Today, most folks visiting Walt Disney World Resort tend to think of “Discovery Island” as one of several different land sections making up Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park. But that wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, Discovery Island really was just as its name implied—an actual island full of discovery and a rather popular Disney World attraction at that. Situated on Bay Lake, right within the Magic Kingdom Park Area, it was essentially its own Disney Park—an animal sanctuary and haven of exploration that Guests were freely permitted to visit as part of the overall magical memory-making experience. But then, all that came to a sudden and rather abrupt halt, and Discovery Island altogether shuttered to the public. Now it remains in ruination and abandonment, overgrown by nature’s untamed designs and being highly restricted and off-limits to Disney Guests and Cast Members alike.
The mysteries and myths surrounding Discovery Island lore have led many to romanticize the truth behind its closure and even invent some highly creative and elaborate stories and rumored speculations throughout the years. Some such stories have been easily swallowed up by more gullible Disney critics willing to believe anything objective about the Company. Then, there are also all those notable conspiracy theorists (Disney fans and otherwise) who are always after a nice, juicy legend to personally brand with their own list of contributions and tweaked tales. This has led to innumerable obscured facts and untruths surfacing about the true nature and legacy of Discovery Island. Furthermore, Disney’s hush-hush handling of it all hasn’t helped any, to be honest. So, with only the sincerest of hopes for setting the record straight, I offer a detailed account of what is factually known about Disney’s former Discovery Island and which of the rumors that have been floated over the years are nothing short of elaborate fairytales.
Disney opened this unique explorative island experience to the public back in 1974. Situated unassumingly in the middle of Bay Lake, the island was only accessible via way of operating watercraft vessels, which Guests would embark on from various designated Disney Resort locations.
It was originally known as “Treasure Island” after Disney’s popular 1950 film of the same title. Island callouts consisted of secret caves, shipwrecks, and other interesting but otherwise underwhelming elements.
A few years after its opening it was rebranded as “Discovery Island”—a more wildlife-oriented endeavor that even featured an impressive bird sanctuary in addition to housing multiple animal species as part of a conservation and protection initiative. It was even accredited as an official zoological park by the Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.
Discovery Island quickly became a popular “Disney Park” throughout the remainder of the 1970s and well into the late 1990s. Callout attractions onsite included Monkey Colony, Tortoise Beach, Parrots Perch, Toucan Corner, Cranes Roost, Vultures Haunt, Trumpeter Springs, Pelican Bay, Eagles Watch, Flamingo Lagoon, Alligator Pool, Bamboo Hollow (home to Madagascar Lemurs), and the impressive and arguably most popular fan-favorite—Avian Way.
So Then, Why Did It Close?
Strangely enough, Discovery Island abruptly closed to the public on April 8, 1999, exactly 25 years from the date of its opening on April 8, 1974. A vast majority of the animal residents were relocated to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park, which had just opened a year earlier. Others were transported to various zoological parks throughout the United States.
The reasoning behind its sudden closure remains shrouded in mystery, as the Walt Disney Company has never directly offered what can be considered a thorough enough explanation to justify its abandonment. As a result, many folks have come up with their own theories, some of which are rather unsavory in nature. One popular belief, for example, is that Naegleria fowleri was discovered on the island. The basis for this rumor can be traced back to the fact that this very same freshwater amoeba was actually found at Disney’s River Country Water Park (also in the Bay Lake Area) back in 1980 and was even directly attributed to the death of an 11-year-old boy. But this was not enough to shutter Disney’s River Country, as it remained in operation until 2001. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that this was the reason why Discovery Island was permanently shuttered.
Another disheartening theory is that Discovery Island was discreetly closed by authorities due to a massive mishandling of animals. This idea goes back to a documented incident from 1989 when PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) accused Disney of mistreating vultures that had landed on the island. Investigations ensued, and in the end, State and Federal officials charged Disney with 16 accounts of animal cruelty. The charges were later dropped, however, when Disney made many much-needed improvements. Still, some folks insist that the incident was enough to cause people to lose interest in Discovery Island. But this was 10 years prior to its closure, and given the fact that Guest visitations were up throughout most of the 1990s, this idea really doesn’t hold water. Of course, some more cynical-minded folks make the claim that new accounts of animal cruelty may have been a contributing factor. But anyone who has ever observed the dedicated and devoted nature of current Cast Member animal handlers at Animal Kingdom knows that this is unlikely.
Another notation is that there was an increase in freely roaming alligators reported on the island, which posed a direct threat to the public. This can neither be confirmed nor debunked, as there is nothing new about alligators being found on Disney property. And a place like Bay Lake serves as a natural habitat for them. Still, Disney has found ways to address the alligator issue before. So even if this was a partial reason for closing Discovery Island, it probably wasn’t the sole reason.
