Behind the Seeds Tour at Walt Disney World - Part II

May 18, 2018

Welcome back for Part II of the Behind the Seeds Tour at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida! As you may remember, I covered the IPM Lab, the BioTech Lab, and the Creative Greenhouse in Part I. This Part II covers the String Greenhouse, the Temperate Greenhouse, the Aquacell, and the Tropical Greenhouse. Our tour guide, Sara from St. Louis, Missouri, with a degree in Environmental Science, works in the Tropics Greenhouse while also giving a few Behind the Seeds Tours. These tours are offered every day beginning at10:30 am with tours following every 45 minutes up until the last one at 4:30 pm. 

As we continued our Behind the Seeds Tour, Sara guided us into the String Greenhouse where they are focused on using innovative, high-density growing techniques. Tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, wintermelon and many more varieties are being grown using different techniques that best suits their growing needs.

Tomatoes are grown using a "Lean & Lower" technique that controls where the vines grow and allows all fruit to be harvested while sitting on a stool and sliding down the row. They also have a Tree Method of growing tomatoes which they hold the World Record for the most tomatoes grown on one plant – 32,000 tomatoes! 

Cucumbers are growing in the shape of Mickey Mouse. This is achieved by using special-shaped growing tubes that form the shape of Mickey Mouse. These Mickey Mouse cucumbers are a big hit in the restaurants at Disney. 

The Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) that we learned about from our friends at Salad Days is being used to grow lettuce and only uses 2 gallons of water to grow one pound of lettuce with this system. Using the traditional soil method would require 12 gallons of water and the water would not be recycled.

Wintermelon is grown using a rope technique that keeps the vines off the ground and in the air for better growth without the heavy fruit breaking them. Wintermelons are indigenous to China and are called wintermelons because before refrigerators were invented, the Chinese would harvest them in the fall and it would be large enough to last all through the winter. Wintermelons grow to about 70 pounds before being ready for harvest and when cut open, the inside looks like a snowflake. The largest wintermelon grown at Disney was 95 pounds. The one in the photo weighed about 30 pounds. 

These String Greenhouse growing methods are also great because they help to keep the plants up and away from harmful insects. Insects start at the bottom of a plant and work their way up. By trimming the leaves at the bottom of the plants, it also makes it harder for the insects to climb on, causing them to move on to something else. When harmful insects are spotted, they bring in the beneficial insects. The beneficial insects they like to use are predatory mites and can be bought in 100% compostable, hangable packets called Ulti-Mite Swirksi by Koppert. Containing 250 predatory mites, the packets are hung near the top of the plants.

The beneficial insects crawl out of the bag and scour the plant downward eating anything smaller than them. These Koppert packets are handy, economical, and work great in protecting plants from harmful insects. Koppert has an interesting video that shows how the predatory mites work. 

The next greenhouse on our tour stop was the Temperate Greenhouse where crops from temperate climates (like the desert) are grown. Growing plants in sand, the Disney crew has to make sure the plants are getting the needed water and nutrients. Using drip irrigation running underneath the plants, the roots sit right on top of the drip tape which very slowly, over time, emits water allowing the roots to absorb the water and nutrients. Watering on top of the ground does not work because it runs off or evaporates and does not reach the 8˝-9˝ depth into the sand that is needed. Among the plants grown in the Temperate Greenhouse, we found sugar cane, fig trees, hollyhocks, coffee plants, ameranth, and 9-Pound Lemon Trees!

Sugar Cane is a favorite of the gorillas at Disney, so they make sure to grow plenty of it! The self-pollenating fig tree varieties are pollenated by wasps. Did you know a wasp crawls inside the flower and dies there, so figs from these self-pollinated fig trees actually have a wasp inside! Hollyhocks are also grown in the Temperate Green house and are called "super flowers" because they can be eaten, plus they have about 10 different medicinal uses.

Coffee plants, considered by some to have super powers, start out with green coffee cherries that turn yellow and then red when they are fully ripened. Only the red coffee cherries can be picked, so this is very labor intensive because it is all done by hand. Each coffee cherry only has two coffee beans, so many plants are needed to have enough coffee cherries for one cup of coffee!

Ameranth is another plant grown in the Temperate Greenhouse. It is an alternating red and green plant that grows very tall and has a grain head on top – this is where we get gluten-free grain.

And of course the 9-Pound Lemon Trees are a treasure to behold. A 9 pound lemon? Well, yes, they do grow to 9-10 pounds before being ready for harvest. The largest grown at Disney was 15 pounds! Because the lemons are so big, a tree can only support 10-12 lemons at a time, and it takes approximately one year for one of these lemons to fully ripen! This is the reason we do not see these around because they are not as economical as the smaller kind we are used to.

As we continued on our tour, we entered the Aquacell which focuses on aquaculture. This facility has a red roof and red lights to help keep the fish calm. Here we found freshwater shrimp, catfish, and tilapia. The freshwater shrimp were in smaller aquariums. Baby freshwater shrimp are very sensitive to pH and temperature, so they are kept in the Life Support Lab. Baby shrimp will also eat one another, so they must be fed brine shrimp or sea monkeys constantly. The catfish breeding tank was empty while we were there, but the Disney crew raises both black and white varieties of catfish. When we reached the Tilapia tank, we were the first tour group for the day, so they were ready for us to feed them! 

The last greenhouse on our tour was the Tropical Greenhouse featuring over 70 different varieties of plants from the tropical areas of the world. I love bananas, so I thought the banana plants were very interesting! One banana plant produces only one bundle of bananas in its lifetime! Once ripe bananas are harvested, the plant then has to be cut out from the bottom because it will not fruit anymore and needs to be removed. Since the plant dies after flowering, and there are no seeds in the fruits, bananas are propagated from the offshoots that develop at the base of the mother plant. These rhizomes, called suckers or pups, are cut off from what remains of the mother plant when they are 3 feet tall, taking some of the root system along with them.

Other types of plants found in the Tropical Greenhouse include Star Fruit, Fluted Pumpkins, Dragon Fruit plants, Mickey Pepper Plant, the Date Palm and Miracle Fruit. The Mickey Pepper Plant at 19 years old is the oldest plant at Walt Disney World, and the Date Palm is the second oldest at 13 years old. The Date Palm has gotten so tall, that the Disney Crew making plans now to remove it from the Tropical Greenhouse. Miracle Fruit is also grown here and when eaten, neutralizes taste buds for about an hour making everything that you eat taste sweet. Sour lemons, water, vinegar all taste sweet after eating Miracle Fruit. Scientists are currently working with Miracle Fruit to help cancer patients increase their appetites by neutralizing their taste buds. 

Finishing our tour took us by the Carolina Reaper Pepper which is the world's hottest pepper scoring 2.5 million points on the Scoville Heat Unit Index. Keep in mind, a Bell Pepper scores 0; a Jalapeno Pepper scores 2,500 -8,000 points; a Habanero Pepper scores 150,000 - 575,000 points; and a Ghost Pepper scores 855,000 - 1 million points. The Carolina is a cross between a Ghost Pepper and a Habanero Pepper. The Habanero Pepper is the hottest naturally occurring pepper.

Now that you've read all about the Behind the Seeds Tour at Walt Disney World, I hope that you will one day get to visit it in person. The techniques being used are amazing to see and just seeing them gives you a greater appreciation for what they do. Walt Disney World's scientists are truly the cream of the crop!

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.