Debra Prinzing

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Disney’s Glorious Garden Festival

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

I posed with the larger-than-lifesized Mickey and Minnie topiaries who stand amid Epcot's bodacious vegetable patch


For the past couple of years, whenever I learned that a garden-communicator-pal was invited to speak at Epcot’s International Flower & Garden Festival in Orlando, I would think: How do I get in on that great gig?

And so it seems: good things come to those who wait.

Last fall, Debbie Mola Mickler, the horticultural program planner for Epcot’s nearly three-month-long spring gardening festival, contacted me with an invitation to participate in the 2010 “Great American Gardeners” lecture series.

She and her colleagues wanted me to come and talk about Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways. It was a pretty awesome invitation to speak six times over a three-day period.

And how cool that it coincided with spring break, which allowed my husband Bruce, and our youngest son, Alex (and his pal Philip) could come along and take advantage of the myriad adventures: water parks, animal kingdoms, magic kingdoms, fireworks, and lots more! We also got to see some good friends who’ve lived in Orlando for many years. And I was able to connect with most of the staff at Garden Design magazine, who are headquartered at nearby Winter Park, Florida. Lots of great reasons to come to Orlando… the fact that it was still “spring” here was a huge one. Warm and a little humid, but certainly better than summer here.

Great American Gardeners at Epcot

We stayed at Disney’s BoardWalk Resort, just across a “lake” from Epcot’s “Future World” and its iconic sphere. Our hotel’s Atlantic-City-inspired setting was gorgeous. My friend Lanny Wood, an architect, told me that famed American architect Robert A.M. Stern designed the boardwalk-style resort, with its white clapboard siding, striped awnings, and pristine lawns. There really is a fantasy world here and it’s so easy to be drawn into the playfulness, forgetting that there’s reality beyond the perimeter of Disney.

The plant displays, topiaries, and tropical landscaping are superb.  When I first met Debbie by phone, I asked her why the flower festival had never come to Disneyland here in Southern California. She explained to me that it is merely a matter of real estate. Anaheim is land-locked by freeways and over-development. There seems to be little room to grow gardens at a Southern California amusement park.

Whereas in Orlando, there’s plenty of acreage! Over the past three decades or so, the talented horticultural staff at Disneyworld has created a beautiful, arboretum-like setting as a backdrop to no fewer than six theme parks and countless resorts.

Iconic architecture - the dome and spire at Epcot

Here was my typical schedule – at least for the three days when I was on duty as a festival speaker.

Wake up and walk to the breakfast bar or bakery. One morning, we enjoyed a huge spread at Iron Chef celeb Kat Cora’s signature restaurant Kauzzina.

Next: The boys figured out which theme park to visit that day. Thankfully, Disney’s intricate shuttle bus system took them anywhere they wanted to go.

Then: Time for me to get ready for my first talk, at Noon. On my first day, I felt so special because John, one of the Resort’s longtime landscaping managers, greeted me as my personal escort. He picked me up at the hotel and drove me to the Epcot festival site, called “Garden Town.”

Garden Town at Epcot

Inside the lecture hall, several demonstration stages were set up to accommodate a rotating schedule of speakers. During the day, in addition to the main stage talks, Disney’s gardening experts shared tips and involved participants in hands-on planting projects; University of Florida gardening experts presented local horticultural information, and Florida Master Gardener volunteers answered gardening questions.

After my noon lecture, I went to the garden gift shop to sign books and meet members of the audience. Then, I was free for lunch, when I took time to walk around the grounds and drink in various sights. I loved the butterfly house, the fairy garden displays, and – of course – the topiary Disney characters.

Speaking about creating the "shed of your dreams"

On Thursday evening, my friend Lindy came to meet me for dinner – what a treat to spend time with a very special friend from many moons ago. We always pick up right where we left off. I hadn’t seen Lindy since I was in Orlando in 2005 for the Garden Writers Association winter board meeting. But it felt like that was only a few months ago. I adore her. What a smart, savvy, strong woman. She always inspires me and makes me feel ready to take on the world.  

On Friday evening, the team from Garden Design magazine came to meet me for cocktails at the resort. We had a blast just socializing, while Donna’s daughter Kate jumped and splashed in the pool (my own son and his friend, both 13, were off on their own adventure, but we met up with them later. Going to Disney as a 13-year-old is a lot like going camping. Somehow the grownups worry less and you suddenly have quite a bit of autonomy and freedom).

Garden Design's team: Donna Reiss, art director; Chelsea Stickel, photo editor; Debra Prinzing, contributing editor; Megan Padilla, senior editor (with the adorable Aileigh)

On Saturday night, Bruce, my husband, had finally arrived from Pittsburgh. He was a trooper because he took Alex and Philip to Universal Studios for the day. But we reunited that evening and enjoyed a very unique dinner at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. If I ever go back to spend a vacation in Orlando, this is where I’m going to stay. You can only imagine how Disney interprets Kenya.

Bruce and I thought about our visit in 1990 to Amboseli National Park in Kenya when we went on a photo safari. Let’s just say that the real thing is a lot more rugged than the Disney version. But we had a blast and it was our last night with the boys before they flew home on Sunday morning, all by themselves to LA.

Bruce had to leave on Sunday evening and I stayed one more night in Orlando before flying to Dallas the following day. The rest of the week was a bit of a blur, since I had to teach a container design class in Dallas Tuesday night; fly home to Burbank on Wednesday; and then drive to Orange County to teach another class on Thursday. But I won’t let fatigue lessen the fun. Disney was unforgettable. And I’m so grateful for the experience.

Here are some of the horticultural sights that wowed me:

 A few other pics and people to share:

Garden Design's Jenny Andrews, Leigh Ann Ledford and Shelley Easter

Fellow Garden Writer Association member, Kim Taylor from the University of Florida horticulture program (aka "The Sassy Crafter") met me on Sunday. She was at the festival to volunteer in the "Ask an Expert" booth

My book-signings after each talk gave me a chance to meet other stylish shed enthusiasts