Horticultural Heritage

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Sometimes I feel like writing this column is like writing an obituary column since the passing of someone connected with Disney is often the springboard for a column. Today's column wasn't inspired by the death of a person but the passing of an event enjoyed by hundreds of Disney guests over the years.

I don't think it comes as much of a surprise that before the beginning of this summer, Walt Disney World is retiring some of its guest tours including Gardens of the World at Epcot.

One of the things that makes a Disney theme park different from other entertainment venues is landscaping. It was Walt's vision that the trees, shrubs and flowers should play a part in the storytelling he was trying to create.

As a result, Disney theme park landscaping had to accomplish three things:

  • Provide shade, shelter and beauty for the guests visiting the park.
  • Conceal visual intrusions whether it was using the berm to hide the outside world or using horticulture to hide the Submarine Voyage building or backstage areas.
  • Support the storytelling by creating the right look for the setting from the exotic jungles of the Jungle Cruise to the Wild West "feel" of Frontierland.

Gardens of the World was a three-hour tour that gave guests the opportunity to study the various landscaping at the World Showcase at Epcot with a Disney horticulturist who was responsible for maintaining the on-stage floral show.

The purpose of the tour was to describe the basic process of Disney plant design and how it was utilized in the World Showcase pavilions. Sometimes, "look-alike" horticulture had to be substituted for plants and trees that couldn't survive the Florida weather. In addition, the horticulturist would point out how many of the landscaping elements used by Disney could be incorporated into the guests' own home gardens.

As I recall, the tour was often adapted to take advantage of some of the changes in the World Showcase pavilions for the holiday theming and also for the Flower and Garden Festival.

Recently, a book entitled Secrets of Disney's Glorious Gardens by Kevin Markey was published to try and showcase Disney theme park horticulture but for many park enthusiasts, it is a disappointingly thin book with insufficient descriptions for some of the amazing photos. The word "secrets" is really inappropriate in the title since it only delves superficially into how Disney does it. Of course, some readers, myself included, may be comparing it unfavorably with the much superior and currently out-of-print Gardens of the Walt Disney Resort originally released in 1989.

However, if you are really interested in Disney horticulture, then the book to add to your library is Disneyland World of Flowers by Morgan Evans. This 72-page book was published by Disney in 1965. The book is dedicated to his brother Jack and has an introduction by Walt Disney.

While Walt Disney had the vision for theme park landscaping, it was Morgan "Bill" Evans who made it a reality and maintained the high standards at Disney theme parks worldwide for decades.

Morgan "Bill" Evans was born on June 30, 1910, in Santa Monica, California.

His first experience with gardening came from his father's three-acre garden filled with exotic plants. In 1928, Bill joined the Merchant Marine and while he traveled the world aboard the S.S. President Harrison, he gathered exotic seeds for his father's garden from distant lands including the West Indies, South Africa, and Australia.

Bill studied at Pasadena City College, followed by Stanford, where he majored in geology. His education was cut short by the Great Depression. In 1931, he helped transform his father's garden into a business by wholesaling some of the rare and exotic plants to other nurseries. In 1936, Bill and his older brother, Jack, joined with Jack Reeves to open Evans and Reeves Landscaping, which lasted until 1958.

Their inventory of rare and exotic plants soon caught the attention of Hollywood's elite. Among their celebrity clientele were Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, and ultimately, Walt Disney.

In 1952, Bill Evans and his brother Jack were called to landscape the grounds of Walt Disney's Holmby Hills home, including the gardens that surrounded his backyard railroad, the Carolwood Pacific. Walt was pleased with their work and asked them in 1954 to landscape the new theme park he was building called Disneyland.

"We landscaped all of Disneyland in less than a year with a maximum of arm-waving and a minimum of drawings," laughed Bill.

Bill was known, not only for using unusual plants, but for using plants in unusual ways and that was certainly demonstrated by his work on Disneyland. He was eager to import and was an enthusiastic propagator of numerous subtropical species of trees, shrubs, vines, and bamboos.

Unfortunately, his brother wasn't able to completely enjoy the accolades about Disneyland. Jack suffered a massive heart attack two weeks after the opening of Disneyland and was confined to desk work and was never able to physically return to visit Disneyland. Jack Evans passed away in 1958.

