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Treasure Island, a.k.a Discovery Island
Theme Park Archives
Treasure Island, a.k.a Discovery Island a.k.a. Riles Island a.k.a Blackbeard's Island a.k.a
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away oh, sorry wrong story
Well, a long time ago, in a swampland in central Florida, there sat well swampland. But in the middle of that great, murky, muck sat a large island. Legend around these parts states that it was this island that solidified the location for Walt Disney's secret new theme park 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.
Currently known as "Discovery Island", it shares that moniker with its "distant cousin" in Disney's Animal Kingdom. However, this Discovery Island is not man-made, and has a long history that predates the arrival of Disney.
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 Disney (under a fake name, of course), in 1965.
Disney originally planned to add a pirate "theme" to the island and call it "Blackbeard's Island", but 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.
A unique diversion from the 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. 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, with 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." Billed as a half-day adventure, the island unfortunately did not welcome as many visitors as Disney had planned.
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.
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 was filed for the mishandling of wild birds and vultures, as well as the destruction of nests and shooting of falcons and hawks. 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.
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 8, 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 and drive by (Sorry, but you cannot gain access to the island, and I strongly discourage you from trying).
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.
Author of the "Walt Disney World Trivia Book: Secrets, History & Fun Facts Behind the Magic"