Memories of Discovery Island

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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!

1979 Postcard Book - Discovery Island
1979 Postcard

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!

1984 Discovery Island Flyer
1984 Flyer (click on the image above for a clearer view)

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.

1977 Treasure Island Brochure outside
1977 Brochure

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.

Discovery Island Tickets

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!

1977 Treasure Island Brochure inside
1977 Brochure

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.

Look closely

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.

The Walrus postcard

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.

February 1981 Discovery Island

1979 Discovery Island Brochure outside
1979 Brochure

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.

1979 Discovery Island Brochure inside
1979 Brochure

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.

Rob along the trail

Rob at Parrots Perch

Brochures from the 1980’s and 1990’s show an increasing focus on conservation and environmental responsibility!

Animals and plants of Discovery Island

Wildlife on Discovery Island

1986 Discovery Island Brochure pg 1
1986 Brochure

1986 Discovery Island Brochure pg 2
1986 Brochure

1990s Discovery Island Brochure pg 1
1990 Brochure

1990s Discovery Island Brochure pg 2
1990 Brochure

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
Great Hornbill Postcard

Sarus Cranes 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.

Rob with a parrot

1990s Discovery Island Map
Mid 1990’s Map

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.

Vulture postcard
Vulture Postcard

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!

A Peacock

Discovery Island postcard
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 Walrus 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.

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Gary hails from Canada and he’s a lifelong Disney fan. In the 1950s he watched the original Mickey Mouse Club and The Wonderful World of Disney on a snowy old black-and-white television. Gary was mesmerized by the Disneyland that Walt introduced to the world during those Sunday night shows! In 1977 he took his young family to Walt Disney World for the first time and suddenly that Disney magic he experienced as a child was rekindled. Since then Gary and his wife Carol have enjoyed about 70 trips to Walt Disney World, 11 trips to Disneyland and 11 Disney Cruises.

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8 Replies to “Memories of Discovery Island”

  1. Thanks Gary for bringing back some fond memories.

    I had been to Discovery Island twice, once with my daughter and granddaughter and once with my husband. My husband is not exactly a Disney fan like I am, but I planned a trip in 1996 centered around what I thought he would enjoy.

    We stayed at the Wilderness Lodge, which he thoroughly enjoyed. But the one place he talked more about than any of the theme parks was Discovery Island.

    He loved walking around the island, all the wildlife and just relaxing in a hammock on the beach. On this little island he experienced the “magic” of Disney. We were so sorry to see it close.

    Maybe someday they will reopen it so more adults and children can enjoy the natural side of WDW.

  2. Thanks so much for a fact-filled, fascinating and fun article. My wife and I visited Discovery Island sometime in the early 80’s and thoroughly enjoyed it.

    One of the more vivid memories I have is having lunch at the snack bar and watching all the vultures waiting around on the ground like pigeons hoping for a handout. I had no idea they could become that tame, but it was a real treat (no pun intended) watching them watching us.

  3. With respect to all the nature lovers out there, I can’t believe Disney let something as cool as a pirate island voyage be shuttered in favor of a bird sanctuary. With the eventual success of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies and the TREASURE ISLAND prequel BLACK SAILS on STARZ, I’m sure the popularity of this unique attraction would have soared.

    Maybe nothing on that island (the sight of which apparently charmed Walt Disney as he flew overhead in a helicopter in 1963) could possibly rival the wonders of the Magic Kingdom; that’s probably why we never bothered going there on all those trips we took back in the day. Maybe a Neverland makeover?

    Still, I never wanted to visit WDW’s Treasure Island as much as I do today after reading this excellent article. I will definitely be looking for the WALRUS while traveling Bay Lake in a couple weeks.

    Thanks as always, Gary and Carol, for bringing us along for the ride.

  4. I visited Discovery Island a couple of times as a youngster. Once, when I was middle school-aged, I did some sort of learning activity with a friend of mine there. I remember being very excited to sign up for it, but once we got there, it was a little too much like school for this little kid on vacation!

    I think that so much about WDW is larger than life, and over the top. When we got to the island, I think I expected amazing herds of animals. Instead, I found a very quiet and peaceful island with a few birds and some tortoises.

    Grownup me would have likely really enjoyed the experience, and a chance to get away from the crowds. Little me just wondered what on earth possessed him to leave the theme parks for this!

    [Gary writes: Mike, was your “learning activity” something like “The Wonder And Beauty Of Our World” seminar in this blog? It included a trip to Discovery Island.

    Copy and paste the link to your browser.]

  5. Hi Gary –
    I was lucky enough to get Discovery Island once, in August 1994. Besides the wonderful aviary and animals, what struck me was how few guests there were on he island. It was mid August and crowded everywhere, except Discovery Island. It was a peaceful 2-3 hours.
    – Jeff

  6. I remember taking my girls somewhere around 1984. There was a black bird (kind of crow looking) that kept saying “Come here, come on” and when we stopped and went back to see who said it the bird turned around and “farted” at us. The kids still talk about that. So fun.

    [Gary writes: Carol remembers that bird, it was a Mynah. According to Wikipedia the Mynah is a member of the Starling family.]

  7. My family loved this place and was so sadden when it closed. It was a real fun place to visit. We still look for the Walrus when we go by.