Bill Evans – Walt’s Green Thumb

On this day in 1910, Morgan “Bill” Evans was born in Santa Monica, California. As Disney Imagineering Legend Marty Sklar describes him, “Bill defined Disney theme park landscaping.” 

Bill’s father, Hugh Evans, was a well-known horticulturist who maintained a wide variety of exotic plants in the family’s three-acre home garden. When Bill joined the Merchant Marines, he made sure to gather clippings and seeds for his father from the ports he visited in Australia, South Africa, and the West Indies. Following his service, Bill attended Stanford University to study geology, however he was forced to leave school early when the stock market crash of 1929 devastated his family. Bill and his brother, Jack, were compelled to work with their father to earn money by selling plants grown in the family garden. Shortly thereafter, Hugh and Jack Reeves would open the Evans and Reeves Nursery. The rare plants sold at the nursery quickly gained attention throughout Hollywood and celebrities including Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor and, ultimately, Walt Disney, became customers. 

Walt’s first encounter with the Evans family came years before Disneyland was planned. According to Disney Imagineer and landscaper Paul Comstock, a young Walt purchased roses from the Evans and Reeves Nursery for the Disney family home in the San Fernando Valley. Many years later, Walt hired Bill and his brother Jack to landscape the backyard at his Holmby Hills home which also incorporated Walt’s Carolwood Pacific backyard railroad. In 1954, the Evans brothers were asked to landscape a theme park project Walt was going to build on some land in Anaheim that was home to mostly orange groves and some walnut trees. 

In an interview with Disney author Jim Korkis in 1985, Bill talked about how much Walt valued landscaping: “Fortunately for us, he wanted a lot of green plant stuff. That was one of the elements Walt felt would separate his park from the Coney Island format.” One of the biggest challenges in landscaping the park was finding the large, adult trees that would appear to park guests as though they’d been there for years. As luck would have it, the construction of Disneyland in 1954/1955 coincided with the building of a number of freeways throughout the Southern California region. Bill and his team made arrangements with freeway construction crews to dig, box and ship trees slated to be bulldozed over to Disneyland. Bill told Jim Korkis: “When I’m at Disneyland, I can tell you tree after tree. This one was from the Santa Monica freeway and that one was from the Pomona freeway and so on.”

Bill Evans (in front of the jeep on the right) oversees tree placement at Disneyland

Walt also presented Bill with another daunting task – build a jungle in the southern California climate. To pull off what he’d later call “the best darn jungle this side of Costa Rica,” Bill assembled a unique selection of plants – most of which would not normally be found in a tropical environment. They included palms, tree ferns, philodendrons and a bamboo variety from China. Working together with Disney Legend and Imagineer Harper Goff, the pair got creative with their limited options They famously took the uprooted walnut trees from the pre-existing farmed land, inverted and trimmed them down to look like tropical mangroves. In the Disney Family Album television show, Bill explained: “What we’ve attempted to do in planting this jungle, is to make it look as though we’ve had nothing to do with it.” 

Bill Evans (with hat) works on the Jungle Cruise landscaping.

In the Los Angeles Times obituary printed after Bill’s death in 2002, Marty Sklar shares a story from the 1965 dinner celebrating Disneyland’s 10th anniversary. According to Marty, “Walt recalled how when they were getting close to opening the park, they were running out of money, so he told Bill to use smaller plants and to put Latin names on all of them. Walt said, ‘Bill never ran out of Latin names; he even put them on the weeds.’”

After Disneyland opened in 1955, Bill was given the title of director of landscape architecture. He oversaw Disneyland additions as well as the master plan for Walt Disney World and EPCOT Center. He retired from that role in 1975, but continued to play an active role as a consultant. Project’s Bill consulted on include: Tokyo Disneyland, Walt Disney World’s Polynesian Resort Hotel, Discovery Island, Typhoon Lagoon, Disney-MGM Studios, Disneyland Paris and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Bill Evans (center) overlooks the Walt Disney World site with Roy Disney.

In 1990, a Main Street, U.S.A. window above the Opera House was dedicated in his honor. It reads: “Evans Gardens, Exotic & Rare Species, Freeway Collections, Est. 1910, Morgan (Bill) Evans, Senior Partner.” The Freeway Collections mention is a nice nod to the trees he “rescued” from the bulldozers and transported to the park. Bill was named a Disney Legend in 1992. 

Bill’s lifelong achievements and contributions to the landscaping industry go far beyond the berm of Disneyland and other Disney Parks. As part of his tree acquisition efforts, Bill invented a method of moving large trees by inserting a pin through the trunk and avoiding damage to the tree’s roots. He also came up with an innovative method of creating topiaries. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1989, Bill recalled “Walt had been to Europe and seen some topiary” that was probably a century old,. “I told him, ‘Walt, the stuff you see will probably take us 20 years.’” Never wanting to disappoint Walt, Bill came up with a technique that involved bending full-grown plants to create the desired shapes. Walt had his topiaries in just two years. 

Bill Evans (wearing a hat) joins Walt Disney and others in a canoe exploring the Rivers of America.

In recognition of his incredible career, Bill was posthumously awarded the American Society of Landscape Architects Medal for his lifetime of achievements. According to Paul Comstock, Bill has literally changed the landscape of our country, ““In fact, there are at least 30 to 50 plant species now common to the trade that wouldn’t be here if Bill and his brother Jack hadn’t smuggled them in from Central and South America!”

In an 1994 interview with WDeye Imagineering magazine Disney Imagineer Terry Palmer, tells a great story about the worldwide respect for Bill in the landscaping industry. “When [Disney Imagineer] Tony Baxter was in Holland on a fact-finding trip, he tried to get into the gardens at Keukenhof and discovered they were closed for the season. He explained that he was from Disney, but to no avail. Finally, he said, ‘Bill Evans sent me,’ and the gardener let him right in and gave him a grand tour of the place.”

Bill Evans inspecting trees in 1955 shortly before Disneyland opened in July.

To make Disneyland a reality, Walt relied upon a talented and passionate group of people, like Bill. In the interview with Jim Korkis, Bill shed some light on the special relationships between Walt and those working on the project:

“He really trusted us. He would say something like, “Bill, I’m putting in a skyway, make it look like it’s in the Alpines,” and it was up to us to make it a reality. He didn’t talk things to death. Walt was not given to extravagant praise. He had the best in terms of artists and technicians and engineers. He had the best. They all performed. They all put out for Walt. And it wasn’t because he slapped them on the back and said they were doing a great job. I don’t think anybody ever heard him say that. You just wanted to do the best you could. Actually, you ended up doing better than you thought you could. You felt supported so you could experiment and take some chances.”

With people like Bill Evans involved, you can see why Walt had so much trust and faith in his team. 

On This Day People

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