Happy Belated Birthday, Disney Topiaries!

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Whether it is the gnarled trees that threaten a fleeing Snow White, the lush jungle foliage behind Baloo the Bear as he teaches Mowgli about the "bare necessities," the forest that changes through the seasons as Bambi becomes the Great Prince, or just the wonderful landscaping in the Disney theme parks that transport guests to another world, horticulture has always been an important element in making the Disney experience so successful and memorable.

I've written about Disney horticulture and landscaping before.

Disney's horticulture and landscaping are amazing storytelling devices that immerse Disney guests into a variety of stories, as well as providing a beautiful background that is not at other amusement venues. It is just another example of the "Disney Difference" we often take for granted.

As Disney historian Sam Gennawey likes to remind people, there is a very definite reason why a place like Disneyland was called a "park." Originally, there were areas where people could just sit and quite literally smell the roses, rather than rushing to use a Fast Pass. Relaxing grassy expanses supplemented by a variety of trees and plants provided a comfort.

Walt's older brother, Roy, had taken up gardening as a hobby that allowed him to spend time with his family. Walt's attempts to be a home gardener were not as successful.

"As far as gardening is concerned, my hobby is to use native material as much as possible," Walt told a magazine reporter in the1940s. "Few people realize what a great wealth of beautiful shrubs, trees, and plants there are, right on these hillsides. No matter where people live, they can use native plant material. I don't like formal gardens. I like wild nature."

However, Walt couldn't prevent the birds, squirrels and rabbits around his property from feasting on the fruit he tried to grow. He got frustrated at continually pulling up brush to clear a path. Finally, Walt hired a gardener to take care of the Disney home gardening.

In my book, The Book of Mouse, I briefly discuss the "Floral Mickey" at the entrance of Disneyland Park in California and the Magic Kingdom Park in Florida.

While it has been called the "Mickey Mouse Planter" and, most recently, "Floral Mickey," when I interviewed Disney Legend Bill Evans, he called it a "parterre," a French term for an ornamental garden that forms a distinctive pattern.

Evans built a light wooden framework for the outline of the head and the individual sections, like the eyes and mouth, and then filled them in with thousands of colorful plants.

"It was Walt's idea," Evans told me. "Just like the face [on the title card] before every [theatrical] Mickey [Mouse] cartoon and audiences would start cheering."

Even though that iconic image became one of the most photographed locations at Disney theme parks, it apparently wasn't a top priority as last-minute landscaping was being done for the opening of Disneyland.

On July 11, 1955, just six days before the park opened to the public, Disney Legend Joe Fowler, who oversaw construction of Disneyland, sent a memo to landscaper Jack Evans (Bill's brother, who, with Jack, operated their landscaping company) that asked, "When are you going to plant Mickey Mouse in the entrance? Looks to me like the time is getting pretty late."

Last year was the 50th anniversary of Disney theme park topiaries that first appeared in 1963, but just in Fantasyland at Disneyland. There were so many Disney anniversaries last year that I wasn't able to cover all of them, so this is a belated tribute to the topiaries.

Sculpting a figure in living plants had been practiced for many centuries with the most impressive work being done in Europe roughly 200 years ago. The one most important ingredient in making a topiary was time. People planted varieties with small leaves, slow growth and long life, so boxwood and yew trees were the favorites.

Walt must have known a little about topiaries because in the Mickey Mouse short Mickey Cuts Up (1931) as Mickey helps Minnie with her yard work, he playfully trims a potted bush into a face.

Walt felt that a topiary garden of animals would be perfect for the exterior of the new "it's a small world" attraction, scheduled to be removed from the 1964 World's Fair and installed at Disneyland.

As Evans told me:

"Walt had been to Europe [including Tivoli Gardens] and had seen some fine topiary and he was suitably impressed. Conventional topiary goes back some 3,000 years. The plant material customarily employed to produce topiary figures was very, very slow growing. It takes years and years to respond to the desired effect.

