3D character model out of styrofoam or whatever and sprayed it with hydro mousse liquid lawn or something. Anyway, that’s a wrap on this look at the new topiary technology on display at the 2024 EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival!

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What do you think of the new ‘topiary tech’ being used by Imagineering and WDW Horticulture teams? Have a favorite of the new additions this year? Are you excited to experience the 2024 EPCOT International Flower & Garden Festival, or will you be sitting this one out? Looking forward to the new topiaries at EPCOT? Agree or disagree with our assessments? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

6 Responses to “Behind the Scenes on New EPCOT Topiary Tech”
  1. Smith Nellon March 10, 2024
    • Sue Draime March 11, 2024
  2. Tami J March 8, 2024
  3. ParkRanger March 8, 2024
  4. Bella March 8, 2024
  5. Tara Elizabeth March 7, 2024

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