WALT Disney World (WDW) is an entertainment complex covering 25,000 acres, with four main theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It also has water parks, hotels, golf courses and its own shopping centre complex.

The development of WDW was the vision of Walt Disney, who died before the first theme park, Magic Kingdom, opened on 1 October, 1971.

WDW has become the most visited vacation attraction in the world, with in excess of 50 million people travelling to Florida from across the world, but also the USA itself. Walt’s influence on WDW is still there for all to see today. However, for many who visit, they do not understand the significance that he placed and the Disney Corporation still places on the use of trees.

Walt Disney wanted his parks to be places that visitors could enjoy open green space. He saw trees as playing an important part in achieving this, as well as adding to the colour and look of his parks. In his mind, the trees selected and used in the parks needed to be as close to their maturity as possible to get an ‘instant’ effect rather than waiting for them to grow in-situ. To this end, he ordered the building of the Walt Disney World Tree Farm at WDW.

Forestry Journal: Trees are all around you at Walt Disney World.Trees are all around you at Walt Disney World.

This tree farm continues to supply the trees used. It is located away from visitors, and at any one time is growing around a third of the total number of trees that are growing and in use at WDW. The trees are grown to be ready to replace any trees that become diseased or damaged at any of the parks. They are shaped and nurtured so that they can be, if required, transplanted and used to replace the trees coming out overnight.

Trees at WDW are used to serve a number of different purposes. The first and most obvious use is to provide shelter and shade. The temperatures in Florida range from being hot and humid in the summer, to wet and very windy in the winter, with hurricanes and storms wreaking a lot of damage across the state. To add to these weather issues, Florida and its trees can be attacked by a wide range of insects, which can cause disease and damage to the trees as well.

The trees grown and planted need to be able to cope with all of this. Shelter from the hot summer sun is provided by the trees for the visitors to the parks but also, since the opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 1998, to its animals as well. The canopies of the larger trees planted throughout the parks also serve to offer respite and shelter when it rains.

Forestry Journal: Animal Kingdom Savannah Plains where trees provide both shade and food for the animals.Animal Kingdom Savannah Plains where trees provide both shade and food for the animals.

Trees add beauty to the parks and none more so than the trees used at Epcot in the World Showcase. Here trees grow in each ‘Land’, which are native to that ‘Land’, but in almost every case, not to Florida. Trees are not only used at Epcot, but throughout all the parks, and even at the Disney Hotel complexes for this purpose.

The Disney Polynesian Village Resort has a Kukui nut tree, a tree that grows in the Pacific Island region, growing there. Also, tall palm trees are used in the streets of Disney’s Hollywood Studios to make it appear to visitors that they are actually in Hollywood itself. Finally, there is an oak tree, in Liberty Square in Magic Kingdom, which has been placed there to replicate the original Liberty Tree that grew in Boston at the time of the American Revolution.

Forestry Journal: Palm trees at Disney’s Hollywood Studios to make visitors think they are actually in Hollywood.Palm trees at Disney’s Hollywood Studios to make visitors think they are actually in Hollywood.

One of the skills that Disney has in their parks is to be able to conceal from visitors all the ‘behind the scenes’ areas that are used to make them function. Trees and shrubs are used strategically to ensure that the smooth movement of people and materials around and across the parks is made out of sight of guests. Trees are also used to help support and add to the storytelling at particular areas or rides.

In Magic Kingdom for example, on the Jungle Cruise, trees that are not native to Florida but are associated with the Amazonian rainforest are to be found. While in Frontierland, fir trees are used to help recreate the Wild West. Tom Sawyer Island has oaks, pines, sycamores, elms and red maples, amongst many other tree species to help give the feel of the woodland and forests along the Mississippi River where this fictional character lived.

In Dinoland USA in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, trees and shrubs are used to give the visitor the feeling that they are in some American rural location. While the Expedition Everest Forbidden Mountain ride in Asia, to add to the feel of being there for real, has bamboo planted in and around it. Moving towards Africa, in this park, a Kigelia or Sausage tree grows. This tree species is to be found growing throughout tropical Africa.

Forestry Journal: Trees are used to offer shade to visitors.Trees are used to offer shade to visitors.

Disney has its own horticulture department that maintains and manages the trees and plants that grow at WDW. They number over 600 and they are responsible for some 4,000 acres of the areas of WDW that are landscaped. They are charged with carrying out a number of different roles. These include the most obvious task, given the sheer numbers of trees and different species that grow at WDW, of having to plant and replant countless numbers of different trees from right across the world.

Over a year, this can account for tending to 175,000 trees and 4 million shrubs. There are trees and shrubs from across America and 50 different countries around the world. Part of the challenge is having the trees and shrubs ready for replanting at the varying times, some plantings might be planned, and some might be as a result of storm damage or disease. This means that many are grown several years in advance of them being needed to ensure that when they are needed, they are ready.

Topiaries created from trees and shrubs form a major part of the displays that are to be found across the theme parks and resort hotels. A team of 30 is responsible for the creation of over 200 different designs, many of which are in the shape of famous Disney characters.

Forestry Journal: Topiary at Magic Kingdom.Topiary at Magic Kingdom.

Setting the scene for rides and in all areas of WDW is very important to Disney and the horticultural teams make that happen. At the Expedition Everest Forbidden Mountain ride complex for example, they planted more than 900 bamboo plants, 10 different species of trees and 110 species of shrubs, while at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, 3.5 million grass plants and 100,000 trees were planted to help create the park.

Animal Kingdom boasts having the largest collection of flowering trees in North America, as well as the largest collection of African species outside of Africa and the third largest Cycad collection in the USA.

Some 65,000 sprinkler heads and 2,000 miles of water pipes help keep the trees and plants in and around WDW watered.

An important job for the teams given the number of non-native species of plants, trees and shrubs introduced to WDW is to make sure invasive ones do not overrun the native ones. They make sure that any that become invasive are removed from WDW and the surrounding untouched natural landscape. Interestingly, the growing of plants for food and in some cases trees, to harvest their fruits is yet another duty of the Disney horticultural team.

Walt Disney had a vision when he set about designing and coming up with ideas for the development of WDW. He died before it came to fruition, but he would no doubt have approved of the result. Trees are to be found growing all over WDW, as was his aim and wish, but in many cases, they are taken for granted by many of the visitors. This in some strange way is perhaps testament to the skill of Disney at making the trees blend in and add to the surroundings as well as the overall visitor experience.