As we near the grand opening of this year’s Epcot® International Flower and Garden Festival, I had the special and unique opportunity to meet Renee, a cast member who helps bring the beautiful topiaries of the festival to life.
After Renee warmly welcomed me to the horticulture center on property, she led me back to the greenhouses where the topiaries are completed. There were several cast members busy at work, trimming, watering and finishing each character. Mickey, Captain Hook, Pluto, Belle and others welcomed us with a smile. It is difficult not to want to touch them; they are truly alive. Soon after beginning our tour, Renee grabbed a pair of scissors and started trimming one of the topiaries as she talked.
After a few minutes of chatting with her, I could tell that Renee is incredibly passionate about her job in the horticultural arts. A 39-year cast member and Partners Member since her very beginning with the company, Renee found very early on that working in garden cultivation and management was where her talents would flourish. She remembers the hunger and thirst to learn it all as there was so much going on at the time: “I actually transferred down to the nursery during the construction of Epcot, and this place was just bustling. It was amazing,” she said.
Over the years, Renee has had a hand in many of the gardening projects around Walt Disney World. With a smile on her face, Renee remembers a group of plants that she started from seeds that are now fully-grown trees at Animal Kingdom. Renee visits them regularly as if they are part of her family. As her green thumb developed, one of her leaders had an idea to create a moss topiary. “Our first was an elephant, and it was really, really heavy. We learned a lot from that first design,” she said. But that elephant had kindled her love and passion for topiaries—something that only grew stronger as the years went on.
As I began asking more about the International Flower and Garden Festival, Renee amazed me when she said that they began working on the topiaries for this year’s festival almost a year ago—the day after they wrapped up the festival last June! It is all about timing and planting the plugs at the right time so that they are ready to flower by the time they are moved to the parks for millions of visitors to admire.
While Renee puts time, effort, and care into each topiary, she admitted to me with a twinkle in her eyes that the Belle topiary is her favorite. As she walked me over to admire the princess, she talked me through what it took to bring Belle to life in the France Pavilion. “I was dying to create Belle,” Renee laughed.
To initiate the process, Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) created a 360-degree drawing of Belle. Renee’s team, working closely with WDI, carefully began building the frame, utilizing talented sculptors, welders, and art directors. Once the frame was completed, the moss and other foliage were all planted, and the character of Belle began to take shape. “Every year, we have to get it all groomed and ready to go out,” Renee explained. “It’s quite a process!”
Because each topiary is attached to a large stabilizer platform with a unique watering system, they had very little room to fit both Beast and Belle together. In order to make it work, they built her frame so that she would turn. “We put Beast in place, and then we spin Belle, put her in, turn her, and then lock it down. The first time we did it her hand went right into his hand,” Renee said. “It was perfect.”
I left the greenhouse incredibly inspired and covered in that magical pixie dust that only Disney can create. Renee is an inspiration to us for the years of experience and talent she brings to the horticultural team. She says that she cannot do this alone, it is a team effort, something that reminded me so eloquently of Walt’s quote: “You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world…but it requires people to make the dream a reality.” Renee and her team are a perfect example of that.
This year’s International Flower & Garden Festival runs from March 6 to June 3, 2019—stop by and smell the roses and experience the magic that Renee helps create every day.