Discovery Island: The Early Years
Discovery Island, situated on Bay Lake, has endured many names and identities over the years. More so than its name changes, I thought that we should look into the history of this dormant attraction.
The Island was one of the spots that caught Walt’s eyes when they were looking for property near Orlando. He would fly over Central Florida in the company jet and this island caused him to set aside the surrounding property as the first to be developed.
Discovery Island History
Jeff Kurtti’s Since the World Began has an excellent section on Discovery Island that details the history. It was called Raz Island from 1900 to 1937 from the family that lived and farmed there. Delmar Nicholson, Florida’s first disc jockey, purchased the area in the late 1930’s. He lived on the island with his wife and a pet sand crane. When he fell ill, Nick sold the island to some local businessmen who used it as a hunting retreat. Disney purchased the land in 1965. (Kurtti, p. 53)
The island was named Blackbeard’s Island when Walt Disney World opened. It appeared on guide maps but development of the island didn’t start until 1974. At that time, 55,000 cubic yards of soil were used to build up the island’s acreage. It was renamed Treasure Island and opened on April 7, 1974. It was closed from January to March 1976 for a renovation that included a snack bar and an aviary. When it re-opened on April 1976, it was finally named Discovery Island. The Island was accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in 1978 and functioned as a breeding facility for rare birds. Discovery Island became renowned for its bird, plant and tortoise populations. (Kurtti, p. 53) The island was officially closed on April 8, 1999 after many of the conservation and breeding efforts were moved to the Animal Kingdom.
For more information, visit the Treasure Island page at Widen Your World.
I ran across an old guide map for Treasure Island at Tim Gerdes’ Better Living Through Imagineering Flickr site. He was kind enough to let me use it for the article.
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!
In the future, other attractions will be added to Treasure Island…inspired by the famous Robert Louis Stevenson story. Among these features will be…
- Billy Bone’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 ran ashore by the brave young Jim Hawkins…never to sail again!
Did you ever get to visit Discovery Island during its first few years?
Looking for a great book on the early years of Walt Disney World?
Check out The Story of Walt Disney World book review.
19 thoughts on “Discovery Island: The Early Years”
I once read there was a contest to re-name Treasure Island.
A cast member picked Discovery Island and it stuck.
Have you heard this too?
Cool Treasure Island guide. It’s the first time I’ve seen one of those.
And the Discovery Island name still lives on at AK. I find it interesting that they renamed Safari Village. You don’t see the folks at Disney moving names around like that very often.
Great post George. I understand the closing, but I miss this the island. It was a peaceful place to visit and as I used to stay at Fort Wilderness quite a bit in the 90s, it was a convenient boat ride to get there.
My one visit to Discovery Island in 1990 was terrifying due to the large number of fearless vultures that claimed the island as their home.
The nightmare still lives on in home videos.
I miss Discovery Island (and River Country) dearly. So many great memories spent at those places – and you always felt like you were in your own secret little world. So quiet and calm compared to the busy theme parks.
We got to visit Discovery Island a few weeks after it had been posted as closed – they were still letting guests visit unofficially. It was great to be able to enjoy the Island one last time although the CM’s were less than enthusiastic about the loss of their jobs.
You don’t find places like Treasure/Discovery Island anymore… Thanks for the walk down memory lane!
Wow, the Treasure Island description will sound very familiar to Disneyland Resort Paris fans…
This stuff is fabulous George! Honestly, you continue to amaze and impress!
Like Jessica, I spent so much time there (and at River Country) that I still feel as if I could just hop a boat across the lake.
It is funny, I’ve been doing a lot of research about Discovery Island lately because one of my aunts had an owl on the island, and I have been writing an article about their experiences with the staff, the island, and, of course, the bird.
This article just made me want to visit the island all over again, and to dig deeper into the island’s past. Thanks for the inspiration!
Seeing the mention today of the guy who decided to camp on Discovery Island reawakened my interest in the Island. I worked there from 1977-79 and would love to see any research that you have uncovered… and would be happy to contribute, if you’re still doing it (you wrote this a long time ago!).
Kelly–this is George, the site owner and writer of all of the articles here. Thanks for the comment! I would love to hear about any information you want to share.
Ok, you’ll want to narrow down what info I should share. Every day was an adventure there… packing up ice cream from River Country on the floatboat and then hoping the boat started, standing in for the guys at the bird show in my pirate costume and leaving with holes in my hands from the macaws and cockatoos, the emu with no concept of personal space that wandered loose and followed me on daily feeding rounds, retrieving escaped Galapagos tortoises, holding off Attila the black swan with a rake while I did feeding rounds in the aviary… and then waving goodbye to the last guest boat and being alone on the Island with only three other employees… and watching the sun set over Bay Lake. So so so special!
You can see much of what’s left of Discovery Island and River Country if you go Parasailing over Bay Lake.
My wife and I did that last year and it’s awesome. For one brief moment, you are higher up than anybody else in the entire kingdom…
Was part of the team that built and opened Treasur/Discovery Island and trained the birds in the original bird show.
Miss it every day.
That is amazing! I would love to hear more about that.
I worked on Discovery Island from 1977-79, first in the snack bar and then in Animal Maintenance and have such wonderful, hilarious recollections of my time there. I would love to reconnect with folks I worked with back then. Is there a way to private message you if you’re interested?