The Final Day of Disney's Discovery Island
By: Allan Oakley
History and Background:
According to Walt Disney's colleagues, repeated aerial surveys of Central Florida led to Walt taking notice of the 11.5 acre island (at that time named Riles Island) in Bay Lake. The story goes that Walt was flying over the area on November 22, 1963 (at the same time that JFK had been shot). It was the sight of this island in the center of Bay Lake that convinced him it was an ideal place to build his Disney World Theme Park.
From the early 1900s it was known as Raz Island, named after the family that lived there. In the late 1930s it was purchased for $800 by a man named Delmar "Radio Nick" Nicholson, who renamed the island "Idle Bay Isle" and lived there for 20 years with his wife and pet crane. It was later purchased and renamed "Riles Island," and used as a hunting retreat long before being bought by Disney.
Disney originally planned to theme the island with pirates calling it "Blackbeard's Island". That name was discarded and was eventually changed to "Treasure Island." As an attraction it was originally intended to include elements from the Disney film of the same name from 1950. Walt wanted a unique diversion from the main theme park attractions. The island was planned to be a retreat for exploration and relaxation with wrecks of pirate ships, "Ben Gunn's Fort", the "Benbow Inn", and lakes and waterfalls to enjoy.
In 1974 (while still in the planning phases of the island) plans to add a variety of tropical birds to the island emerged, thereby putting the pirate on the back-burner. In order to accommodate the more than 600 feathered friends that were going to take up residence more than 50,000 cubic yards of soil and 500,000 tons of boulders were brought to the island. A variety of flowers and trees from around the world were also carefully landscaped. New man-made bodies of water were created, and the once flat, scrub brush filled island was transformed into a tropical paradise.
"Treasure Island" opened to the public on April 8, 1974 as a relaxing bird sanctuary. There were a few remnants of the pirate theme still present, as evidenced by a reproduced wreck of a ship on the island's southern shore. (Although many Disney marketing materials referred to it as the wreck of the Hispaniola, it was actually the remains of Captain Flint's ship, the Walrus).
A separate "Special Adventure" ticket was required to visit the island, which could only be accessed from via boat from one of the resorts or by taking a tour of the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake called the "Walt Disney World Cruise". In later years ticketing was also included as part of Disney's Water Park Annual Pass and Disney's Premium Annual Pass (all attractions).
Billed as a half-day adventure the island did not welcome as many visitors as Disney (the company, walt being deceased by that time) had planned or expected. The island was recommended as a low-key diversion and help round out the complete Walt Disney World Experience, something unique not available at Disneyland in California. In the end it was the island's understated nature that contributed to its demise.
In 1977, to coincide with the theatrical release of "The Rescuers" and in conjunction with General Electric, ran the "Rescuers Diamond Sweepstakes". It offered the opportunity for one lucky family to win a trip to Walt Disney World and search and dig for a diamond on Treasure Island valued at $25,000.
Just 4 years after its opening the natural inhabitants of the island grew faster than its popularity with guests. Disney decided to re-tool the island and abandon any references to the pirate theme in 1978. It was re-oppened as "Discovery Island" and focused on the island's rich botanical settings and wildlife including flamingos, pelicans, eagles, alligators, peacocks, swans and more.
"Discovery Island" featured a walk-through aviary, bird shows, a flamingo pool and Turtle Beach. The "Thirsty Perch" snack bar was constructed and the island premeired the "Jose Carioca Flyers" bird show, which was performed in the CooCoo Cabana. There were also a scavenger hunt which was available to Guests as they arrived on the Island. The 20-question hunt had clues with answers that could be found on signs throughout the island. Successfully answering all of the questions entitled a Guest to a Jiminy Cricket EnvironMentality Earth Day button.
In September of 1989 the Orange-Osceola state attorney and a U.S. attorney in Orlando filed 16 charges against the island head curator and 4 other Discovery Island employees for a number of alleged offenses that included the mishandling of vultures and other wild birds, the destruction of ibis and egret nests and the shooting of hawks and falcons. All of this activity was attributed to attempts made by the five staff members to manage or relocate the animals in question, as they had become nuisances and often disturbed the other species living on the island. The case was ultimately settled, Discovery kept its accreditation as a zoologoical island and Disney enacted a sweeping series of company-wide environmental policies.
When Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park opened in 1998 and coupled with poor attendance to the island, massive un-profitability led to the decision to close the 25 year old Island attraction was made. Discovery Island officialy closed on April 8th, 1999. Rumors swirled for years as to what was to become of the abandoned island.
Our Visit: TheLast Day
My birthday was on the 9th but I knew by then the island would be closed. I took Elliot to Discovery Island to witness the closing chapter of a Disney legend. We wanted to film the island before all was lost. At 15 years of age Elliot was half interested but he also recognized this was going to be a pivotal day. At that point the island was to have its last day of public access. We were told that the final four days would be marked with private celebrations as long time staff took their last look at the island. As we finished our day we knew we had been on the last boat, the last time anyone from the general public would see Discovery Island.
-By 10:30am we were already well on our way to the Discovery Island Dock
-The easiest way to get there was through Fort Wilderness and catching the launch
-Once on the dock Elliot and I did not know what to expect
-We figured out the gift shop
and snack bar would have a few
-Reading the brochure we knew a
-From there we wandered over to
-Animal Hospital and Nursery, Park headquarters were also located here
-Shipwreck Beach and it's picnic grounds
South American Aviary with Toco Toucans, Kookaburra's, Scarlet Ibis and Hornbills were a few of the exotic birds remaining. Apparently the southern bald eagles, African Crowned crane and demoiselle cranes had already been moved to the Animal Kingdom.