by Jim Korkis
Disney Historian

Feature Article

This article appeared in the September 5, 2017 Issue #937 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Editor’s Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

Swiss Family Treehouse

Trees serve many purposes at Walt Disney World. Some trees play the traditional role of decoration and shade. Other trees, like the Swiss Family Treehouse and the Tree of Life, are actually attractions. Some artificial tree stumps like those on Tom Sawyer’s Island hide speakers that provide authentic forest sounds.

Disney trees accomplish three things:

  • Provide shade, shelter and beauty for the guests visiting the park.
  • Conceal visual intrusions, whether it was using the berm to hide the outside world or using horticulture to hide show buildings and backstage areas.
  • Support the storytelling by creating the right look for the setting from the exotic jungles of the Jungle Cruise to the Wild West cacti of Frontierland.

In 1985, I got a chance to interview Director of Disney Landscape Design Bill Evans. He said, “Walt’s idea of a park was to build an outdoor entertainment facility where the adults would have every bit as good a time as the children. Fortunately for us, he wanted a lot of green plant stuff. That was one of the elements Walt felt would separate his park from the Coney Island format. This was to be a park that would be clean and beautiful and colorful and a very pleasant place to be. We kept this in mind when we set about to put a green frame around all those adventures and rides.”

“Walt liked to have the scene complete when the curtains were drawn open,” Evans said. “He wanted that landscaping to be as close to full scale and mature as possible. He didn’t want to wait five or 10 years for young trees to grow up and produce shade. For Walt Disney World, the tree farm was the first place built and in operation so we could acclimate the many different trees to Florida and to get as much full growth as possible before the park opened. Walt believed people would know the difference between good landscaping and bad landscaping and Disney is the best.”

For decades the back of the Sunshine Tree Terrace featured the Florida Sunshine Tree — a large replica of a citrus tree with artificial fruit, blossoms, and leaves. It was the creation of Disney technicians who studied Florida citrus trees a long time before putting the tree together limb by limb in a combination of reality and fantasy. The tree was the icon for the Florida citrus industry and adorned the costumes worn by the cast members who worked at the location in the early days. High in its branches was the little Orange Bird until 1986. He returned in 2012.

The World Showcase is home to a variety of trees not normally seen in Florida. Dawn redwoods are in Canada. Linden trees reminiscent of Parisian parks shade the walkways in France. English hawthornes are in the gardens of the United Kingdom. The yucca tree to the right side of the Cantina de San Angel in Mexico is more than 250 years old. It was transplanted from the Chihuahuan desert on the border between Texas and Mexico. The weeping mulberry tree found near the Nine Dragons Restaurant in the China pavilion came from an estate in New Jersey.

The gnarled olive trees in Italy are more than a hundred years old. These olive trees were brought from Sacramento, California. While olive tree seedlings can mature in Florida, it was discovered that trees grown in Florida never take on the size and twisted shape of Italian olive trees. However, trees grown in California can look identical to their Italian counterparts. The trees arrived at Walt Disney World on flatbed trucks. It was not necessarily a smooth journey. Arizona law required trees to be trimmed to a 10-foot width. (Looking at the trees, darker bark is the original tree while lighter bark is new growth.) In addition, cypress trees were in the pavilion, and for decades were also in front of the Casting Building on Buena Vista Drive because the structure was reminiscent of the Doges Palace in Italy.

One of the oak trees in front of the American Adventure pavilion to the far right was originally planted where Disney Springs is today in the late 1960s. It was “harvested” from that location and moved to the Walt Disney World Tree Farm and kept there until its final move to Epcot for the 1982 opening.

Some trees at Walt Disney World are unique and exist at no other Disney theme park worldwide. The Liberty Tree at Liberty Square in the Magic Kingdom not only symbolizes the roots of freedom, but the roots of the colonial American garden style of horticulture as well. It actually tells two fascinating stories. The sign at the side of the tree recounts that first story for guests:

“The original Liberty Tree, a stately elm, was a rallying point for pre-revolutionary activities. The open space under its branches was called ‘Liberty Hall’ and a flag pole was erected through its branches with a hoisted flag the symbol for action. Countless inflammatory cartoons and verses were nailed to its trunk and many Tories hung in effigy from its branches. Perhaps its proudest moment was the repeal of the Stamp Act when innumerable lanterns blazed among its branches for all to see.”