"Walt was a bit too impatient for that. 'Let's get some topiaries in the park in a year or two,' he said. He didn't see any point in waiting 20 years. The artists would do illustrations that they wanted. We blew them up to full size and then took a lot of reinforcing rods and warped it around into the shapes we needed. In effect, we built a kind of skeleton out of steel.

"We persuaded these plants that they should grow to correspond to that skeleton. You bend them a little bit in January and a little bit more in February and a little bit more in March until you get the bones of the plant around the basic shape and finally you get to what you want.

'The difference in doing this short order topiary is that this stuff grows fast. That is a great advantage for the opening but it is a great disadvantage in the long haul. That European topiary is hundreds of years old. This stuff isn't going to last a hundred years. We can get maybe ten years out of it.

"We have to have stand-ins behind the scenes ready to come aboard because this stuff outgrows and we can't hold it down indefinitely. At one time, Walt was even thinking of putting them (the animal topiaries) on turntables that rotated (in front of it's a small world) so it would look like they were dancing."

That idea didn't develop for several reasons including the weight factor as well as the added maintenance required.

These topiaries developed by Evans require from three to ten years to produce and are grown in large containers using a metal frame as a guide to assist with training and shaping. Rather than from the artist's brush, Disney animated characters spring to life through gardening shears.

Disney cast member Joe Delfin, who worked on the landscaping of the Jungle Cruise and Storybook Land Canal Boats recalled, "I used to make turkeys out of plants for Thanksgiving for fun [at Disneyland], and once, in my spare time, I had one going behind the Skyway and I got caught by Ray Miller."

Miller, who was Delfin's supervisor, didn't say anything then, but, a short time later, Miller and Disney Legend Ken Anderson invited Joe to go out for lunch. That lunch ended in a car ride as they began discussing how Walt had seen examples of topiaries while on a trip to England and Belgium, and how he wanted the same type of art work for his new attraction, "it's a small world."

"I said 'wait a minute'...but they just kept telling me I could do it."

The ride ended at a museum that housed topiary figures in Beverly Hills and, from behind a protective rope, Delfin got a somewhat distant look at what were considered traditional topiary figures.

"The next Monday they put me into it, and I stayed in it for two years."

By 1963, there were roughly two-dozen topiaries inside Disneyland. They included a waltzing hippo, a poodle, a pig, bears, elephants, seals, and giraffes. They were generic animals that were easy to make out of the material available rather than a specific Disney animated character.

"Although viewed best only from the excursion train [that circles the park], a topiary garden is properly part of Fantasyland," wrote Evans in 1965. "Here you will find giraffes, camels, elephants, and waltzing hippos, motionless, but alive and well. This inanimate zoological garden is made up of thuyas, junipers, cypress, ficus and African boxwood. A laughing pachyderm, fashioned from golden thuya, a relative of the juniper family, sitting on a grass ball with its trunk raised high in the air and growing in a green wooden box brings joy to many visitors."

That laughing elephant along with a two-humped camel, a giraffe and an elephant doing a hand stand were uprooted to take up residence in the front of "it's a small world" when it opened in May 1966.

"Outward-bound passengers enjoy a close view of the fanciful figures which are shaped from growing trees and shrubs," Walt said during the "Disneyland Around the Seasons" episode for his weekly television series on December 18, 1966.

"At Disneyland we didn't have time, so we devised other methods of topiary gardening. Over-simplified, these amounted to lifting old plants out of the ground, confining their roots to containers and persuading them to assume shapes they hadn't planned on," Evans wrote. "For example, a camel with four feet on the ground requires four individual trees, and you draw straws to see who gets the neck. On the other hand, if the hippopotamus is poised on one toe the problem is simplified, providing you can produce enough plant above that point.

"Now that our chlorophyll circus is past its growing pains, the gardeners who bent, tied, clipped, and manicured the troupe can relax a bit, but only a bit, because these animals lead a somewhat precarious existence. It is possible to kill these plants with kindness. Overwatering is quite as dangerous as underwatering.

"Having in mind that beauty is only skin deep, we are understandably concerned with the welfare of our animal charges. Too much water, too little water, too much fertilizer, too little pest control, could materially damage or destroy 24 months of hard work in making them."

