WDW Chronicles: The Original Pirates of WDW

by Jim Korkis
Disney Historian

Feature Article

This article appeared in the January 21, 2014 Issue #748 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

When Walt Disney World opened in October 1971, the original Phase One plans included guests eventually having an interactive encounter with pirates. However, it was definitely not planned for that encounter to be the iconic Pirates of the Caribbean attraction from Disneyland.

The Walt Disney Company felt that the Florida park needed to have some distinctly different experiences mixed in with the familiar Disneyland attractions. It was reasoned that the location of the new Florida park was much too close to the actual area where pirates roamed, so East Coast guests would want something different. After all, it would not be difficult for guests visiting Florida to extend their stay to visit the actual places where pirates had plied their trade and there were plenty of museums, exhibits and old fortresses to explore.

Instead of Pirates of the Caribbean, the Walt Disney Company decided to take East Coast visitors on a rousing water flume ride through the cliches of the Wild West.

The Western River Expedition was jokingly called by Imagineers working on the project the Cowboys of the Caribbean. It would have substituted a comical adventure with Wild West icons like cowboys, Indians, bandits and more using the same infrastructure of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Basically, boarding the same floating ride vehicle, guests would sail past audio-animatronics tableaus of different scenes. However, when the Magic Kingdom opened, the three most frequently asked questions were, "Where's Mickey Mouse?", "What time is the three o'clock parade?" and "Where's Pirates of the Caribbean?"

What the Disney Company had underestimated was that all the publicity for the Disneyland attraction had gotten East Coast guests eager to see it rather than traveling to the West Coast. So, plans for adding Thunder Mesa and its major attraction of Western River Expedition were quietly shelved, despite Disney having used concept art of the ride in the original publicity for the park and even displaying an intriguing model of the ride in the Walt Disney Story area on Main Street.

Treasure Island Movie PosterAs I mentioned, the Walt Disney Company did have plans for a pirate encounter, but it was inspired by the first fully live-action feature movie ever made by Disney, Treasure Island (1950). The film focused on the tale of the infamous pirate Long John Silver from Robert Louis Stevenson's classic book, Treasure Island, which Walt read and enjoyed as a young boy back in Missouri.

Unlike other Disney feature films, this movie had no animation at all. It was also the first Disney film to be filmed completely overseas in England.

Young cabin boy Jim Hawkins journeys aboard the ship "Hispaniola" to recover a buried treasure and forms a friendship with the ship's cook, who turns out to be a notorious pirate in disguise who also wants the fabled riches of Captain Flint.

British actor Robert Newton was so dynamic in the role of Long John Silver and so closely identified with the character after Treasure Island that he repeated the role again in both another non-Disney movie, Long John Silver (1954), and a 26-episode, non-Disney television series, The Adventures of Long John Silver (1954-55), before his death in 1956 at the age of 50.

Newton's flamboyant performance generates such sympathy for the black-hearted rogue that it never bothers the audience that he escapes justice at the end of the film for all his dastardly deeds. Newton is often credited with creating the stereotypical pirate voice with the "arrr" sound. The film was so memorable and remained so popular whenever it was re-issued that almost 25 years after its initial theatrical release the Walt Disney Company wanted to recreate that same pirate experience for guests at the newly opened Walt Disney World.

That's where Discovery Island in Bay Lake came in. But Discovery Island didn't always have that name.

In the early 1900s, it was called Raz Island after the family that lived there. In 1937, it was purchased by a man who renamed it Idle Bay Isle. Twenty years later it was sold and renamed Riles Island. The Walt Disney Company bought the island in 1965 along with some surrounding property. In early 1973, the Company announced that the island would be named "Treasure Island" and would have walkways, small lakes and waterfalls available to "explorers and picnickers."

There were plans to build Ben Gunn's fort, Benbow Inn and the wreck of the "Hispaniola," as well as other physical aspects from the film and novel. And what would a pirate hideaway be like without exotic birds? So there would be nearly 600 real and rare tropical birds on the island without the Disney Company completely considering the challenge of that amount of daily bird poop to handle.

On April 8, 1974, after the Walt Disney Company used 15,000 cubic yards of soil and 500 tons of boulders and 500 tons of trees to transform the landscape, "Treasure Island" opened to the public. It was a sanctuary for dozens of birds, reptiles, mammals and other non-avian species. There was also a beached ship, but not the "Hispaniola." It was the remains of Captain Flint's ship, the "Walrus." Flint was the nasty pirate who hid his treasure on the forsaken island and his ship was physically smaller than the impressive "Hispaniola."

Despite the fact that some Disney fans claimed it was the "Hispaniola", the original map of the island given to visiting guests clearly identified the ship as "the remains of the Walrus".

