The Many Stories of Castaway Cayby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Castaway Cay (pronounced “key”) opened officially for the first time on July 30, 1998. Cay refers to a small, low-elevation, sandy island on the surface of a coral reef and comes from the Spanish word “cayo.” Key West was originally called “Cayo Hueso”.
The Disney Company purchased Gorda Cay in the Bahamas in 1996. It took 18 months and more than 25 million dollars to create an appealing “castaway community” on this exclusive port of call for Disney Cruise Line ships. The closest island is roughly eight miles away.
To accommodate the two larger ships (Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy), which were introduced beginning in 2011, the island underwent several enhancements, including lengthening the dock, expanding the family beach, adding food areas and other amenities.
The buildings purposely look as if they had been patched together after a shipwreck, much like some of the architecture at the Typhoon Lagoon water park at the Walt Disney World Resort.
The Disney Company planted a variety of flora, including the gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba) that natives call “the tourist tree” because its red, peeling bark resembles a sunburned tourist.
The island is a prime example of the Disney Company’s commitment to the environment, including restoring the health of coral reefs by transplanting long-spined sea urchins and fostering their growth; protecting and monitoring endangered loggerhead sea turtle nests; and using solar panels in backstage areas to fuel water heaters for bathing, dishwashing and laundry for Disney Cruise Line personnel living on the island.
Approximately 100 cast members live on the island (with contracts running from four to nine months) and when a ship docks, the crew on the ship supplement the staff on the island, especially in handling the food areas.
While everyone thinks of the island that is part of a string of islands named the Abacos as Disney-owned property, it is actually owned by the Bahamian government with Disney having a 99-year lease.
Disney is currently negotiating to purchase this 1,000 acres of land (only 55 acres are currently being used). It is 3.1 miles long and 2.2 miles wide. It is 225 nautical miles from Port Canaveral, Florida.
Gorda Cay was located just to the north of an active trade route in the 1700s and rumors of pirates perhaps visiting the location were common.
In 1950, a pair of treasure hunters found a 70-pound silver ingot on an exposed shoal. It bore the mark of Spain’s King Philip IV. In addition, they found three coins from the same era, obviously from one of the many Spanish galleons sunk in the region, that had washed ashore.
The island was relatively rock free and fertile, and eventually a tiny village appeared on the southern shore as a safe haven for fishermen in rough seas.
In the 1960s, businessman Alvin Tucker bought 150 acres and put in a small airstrip to accommodate his visits. Unfortunately, that airstrip became an appealing location for smugglers and drug runners who took it over and eventually bought the land from Tucker, who no longer felt safe.
Within the next two decades, it was notorious for being an armed compound with big, vicious dogs dissuading visitors. A huge cocaine bust worth more than $100 million dollars in 1983 was the beginning of the end for criminal activity on the island with the drug lord being sent off to prison.
In fact, the island became more “friendly” and the scene where Tom Hanks meets Madison the mermaid in the Touchstone film Splash (1984) was filmed near the area where the adults-only Serenity Bay is today.
The Disney Imagineers created a convoluted storyline for Castaway Cay in much the same spirit as the overly complicated storyline for the original Pleasure Island to explain why things were there and where names for buildings originated. Some of those elements still exist today, including the name of the post mistress of the island.
The Legend of Castaway Cay by the Disney Imagineers
In the early 1920s, three explorers and their families set sail to the scattered islands of the Bahamas in search of fame and fortune. Shortly into their adventure, they encountered the winds of a wild ocean storm that landed their ship upon the island now called Castaway Cay.
While at first the troupe was fearful of impending demise, they soon became intoxicated by the tropical beauty of the island.
The leader of the expedition was a professor of paleontology from Chicago by the name of Cecil Chamberlain. “Wormy," as he was called by his friends, was in search of the skeletal remains of a prehistoric sperm whale, the Physeter catodon, which, by good fortune, he eventually discovered on the island. With his search at an end, he decided to retire on Castaway Cay, devoting the remainder of his years to the excavation of the whale.
