By Guest Blogger Liliane Opsomer, co-author of “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids”
At the entrance of Epcot, a larger-than-life Fab Five Disney character topiary with floral versions of Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Pluto and Donald Duck greet visitors. Guests with or without a green thumb — as well as kids — can have a fabulous time at Epcot this year. Think of it as an outing into a magical park surrounded by millions of blooms, plants, trees, shrubs and even herbs planted in countless clay pots and barrels.
Butterfly House and children’s gardens
The Butterfly House with topiaries of Tinker Bell and her fairy friends is an absolute must-do, and so are the three gardens made bearing children and parents in mind. At the Test Track Walkway, kids can frolic in the “Radiator Springs” garden where topiary renditions of Lightning McQueen and Mater are sure to please. Totally overlooked is Garden Retreat right next to Radiator Springs. It is a peaceful oasis with plenty of shade to relax.
The movie “Oz the Great and Powerful” is the inspiration for the Oz Garden and features scenes and props from the new film, a children’s play area and midway-style games. Be sure to play as all receive a prize — such as an Oz movie button or a package of yellow marigold seeds. Last but certainly not least, there is the annual Backyard Garden and playground between France and Morocco. All three gardens provide shaded areas for parents to sit while the children can unwind. Another fun activity in addition to the year-round Kidcot Fun Stops is the Garden Passport. Each garden and marketplace has its own unique stamp, and as always characters will give autographs on almost anything!
New this year: 12 food kiosks around the World Showcase!
Among the offerings are crab tostadas with chipotle aioli and salsa in the Jardin de Fiestas in Mexico, spring pancakes with grilled chicken and green apple at the Lotus House in China, and my favorite bread pudding with spring peas and wild mushroom ragout at the Bauernmarkt in Germany. Green asparagus and lobster with a garden cocktail sauce is served at Primavera Kitchen in Italy, while stir-fried veggies and soba noodles served in a bun are available from Hamai in Japan. Another of my favorites can be found at Taste of Marrakesh where I enjoyed spiced lamb kebabs with couscous salad. I must admit, though, that there was plenty of couscous and very little lamb.
Hearty but a little too salty was the pig slider with coleslaw at The Smokehouse at the American Adventure. L’Orangerie in France serves ratatouille tart with cheese, and vegetarians will enjoy Heirloom tomatoes with house-made mozzarella, Minus 8 Vinegar and basil at The Cottage in the United Kingdom. I personally did not care for the latter and would have loved to see the chef minus some of that vinegar. I would suggest skipping the Hot Sun Tomato Wine from Florida Orange Groves Winery, but the Frozen Desert Violet Lemonade and Wild Berry Slush were great. The Dole Whip, this year served with spiced rum, is yummy!
New and here to stay long after the festival is gone is TRYit. Disney chefs were asked to choose some fun dishes to encourage youngsters to try something new as part of Disney’s TRYit campaign. The program encourages healthy living and helps parents to make nutritional eating and physical activities more appealing and fun to their children. Look for the TRYit logo on dishes all throughout the World Showcase Promenade. For more information check out this dedicated website.
Topiaries and workshops
The flowerbeds surrounding Future World, the floating gardens and the topiaries are incredible. The 20th Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival is sponsored by HGTV and offers seminars and celebrity presentations as well as Flower Power Concerts.
I love topiaries. Did you know that the Disney topiaries are not pruned into shapes, as is custom with garden shrubs? They are actually made of a wire mesh frame stuffed with sphagnum moss. On top of the moss, colorful flowers and grasses are planted to create the character. My all-time favorite topiary is The Lady & the Tramp in front of the Italy pavilion – definitely love at first sight for me.
At the bridge leading from France to England, Aurora and her prince dancing is a sight to behold, and so are The Beauty and the Beast, especially when illuminated at night. Peter Pan, Captain Hook and the crocodile are all to be found in the United Kingdom Pavilion, and so are Winnie the Pooh and his friends. A totally unique topiary display is “Monsters University,” featuring Mike and Sully.
