Loving the Outdoors the Disney Way - A Look Back at Discovery Island

by Rod Wheaton, contributing writer

Walt Disney recognized the great appeal that animals have to people. In his earliest television days, he had begun filming his True Life Adventure series, and animal stories remained a staple of Disney programming for the generations that followed. Even in his early designs and attractions for Disneyland, Walt featured guest interactions with animals, including the horse-drawn Rainbow Mountain Stagecoach and the Rainbow Ridge Pack Mules. Some of these later had to be eliminated, like the donkeys in Frontierland who had a tendency to nip the guests.

As the Walt Disney Company matured, progressed, and reached out into the Florida Project (that would become Walt Disney World), the desire to provide guest interactions with animals continued. Before the creation of the Animal Kingdom Park, there was Discovery Island.

The island had grabbed Walt's attention even before it became known as Discovery Island. On November 22nd, 1963, Walt flew over central Florida looking to make the decision on where to locate his Florida Project. He'd looked at other areas near Ocala and other locations in the state, but on that day he looked down and saw the property we know as Walt Disney World today. Those present in the plane recall as Walt looked down on the beautiful, pristine island sitting in the middle of Bay Lake, he declared, "This is it." The island he saw was what we know today as Discovery Island.

The Backstory

The island that Walt saw that day already had a colorful Florida history. Since the eary 1900s it had been known as Raz Island, named after a family that lived there after the turn of the century. In the 1930s it was purchased by Delmar "Radio Nick" Nicholson, an early broadcaster in central Florida. Radio Nick was an inventor, avid herpetologist and a naturalist. Some of his accomplishments refining radio receivers won national recognition.

As a naturalist, Radio Nick found Raz Island to his liking, and lived there for 20 years, growing orchids along with his wife Alice and a pet spoonbill crane. Along the way he renamed the island Bay Lake Isle. In his late years, he sold the island to a group of local businessmen who used it as a hunting camp, and it became known as Riles Island before the Disney company bought it in 1965.

The Disney Years

Roy Disney on Riles Island by the old cabin. Photo from Jim Korkis' private collection.

There were several ideas that floated around the Walt Disney Company on how to best use the island for guests. It first opened in 1974 as Treasure Island after receiving some grooming from Imagineers. Thousands of cubic yards of earth had been added, expanding the size of the island to over 11 acres. It was themed as a pirate island, complete with a shipwreck—mast and all—on a gorgeous white sand beach. The white sand is completely gone now, the last of it wiped out by tropical storms and the occasional hurricane, but you can still see the remnants of the shipwreck at the edge of the mangroves and other flora along the shore.

The company's desire for an animal exhibit brought about the next big change, and in 1977 it opened as Discovery Island. Many guests, including myself, can remember catching the boat to see the many themed areas with over 140 species of animals. As you walked along the island's sculpted pathways, you passed themed areas with exotic names like Tortoise Beach where you could see Galapagos tortoises and Bamboo Hollow, which housed lemurs from Madagascar.

Spoonbill cranes line the boardwalk in the Discovery Island aviary. Photo by Stephanie Wien.

A highlight for me was the Avian Way, an enormous walk-through aviary; guests walked along a boardwalk through an enclosed area containing birds from around the world. Discovery Island was the home of the last known dusky seaside sparrow before it died in 1987 and was declared extinct in 1990.

The End of the Island?

While WDW continued to grow, with new parks, attractions, and resorts, the popularity of Discovery Island began to wane. With the construction of the Animal Kingdom park, the writing was on the wall. Discovery Island closed to the public on April 8th, 1999, almost a year after Animal Kingdom opened. Cast members transferred the island's residents to their new homes in Animal Kingdom, and it ceased all official operations in July of that year.

Today, Discovery Island sits abandoned, but many of the buildings and structures are still there. As mentioned before, you can still see the remnants of the old shipwreck along the shore, and the dock is still visible and in good shape. There were rumors that would occasionally crop up about attractions that would be placed there, most notably the construction of honeymoon suites or some other guest area. For a time there was speculation and rumor that an attraction themed to the ABC television show Lost would be put there. A third rumor that persisted was that Disney was partnering with the creators of the computer game "Myst" to feature some sort of attraction. None of them came to be.

In the current internet age of self-publishing media there are several places, including YouTube, where you can find the exploits of those who have ventured back to the island despite it being prohibited. Most claim they have swum or kayaked the short distance from Fort Wilderness at night, and there are numerous pictures and videos of the creepy, abandoned remains of what was once a featured WDW attraction.

Occasionally there are still rumors of the island's being considered for some new attraction. Time will tell, since it seems no good idea ever actually dies in WDW, it just has to wait for the right time. Until then, when you are enjoying a WDW vacation and looking at the broad, amazing and far-ranging ideas and creations that have come to the Vacation Kingdom of the World, take a moment to gaze at the dark island in the middle of Bay Lake. Today it's an unknown gem to most visitors, but it was the colorful, back-storied little spark that grabbed Walt's attention on that plane ride in 1963, and changed Florida forever.



  1. By danyoung

    I like to circle the island on a Sea Rayder, and it's pretty sad to see such a cool location going to waste.

  2. By Rod Wheaton

    My kids and i love that, too.

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