FLORIDA Orlando – Some 16 million people visit Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort each year, an average of 44,000 each day. All arrive anticipating a memorable experience. To some that means a face to face encounter with a favorite Disney-created character. Others come solely to embark on Disney-themed rides designed to scare their pants off.

Few, if asked, would answer, “To see the flowers.”

Yet for 75 days in spring, plants and gardens are Disneyworld’s show stopping stars. So, it has been since 1993, the first year of what is now the annual Epcot Flower & Garden Festival.

Epcot, one of the resort’s four theme parks, sprawls across 300 acres divided into two showcase attractions: Future World, focuses on technological advancements, innovation and wonder of the, yes, the future world, and World Showcase, a collective of pavilions representing the architecture, culture and cuisine of eleven countries wrapped around an enormous lagoon.

Epcot’s spacious layout, gorgeous water setting and built-in themes provide fertile ground for Disney’s garden designers to let their bigger-than-life horticultural imagination run wild.

Take what greeted visitors at Epcot’s front entrance during the 2011 Festival. Here the lead toys of “Toy Story 3” met arch-enemy Lotso (a.k.a. Lots-o’ Huggin’ Bear) in a floral spectacle of seven and eight-foot-tall topiaries surrounded by a sand castle and playground toys featured in the film.

“It created unique challenges, said festival horticulture manager Eric Darden. “Woody is skinny and it was a challenge to create his legs. And it was essential that Lotso smell like strawberries, just like on the big screen.”

More than 100 topiaries ranging from flowery renditions of “Cars 2” characters to Winnie the Pooh, Tigger and pals at home in the wildflowers of the Hundred Acre Wood were 2011 Festival stars. The construction of each involved the building of a steel frame, studded with moss, covered with plastic mesh, and planted with hundreds of plants.

And what happens to the flowery giants at Festival’s end? “They’re stored in a semi-maintained state in the Disneyworld nursery,” Darden said. “Around 20 are kept in top-notch condition the year around for display in such special events as the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.”

Topiary characters, although undeniably Festival stars, are only part of the flower and garden celebration. Themed gardens are scattered throughout the acreage. In one, favorite Disney fairies, live, pose for photos in the Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden. The Sustainable Beauty Garden is chock-full of ideas for the home gardener. The Blooming Guerlain Fragrance Garden at the France pavilion illustrates the relationship between plants and perfume. Japan offers a step-by- step tutorial on the art of bonsai.

Clay pots, barrels and urns – 700 placed throughout Epcot – are gloriously abundant with flowers, herbs and vegetables. Floating mini-gardens – 240 in all, each three feet in diameter and filled with multi-hued impatiens – splash color on two ponds bordering the walkway between Future World and World showcases.

“Important to the Festival,” said Darden, “is that it must look mature on opening day, yet remain equally as fresh 75 days later when the Festival closes.” Sixty gardeners are charged with daily task of ensuring that is so.

At Festival’s end, with gigantic topiaries hauled away and specialty gardens returned to sod, visitors have no need to worry that they’ll find the famed resort bare of gardens.  Year around, 600 gardeners make certain that is not so.

Nearly 12 percent of Walt Disney World property – an area equivalent to nearly 3,000 football fields – is devoted to gardens and maintained landscapes. Each year a horticulture staff plants three million bedding plants and annuals, and maintains millions of other plants including more than four million shrubs, 13,000 roses and more than 200 topiary. Turf, too, must be kept maintained and manicured, 2,000 acres of it. Mowers put in 450,000 miles per year to ensure that is so, the equivalent to 18 trips around the world.

The real world, that is, not that created in Florida by Walt Disney.