I took a free workshop at the Greenhouse Stage, the theme – my favorite: “Topiary Through the Years.” It was very informative, and I even got to plant my very own, soon to be, topiary. Back home I diligently applied all suggestions, and using an iron coat hanger I created a heart shape for my plant to grow on. I suggest you check back with me two years from now. All workshop participants get a nice reusable pink bag in which to carry their future floral art creations home.
After a full day in the park, I enjoyed the Chubby Checkers and the Wildcats concert. It was really a treat, and for the final act, the band invited kids to join on stage for a great finale. Artists from the ‘60s and ‘70s entertain Friday through Sunday at the America Gardens Theater. The concerts are held at 5:30 p.m., 6:45 p.m. and 8 p.m. Here is the lineup of all the concerts yours to enjoy through May 19:
March 22 – 24, 2013 – The Guess Who
March 29 – 31, 2013 – Nelson
April 5 – 7, 2013 – The Turtles feat. Flo & Eddie
April 12 – 14, 2013 – Paul Revere & the Raiders
April 19 – 21, 2013 – The Village People
April 26 – 28, 2013 – The Orchestra, starring Former Members of ELO
May 3 – 5, 2013 – Tommy Roe
May 10 – 17, 2013 – Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone
May 17 – 19, 2013 – Starship starring Mickey Thomas.
At nightfall some of the gardens and topiaries are illuminated. Announced as twinkling lights by Disney it is more a matter of using lights to create a festive atmosphere. While very romantic, especially The Beauty and the Beast topiary and Tinkerbell outside the butterfly house, I think there is room for improvement. I would have loved to see twinkling lights throughout the flowerbeds and around the topiaries. This being said, the displays are amazing by day and by night. The evening ends – as always – with Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, a show not to be missed at any time of the year.
I had the opportunity to meet with the man who orchestrates this annual feast for the eyes, festival horticultural manager Eric Darden. I asked Eric about his favorite display and without hesitation he said: “The topiaries.” The festival runs through May 19th, and there is no doubt Eric Darden and his team created yet another magical experience. I can’t wait to see the 2014 edition.
If you time it right, you can enjoy the festival and partake in the annual Mighty St. Patrick’s Day Festival jointly organized by Raglan Road and Disney. For an entire week Downtown Disney pays tribute to Irish music, dance and food. Click here for my recap of this year’s festivities (and a tasty pork loin recipe)!
Flowerful suggestions on where to stay
Disney’s Polynesian Resort, connected to Epcot by the Monorail, is a natural choice. The Village Longhouses are set among lush vegetation, and the lobby comes with over 75 different plants and a waterfall. Standard room rates start at $475 a night.
Disney’s Port Orleans – Riverside is another great option (and the Frog Family’s favorite moderate resort). It boasts extensive, award-winning landscaping, and nothing beats a stroll along the Sassagoula River between Magnolia Bend and Alligator Bayou, where the rustic pines of the Bayou give way to the grand flowering trees of the Bend. Standard room rates start at $191.25
Off property, The Villas of Grand Cypress provide luxury and relaxation in tranquil and lush grounds. The Villas with private patio overlooking the waterways of the Jack Nicklaus Signature-designed Golf Course are sure to please nature lovers. The resort provides free transportation to all theme parks and is minutes away from Epcot by car. Standard room rates start at $149 midweek during off-season. Two-bedroom villas, lodging up to 8 guests and equipped with full kitchen start at $349 mid-week and off-season. The property is also home to a fabulous restaurant. Nine18 caters to a discerning palate, and Chef Alan Gould delivers. Guests are guaranteed a culinary experience and still can enjoy Disney’s nightly fireworks from the waterfront tables or the comfort of their own patio.
What are you most looking forward to seeing at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival? Share in comments below.
Related: Disney World Special Events for 2013
Liliane Opsomer is the co-author of “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids,” a guidebook that provides detailed planning and touring tips for a family vacation. She is passionate about travel, Disney, and hobbits. Liliane also started recently her own blog.