How Disneyland’s weather station helps save water and keep 1,000 floral beds blooming

Keeping Disneyland’s 17,000 trees green and 1,000 floral beds blooming takes a mammoth effort by the Anaheim theme park’s horticulture team that’s focused on reducing water consumption during Southern California’s latest drought.

Constant readings from Disneyland’s weather station in the Toy Story parking lot combined with a sophisticated irrigation control system have allowed the horticulture team to cut water usage by 13% compared to the same period last year, according to Disneyland officials.

​​”We have almost 1,000 floral beds if you add them up resort wide including the hotels,” Disneyland Horticulture Manager John Schrimsher said. “Figuring out what goes where is a very complicated piece of logistics.”

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Planters on Main Street, U.S.A. feature a barrier of grass that will soon be replaced with artificial turf at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Disneyland is currently ahead of schedule on its commitment to reducing irrigation usage by 11% under a plan approved by the state, according to Disneyland officials.

To keep that pace up, Disneyland is relying on rain, temperature, wind, sunlight, evaporation and “plant sweat” data from the park’s weather station to determine how much to water and when to turn off the spigot.

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Disneyland has its own distinct climate thanks to the earthen berm that surrounds the perimeter, miles of reflective hardscape and rivers of man made waterways. All of Southern California’s heat waves, cold spells, rain storms, droughts and Santa Ana winds add to the calculations that must be factored into determining just how much water Disneyland’s trees and planter beds need on any given day.

“Our weather station tells us basically how much water we need to replenish plants with,” Disneyland Irrigation Specialist Craig Landis said. “That’s all automated once it’s all set up.”

Members of the Disney horticulture team; Craig Alndis, left, Elizabeth Coles, Cheryl Baumann and Gary Hunter on Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Neighboring weather stations in central Orange County and long-term forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration supplement data from Disneyland’s weather station.

Moisture sensors at 60 locations throughout Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, Downtown Disney and the three Disneyland resort hotels calculate the amount of water depleted daily from the resort’s 1,000 planter beds and the data allows the horticulture team to determine how much water to apply each day.

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The process of water moving from the ground to the atmosphere is known as evapotranspiration — or more commonly as “plant sweat.”

“Plants actually sweat,” Landis said at Disneyland’s irrigation command center. “Water enters the plant through the roots and works its way through the capillary system. It cools the plant and it’s part of photosynthesis.”

Plant sweat calculations from the Disneyland weather station allow the park’s horticulture team to adjust watering runtimes for planters and trees — with an eye toward saving water.

Succulents replaced grass in a planter area in Tomorrowland at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Irrigation and water lines throughout the 500-acre resort can be controlled by a click of a mouse by the Disneyland water management team. The park’s central water control system immediately shuts down irrigation lines if it starts raining and cancels watering plans for the next day.

“It doesn’t anticipate whether it’s going to rain, but if it does rain then it’s going to shut the system down,” Landis said.

A tipping rain bucket at the Disneyland weather station tied into the irrigation system measures moisture within one-hundredth of an inch.

“We have it set at four hundredths of an inch,” Landis said. “So if we get to four tips, then it’ll shut the system down.”

If a storm rolls in, Disneyland’s water management system determines the holdover amount and doesn’t turn on the park’s irrigation system for two or three days until the holdover is depleted.

Junipers have replaced grass, right, in planters by Sleeping Beauty Castle, and will soon replace the grass in the left planter at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

More than 100 internet-connected controllers manage nearly 1,000 irrigation valves that feed more than 60 miles of sprinkler and drip lines throughout the resort.

Flow sensors in the drip and sprinkler lines send readings to the park’s irrigation control center that allow the Disneyland water management team to make real-time watering adjustments and manage leaks and breaks.

The flow sensors are everywhere at the 21-year-old Disney California Adventure and Downtown Disney, but less so at the 67-year-old Disneyland — providing the park’s water management team the opportunity to make continued conservation strides in the future.

While drip lines that use 50% less water can run anytime, Disneyland doesn’t run water sprinklers while visitors are in the park. Watering is done nightly within a very tight window of 2 to 6 a.m.

Disney horticulture specialist Elizabeth Coles examines the succulents that replaced grass in Tomorrowland at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Disneyland doesn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to watering. Varied planting themes in Frontierland, Tomorrowland and Main Street U.S.A. present a number of issues to consider — from soil type and root depth to ground slope and shade level.

“Control of water is really important for us,” Landis said. “The idea is if you’re irrigating an area to keep the water only in that area. No overspray. No runoff. Because if it runs off it just either goes down a drain or it evaporates.”

