Walt Disney World's topiaries are not, as is obvious to anyone who's visited
there lately, extinct. All of the parks display some number of them on a
year-round basis and there is an active staff tending to their needs on a regular
basis. Nor do they appear to be endangered, as they continue to be celebrated
and pushed to new limits at Epcot's annual garden festival. But contrasted with
the resort's opening year of 1971, there are now a number of key differences
surrounding WDW's exhibition of this millennia-old floral art form.
This had once been WDW's primary showplace for the sculptures, providing visual entertainment for guests approaching the theme park via the monorail or, as was common in the 1970s, on parking lot trams that once shuttled guests between the TTC and a terminal at the Magic Kingdom's front gate. A row of elephants clasping each others' tails by their trunks, Mary Poppins holding her trademark parasol, huge frogs on toadstools, a giraffe (pictured above) munching on the vegetation of a convenient tree - these and dozens of other amusing forms contributed extensively to a visitor's building sense of anticipation as they drew nearer to the Kingdom's main gate. The topiaries hinted at some of the sights that would be presented within the park and created a sort of enchanted segueway between the real world left behind and the fantasy world just ahead.
Beginning in roughly 1979, this zoo began to see its numbers dwindle. It started with the construction of a second monorail terminal (for EPCOT Center) at the TTC, which displaced most of the animals shown in this photograph. Their counterparts on the western side of the original terminal - closer to the ferryboat landing - survived and are still enjoying their hillside domain today.
Later on in the 1980s, as tram service between the TTC and Magic Kingdom was generally suspended and bus service between new hotels across property and the Kingdom increased, the old tram terminal in front of the Kingdom was made over into a bus station. So too began a shrinking effect on the numbers of topiaries on that side of the Seven Seas Lagoon. Although an anemic few remain (a February 2003 survey accounted for just two acrobatic elephants adjacent to the Magic Kingdom entrance,) they no longer enjoy the showcase treatment that was accorded them in their multitudinous heyday.
Exhibit B - All the topiaries that were once exclusively green and "all-natural" in presentation, not every color of the rainbow and/or accented with ridiculous paraphernalia as many are today
It's true that years ago you could chance upon a sculpture augmented or consisting entirely of plastic leaves, but this was generally limited to those that the public could easily access and manhandle (those elephants along the road to the Contemporary Resort could not have withstood all the hands-on assaults if entirely organic.) So there was a reason for that deviation from tradition.
But why render topiaries in an increasingly colorful and prosthetic-oriented manner? To make them more fun?
Isn't the point of the topiary that it's an animal, human or otherwise non-shrub shape formed from a shrub? To me the fun, such as it is, comes from the fact that in their monochromatic state you can still see at a glance what they represent and wonder a little at the artistry. Add bands of brightly colored flowers or, worse, spectacles, gloves, hats or other adornments that couldn't be fashioned from naturally growing material and you create a disaster like the two mice shown here: one of the more egregious examples of the pointless aggrandizing that Disney World's topiaries are subjected to with alarming regularity. Just look at them. I mean, really.
Some of WDW's topiaries have even been extended the extra dimension of animation, whether rotating on a platen or waving their arms at passerby. For some reason this doesn't come across as offensive, it even appears novel in some respects as the limited nature of the animation seemingly complements the limited scope of an animal form rendered in living foliage.
But the gloves, hats and rainbow colors are excessive. By the time a topiary is smothered in vivid colors and outfitted with dumb props, it looks like someone cheated and the fact that - underneath the junk - it's a plant has ceased to matter; at that stage it's just a mediocre facsimile of something that would be far more satisfying if sculpted of clay or foam, cast in fiberglass and treated with all of the detailing that cannot truly be transposed onto something botanical.
No doubt some people prefer the topiaries with all the adornments, but some people also prefer the Rolling Stones' later work. Rather than cater to a proclivity of latter-day bad taste, the topiaries should be left green and simple.
Exhibit C - The time when only a handful of the topiaries on WDW property depicted actual Disney characters.
When WDW opened, the topiaries were mostly generic creatures and only a few, such as Mary Poppins and the dancing hippos from Fantasia, really could be traced to specific Disney films. Now the ratio has swung so far in the other direction, one might reasonably wonder if the more ambiguous population is destined for obsolescence.
Also, In the 1970s you could drive from I-4 to 192, then north up World Drive, pay your parking fee at the Toll Plaza, park, ride the tram to the TTC, buy your admission ticket, ride the tram, monorail or ferryboat to the Magic Kingdom and get through the main gate before finally encountering the first unavoidable image of a Disney character: a large, multicolored floral face of Mickey in front of the Main Street Train Station. It was a deliberately cumulative effect and the topiaries - almost exclusively non-Disney - were an integral part of the process. Today a guest drives onto WDW property and immediately passes through a bold gateway emblazoned with a ten-foot-tall Mickey and/or other characters. There are billboards along the drive to the Toll Plaza with all manner of Disney animals depicted repeatedly. The parking lot sections, while always named for characters, are now marked with full-color signs showing those same characters. The TTC is marked with similar reinforcing images.
This is a questionable application of branding on the part of Disney. On one hand it clearly marks the zones as being part of the resort, but it also runs the risk of diluting the anticipation guests used to experience when they first arrived.
How many people crossing Disney's property line for the first time don't already know where they're headed or that it's the home of Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Pluto? How soon into the process should they be reminded of that fact, and by what means? How much is to be said in favor of the original, more subtle approach - one that began with pleasantly manicured and forested grounds, built with some signs & topiaries, and culminated in one's arrival at the Magic Kingdom's entry turnstiles - whereupon entering guests are face-to-face with icons of the Disney tradition for the duration of their stay?
Perhaps the new pyschology is that with so much of what a guest now encounters on WDW property running apart from the original hallmarks of the old Disney tradition, it's necessary to get in a preemptive strike of identification via the oversized characters on the entry portals; maybe it's become critical to reassure everyone that, even though they may next be passing representations of the Twilight Zone, R2-D2 & C-3PO, Planet Hollywood, Richard Petty, the Rainforest Cafe, McDonalds, AMC Theaters and other non-Disney brands, this is still where Tinker Bell waves her wand.
Whether any of this makes a bit of difference to, or negatively impacts, today's WDW visitors is debatable. It's undeniable, however, that the proliferation of Disney's branded characters at every step of the WDW journey diminishes a sense of a delicacy that was previously engineered into the experience. The original topiaries were a key factor in that equation and accomplished their task without a majority representing named cartoon stars.
Maybe the topiaries don't need anyone to champion a cause of puritanism for their own sake. The idea didn't begin with Disney* and doesn't end there either; it's conceivable that one reason for the increased Disneyfication of the topiary sculptures on property was to distinguish them further from those to be found in European gardens and other Orlando area parks.
But the traditional WDW topiaries brought a flavor to the resort that was in its own way sufficiently distinctive. Whether forming part of a transitional zone around the Seven Seas Lagoon or lining the banks of the hub canal as this sea serpent has for dozens of years, those that remain in their more subdued state are welcome reminders of a more simple past arrangement.
* The first documented occurrence of topiaries date back to the Roman Empire during the rule of Augustus, 2000 years ago. Disney's first topiary work was done for Disneyland in 1963.