Disney World's Discovery Island
"I Remember Discovery Island"
A Last Day Memoir by
Allan Oakley of Kissimmee, Florida
Web and Pictures: http://www.floridasunshine.com/oakleyflorida/OakleyFamily_SubPages/1999-2000/DiscoverIsland.htm
History and Background
According to Walt Disney's colleagues, repeated aerial surveys of Central Florida land parcels led to Walt taking notice of the 11.5-acre island ( at that time named Riles Island and having been owned by several other parties before Disney's purchase ) in Bay Lake and deciding more or less immediately that this was the ideal location for his Florida Project.
The story goes that as Walt Disney was flying over the land he was interested in purchasing to locate his new Florida theme park (reported to be on November 22, 1963, around the time that JFK had been shot), it was the sight of this island in the center of Bay Lake that convinced him that this was the 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, renamed "Riles Island," and used as a hunting retreat long before being bought by Walt Disney (using a corporate name in 1965.
It is well documented that Disney was dissuaded from using real animals at Disneyland's Jungle Cruise, which opened in 1955, because experts contended they would be largely unmanageable and hard to present to his guests in the manner he desired. This led to his first batch of three-dimensional animated animal figures, the predecessors of Audio-Animatronics technology that gained the Disney company a reputation for engineering its own brand of reality. That does not make it ironic that Riles Island would come to be WDW's foremost home of down-to-earth animal reality, but it does make it mildly curious.
Disney originally planned to add a pirate "theme" to the island and call it "Blackbeard's Island". That name was discarded, and was eventually changed to "Treasure Island." (However, the Blackbeard Island name was recycled and given to one of the three man made islands of the Seven Seas Lagoon). Although the name of this new island attraction was changed to "Treasure Island", the original concept for a pirate themed adventure would remain, as it would take elements from the 1950 Disney film of the same name.
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, however, plans to add a wide variety of tropical birds to the island emerged, thereby putting the pirate theme on hold. In order to accommodate the more than 600 feathered friends that were going to take up residence here, more than 50,000 cubic yards of soil and 500,000 tons of boulders were brought onto the island, increasing the size of the island to almost 11.5 acres. As well as a variety of flowers and trees from around the world were collected and carefully landscaped.15,000 cubic yards of soil and 500 tons each of boulders and trees were employed in the process of creating an entirely new landscape - one with new bodies of water, new elevations and hundreds of varieties of plants transplanted from destinations including China, the Himalayas and South Africa. New, man-made bodies of water were created, and the one time 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 a boat from either the Contemporary or Polynesian Resort, or by taking a tour of the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake called (appropriately enough), the "Walt Disney World Cruise."
Ticket Required: Special Adventure ticket or Part of the Water Park-Discovery Island Annual Pass. In 1999 that included River Country which has since closed as well. It was also included in the Premium Annual Pass for Florida Residents.
Billed as a half-day adventure the island did not welcome as many visitors as Disney had planned and expected. As this ticket suggests, Treasure Island could be accessed by either taking a direct motor launch from a resort dock or as part the "Walt Disney World Cruise," a tour of the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake that stopped at the Island. The island was recommended as a low-key diversion that could occupy up to one-half of a guest's day and help round out the complete, varied and leisurely vacation experience that set WDW apart from Disneyland. In the end it was the island's understated nature that contributed so substantially to its demise.
In 1977, to coincide with the theatrical release of "The Rescuers", Disney, 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 worth $25,000.
Now, just four years after its opening, the natural inhabitants of the island grew faster than its popularity with guests. The island abandoned any references to the pirate theme in 1978 and was renamed "Discovery Island," which focused on the island's rich, botanical settings, and wildlife such as flamingos, pelicans, eagles, alligators, peacocks, swans, rabbits and deer. The island featured a 40 foot tall, 320 by 102 foot walk-through aviary, bird shows, a flamingo pool, and Turtle Beach. The "Thirsty Perch" snack bar was constructed, and it even had the "Jose Carioca Flyers" bird show, which was performed in the CooCoo Cabana. There were also bird demonstrations, as well as 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.
Charlie Cook was the park's head curator and was often seen posing with birds in Disney publications and also on various TV broadcasts when the Island's conservation efforts were discussed. It was truly a plus for the Disney company, being able to showcase an overt concern for the natural side of Walt Disney World in a setting this tranquil and seemingly removed from the rest of the attractions. As an extension of other responsible environmental practices on the part of the company (the crowning achievement being the decision in the late 1960s to set aside the property's 7,500 southernmost acres strictly for conservation of the delicate Reedy Creek natural drainage system**), the animal care activity on Discovery Island was a key and very public component.
Disney's conservation efforts on the island were recognized in 1981 when it was made an accredited zoological park by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. Eight years later, however, things took a turn for the worse, when charges against the island's director and four employees were filed for the mishandling of wild birds and vultures, as well as the destruction of nests and shooting of falcons and hawks. Unfortunately something went awry in the late 1980s. In September of 1989 the Orange-Osceola state attorney and a U.S. attorney in Orlando filed 16 charges against Cook and four 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 Island kept its AZA accreditation and Disney enacted a sweeping series of company-wide environmental policies. One cannot help but wonder, however, if there weren't those within the company harking back to the sage advice regarding live animal exhibition that had led Walt Disney to devise electronic alternatives. Disney claimed the employees were trying to relocate the birds, with unfortunate results. Disney settled the case and updated their environmental policies throughout the Resort, while still keeping their AZA accreditation. While damage was done in the public's mind due to this and similar problems that occurred during the same time period elsewhere at WDW, the Discovery Island staff persevered and kept the park running in a respectable manner for many more years. In the 1990s, for example, Discovery Island was the first zoological park to breed South American Maguari storks and white crested hornbills.