Professor Chamberlain had hired Captain Sandy Morton, his wife and his sons to lead the crew on their adventure. Captain Morton, having lived his whole life at sea, promised his wife that, after the storm, he would leave the life at sea to live on land. So the captain spent his days carving signs for the simple streets and rustic buildings that were sprouting up as the castaways made the island their home.
Chamberlain's young protege at the University of Chicago, Dr. Max Profitt, had also joined the expedition, but not in search of whales. Profitt joined to look for sunken treasure. The discovery of a 300-year-old Spanish galleon, laden with gold and jewels, at the bottom of the lagoon was everything he had hoped to find. However, instead of snatching his treasure and returning home, he decided to stay on the island and set up dive trails in order to share these amazing artifacts with others. Gil, the captain's oldest son, and his three brothers opened Gil's Fins and Boats to take charge of the dive trails and all other water activities, such as snorkeling and boating.
A third explorer, E'Lan Vital, or "Doc," had signed on board in the hopes of discovering the Fountain of Youth, which he thought was on one of the hundreds of Caribbean islands. Though he never found the fountain, he did observe the youthful energy of the island. Content with his findings, Doc decided to open the first island clinic.
Doc's wife, Mere Vital, was a well-preserved beauty who decided that the island (paradise though it was) lacked one of her greatest pleasures—shopping. Determined to offer this added activity to the island's option, and armed with years of experience inspecting goods up and down the Eastern seaboard, Mere commandeered a small island hut that had once been used to store supplies. Her first foray into the mercantile trade was an offering of seashells, gathered from the nearby beach, and painted in rich colors. She fashioned them into jewelry, designed from her wonderful memories of shopping in New York City.
Early into Mere's shell enterprise, cleverly called She Sells Seashells, Chamberlain stepped in as a voice of conscience. His years of scientific study and passion for fossils and artifacts led him to believe that taking shells from the seashore disturbed the natural ecological balance of the island and robbed countless sea creatures of their homes. He therefore persuaded her to pursue another product for her shop. She, determined to succeed, reluctantly crossed out the word "Seashells" on the sign she had hung across the front of her shop and set out to create products that reflected the essential quality of the island paradise.
Shortly after the castaways had landed on the island, they befriended a local man named Grinz Alott. Grinz showed these city folk the way of the island, from following local customs like the great Junkanoo celebrations of the Bahamas. It was the essence of this festival that Mere decided to capture in the costumes and clothing sold at her boutique. The change proved profitable not only for Mere but also for the ecological well-being of the island.
Another enterprising woman among the castaways was Marian Profitt, the young wife of Dr. Profitt. Early on, she saw the need to educate the children of the island, as the castaways brought nearly a dozen with them. She set up Discovery Tents in a sandy cove near the whale dig, a convenient place for the children to study science, nature, music, literature, and the culture of this beautiful region. Together she and Chamberlain taught the children conservation awareness so that they would understand the importance of preserving the natural habitat of the island's flora and fauna.
One of her brighter students was her own daughter, Molly, who explored every inch of this tropical wonderland. In fact, it was Molly and her best friend, Seth, who first ventured beyond the wild side of the island to look for the nesting place of the chick carnie. Every day Molly and Seth searched for the bird from sunrise to sunset, stopping only when they heard the dinner bell calling Seth to work.
Seth's father, Cookie, and his family had been the cooks on the ship and later ran Cookie's BBQ, still the only place to get good Southern cooking on the island.
The morning after the castaways landed on the island, Doc was deep in the forest looking for his fountain of youth but found instead a man asleep in the cockpit of a downed plane. Cameron (“Cam”) O'Flage was an expatriate from Australia and an island hopper in the Bahamas. He had run out of gas during the storm but landed safely in the marsh on the island. The castaways gave him some of their supplies, and Cookie shipped up Cam's first real meal in weeks. Wanting to give something back, Cam opened and outfitted the bar down at the end of the runway, using parts from his downed plane. Out of respect and gratitude for the hospitality of his new friends, he names it the Castaway Air Bar.
