Bill Evans: Nurturing the Imagineering Landscape
WDeye magazine, #5, 1990–04, pp. 3, 22
by Jeff Kurtti and Carolyn Yates, photograph by Jerry Schneider
That man stomping through the vines and bamboo in boots and straw tropical hat could be mistaken for a plantation manager in some banana republic. But it’s really Imagineering landscape genius Bill Evans, and the tropical paradise he now inspects was, a short 35 years ago, a sandy orange grove. Now, it is not only a source of great pride for Bill, it really is a jungle out there!
When he and his brother Jack designed the landscaping for Walt Disney’s home in the 1940’s, little did Bill Evans know that his association with Disney and his dreams would span the next four decades. After viewing the planting of the Holmby Hills house, including the route of the Lilly Belle, his one-eighth scale steam train, Walt hired the Evans brothers for an even bigger job — the landscaping of Disneyland. Bill was named director of Landscape Design at WED, where he worked closely with Walt in creating the magical environments — that exotic jungle, lush pine forests, and formal floral gardens, to name a few — for which Disneyland is world-famous.
After directing the botanical marvels of Disneyland, Bill turned to the greening of Walt Disney World. Although he retired in 1975 after receiving his 20-year pin, he has continued to work with WDI landscape architects on practically every new project, including EPCOT Center, Tokyo Disneyland, the Disney-MGM Studios, Typhoon Lagoon, and Euro Disneyland. Additionally, he has served on the Garden Advisory Board for Sunset magazine and completed several other notable projects (the three islands off Long Beach, where swaying palms and tropical landscaping disguise the presence of oil derricks, is just one of Bill’s many designs).
Throughout the years, Bill has nurtured more than plants, for he has applied his “green thumb” to the careers of several Imagineers, who have blossomed under his tutelage. The WDEye spoke with five of Bill’s proteges about the influence he has had over their lives.
Becky Bishop first met Bill when she was an intern at WED in 1980. She was well aware of his work and his reputation in the field, and was much in awe of him. “At first, I felt a little left out,” Becky recalls. “Bill is inclined to greet his male co-workers with a slap on the back or a handshake that can drop you to your knees. I think he was afraid he’d hurt me if he did that, so he left me out of his ritual greeting. Once he got to know me, he relaxed, and now he shakes my hand … but gently.”
After working with Bill on several projects, including EPCOT Center, the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, Splash Mountain, and the Wonders of Life pavilion, Becky classifies Bill as a bona-fide legend. “Everyone in the landscaping business thinks of Bill the same way that the world thinks of Walt,” she explains. “He comes in and touches whatever we do. He’s taught us to sculpt, paint, and create movement with plants, rather than letting the plants dictate the design on one hand or become secondary to the design on the other.” According to Becky, Bill’s philosophy is readily seen on Splash Mountain, which Bill has termed “a dog’s breakfast of plants on an upholstered mountain.”
Like Becky, Joe Parinella had heard of Bill Evans long before he came to Imagineering 3 1/2 years ago. The trepidation Joe felt before meeting Bill for the first time is quickly recalled. “I was set to go on a walk-through of Disneyland with Bill and Tony Baxter. Becky Bishop had warned me beforehand of Bill’s tendency to ‘test’ the landscape people on plants in the park, so I thumbed through the list of plants at Disneyland the night before — well over 750 different species! When we were tramping through the Jungle Cruise the next day, Bill paused, pointed out some rare plant, turned to me, and asked, ‘What’s this?’ Well, of course I couldn’t answer; no one but Bill would know what it was. That’s when I first encountered that famous smirk of his.”
Although he has worked with Bill on Pleasure Island, Joe recalls Typhoon Lagoon as the project on which he got to know Bill best. “He’s got this gentle quality and he’ll listen to you. He can gently redirect your thoughts in a better direction and push you into doing more. Bill’s made me realize that even when a project is done, it’s not finished. You can always go back and add more, you can always go one better. That’s one of the great things about working with Disney. You don’t have that luxury on the outside.”
After 17 years with Disney, 11 of them at Imagineering, Terry Palmer has had several opportunities to work with Bill. Terry first met Bill during the design phase of EPCOT Center and has since had the pleasure of traveling with him on fact-finding trips in preparation for Euro Disneyland. “Once when we were in southern France, we drove to some remote place to look at a collection of bamboo. When the guy with the bamboo realized that it was Bill Evans standing before him, he had to have his picture taken with Bill and get his autograph.”
According to Terry, Bill’s far-reaching reputation has come in handy more than once. “When 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.”
Terry claims one of Bill’s greatest contributions to landscaping is to go for the unusual. “He pushes us to expand our use of uncommon plant material,” Terry explains. “I think it stems from when he first worked on Disneyland and had to create an alien environment like the Jungle Cruise in Southern California. In those settings, common materials don’t help transport you to another world the way unusual materials do.”
On the other hand, Bill is also known for using familiar plants in unusual ways. Says Terry, “in the Jungle Cruise, there’s a group of orange trees that most people would never recognize, because Bill planted them upside down!” Bill decided the gnarled roots of the orange trees looked like suitably exotic jungle branches.
One of the things that first struck Steve Beyer about Bill Evans was his personality. “Bill is a true sage and a great teacher,” says this 2 1/2 year veteran of the Disney-MGM Studios team. “He genuinely listens to and is genuinely interested in what his students have to say. Bill’s artistry and articulation with his medium, plant material, is legendary, and will be a perpetual inspiration to all landscape architects who work for WDI.”
Steve adds that he got to see this living legend in action when he and Becky Bishop accompanied Bill on a two week trip to Tokyo last October. “Bill’s a marvel. He’s got this endless energy — he runs the rest of us into the ground, despite the fact that we’re four or five decades younger than he is.”
Paul Comstock’s ties with Bill Evans go back long before Paul’s arrival at Imagineering in February to work on projects such as Disneyland’s new Tomorrowland and EDL’s Discoveryland. While Paul has known Bill for over 10 years. Paul’s father, who is in the nursery business, knew Bill’s father, Hugh Evans, for over 30 years.
With such familial histories of working with plants, it’s no wonder that Bill and Paul have developed a friendship, borne out of their mutual love of landscaping. “Bill’s enthusiasm is never-ending.” stresses Paul. “I remember on a botanical research trip to Maui and Kuai, we would take two nature walks each day. Bill would stop and thoroughly inspect each and every new leaf and plant.
“Asking Bill a question is like opening up an encyclopedia.” Paul continues. “On a tour of the botanical gardens on Kuai, Bill would quietly tell me things the tour guide didn’t know. As people overheard him, they gradually started asking him questions — even the tour guide, who asked him more than anyone else. He had the entire group hanging on his every word.”
According to Paul, the continental United States would not be the same without Bill Evans. “In Hawaii, he took a cutting of a tree, and started a plant at the place he stays when he’s there. He talked the gardener into taking care of it until he returned the following year. When it was big enough, Bill smuggled it back to California on the plane. “ Paul chuckles. “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!”
When all is said and done, everyone focuses on the fact that, apart from his professional talents, Bill is simply a warm and caring human being. Paul sums it up, “Bill has a complete and friendly acceptance of everyone from the busboy in a restaurant to a corporate C.E.0. Someone once told me that Bill is the person who told Will Rogers, ‘I never met a man I didn’t like.’”
The DIX project (DIX = Disney index) collects and indexes various sources like podcast, websites, magazines or books with references to the history of Disney animation, films and theme parks.