Behind the Seeds Tour at Walt Disney World - Part I

April 3, 2018

The more that I learn about hydroponics, the more I am amazed – especially after the Behind the Seeds Tour at Walt Disney Worldin Orlando, Florida!Located next to the Living on the Land attraction, The Behind the Seeds Tour allows you to see the work that takes place behind the scenes, and gives you a better understanding of the methods used to achieve the kind of success that defines the Disney experience.Disney harvests between 15-20 tons of food a year for their restaurants and anything that does not get used goes to Animal Kingdom for the animals. Now, that's a lot of food! Not only are they mass producing plants, but they also have two full-time USDA Scientists who are researching and working to combat the Plum Pox Virus that came to the U.S. in the late 1900s and has spread along the East Coast attacking stone fruit trees such as plum and peach trees.With so many exciting things happening at Walt Disney World, this Behind the Seeds Tour entry will be presented to you in two parts.

Disney World has Behind the Seeds Tours every day beginning at 10:30 am with tours following every 45 minutes up until the last one at 4:30 pm. Our tour guide, Sara, was from St. Louis, Missouri, and received her degree in Environmental Science from the University of Missouri. Sara started our tour with a walk through the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Lab where Disney's scientists grow and raise beneficial insects to be released into their greenhouses for controlling the bad insects without using harmful pesticides. One of the main beneficial insects being raised at Disney is the Parasitic Wasp which they use to control Leaf Miner Flies. A female Leaf Miner Fly will lay around 200 eggs in her lifetime. These eggs are laid on the inside of the plant leaves and eventually hatch into larvae (little caterpillars) that crawl their way around chewing the leaves which creates a little white tunnel that we can see. 

This is bad for the plant because the leaves capture energy from the sun and gives it to the plants. If the leaves are damaged, they are not capturing enough energy to support a healthy plant. This is where the Parasitic Wasp comes in. Parasitic Wasps do not sting humans. These tiny wasps like to crawl along the leaves finding white tunnels following the vibrations made by the Leaf Miner Fly larvae. Once the parasitic wasps find the larvae, they work by "stinging" the Leaf Miner larvae, conveying a paralyzing toxin to the pests and laying their eggs inside the Leaf Miner larvae. The wasps' larvae hatch from these eggs and then consume the Leaf Miner larvae. 

The wasp larvae eats its way out and when full, falls off the leaf and into the funnel contraption where Disney scientists capture them in jars and raise them from their "caterpillar" larvae form to adult Parasitic Wasps. Sara told our group that Disney has about 5 different varieties of wasps that they are raising, but they have a total of about 25 varieties of beneficial insects that they release into the greenhouses when needed. As a last resort, they will spray pesticides.

Continuing on our tour, Sara took us to the Bio Tech Lab next. This lab is responsible for mass producing plants that Disney sells to visitors, as well as, research projects with the USDA. Scientists take cuttings of plants and grow them in very sterile environments using LED lights and jars with nutrient growing medium in the bottom. Red and blue LED lights are used to stimulate growth. Sara said they have a saying, "Red for the Roots and Blue for the Shoots!" Plants need 12 hours of light per day for energy, so these LED lights help provide the energy needed to stimulate growth. 

The nutrient growing medium used to provide nutrients to the plants looks like a clear jello and is made up of 95% water and 5% nutrients. Plants can live off this medium and are ready to transplant in 2-3 months. The Bio Tech Lab is also where the 2 USDA Scientists work. As I said earlier, they are currently working on finding disease-resistant varieties of the plum, peach and other stone fruit trees that will not be susceptible to the Plum Pox virus. 

Our next stop was the Creative Greenhouse where everything grows vertically. With traditional soil growing methods, the soil provides plants both nutrients and support. With hydroponics, nutrients are given in water, so there is no soil to support a plant's growth. Therefore, the Creative Greenhouse is just that - Creative! Different types of systems are used for the support of each plant's needs. One system is called Aeroponics which is the process of growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil or an aggregate medium. One such system we saw was growing Brussel Sprouts where the plants were supported with metal rods hanging from the top of a conveyor type system. Sara said the plant is "literally Velcro'd onto the metal rod which is all the support it needs." The conveyor slowly moves the plants around the track where part of it is enclosed with walls where the water is misted onto the roots every 10 feet as the plant passes. When the plant proceeds out of the walled area, air is able to move through the plants roots and helps stimulate growth. Sara said the plants' roots grow very long and have to be trimmed about once a week.

Other vertical growing systems found in the Creative Greenhouse included VertiCrop, VertiGro, and Aquaponics. The VertiCrop system had 8,000 plants growing vertically, and the VertiGro system contained 40 plants that took up only 1 square foot of space. Sara also showed us an aquaponics system that combines hydroponics with aquaculture. 

With an aquaponics system, fish are in water in the bottom while plants grow on top. The fish are given regular fish food and their waste goes into the water producing nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium - all nutrients needed for plants to grow. The water with the nutrients goes through a filter and is sent up to the plants on top. The plants' roots actually filter the water for the fish. This system provides a continuing cycle that is very efficient, plus both the plants and the fish can be harvested.

Having covered the IPM Lab, the BioTech Lab, and the Creative Greenhouse, I think this is a good spot to end part one. As you can see, Hydroponics at Disney World is a big deal! They have truly embraced the idea of saving time, space, water, and money in growing plants to support their restaurants and feed their animals. Be sure to look for Part Two which will cover more growing systems and many of the plants that are grown in the greenhouses.

Stephanie Miller

With over 25 years experience, Stephanie serves as a senior copywriter, social media director, and senior editor for Science Scene. Stephanie is always on the lookout for new educational and STEM-related opportunities and technology.