When these creations were relocated in 1966 to the area in front of "it's a small world," another 10 remained throughout Disneyland.

The real "Disneynifcation" of topiaries with an emphasis on specific Disney characters, like Mickey Mouse, rather than generic animals to distinguish them from European gardens and topiaries that were now popping up at other amusement venues began with the creation of the Sphagnum Moss Topiary.

Currently, the most common type of topiary at the Walt Disney World Resort are Sphagnum topiaries grown using heavy steel frames stuffed with sphagnum moss and planted with close-growing vine material.

Sphagnum topiaries can be grown within a month, but require daily watering and frequent applications of fertilizer. They are easily moved from one location to another and are adaptable for use as stage decorations or for special occasions, but do not survive as long as a traditional topiary.

However, those interior frames do survive high winds and pests like squirrels and guests who pick at them. The steel frames are re-used and sometimes modified.

These topiaries are appreciated for their beauty, their ability to call to mind a favorite Disney character and as a marvel of engineering.

The earliest topiaries at the Walt Disney World Resort were on the road near Disney's Contemporary Resort on the way to the Magic Kingdom.

Mary Poppins holding her parasol high as if she were ready to fly away, a train of elephants holding each others' tails by their trunks as they seemed to be marching slowly toward the Magic Kingdom, a giraffe casually munching on the leaves of a nearby real tree and other creations were quickly installed with plastic leaves enhancing the figures.

These were intended to be a temporary installation, so dead trees were painted and decorated. Within a decade, the whimsical band had dwindled significantly.

Yet, a handful did continue to survive but gradually disappeared until by 2003 only two acrobatic elephants outside the Magic Kingdom, no longer showcased as they once were, remained.

The last remaining topiary, one of those elephants, quietly disappeared in 2011 with no one noticing.

Those plain green silhouettes with their quiet charm and wonder gave way in the mid-1990s to more elaborate version with splashes of color and accessories.

The first of this new breed of topiaries appeared to promote The Lion King animated feature, to make more distinctive features and expressions. For instance, the villain Scar's actual scar became more visible.

The addition of so much color was inspired by the floral floats in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade where Disney horticulturists could see how a variety of natural materials could be weaved into a figure to provide something more distinctive and suggestive. Today, some of that natural color is enhanced by paint as well.

As Walt Disney World Resort topiary specialist Renee Worrell has pointed out, by the time of the opening of Epcot in 1982, the traditional Evans' method was not working as well because of the necessity for more speed and flexibility.

So there was the introduction of specialty character topiaries (like for the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival) that were grown using heavy steel frames stuffed with sphagnum moss and planting them with close-growing vine material, the Sphagnum Moss topiaries.

However, this new version presented its own unique problems. Keeping the figure properly hydrated became a big issue.

Each topiary has its own irrigation system due to the differing needs of different parts. For example, the arms and other extremities dry out quickly, while the bodies would rot if they were watered too much. The amount of water for each area is controlled with a system of hoses with holes for each living sculpture.
Elaborate, slow-drip irrigation systems were installed in the 1990s and that is primarily the procedure today.

Some people, myself included, long for the enchantment of the original simple, green craftsmanship of the earlier topiaries that took months to grow, but, like most things that have changed at a Disney park, that will probably never happen, especially since guests seem to enjoy the much more colorful but temporary offspring that decorate the parks today.

I will be curious to see how the introduction of new technology will impact Disney topiaries in the years to come.



  1. By Klutch

    I grew up near Disneyland. Some of the motels near Disneyland also had topiaries out front. I'm wondering who did those. I really enjoyed seeing those topiaries while riding in the car and driving by those motels. It was like seeing a bit of Disneyland outside the park. Of course, it wasn't as cool as driving below the monorail track on West street. But it was still fun to see the topiaries.

  2. By worldlover71

    I distinctly remember the topiaries you saw from the monorail going from the TTC to the MK on our first trip to WDW in 1979. As a 7 year old, they were something I had never seen and they definitely added to the magic.

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