Widen Your World – Treasure Island / Discovery Island

Treasure Island    1974 – 1978
Discovery Island  1978 – 1999

“Bay Lake’s Tropical Island Paradise”
Treasure Island Special Adventure ticket

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Treasure Island /
Discovery Island

Extinct WDW Attraction with unbuilt elements

Located in: Bay Lake

 Opened: April 8, 1974
Closed: July 9, 1999

Ticket Required:
Special Adventure ticket

Contributing Disney Personnel:
Charlie Cook,
Lisa Danforth,
Marc Davis,
Sam McKim,
Victoria Sikorski

Island is still right where
it always was

Walt Disney Productions Annual Reports (1972, 1973),
The Story of Walt Disney World, 1973,
Walt Disney World –
The First Decade
, 1981,
The Orlando Sentinel,
March 26, 1999
April 9, 1999

All photos copyright
The Walt Disney Company.
Text copyright 2009
Mike Lee

I would like to acknowledge the
thoughtful assistance of
Jessica L.
Walt Disney World Information
with my research on
Treasure Island &
Discovery Island

Last Update to this page: October 21, 2009 (expanded text, additional images)

According to Walt Disney’s colleagues, repeated aerial surveys of Central Florida land parcels led to his taking notice of the 11.5-acre island (at that time named Riles Island and having been owned by several other parties before Disney’s purchase) in Bay Lake and deciding more or less immediately that this was the ideal location for his Florida Project.

It is well documented that Disney was dissuaded from using real animals at Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise, which opened in 1955, because experts contended they would be largely unmanageable and hard to present to his guests in the manner he desired. This led to his first batch of three-dimensional animated animal figures, the predecessors of Audio-Animatronic technology that gained the Disney company a reputation for engineering its own brand of reality. That does not make it ironic that Riles Island would come to be WDW’s foremost home of down-to-earth animal reality, but it does make it mildly curious.

As one of the few distinctive landscape features at Walt Disney World not, at least in part, created by the Disney company, the island was surely ripe for some form of Disney-sponsored augmentation. Early master plans denote that it was to be rechristened Blackbeard’s Island*. While that name didn’t stick, the pirate motif did. By 1972 plans were underway to open a new attraction called Treasure Island. It would draw heavily from Walt Disney Productions’ 1950 live-action film of the same name.

In early 1973 the company forecast that “walkways, small lakes and waterfalls will be available to both explorers and picnickers” during the same year. It also said the island would later be “fully developed,” offering guests a chance to visit “Ben Gunn’s fort, Benbow Inn and the wreck of the Hispaniola.” The latter is pictured below in a conceptual painting.

A year later, however, the first mention was made that there were plans to add 600 rare tropical birds to the island. The more fanciful pirate additions were still slated as eventual developments, but never received much further consideration as time wore on. Construction cleared the island of all its original scrub growth. 15,000 cubic yards of soil and 500 tons each of boulders and trees were employed in the process of creating an entirely new landscape – one with new bodies of water, new elevations and hundreds of varieties of plants transplanted from destinations including China, the Himalayas and South Africa.

On April 8, 1974, Treasure Island opened to the public. As promised, it was a sanctuary for not only dozens of birds but also reptiles, mammals and other non-avian species. A loosely woven theme of piracy was worked into the mix (cast member costumes, oil lamps, wreckage) but took a backseat to the animal exhibits. The most prominent – and most photographed – manmade element was the beached hull of a sailing ship on the island’s southwest shore. Although commonly referred to in print as the wreck of the Hispaniola, this small craft was correctly named, in an early edition of Disney News and on Treasure Island maps, as the remains of Captain Flint’s ship, the Walrus. The Hispaniola, as depicted below, would have been a much more substantial vessel.  Treasure Island’s handout guide featured an overview of the wildlife trails plus outlined some of the pirate features that were projected for the future.  Evocative illustrations by Sam McKim accompanied the descriptions of Spy Glass Hill, Billy Bones’ Dilemma and The Block House.

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As the above ticket suggests, Treasure Island could be accessed by either taking a direct motor launch from a resort dock or as part the “Walt Disney World Cruise,” a tour of the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake that stopped at the Island. The island was recommended as a low-key diversion that could occupy up to one-half of a guest’s day and help round out the complete, varied and leisurely vacation experience that set WDW apart from Disneyland. In the end it was the island’s understated nature that contributed so substantially to its demise.