When Disney's Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, it seemed to sound the death knell for the unpopular island. That, coupled with poor attendance to the island, led to its ultimate demise. Finally, 25 years after it opened, Discovery Island closed on April 8th 1999. Rumors swirled for years as to what was to become of the abandoned island. Talks of a tie-in with a popular video game (Myst), as well as rumors of a private retreat for honeymooners (with lots of cash to spend) came and went, but the island remains deserted to this day.
Want a closer look? Take one of the many watercraft available for rent from the Contemporary Resort, Fort Wilderness or the Wilderness Lodge and drive by and see what remains. Access is strictly forbidden.
Although Discovery Island has closed seemingly for good, its name lives on in Disney's Animal Kingdom, as it is the land which contains Tree of Life.
In early 1973 the company forecast that "walkways, small lakes and waterfalls will be available to both explorers and picnickers" during the same year. It also said the island would later be "fully developed," offering guests a chance to visit "Ben Gunn's fort, Benbow Inn and the wreck of the Hispaniola." The latter is pictured above in a conceptual painting from the Disney archives
On April 8, 1974, Treasure Island opened to the public. As promised, it was a sanctuary for not only dozens of birds but also reptiles, mammals and other non-avian species. A loosely woven theme of piracy was worked into the mix (cast member costumes, oil lamps, wreckage) but took a backseat to the animal exhibits. The most prominent - and most photographed - man made element was the beached hull of a sailing ship on the island's southwest shore. Although commonly referred to in print as the wreck of the Hispaniola, this small craft was correctly named, in an early edition of Disney News, as the remains of Captain Flint's ship, the Walrus.
In 1978, Disney decided to rechristen Treasure Island as "Discovery Island," effectively throwing in the pirate towel and opting to emphasize the ecological aspects that had taken center stage. As fine as this was for the sake of both "truth in advertising" and the conservation programs themselves, it did rob the island of more than a little mystique. It also placed a formidable challenge upon the staff of the island in living up to the more focused task of exhibiting and caring for a growing population of animals. Among the wildlife represented on the island were macaws, rheas, tortoises, flamingos, pelicans, bald eagles, alligators, rabbits, miniature deer, toucans, cavy, hornbills, scarlet ibis, cockatoos, white peacocks, golden pheasants, Guinea fowl, cranes and swans.
Among the island's diverse features:
- A 320 foot by 102 foot aviary measuring 40 feet in height and with an elevated boardwalk (shown below).
- The CooCoo Cabana and its bird show, "Jose Carioca Flyers," in which cockatoos, macaws and other birds took to the air.
- Turtle Beach, home to 300-pound Galapagos tortoises.
- A flamingo pool especially designed to simulate the ebb and flow of the tides found in the birds natural habitat.
In spite of the turnaround, Disney decided to close Discovery Island not long after the Animal Kingdom park debuted. On April 8, 1999, 25 years after it first opened, Discovery Island officially saw its last guests. A few "postmortem" weekend visits were still accommodated past that date, but the end was close at hand. The company attributed the decision to lagging visitation, evidently a result of too many other options and diversions for guests to investigate during the course of finite vacation time. Discovery Island had become yet another relic from a past WDW era. The closing party/wake was held on 8th April on the Island, and was a very low-key affair which was not widely advertised. All Discovery Island signage on the water transportation was removed during the following evening. The closure date was exactly 25 years after it first opened in 1974.
As for what would become of the island that was so pivotal in Walt Disney's decision to build his Florida empire where it now resides, there were brief discussions between the Disney company and the creators of the software game Myst surrounding a possible collaboration. Those talks, however, ended abruptly in late 1999 and the island's future has remained sketchy since that time.
The Walt Disney Company broke from its off-limits psychology regarding the development of those 7,500 acres in the mid-1990s. At that time they decided to opt for a land mitigation approach in which they purchased land further a field from their more lucrative original acreage and proceeded with plans for the 1995-1996 construction of Disney Town of Celebration on the land which was originally to remain untouched.
April 4th, 1999
I am not really sure what drew us there that April 4th . 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 and sketch 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.
We left home around 10 AM
By 10:30AM we were already well on our way to the Discovery Island Dock
We found the easiest way to get there was through Fort Wilderness and catching the launch that went on to the Contemporary Resort and then the Magic Kingdom.
Once on the dock Elliot and did not know what to expect
We did figure out the gift shop and snack bar would have a few rare bargains and souvenirs that would soon become collectables.
Reading the brochure we knew a show was about to start at Reptile Relations
From there we wandered over to Feathered friends where a park attendant was showing off some ducklings
Parrots, birds of prey and a few surprises. When the show ended I asked the park ranger about the birds. She said it would take months to acclimatize them to new surroundings over at the animal kingdom
After the show we wandered over to North Creek Inlet which by now had become an over grown creek that fed the inner ponds at Swan's Neck Falls.
Swans Neck Falls
A little further along the path we arrived at the African Aviary and discover two contented parrots left unattended in the forest
Animal Hospital and Nursery
Park headquarters were also located here.
Shipwreck Beach and it's picnic grounds
500 pound / 150 year old Galapagos Turtle
South American Aviary with Toco Toucans, Kookaburra's, Scarlet Ibis and Hornbills were a few of the exotic birds that were left. Apparently the southern bald eagles, African Crowned crane and demoiselle cranes had already been moved to the Animal Kingdom
One last look and out the last enclosure heading back to the Thirsty Perch. It was 3 PM and we ended a day full of memories, pencil sketches and all kinds of digital pictures.
Allan N. Oakley