Disney History ~ Discovery Island


It’s no secret that when Walt Disney was planning and creating Disneyland he eagerly wanted to include real animals into the Jungle Cruise ride experience. He was eventually dissuaded from using real animals because experts believed that the animals would be unmanageable and difficult to present to guest in the manner that Walt desired. The animals would have minds of their own, sleeping during the day and more active at night and since most visitors would be visiting during the day, all they would get to see would be sleeping and inanimate animals. So this led to Walt’s first use of three dimensional animated animal figures. He never really got to see live animals incorporated into his par, but that would all change with the planning and design of the florida project, Walt Disney World. In this portion of the first newsletter of 2011, we are going to take a stroll over to an often over-looked island. A place a lot of people may have not even known existed or just never had that extra day on their vacation to go and experience it. So sit back and relax while we float on over to Discovery Island.

When Walt was flying and taking repeated arial surveys of central florida, an 11 1/2 acre island in Bay Lake was one of the main spots that caught his eye. After he purchased all the land for his new resort, he ultimately liked the island so much, he decided that the surrounding property would be the first to be developed. The island was owned by several different families before Disney became affiliated with it. From 1900-1937 the island went by the name Raz Island sharing the same name with its owner. The Raz family lived on the island and farmed the land. In the late 1930’s the island was purchased by Florida’s first radio disc jockey,
Delmar “Radio Nick” Nicholson for $800.00. Nicholson, along with his wife and pet crane lived on “Idle Bay Island” as he called it for nearly 20 years. When Nicholson became really ill, he sold it to some local businessmen to be used as a hunting retreat. Riles Island as it was later called was sold in 1965 to Walt Disney as part of the secretive property acquisitions he was undertaking in preparations for his new theme park.

Disney officials knew from the beginning that the island was prime real estate for some sort of attraction. While many ideas were thrown around, it was ultimately decided to give the island a pirate motif and would draw heavily from the Disney movie Treasure Island.

When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, the island appeared on guide maps as Blackbeard’s Island. It remained undeveloped until 1974. Construction began clearing the island of any and all of its original scrub growth. The company brought in 55,000 cubic yards of soil to build up the islands acreage and elevations. They also brought in 500 tons each of boulders and trees to create an entirely new landscape.

Plants from China, the Himalayas and South Africa were transplanted to give the island a tropical lush feel. On April 8, 1974, Treasure Island, as it was now called officially opened to the public.

When the island opened in 1974, it acted mainly as a sanctuary for birds, reptiles, mammals and other species of wildlife. The original pirate theme was woven into the cast members costumes as well as items such as the oil lamps and the ship wreckage.

The remains of Captain Flint’s ship, the Walrus, was a wrecked hull of a sailing ship and was the most prominent and photographed feature on the island. Treasure Island was accessible by one of two ways. One was by taking a direct motor launch from one of the resort docks or by the “Walt Disney World Cruise”, which was a tour of the Seven Seas Lagoon and included a stop to the island.

In 1978 Disney officials changed the name once again. This time the island was rechristened Discovery Island. It also became accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and functioned as a breeding facility for rare birds. The facilities were the home of the last known dusky seaside sparrow before it died in 1987.

Officials eventually decided to do away with the pirate theming and focus more on the ecological aspects that had become the focus of the island. It also challenged the cast members who were working on the island with the task of caring and showing the animals. The island was now showcasing over 140 species of animals such as macaws, rheas, tortoises, flamingos, pelicans, bald eagles and among many other species. It also had 250 different kinds of tropical plants, including 5 different species of bamboo.

Among some of the other islands features was a 320 foot by 102 foot walk through aviary, the coo coo cabana and the bird show, the “Jose Carioca Flyers”. A show which cockatoos, macaws and other birds took to the air for a flight show. There was also the Turtle Beach, which was where the 300 pounds Galapagos Tortoise lived.

Being that the island was only accessible by boat more than likely caused many people to pass this experience by all together, but when Animal Kingdom opened in 1998 it pretty much all but shut the island down. Attendance to the island dropped drastically. It served primarily as a quarantine for birds while Animal Kingdom was being built and then were moved over to the park. The island officially closed its doors to the public on April 8, 1999, 25 years to the date when it first opened. Since the closing of the island there have always been rumors of what was going to be done with the island. At one time there was talk of making the island based around the popular video game “Myst”, then there was talk of making it a honeymoon resort and much more recently was making a island based on the hit T.V. show “Lost”. But as of right now it remains a ghost land of what was once a fairly popular attraction at the World. Dilapidated buildings and overgrowth are all that remain. The island is still located in the middle of Bay Lake and can still be seen from watercraft, but don’t try and visit the island.

In April of 2010, an Orlando new affiliate reported that “Urban Explorer” and blogger, Shane Perez, secretly visited the island with a few friends one night. They swam to the island one night using the night skies as cover and took some pretty interesting photographs. Here is a link to his page. http://shaneperez.blogspot.com/2009/12/discovery-island.html. According to him, Disney officials are considering banning him from all Disney properties for life. Perez claims that the visit predates the statue of limitations for trespassing.

Although we cant all secretly visit the island, the spirit of the Island lives on at Animal Kingdom. In late 2000, Safari Village was renamed Discovery Island. There is the Flight of Wonder show performed in Asia that is a reminder of the islands bird shows and the Maharaja Jungle Trek features a walk through aviary. So next time you visit the world, see if you may can spot the island and when your at Animal Kingdom, remember that part of what you see took place on that 11 1/2 acre island.


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