On the bronze plaque located at the base of the tree is a small part of the second story:

“Under the boughs of the original Liberty Tree in Boston in 1765, Patriots, calling themselves ‘The Sons Of Liberty,’ gathered to protest the imposition of the Stamp Act. In the years that followed, almost every American town had a Liberty Tree — A Living Symbol Of The American Freedom of Speech and Assembly.

“Our Liberty Tree is a Southern Live Oak, Quercus Virginiana, more than 100 years old. The tree in Liberty Square displays 13 lanterns commemorating the 13 original colonies. It is the largest tree ever transplanted on Walt Disney World property.”

Liberty Tree

The preparation to move the live oak from the east side of the property to the Magic Kingdom, a distance of eight miles, took almost a year of planning. The tree was 40 feet tall, 60 feet wide and weighed 38 tons. The root ball measured 18 feet by 16 feet by four feet deep. It was too large and heavy to tie a cable of any kind around the trunk and lift it. That was the common process in these cases but it wouldn’t have worked because it would have assuredly caused massive damage to the sensitive cambrium layers which are the lifeblood of the tree.

Evans shared with me the story of how it was accomplished without damaging the tree.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” he said. “We occasionally had to move trees and couldn’t use the accepted practice of putting a large box around the root system because sometimes the weight would have been more than we could have handled. We drilled through the hardwood center of the trunk and inserted two steel rods to form a cross. North-South and East-West. These rods served as handles for hoisting and hauling the tree with a 100-ton crane to its present location. We went around with pruning shears to reduce the root system to something we could handle. By doing all this, we reduced the weight to about one-fifth. That’s still pretty heavy but manageable.

“Local nurserymen and landscape people were absolutely horrified, including the professional pathologist from the University of Florida who predicted the tree would die in two years if we bored a hole through it.

“When we re-planted it, we re-inserted the original wood plugs. Unfortunately, over time they became contaminated and diseased and had to be removed and we filled the holes with concrete to stop any further spread of the disease. We also grafted a small live oak onto the tree to give it that fuller shape it has today.”

The tree began its journey June 11, 1970, but was so heavy that the trunk could only move slowly inches at a time much like the vehicles that haul rockets to a launch site. Supposedly, Walt Disney himself saw the tree when he was flying over the property and remarked on it. The tree was re-planted on March 6, 1971.

Another living tree that also has an iconic story resides at the Polynesian Village Resort. The resort has a Kukui Nut tree. It is the only one of its kind in the state of Florida and the tree was brought here from its native Hawaii. This type of tree is often mentioned in Hawaiian literature and still flourishes on the islands in Polynesia.

Since 1959, the Candlenut tree (Aleurites moluccana), known more commonly as “kukui”, has been the official state tree of Hawaii. Canoes were carved from its buoyant trunks, and its oily seeds were strung together and burned as a sort of primitive candle. Dyes produced by crushing the covering of the nuts were used in tattooing. The kukui nut was used for many things including a natural medicine remedy for a variety of ailments, body oil and lotion, shampoo, children’s toy (a spinning top called a “Hu”) and food. Today, the kukui nut is more commonly used in the making of various types of ornamentation like necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. Some of the festive leis that greet the many visitors to Hawaii every year are made of beaded kukui nuts. Leis made of kukui nuts were considered to be highly prestigious and sacred and were only worn by the reigning kings of Hawaii. Unlike a flower lei that will disintegrate in time, a kukui nut lei was meant to last forever.

At Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, the kukui tree is located behind the Great Ceremonial House just off to the right of the pathway. An old Hawaiian belief was that a person should not plant a kukui tree near his own house, but it was all right for a stranger to plant it for him as a gift. That stranger could plant it in the back of the house or “hale,” but not in the front. Following the dictates of the popular legend, Disney’s tree was planted by a hotel guest on April 25, 1997, to celebrate the 25th anniversary year of the resort. (It opened in October 1971.)

Remarkably, the tree has survived a lightning strike, almost being uprooted by a hurricane, a massive rehab of the area and being frozen in an unseasonable Florida cold snap. A time capsule is located at the base of the tree.

While it is said that only God can make a tree, Disney has certainly made valiant efforts to provide both real and artificial trees for guests to enjoy.

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Other features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives.

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Jim Korkis

Disney Historian and regular AllEars® Columnist Jim Korkis has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, Korkis has used his skills and historical knowledge with Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of several books, including his newest, Secret Stories of Disneyland, available in both paperback and Kindle versions.


Editor’s Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

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