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Landscaping - February 2015

by John Morell

Although many guests may not realize it, the way an attraction appeals to the senses is a significant driver in their decisions to buy entrance tickets. Perhaps the most important of those senses is sight, which is where landscaping comes into play.

“It’s very simple, actually. Without careful landscaping at a facility, what do you really have?” says Steve Foltz, director of horticulture at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. “It’s just a series of rides and exhibits surrounded by fencing. Not much to really look at. Great landscaping with interesting foliage and trees really adds to the experience. It shows how important landscaping is to a facility.”

Foltz’s reasoning explains the investment many facilities have made into their landscaping departments and landscape planning, especially in light of the trend toward the year-round park. “Most facilities want to stay open as long as the weather allows them and that’s possible when you’re planning the right landscaping,” he says. “Shoulder offseasons are shrinking. We used to have an opening day in May, then April, now it’s March and we’ve got to be prepared with our plants and trees.”

This has become more complicated as weather patterns have become less reliable. Cold snaps spring up earlier; summer heat flares up before its time; and drought seems to be a condition that affects nearly every region. At the same time, it seems everyone wants “color” in foliage year-round.

“People have short memories,” says Paul Verlander, a landscape architect based in Orlando who has worked on attraction projects. “Clients might experience a few mild winters and think they can get away with long periods of flowers in winter, but you’ve got to know about climate patterns and how the plants and trees will survive when a normal or bad winter comes.”

When Landscaping Is the Attraction
Some parks have developed attractions specifically around their landscaping. Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia has developed a national reputation for its trees, shrubbery, and flowerbeds. The facility uses its lush environment as a marketing hook year-round, particularly for the “Christmas Town” promotion, where more than 1,500 Christmas trees are decorated and lit by the landscaping staff. After the exhibit is taken down, the Christmas trees are recycled into wood chips used in the park’s animal exhibits and as mulch for landscaping during the year.

“It’s a huge savings for us and it benefits the environment,” says Busch Gardens Williamsburg Landscape Director Erick Elliott.

While during summer a park’s landscaping team is in full swing maintaining flower beds, checking on irrigation, weeding, and trimming, much of the groundwork that goes into a facility’s landscaping is started during the offseason—that is, if one can define an offseason.

“Even when we’ve completed setting up the ‘Christmas Town’ project, we’re busy,” says Elliott. “We’re giving behind-the-scenes tours for guests and helping them put together a table centerpiece. Our jobs involve not just working with plants; we’re interacting with guests who are interested in what we do.”

While at some parks the landscaping is designed to be part of the ambiance, at others the foliage becomes a true attraction. Gilroy Gardens in Northern California got its start as Bonfante Gardens, a tree farm and nursery with 24 famous circus trees that were grown and shaped with multiple trunks, basket-weave patterns, and hearts.

“It’s truly a major job managing just those trees that make up a small part of our 28 acres,” says General Manager Barb Granter. “They’re part of the Gilroy Gardens brand. I know most people come for the thrill rides, but if we were to lose the circus trees it would be a loss for the community—they’re that significant. So maintaining them is an obligation.”

The circus trees, which take decades to grow, are still watched over by Michael Bonfante, founder of Bonfante Gardens, who lives near the park, and a team of horticulturalists and landscaping staff. Together they’ve worked out solutions to help keep the trees healthy.

“We had to cut away some of the foliage around the zigzag tree so guests could see the trunk’s unique zigzag shape,” says Granter. “In doing so, the exposed trunk sunburned. The answer was to put up lattice shading strategically around the trunk that would reduce the sun but still give people a view of the trunk.”

Landscaping staff also anchored various trees with cables to protect them from storm damage during winter. “The temperature variations in our area during the year will run from 20 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, so we have to be on top of weather when it comes to landscaping,” says Granter.

Dealing with Drought
California was in the midst of a devastating drought at press time and asked facilities to do more with less water—a difficult feat for a park with thousands of thirsty trees and plants. Fortunately, Gilroy Gardens was designed against the Santa Cruz hills and has a dam on the property that collects water runoff. The water is contained before it reaches the local aquifer and used on landscaping for the park.

In addition, the landscaping staff evaluated their water needs and decided to reduce flower planting in order to save water for the trees. “We normally have four flower plantings a year and we cut back on two of them,” says Granter. “We’re going to continue to reallocate our resources until the situation changes.”

Uneven rainfall and drought have been a problem in recent years and attractions have had to wrestle with dwindling water supplies and increasing costs.

At Busch Gardens Williamsburg, the landscape and maintenance staff worked together to find at least one solution out of thin air.

“We started collecting the condensation from the air conditioners around the park in barrels,” says Elliott of Busch Gardens Williamsburg. “As a result, we’re collecting up to 600 gallons of water per day and adding that to the water we use for our foliage.”

Getting through extreme winters is also a factor for park landscaping departments, which often have to shift gears when the weather turns. “We basically become the snow removal staff, and in a winter like 2013-14 that’s what we did for three months straight,” says Foltz of Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. “It was a big task keeping the paths and roadways clear and we had to keep an eye on the damage the freezing did to our landscaping and hardscaping.”

One thing that helped Foltz and his staff was a series of extensive records going back decades that showed average temperatures and precipitation at the facility, as well as what plants and flowers were used and when they were planted.

“It’s extremely helpful because we can look back and see harsh winters in the past and look at what plants worked and which didn’t, so we don’t make the same mistake twice.” 

John Morell is a Los Angeles-based writer who has covered the family entertainment business for nearly 20 years.

Offseason Strategy

Anchoring and pruning are also key part of the offseason strategy at facilities such as Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury, Connecticut. “Being an older facility we’ve got a number of very old trees on the property,” says General Manager Eric Anderson. “There’s a lot of pruning that goes on where we look to see if an old tree seems to have the ability to last out a big storm. We’ll cable them down as best we can and think we’ll likely lose one, but they’ll often surprise us and survive.”