When supplies were getting low and word was getting out about the island paradise the castaways built, they contracted with locals to build a "real" runway as opposed to the one carved by Cam's plane the night he arrived. This and the boat dock were the castaways' connection to the outside world. When air traffic was no longer needed, they marked an "X" on the runway and grounded the two Beechcraft planes, one on each end. From that point on, they relied solely on the sea for outside contact, including mail.
The Castaway Cay Post Office was opened by May B. Tamara, the first postmistress of Castaway Cay, who fell in love with and eventually married one of Captain Morton's sons. The wedding was a lively celebration; people came from miles around to be part of the festivities. Cookie cooked an authentic Southern meal, Grinz told stories. Mere designed May's dress. Cam served the champagne. Molly and Seth were the flower girl and ring bearer, respectively. And Captain Morton presided over the ceremony."
Since this story first appeared, I have not found one person who knew it although some knew that it existed. It was too complicated for guests to remember all those names and connections.
For most guests, Castaway Cay was a desert island inhabited by castaways. In fact, if a guest goes on an additional cruise, they become a member of the Castaway Club with some additional benefits, including a special lanyard, that increase with each cruise.
Since nobody understood or remembered the story, it soon faded. However, today there is a different story that incorporates some of its elements.
In each stateroom on a Disney Cruise ship is a hardcover book titled A Complete Guide to Your Disney Cruise. Tucked inside the book amidst the many colorful advertisements for expensive goods and not even listed in the Table of Contents is a four-page essay in sepia tone with no illustrations on pages 48-51.
The essay purports to tell the “secret” of Castaway Cay Island. It is not specifically credited to any of the five contributors to the book (Sarah Diamond, Caroline Geertz, Irish Gersh, Stephen Grasso, and Richard Varr) and it is doubtful if cruise guests do anything more than just skim it if they even look at it at all.
It is creatively written but much too lengthy and as Alice of Wonderland once said, “what is the use of a book without pictures?”
I would have preferred even a white-washed version of the true history of the island with some fun facts, like some of the other articles in the book.
By the way, a fun fact nobody mentions is that the emblem on the plane at the end of the runaway is an homage to the insignia designed by the Disney Studios for the 438th Fighter Squadron during World War II. It is similar but with a few variations so it doesn’t specifically reference the original.
I am reprinting the new story here for historical purposes since this is supposedly the current official Disney “story” of the island and I suspect not many Disney fans have read it. It would not surprise me if this story disappeared soon as well.
The Secret of Castaway Cay Island (published and copyrighted by Panoff Publishing Inc.)
What is the Secret of Castaway Cay? This had been a big question for scientists, historians, and explorers for countless years. The little dot of land in the vast Caribbean Sea had different meanings to different people. For explorers, there had long been tales of the island’s magical properties that seemed to “stop time” for anyone that was lucky enough to find the island and come ashore.
The indigenous people of the Caribbean long believed the island had mystical powers that would wash away all the worries of life. They would often stop there to absorb the island’s power before traveling on to other bits of land scattered throughout the vast ocean. The crews of sailing ships, lost at sea, told stories of discovering a small speck of land that suddenly appeared out of nowhere and allowed them to nurse their ships as well as themselves back to good health. Castaway Cay was no ordinary island. It was a great mystery.
For as long as anyone could remember, there was another legend about Castaway Cay, a belief that eventually brought about the discovery of the island’s true secrets. See, the tropical island, with the calmest water in the Caribbean and some of the most tranquil beaches ever to be seen was also known as a hiding place for treasure…pirate treasure.
Castaway Cay made perfect sense as a hiding place for pirate treasure.The coastal waters, calm almost all year round, made sailing in with captured booty a very easy task for even the most rum-soaked pirate crew. It was the ideal hiding place, and word soon spread that Castaway Cay was literally the treasure of the Caribbean, that is, if you could find it.
So in the 1930s, a group of treasure hunters gathered all of the information they could, from hand-drawn maps to the diaries of long-passed sailors, and set out to find Castaway Cay. They packed a cargo boat with supplies and modern equipment and set sail from the East Coast of the United States. They told no one where they were headed, not even friends or family.