That early Walt Disney World map of the island for guests proclaimed: "Sail the Seven Seas of Walt Disney World to an island filled with tropic beauty, colorful birds, and the mystery of Ben Gunn's buried treasure!" Cast members wore appropriately themed pirate wardrobe and the name of locations around the island included Jolly Roger Wharf, Buccaneer's Cove, Doubloon Lagoon, Mutineer Falls, Skeleton Island, Black Dog Swamp, Scavenger Beach, Rum Point and the Mizzen Mast.

The reverse side of the tri-fold map claimed that some of the future attractions would include:

Billy Bones's Dilemma — Captain Flint's first mate falls prey to the perils of the open sea.

The Blockhouse — Site of the battle for the treasure map. "Though fully armed… we were still out-numbered by Long John Silver's buccaneers!"

Spy Glass Hill — A fantastic group of rocks in the heart of the island. In this primeval playground, you'll discover the secrets of this treasure isle!

Ben Gunn's Cave — As mysterious as the strange hermit himself. Its exact location is unknown even today… but we know it's someplace on the island!

Wreck of the Hispaniola — This seagoing vessel led by Captain Smollet, once anchored here in search of buried treasure… only to be overtaken by her mutinous crew, headed by the self-appointed captain, Long John Silver! She was later run ashore by the brave young Jim Hawkins… never to sail again!

Treasure Island TicketIn some aspects, the island would resemble a more adult version of the iconic Tom Sawyer Island in the Magic Kingdom with plenty of "natural" wonders to explore, as well as a mystery to be solved.

The island could be accessed for a half-day experience by either taking a direct motor launch from a resort dock or as part of the "Walt Disney World Cruise," a tour of the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake that stopped at the island. However, "Treasure Island" was not the first name that the Disney Company had in mind for the island. When Disney first purchased the property in 1965, it planned to name it "Blackbeard's Island."

Blackbeard's Ghost, originally released in February 1968, was the last live action film Walt saw in production. He visited stars Dean Jones and Peter Ustinov on the set just weeks before he passed away.

In a tiny fishing town, Dean Jones is the new track coach and he unwittingly summons the ghost of the infamous Captain Blackbeard played by Ustinov. Only Jones' character can see the mischievous pirate, who causes nothing but trouble until he finally helps the track team win, outwits some gangsters who are threatening some old ladies and helps Jones win his true love. As his reward, Blackbeard finally earns his eternal rest and he rows out to sea to claim it. (By the way, a painted portrait of Ustinov as Blackbeard, similar to the one that appeared in the film, was in the final treasure room scene of Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean long before Captain Jack Sparrow popped his head out of a barrel.)

Blackbeard's Ghost was the first book written by artist Ben Stahl. Stahl illustrated more than 750 stories for the "Saturday Evening Post" and the 25th anniversary book edition of "Gone With The Wind."

Why did Stahl choose Blackbeard rather than some of the other villains of the Spanish Main? "Because Edward Teach, alias Blackbeard, was the craftiest rogue who ever buckled a swash and yet he had a streak of fun and humor in him that made many of his victims almost forgive his outrages," claimed Stahl shortly before the film was released, misrepresenting the true nature of Blackbeard for the Disney family audience.

Just before the island opened to the public, the name was changed to "Treasure Island."

For unknown reasons, a pirate theme for the island was eventually abandoned and the island was renamed yet again. It was called Discovery Island roughly three years later, around 1977, and became an official zoological park accredited by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.

It closed to the public on April 8, 1999, and during the next three months the wildlife was relocated to Disney's Animal Kingdom in a hub area that was rechristened Discovery Island. Disney claimed that lagging attendance, some maintenance issues and the fact that DAK was better equipped to handle the welfare of the animals contributed to the island's closing.

Over the years, several plans were announced for the island from exclusive honeymoon cottages to an interactive adventure inspired by the "Myst" video game to a unique business retreat connected to programs offered by the Disney Institute. None of those concepts evolved out of the initial talking stage and the island now stands abandoned in Bay Lake with the buildings and cages slowly being reclaimed by Florida's ever-growing foliage.

However, on still, cool nights standing on the opposite shore looking at the island, it has been said that if you listen closely, you might briefly hear the echo of a buccaneer's laugh.



Other features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives:

Jim also writes for the AllEars® Guest Blog every other week, contributing entries under the heading of "Jim's Attic." Find his latest entry, a Farewell to Cap'n Jack's, here:




Disney Historian and regular AllEars® Columnist Jim Korkis has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, his skills and historical knowledge were utilized by Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of several books, available in both paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com.

— The recently released, "The Book of Mouse: A Celebration of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse," is more than 300 hundred pages covering the life and career of Mickey Mouse, with thousands of facts, quotes and stories about Walt Disney's famous alter-ego.

"The Vault of Walt, Volume 2: Unofficial, Unauthorized, Uncensored Disney Stories Never Told"


"Who's Afraid of the Song of the South?"

"The REVISED Vault of Walt": Paperback Version / Kindle version


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.