Before I begin, I have a confession to make – I have never been to Discovery Island. Sad, but true! Fortunately, Carol and Rob enjoyed several short boat rides from Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground to Discovery Island, so once again they have acted as my consultants!
Bay Lake, which surrounds Discovery Island, is a natural lake – unlike most of the waterways on Disney property. Even the Seven Seas Lagoon, which you cross by ferry from the Ticket and Transportation Centre to the Magic Kingdom, is man-made!
It is quite likely that Walt Disney sailed on Bay Lake and walked on Discovery Island before buying the property. Of course in those days Discovery Island was called Riles Island and was used as a hunting retreat!
A few years after The Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, work began on a nature park on the 10-acre island. It opened as Treasure Island on April 8, 1974. The original theme for the island centred around pirates from the book by Robert Louis Stevenson. The “back-story” included a secret hideaway, buried treasure and the wreck of Captain Flint’s ship, The Walrus.
The island was a showplace for exotic birds and plants but they were all wrapped up in pirate decor. What sort of birds were there? The 1977 brochure, pictured above, refers to Blue Peafowl, Vulturine Guineafowl, Caribbean Flamingo, Chilean Flamingo, Southern Bald Eagle, Macaw, Cockatoo, African Crowned Crane, Demoiselle Crane and Sandhill Crane. Many of these were housed in one of the largest walk-through aviaries in the world.
Plant life, imported from around the world, included banana, palm and bamboo from East India, gardenias from China, orchid trees from India and passion flowers from South America.
Boats ran across Bay Lake between Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground and the island every 20 minutes throughout the day.
The place-names on the map below help tell the story of the pirate theme . . . Cap’n Flint’s Perch, Buccaneer’s Cove, Doubloon Lagoon, Mutineer Falls, Gang Plank Walk and Rum Point are a few!
The quotation in the upper right corner is from Ben Gunn, a character from the R. L. Stevenson book. Gunn was one of Captain Flint’s crewmen who was marooned on Treasure Island for three years.
Gunn’s quote appears in the image below.
In the upper right hand corner of the map you see a ship which has run aground on the beach; that’s Captain Flint’s ship, The Walrus, shown below in a Disney postcard from 1975.
Treasure Island never reached the anticipated attendance levels so after only two years it was closed and extensive renovations began! The pirate theme disappeared and when it re-opened in early 1976 it was named Discovery Island, focused specifically on conservation.
As you might expect, the map of Discovery Island is very similar to the map of Treasure Island. The trails and walkways were renamed and included Bird’s Eye View, Trumpeter Springs, Swan’s Neck, Vulture’s Haunt, Toucan Corner, Pelican Bay and Turtle Beach.
Discovery Island became renowned for its bird, plant and tortoise populations and was accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in 1978. The aviaries were expanded and the facility functioned as a breeding facility for rare birds. The 40 foot tall, 32,000 square-foot, walk-through aviary remained; there were bird shows, a flamingo pool, and the Turtle Beach was still there.
The Walrus was still aground on the beach.
Brochures from the 1980’s and 1990’s show an increasing focus on conservation and environmental responsibility!
As you left the Discovery Island dock, you encountered the Thirsty Perch Snack Bar and the restrooms on your left. The map directed you to the right, toward the Discovery Island Bird Show near the North Inlet. In some areas the walkway was elevated, crossing ponds, wetlands and marshy areas where birds and animals roamed freely. There were plenty of animal encounters as you passed Trumpeter Springs, North Falls, Swan’s Neck and Bamboo Hollow. Next in the journey was Monkey Point, home of the colony of Lemurs from Madagascar and their distant relatives, the Marmoset. Cranes Roost and Toucan Corner were the final viewing opportunities before you entered the enormous walk-through aviary, home of the striking Scarlett Ibis and so many other exotic birds which were visible over, under and beside the elevated boardwalks of Avian Way!
Great Hornbill Postcard
Sarus Crane Postcard
Soon after exiting the aviary, you arrived at Pelican Bay populated by injured pelicans which had been treated in the Animal Hospital housed on the island. These injured birds spent their remaining years living in the lap of luxury as Disney guests!
Several varieties of pelicans lived around the ponds at Pelican Lagoon near the beach. Just past the pelicans were the giant turtles of Tortoise Beach, then Alligator Pool and the Birds of Prey Theatre were the final stops along the walk before you returned to your starting point at the dock.
There were cast members all along the route; they described the animals you were seeing, their native countries, their natural habitats and their diets. In some areas there were opportunities to interact with the birds and animals, and there were some wonderful shows to see in the small theatres located along the trail. What a wonderful place! A peaceful and serene nature park so close to the clamorous activity in the Disney theme parks.
Rob recollects, “My favourite thing along the trail was searching for the cavy! These South American rodents seemed to have the run of the place; when my Mom wanted to find me, she’d always look in the area where the cavies were and there I’d be. They were very shy animals and when I found them I’d stand very quietly and watch . . . it was never too long before some noisy kids came along and scared them away.” (Remember, Rob had reached the ripe old age of eight at the time!)
“I always enjoyed the turtles.” Rob added, “They were huge and roamed the beach not far from the dock. There was just a short concrete wall to keep them in place and you could easily step onto the beach and get close to them. Sometimes you would see a small kid riding a tortoise. The whole island was a very interactive place!
Discovery Island Postcard
Alas, it all came to an end. Many of the birds and animals moved to the new Disney’s Animal Kingdom when it opened in 1998 and Discovery Island closed permanently in April 1999. Today you can still see the vestiges of the aviary netting as you sail past the island heading to or from Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground.
The wreckage of Cap’n Flint’s ship, the Walrus, is still there, almost covered in vines and foliage, as you can see in the picture below which I took in October 2014.
The island is now a registered bird sanctuary and each evening as the sun begins to set you will see thousands of birds come in to roost for the night.
It seems a fitting end for Discovery Island.