As they set sail that spring evening, this group of men, women, and even some children had no idea that their lives were about to change and that their journey would end with them never leaving the island that they so desperately sought.
After traveling down the coast for three days, the treasure-hunting ship turned and sailed at top speed into the waters of the Caribbean. They charted a course that led the ship straight to the eastern shores of Castaway Cay. As the captain and crew dropped anchor, the group of treasure hunters all stood on deck and marveled at the beautiful little island.
With the cargo ship anchored near the lagoon, the treasure hunters quickly unloaded their gear and started to search the island. “Where would pirates hide that treasure?” they wondered as they looked in the forest, moved aside rocks, and dug on the beaches. A full week passed and not one bit of treasure could be found, leading to confusion and many arguments among the group of seekers. They soon realized that their easy fortune was really a fool’s errand. There was simply no treasure on Castaway Cay. They made a plan to pack up and leave the next morning. But then, the mysterious storm arrived.
The sky turned very dark and an unusually thick fog rolled in. Large waves started to crash against the shore. As they sat in their tents, dry from the rain, some thought they could hear their ship groan as it was pushed against the coral.
When they all walked down to the beach the next morning, one thing was obvious: their ship was gone. They were now stuck on Castaway Cay.
Like most new castaways, the group built signal fires, wrote messages with rocks on the beach for the rare chance an airplane would fly over, and even put messages in bottles. They also surveyed their supplies and realized that they were very lucky to bring so much food and so many tools ashore.
Between the easy-to-catch fish, as well as their own canned goods and bottled drinks, they would have plenty of food and water to last for a long time. As they searched around the island and on the beaches, the castaways would occasionally find bits of manmade hardware from ship wrecks and spilled cargo that would add to their supplies.
After the initial fear of being stranded passed, this industrious crew of seamen and treasure hunters soon built up a village. They created little places to eat, small cabana-sized huts to relax, and even tiny shops to sell each other bits of merchandise and things that they made. With a number of children amongst them, fun was a top priority.
Everyone worked together to build a series of beach and recreation centers. They called the water slide Pelican Plunge and a fun water play area they named Spring-A-Leak. When some of the castaways found whale bones, they named the site Monstro Point, after the sea monster in a famous storybook. The more the former treasure hunters build up their little village, the happier they became. They figured if they were going to be stuck on an island, this was a great island to be stuck on.
Then one day a plane flew overhead. The small cargo plane, flying food and drinks to another Caribbean island, started to lose power over Castaway Cay. The pilot finally crash landed into the jungle near the island’s northeastern coast. As he climbed out of his wrecked plane thinking he was in the middle of nowhere, imagine his surprise when he was met by a group of castaways who welcomed him and offered him a tasty meal.
When he asked where such a meal was possibly prepared on a deserted island, they answered, “Cookie’s BBQ of course”. The pilot toured the island and realized he had never been to such an amazing place. The island had beautiful weather, calm water, and the friendliest people he’d met in all his many flights abroad.
The village had everything one needed to relax. With his plane damaged and radio out of range, the newest castaway decided to do all that he could to help contribute to the island paradise. Using the drinks on his plane as a start, he built the Castaway Air Bar right near the quietest beach on the island, a place they soon called Serenity Beach. He also led the building of the island’s first airstrip, not as a way to leave one day, but as a signal to other planes to stop by and visit, something that eventually occurred.
As time went by, the original treasure-hunting castaways had many opportunities to leave the island as a number of planes and ships discovered them, yet every time they were given the chance, the group unanimously decided to stay. Many of the would-be rescuers also decided to stay.
As more people joined the original group of castaways, the island became better supplied. New activities and destinations were added to the original village, including places to snorkel, ride bikes, and buy exotic trinkets and treats. But the spirit of the island always remained the same.
Castaway Cay was, and still is, a place to visit, relax, and let the troubles of the outside world disappear. It is a place that several generations of castaways have enjoyed and still call their home. It is a place that doesn’t hide treasure, but is the treasure itself.
That is the secret of Castaway Cay.