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A wealth of data takes the guesswork out of watering — helping Disneyland to use less water today than 10 years ago while the resort continues to strive toward its water conservation goals.

“We don’t want to overwater. We don’t want to under-water,” Landis said. “We want to supply just the amount of water that’s necessary so the plants and trees can thrive.”

Grass around entrance to Storybook Land Canal Boats has been replaced with artificial turf in Fantasyland at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Disneyland uses other water saving efforts that don’t involve pinching the hose and minding every drop.

Drought tolerant plants dominate the landscapes in Frontierland and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. In other parts of the park, the groundscape needs to thematically match the themed land. The plant life in New Orleans Square needs to look like it fits in the Big Easy and the shores of the Rivers of America must evoke the environs of the Mississippi, Missouri, Columbia and Rio Grande rivers that the man-made waterway navigates. Main Street U.S.A. bursts with seasonal color that changes at least six times a year.

Plants from other regions of the United States don’t always thrive in Southern California — and often need more water to do so. Non-native plants — often from Australia, which has a climate similar to here — play the role of thematically accurate trees and plants while using much less water.

Mulch is used extensively throughout Disneyland planters to help keep soil temperatures down, prevent water evaporation and serve as an insulating blanket.

Artificial turf that requires zero watering is replacing natural grass at an increasing rate throughout the Disneyland and across the resort as the ultimate drought-fighting solution.

Artificial turf now surround the floral Mickey at the Main Gate inside Disneyland on Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, in Anaheim, CA.(Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Disneyland brings in truckloads of plants every week to replace flower beds that have been trampled by unsupervised children and plucked by curious adults who don’t believe the flora in the land of make believe are real.

The Disneyland resort replaces enough plants and flowers every week to fill two NBA basketball courts from a backstage nursery staging area packed with enough perennials, annuals and autotrophs to give Mickey Mouse a green thumb.

“The guests can be a little damaging to the park sometimes,” Schrimsher said. “A lot of folks will come in and they’ll think something’s not real. They might even grab the flower and pull the whole plant out of the ground.”

Some of the daily nursery deliveries are trucked in for seasonal installations that turn Main Street U.S.A. from Fourth of July red, white and blue to Halloween orange and gold — but a shocking number of plants and flowers in the resort’s 1,000 planter beds are destroyed by Disneyland visitors.

Disneyland’s flower and plant beds are damaged daily by children playing in floral displays, riders waiting in attraction queues and visitors walking through railing-less planters.

For every planter surrounded by a railing on Main Street U.S.A. or in Fantasyland, there are just as many planters without railings in Frontierland and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Tomorrowland at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, on Wednesday, August 10, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The scale of Disneyland’s garden operation is staggering by backyard horticulturist standards.

Disneyland’s mammoth backstage garden nursery is 180 feet long by 50 feet wide — the size of two NBA basketball courts. Just under half the Disneyland nursery space is covered for shade plants with the uncovered half filled with a flowery rainbow of colors.

Both the sun and shade areas of the nursery are divided into lands just like Disneyland — with low tables for Galaxy’s Edge, Critter Country, Adventureland, Mickey’s Toontown, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, New Orleans Square, Frontierland and Main Street U.S.A.

Most of the plants in Disneyland’s nursery rarely sit backstage for more than 24 to 48 hours — with most of the plants in the ground the day they arrive or the next day.

The size and scope of Disneyland’s horticulture operation is staggering. The Mouse House buys plants at an industrial scale. The Disneyland nursery team off-loads 18-wheeler trucks daily with enough planting material to cover nearly an acre every month.

Disneyland’s horticulture team works six months ahead of time to create planting scheme storyboards for every area of the park. The nursery industry is consulted a year in advance to figure out what will be available. Supply chain issues aggravated by a burst in pandemic-induced home gardening have boosted nursery sales to record levels and made some popular items scarce. The one constant that isn’t going away anytime soon: “Guest damage” as the Disneyland horticulture team politely calls the constant and persistent irritant.

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What would Disneyland be like without wild children trampling planter beds and curious adults plucking flowers at an alarming rate?

Disneyland got a taste of what life would be like without visitors during the 412-day pandemic closure of the parks. Weeds sprouted in Disneyland walkways that lacked constant foot traffic. Floral planter beds lay bare due to staff reductions during the closure. A corn stalk grew several feet high next to a popcorn cart on the Sleeping Beauty Castle hub — left undisturbed as a way of gauging the length of the COVID-19 lockdown.