After Disneyland opened in July 1955, Bill stayed on as a consultant, drawing landscape plans, installing materials and supervising maintenance of the Park. Later, he was hired by the Disney Company and was named Director of Landscape Design, working on Disneyland additions and the master plan for Walt Disney World.

When Bill was finally hired as a Disney employee, Roy O. Disney retroactively made Bill's hire date as 1955.

In 1965, Evans was the author of Disneyland World of Flowers, a book devoted to the park's horticulture because it had attracted such attention from guests and architects. He wrote many articles on horticulture and landscaping for horticultural publications.

He was a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects and served on the board of trustees for the Los Angeles Arboretum. For more than 25 years, he was a member of the Garden Advisory Board for Sunset magazine.

In 1975, he was forcibly retired along with other Disney Legends like Yale Gracey and Roger Broggie who had hit the mandatory retirement age of 65 years old—but Bill remained a landscaping consultant with Disney until his death.

In 1992, Bill was named a Disney Legend and in 1996, was honored by the Landscape Architecture Foundation with a "Special Tribute" award. By then, Bill had garnered an entire roomful of awards from the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). He has also received awards from the American Horticulture Society and almost every other international horticultural, botanical, and arboreta organization.

In a career spanning nearly 50 years with the company, Evans also headed the landscape design effort for the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. In 1980, he and former partner, Joe Linesch, created the design for the landscaping at Epcot.

Although he retired in 1975, Bill consulted with Imagineering on the landscaping for every other Walt Disney World park including Disney's Animal Kingdom, Disney-MGM Studios, and Typhoon Lagoon, as well as Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, Disney's California Adventure, Tokyo DisneySea, and Walt Disney Studios Park, and he contributed ideas for the landscaping of Hong Kong Disneyland.

He has also consulted on the schematic designs of the Polynesian Resort and Discovery Island at Walt Disney World.

Not only did Evans teach several generations of Disney landscapers how to do their jobs, his methods of plant propagation, plant relocation, and recycling are widely used everywhere. Evans could tell the plant history of every plant in the park. Evans died August 10, 2002 at the Santa Monica Hospital at the age of 92. Evans is survived by his wife, Natalie, son, Pete Evans, and daughter, Barrie Evans-Blattau.

In the Spring of 1985, at a Disney fan gathering in Anaheim, California, I got the opportunity to briefly talk with Evans about early Disneyland.

"Disneyland existed in Walt's mind for a great many years before the first shovel of earth was turned," he told me in a grandfatherly and gravely voice while wearing an outfit better suited for a jungle explorer. "Walt's idea of a park was to build an outdoor entertainment facility where the adults would have every bit as good a time as the children. I think today they outnumber the kids substantially. Fortunately for us, he wanted a lot of green plant stuff. That was one of the elements Walt felt would separate his park from the Coney Island format. This was to be a park that would be clean and beautiful and colorful and a very pleasant place to be. We kept this in mind when we set about to put a green frame around all those adventures and rides.

"Walt liked to have the scene complete when the curtains were drawn open. He wanted that landscaping to being as close to full scale and mature as possible. He didn't want to wait five or ten years for young trees to grow up and produce shape. We scampered around the country to try to find all the mature trees we could and it didn't take long to exhaust the budget. The park was built on a very modest budget.

"I'd like to underscore the fact that the reason Disneyland and Disney World are really good from a landscaping standpoint is that they have the very best maintenance. It doesn't make any difference how carefully you contrive the planning or how good the material is or how efficiently it is all installed. The whole thing depends on maintenance and those people are doing a first class job."

Bill Evans was truly one-of-a-kind and everyone who met him came away impressed by his passion for horticulture. I think he would be saddened by the fact that the Gardens of the World tour will disappear because during our conversation he was adamant that the reason he put so much work and thought into the landscaping was his still strong memory of Walt telling him that the guests would know the difference.

"Walt believed people would know the difference between good landscaping and bad landscaping and Disneyland was the best," emphasized Bill. Unfortunately, with the disappearance of Gardens of the World and the disappointing Secrets of Disney's Glorious Gardens, there will less opportunity for guests to truly understand the history and the magnificence of Disney landscaping.