The late Disney Legend Morgan “Bill” Evans, who landscaped both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, remembered in an interview more than 30 years ago about the original Disneyland topiaries, “Walt had been to Europe and had seen some fine topiary and he was suitably impressed. Conventional topiary goes back some 3,000 years. The plant material customarily employed to produce topiary figures was very, very slow growing. It takes years and years to respond to the desired effect.
“Walt was a bit too impatient for that. ‘Let’s get some topiaries in the park in a year or two,’ he said. He didn’t see any point in waiting 20 years. The animators would do illustrations that they wanted. We blew them up to full size and then took a lot of reinforcing rods and warped it around into the shapes we needed. In effect, we built a kind of skeleton out of steel.
“We persuaded these plants that they should grow to correspond to that skeleton. You bend them a little bit in January and a little bit more in February and a little bit more in March until you get the bones of the plant around the basic shape and finally you get to what you want. The difference in doing this short order topiary is that this stuff grows fast.
“That is a great advantage for the opening, but it is a great disadvantage in the long haul. That European topiary is hundreds of years old. This stuff isn’t going to last a hundred years. We can get maybe 10 years out of it. We have to have stand-ins behind the scenes ready to come aboard because this stuff outgrows and we can’t hold it down indefinitely.”
Traditional European topiary (which inspired the Disney version) has been around since the time of Julius Caesar. It fell out of favor for a period of time but was revived in the mid-1800s. By the turn of the 20th century, Americans had incorporated the art of topiary in their gardens.
In 1963, topiaries were introduced into just Fantasyland at Disneyland, even as construction was beginning on the attractions for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. As Walt shared on one of the episodes of his weekly television program, his plan was to bring those attractions back to Disneyland.
For “it’s a small world” he planned an elaborate white facade (so colored lights could dance across it at night) designed by Mary Blair, and on the ground an intricate topiary garden with the figures on grassy turntables that would spin slowly so it would look like the figures were dancing.
A laughing elephant, along with a two-humped camel, a giraffe and an elephant doing a handstand, were uprooted along with roughly a dozen others like a hippo to take up residence in the front of “it’s a small world” when it opened in May 1966.
“At Disneyland we didn’t have time, so we devised other methods of topiary gardening. Over-simplified, these amounted to lifting old plants out of the ground, confining their roots to containers and persuading them to assume shapes they hadn’t planned on,” wrote Evans. “For example, a camel with four feet on the ground requires four individual trees, and you draw straws to see who gets the neck. On the other hand, if the hippopotamus is poised on one toe the problem is simplified, providing you can produce enough plant above that point.
“Now that our topiary circus is past its growing pains, the gardeners who bent, tied, clipped, and manicured the troupe can relax a bit, but only a bit, because these animals lead a somewhat precarious existence. It is possible to kill these plants with kindness. Over-watering is quite as dangerous as under-watering.
“Having in mind that beauty is only skin deep, we are understandably concerned with the welfare of our animal charges. Too much water, too little water, too much fertilizer, too little pest control, could materially damage or destroy 24 months of hard work in making them.”
Topiaries have been a part of Walt Disney World ever since its opening, but the needs of the vacation destination changed the nature of Disney topiaries over time.
Each topiary has its own irrigation system due to the differing needs of different parts. For example, the arms and other extremities dry out quickly, while the bodies would rot if they were watered too much. The amount of water for each area is controlled with a system of hoses with holes for each living sculpture. Elaborate, slow-drip irrigation systems were installed in the 1990s, and that is primarily the procedure today.