Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, is known for being many things: The place where dreams come true. The place where magic lives. The place where you can eat as much dessert as you want because you spend so much time walking. (See: the place where dreams come true.)
But did you know that it’s also the place where innovative farming technology is developed?
To see this technology in action, ride the monorail over to Epcot, Disney’s theme park dedicated to experimentation and innovation. Epcot has a whole pavilion that focuses on humanity’s interaction with the earth, and it’s not just for show. There are 2.5 million square feet of active greenhouses on Epcot’s property, which produce much of the food served in the park’s restaurants while providing a space for scientists to research, test and utilize new high-yield indoor plant growing techniques.
There’s even a ride about it. (We’re talking about Walt Disney World, after all.) Living with the Land is a soothing 13-minute boat ride that takes you through a thunder-shaken forest, a blustery desert and the pastoral slopes of an American farm to showcase how people are making agriculture more efficient and environmentally friendly. The second half of the tour takes you directly into Disney’s “Living Laboratory,” where you can float through Epcot’s lush greenhouses to see exactly where those Mickey-shaped cucumbers in your salad came from.
Here are a few of the amazing agricultural technologies you can see for yourself on your next trip to the most magical place on earth.
Vertical Growing Techniques (Not Just for Beanstalks Anymore!)
What if there were a way to increase food production while using less water, less fertilizer, fewer pesticides and even less space? At Disney, this isn’t just fantasy. Traditional growing methods require huge, horizontal plots of land, but at Epcot, produce is climbing upward to achieve this dream. Plants are grown vertically using either stacked gardens or specialized trellises that allow crops to reach gravity-defying heights. Produce grown in this way uses a fraction of the space required by conventional methods, saving water and increasing yields.The most famous example of this technique is Disney’s “tomato tree,” so named because this plant’s special trellis allowed it to reach the shape and size of an actual tree – which is huge. In fact, in 2006 this plant set the record for the largest and most productive tomato plant in the world when it produced over 32,000 tomatoes in a 16-month period. All this without even a speck of fairy dust! (That we know of.)
Hydroponics, Aeroponics and Aquaponics – Oh My!
Another groundbreaking way to grow food more efficiently is to grow it without the ground. Seriously. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using just water and nutrients, and Disney uses this technology throughout their greenhouses.Epcot produces over 27,000 heads of lettuce a year using a form of hydroponics called the nutrient film technique. This technique allows a shallow stream of nutrient-infused water to circulate past the plants’ exposed roots, providing all the good stuff a plant would usually get from the soil. But it’s quicker than growing crops in the soil, it uses less water, and it allows growers to stack plants closer together.
Aeroponics is another form of dirt-free farming you’ll see at Epcot. It’s similar to hydroponics, but instead of feeding the plants with a stream of water, their roots dangle free in the air and are periodically sprayed with a fine mist of atomized nutrients. If you think this sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, you’re not far off. Epcot has partnered with NASA to pioneer new ways of growing food aeroponically since it’s exactly the sort of technology that could be used for a long-term space mission.This next system of space-age farming is a little less out there. Aquaponics is a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture, or fish farming. Rather than planting crops in the ground, you grow them directly above a fish tank – like the tanks of tilapia, bass and catfish that are part of Epcot’s small fish farm. The fish provide a natural source of fertilizer for the plants, and the plants help keep the water clean for the fish, making it another great way to produce more while using less.
Food for the Young and the Young at Heart
Not every agricultural innovation at Walt Disney World is used to outshine nature or send humans to space. Some of it’s just for fun!
One of the most popular attractions on Living with the Land is the Mickey-shaped pumpkin. Growing a pumpkin with two round ears isn’t especially high-tech – you just grow a regular pumpkin inside of a plastic Mickey-shaped mold – but the effect is spectacularly whimsical.
Another sight to behold is Disney’s famous nine-pound lemon. While most of these lemons weigh exactly what you’d think – around nine pounds – they’ve been known to get even bigger. In 2011, Disney broke another world record with a lemon that weighed 15.05 pounds.
This brings us to the end of our agricultural journey, which just happens to be the best part: eating. Disney serves between 20 and 30 tons of their own produce in their restaurants every year, including nearly 5,000 pounds of fish.
So next time you’re enjoying the Chip ‘n’ Dale Harvest Feast at Garden Grill or the Land Greens Salad at Artist Point, you can savor your meal a little more knowing it was grown with innovative farming technology that borders on magic.