Katy Moss Warner and Disney, Garden Tourism Part VI

My favorite talk of the International Garden Tourism Network's North American Conference was by Katy Moss Warner. Her talk was titled, Making a Difference with the Disney Garden Experience.

No slides, but she kept us captivated!
I told her later that I could have
listened to her all day!
But the talk, to me anyway, was more about creating legitimacy and relevance for garden tourism experiences – especially in the realm of tourism where horticultural events, activities, and features were either considered a "side" attraction, or not considered at all.

She had no slides to show, hence all I have to show is the one bad photo I took from my seat. What she did have to tell was stories. Great ones. The rest of the photos you see here I took during different trips to Disney World over the years.

She was Director of Disney's Horticulture and Environmental Initiatives at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. With a team of nearly 700, she was responsible for the landscapes of four parks, 15 resorts and more than 70 miles of roads on the 30,000-acre property.

Impressive beds of annuals are still a
mainstay of the Disney landscapes.
From 1976 to 2000, she provided the leadership to ensure that Disney's horticultural traditions of beautiful gardens and environmental responsibility were sustained in Florida. She started the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival in 1994 with her Disney Horticulture team and partnerships with colleagues in Florida and around the country.

Research brings gardeners out of the dark

One of her first examples, or stories, revolved around the fact that when she first started working there, the horticultural staff was part of the custodial team, working at night after the guests left. Ever a champion for upping the organization's credibility, she started a campaign to get her team to be a more integrated part of the park through education and interaction with the guests. But it started with research. And more research.

Disney is known for being analytical in the way they approach nearly everything they do. They consistently and constantly survey guests. Katy says that survey after survey showed that the guests that rated Disney the highest were the guests that kept coming back. The repeat visitors were of an age where the rides were not the significant factor in return visits. The top three reasons, they stated, through years of survey results, was because of the, one, friendly employees; two, the cleanliness of the parks, and three, the atmosphere."

Repeated colors and patterns provide visual relief in
an otherwise chaotic setting.
Drilling down in surveys over time, "atmosphere" came to be defined as the landscape - the bedded plants, topiary, configurations of garden spaces and more. With enough research to back up her horticultural crew, she was able to get the company to not only send out her team during the day, but she helped design "costumes" for her staff to wear. Her teams received the same guest services training that other park employees that deal with the public gets.

What this enabled her gardeners to do was to work during the day (a bit easier than gardening at night) and interact with visitors. If an eight-year-old – or an eighty-year-old – visitor came up to a gardener studying a plant, and asked what they were doing, the gardener could likely say that they were inspecting plants for insects – and then pull out a bookmark out of their pocket showing one side of beneficial insects, and the other with bad bugs – and the give them the bookmark to take home. Then they might pull out a magnifying glass and give it to the guest to look for good and bad bugs in their own backyards. I loved this. Her staff became part of the park experience while educating at the same time.

Baskets here also provide some screening from the sun.

Gardening upwards

In another instance, she mentioned that early on, the majority of all gardening was happening on the ground – in garden beds. She had mentioned at the beginning of the talk that Walt Disney himself believed that the landscape was an integral part of the park experience, but that it had been a long time of doing similar gardens in similar ways.

Again, through research, it was determined that the typical guest's view across the park was from 0-15º and that the upper reaches of that 15º was not being utilized as an extension of the gardens or horticultural design. Working to change that, the use of significant hanging baskets was incorporated into the parks to raise the eye levels, as well as provide some visual continuity (and visual relief) over stretches of the parks. It was a welcome distraction from the visual cacophony of tourists – providing a swaths of consistent color and pattern.

Newer parts of the park sometimes look
like ideas you'd find on Pinterest. This particular
arrangement predates Pinterest
by many years though!

New tourist draw challenge met

In another story, she relayed that in the late '80s and early '90s when a new attraction at the park was created, it took thousands of people and hundreds of millions of dollars (think Disney MGM Studios, Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach). Departments were tasked with finding ways of bringing in guests in other, less expensive and intense ways.

Seizing the opportunity, Katy and her staff created the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. It provided an opportunity for the hort team to organize educational designer presentations, bring in special gardening experts, themed flower and garden displays with tips and tricks guests could try at home, interactive activities and play areas for kids, topiary of Disney characters, have special seasonal foods available, and even a concert series. Better yet, the costs to present the Festival were low (compared to creation of an themed ride or attraction), it attracted new and different audiences, and had the ability to encouraged repeat attendance annually.

The success of the International Flower and Garden Festival provided a template for other successive events, like the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. I did attend the Flower and GArden Festival years ago (not on purpose) – well before I even had a garden or a house. I remember enjoying it, but we were not there for the Festival itself. Someday I'd like to go back.

Katy is President Emeritus of the American Horticultural Society (AHS), a national, not-for-profit, member-based organization with a bold vision of “making America a nation of gardeners, a land of gardens.” Katy served on the AHS Board of Directors from 1992-2000 and then provided day-to-day leadership as President and CEO from 2002-06 before being named President Emeritus.

Katy is also active with America in Bloom (AIB), an organization promoting nationwide beautification through community involvement. She has judged cities for AIB in America and internationally since 2007. She is Vice President of the AIB Board of Directors and Chairs the AIB Symposium and Awards Program Committee.

My take-away, for Buffalo, from her talk? Research is invaluable for justifying any horticultural activity in the tourism realm. Tourism organizations deal with numbers, facts and figures. Fortunately, we do have some data collected over the years for Buffalo - from Zip Code collection to mall-intercept-type interviews done in gardens by professionals. But we need more. We have some basic information, I think we need more. We can build on past research. It just may further legitimize what we're doing in garden tourism and maybe even lead us in new directions.

Desert plants representing an under-the-sea landscape.


  1. This is interesting because whenever I see a garden that feels highly stylized and almost fake, I comment to myself that it looks like something out of Disney World. But kudos to them for creating such a beautiful place and educating the public.

    1. I've used the term Disney-esque quite often when describing similar gardens, but I intend it as a compliment – a garden that's over the top, colorful and designed to engage a viewer as much as the occupant. Then my next thought is usually, "That's too much work for me."

  2. I have been to Disney parks on both coasts a few times and all for the reasons she listed. Having no kids to take along, I was one not there for the rides, but the gardens, atmosphere, cleanliness, and the cute and knowledgeable helpers. I can't believe those great folks started in cleaning up the park. Anyway, the long road they made all though the 80's and 90's with Epcot was a wonderful addition to an already great park experience. I do love the Disney’s Animal Kingdom too. The animals have it made there, not like some "zoos" across the nation.

    1. The hort staff was part of the maintenance staff originally I think. She's the one that brought them "out into the light."

  3. Katy is amazing, a force of nature, totally devoted to the cause of plants and gardening. Also a big help to us at DC Gardens.


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