In 1978, Disney decided to rechristen Treasure Island as “Discovery Island,” effectively throwing in the pirate towel and opting to emphasize the ecological aspects that had taken center stage. As fine as this was for the sake of both “truth in advertising” and the conservation programs themselves, it did rob the island of more than a little mystique. It also placed a formidable challenge upon the staff of the island in living up to the more focused task of exhibiting and caring for a growing population of animals. Among the wildlife represented on the island were macaws, rheas, tortoises, flamingos, pelicans, bald eagles, alligators, rabbits, miniature deer, toucans, cavy, hornbills, scarlet ibis, cockatoos, white peacocks, golden pheasants, Guinea fowl, cranes and swans.

Among the island’s diverse features:

– A 320 foot by 102 foot aviary measuring 40 feet in height and with an elevated boardwalk (shown above).

– The CooCoo Cabana and its bird show, “Jose Carioca Flyers,” in which cockatoos, macaws and other birds took to the air.

– Turtle Beach, home to 300-pound Galapagos tortoises.

– A flamingo pool especially designed to simulate the ebb and flow of the tides found in the birds’ natural habitat.

As a measure of the efforts achieved by the Island’s animal care staff, the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums extended accreditation to Discovery Island in 1981. Charlie Cook was the park’s head curator and was often seen posing with birds in Disney publications and also on various TV broadcasts when the Island’s conservation efforts were discussed. It was truly a plus for the Disney company, being able to showcase an overt concern for the natural side of Walt Disney World in a setting this tranquil and seemingly removed from the rest of the attractions. As an extension of other responsible environmental practices on the part of the company (the crowning achievement being the decision in the late 1960s to set aside the property’s 7,500 southernmost acres strictly for conservation of the delicate Reedy Creek natural drainage system**), the animal care activity on Discovery Island was a key and very public component.

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Unfortunately something went awry in the late 1980s. In September of 1989 the Orange-Osceola state attorney and a U.S. attorney in Orlando filed 16 charges against five Discovery Island employees for a number of alleged offenses that included the mishandling of vultures and other wild birds, the destruction of ibis and egret nests and the shooting of hawks and falcons.  All of this activity was attributed to attempts made by the five staff members to manage or relocate the animals in question, as they had become nuisances and often disturbed the other species living on the island.  The case was ultimately settled, Discovery Island kept its AZA accreditation and Disney enacted a sweeping series of company-wide environmental policies.  One cannot help but wonder, however, if there weren’t those within the company harking back to the sage advice regarding live animal exhibition that had led Walt Disney to devise electronic alternatives.

While damage was done in the public’s mind due to this and similar problems that occurred during the same time period elsewhere at WDW, the Discovery Island staff persevered and kept the park running in a respectable manner for many more years.  In the 1990s, for example, Discovery Island was the first zoological park to breed South American Maguari storks and white crested hornbills.

In spite of the turnaround, Disney decided to close Discovery Island not long after the Animal Kingdom park debuted.  On April 8, 1999, 25 years after it first opened, Discovery Island officially saw its last guests.  A few “postmortem” visits were still accommodated past that date, but the end was close at hand.  The company attributed the decision to lagging visitation, evidently a result of too many other options and diversions for guests to investigate during the course of finite vacation time.  Discovery Island had become yet another relic from a past WDW era.

As for the post-sanctuary identity of this island that was pivotal in Walt Disney’s decision to build his Florida empire where it now resides, there were brief discussions between the Disney company and the creators of the software game Myst surrounding a possible collaboration. Those talks, however, ended abruptly in late 1999 and the island’s future has remained sketchy since that time.  Legend has it that at least one urban exploration group made an overnight visit to the island in 2008 and found what was left of the facilities looking like a set from Lost.  If you believe in legends.

 * The name Blackbeard’s Island was reassigned to one of the three smaller islands in the Seven Seas Lagoon.

** The Walt Disney Company broke from its off-limits psychology regarding the development of those 7,500 acres in the mid-1990s. At that time they decided to opt for a land mitigation approach in which they purchased land further afield from their more lucrative original acreage and proceeded with plans for the construction of Celebration on the land which was originally to remain untouched.

Additional Treasure Island / Discovery Island Images & Video

IMAGES – click on any of the thumbnails below for larger images
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VIDEO – The first video below is from Crystel Video’s YouTube channel, the second is from Vault Disney’s.

Links to other Treasure Island / Discovery Island Resources
Better Living Through Imagineering’s flickr.com Treasure Island Photo Set

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