The most likely reason for the eventual shuttering of Discovery Island probably has a lot to do with the opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park. As mentioned previously, this newest Disney theme park was just coming up to its one-year anniversary when the Island ceased all operations. Within that span of time, there had been a significant decline in demand and popularity for visiting Discovery Island, as many Guests were choosing Disney’s shiny new Animal Kingdom instead. Financially, it would have been impractical for Disney to keep the Island in full operation given the circumstances. So, cutting costs is most probably the real reason why Discovery Island became defunct.
What People Are Still Saying About It
Formerly conceived fan theories regarding the initial closure of Discovery Island aren’t the only concepts feeding the rumor mill, though. Folks have long been speculating on the Island’s possible future as well. For a time, there was even a popular tale being told about Disney’s plan for revamping the site into a honeymoon-exclusive resort—a getaway for vacationing couples. Another time or two fans even teased the unrealistic idea of it being reimagined as a Disney theme park modeled after a video game. To date, there has been no official word from Disney about what they plan to do with the site, if anything, leading to ongoing speculations about whether or not Discovery Island will ever find new life and serve a viable purpose once again.
There remains something mysterious, uncanny, and perhaps overly romanticized about this now-shuttered island floating about in Bay Lake. It’s like the enchantment of a fairytale before the curse is broken and the resolution comes—a mysterious, guarded fortress overgrown by weeds while many of its former remnants remain chillingly intact. It’s a testament to the sudden and rapid departure that occurred here and still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Neither does Disney’s ongoing secrecy surrounding it, which only fuels the rumors yet more. For instance, the Walt Disney Company has made it clear to folks renting pontoons and other watercraft vessels that they are not permitted to come anywhere within a 50-foot radius of Discovery Island, or else legal action will be taken. Likewise, anyone who even attempts docking there and/or exploring the grounds on foot will be prosecuted in addition to facing a lifetime ban from Disney World property. The latter punishment is arguably worse for a true Disney fan. And the Walt Disney Company has in fact followed through in this very real threat, as a few people have in fact made their way back over to Discovery Island since its shuttering. Back in 2009, photographs surfaced by one Shane Perez, for instance. Then in 2017, Matt Sonswa published film footage of his unauthorized explorations. Most recently, back in 2020, a man was arrested when he was found camping on Discovery Island during Disney World’s closure due to the pandemic.
We cannot entirely blame Disney for taking such a firm stance against unauthorized trespassing on an abandoned island. There are, after all, undeniable safety concerns in entering a condemned area. And we all know that Disney takes Guests’ well-being seriously. Still, some feel Disney is being altogether too severe in how they dole out punishments for trespassers. Are they trying to hide something? That’s the common conspiracy theory consensus, but it doesn’t make it true.
Another chilling fact that has been verified by a near-decade of eyewitness accounts is that Discovery Island still had its electricity connected and well-intact long after all operations ceased. In fact, lights were seen regularly lit on the site between 1999 all the way through the year 2008, when they finally went out for good. Again, this fact has set many tongues wagging and led to numerous speculations.
Discovering Discovery Island Trivia
Throughout the years we’ve been presented with a wealth of well-known, documented facts about Discovery Island along with speculative rumors—some of which are sadly cynical in nature and otherwise imply some rather devious intentions by Disney. Therefore, it would be more than a little unfair to overlook some of the more lighthearted, fascinating trivia facts tied into Discovery Island’s overall legacy.
For instance, did you know that at its height, Discovery Island housed more than 500 endangered species, including bald eagles, Galapagos tortoises, and the scarlet ibis in addition to many others? It was also home to the last surviving specimens of the now-extinct dusky seaside sparrow.
A lesser-known fact that most folks never even realized is that the Island has even served as the filming location for Walt Disney Productions. Its most notable film credit came in 1976 with the film Treasure of Matecumbe. Take a look at the movie’s final beached shipwreck scene. Even though it’s supposed to take place in the Florida Keys, this scene was in fact shot on location at none other than Disney’s Discovery Island.
Being a natural island, it goes without saying that Discovery Island long predated the very existence of Walt Disney World Resort. The earliest records on file go back to 1900 when it was known as “Raz Island” for the Raz family that lived there up until 1937. It was later purchased by a man known as Delmar “Radio Nick” who renamed it “Idle Bay Isle and remained there for 20 years before renaming it “Riles Island” and selling it. The Walt Disney Company didn’t come on the scene until 1965, at which time Riles Island was acquired as part of Disney’s overall land-purchasing acquisitions for the planned Walt Disney World Resort project.
There are so many unique lighter-sided connections to Disney’s Discovery Island. But sadly, folks tend to primarily seek out only the juicier, albeit not always reliable, things being said.
For better or worse, it would appear that the glory of Disney’s original Discovery Island has been laid to rest permanently, and any future prospects for the site seem highly unlikely, at least for the immediate future. Because of that, we must do our best with what we have to go by, a fond, former memory and legacy that may have both inspired and indirectly served as the first working prototype for Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park. All the same, many folks—particularly those past visitors with happy, nostalgic recollections still intact—feel an extreme state of sadness when looking out at this very real remnant of an abandoned Disney dream. If only there was a sure certainty waiting in the wings that it may still one day discover a new life and the ultimate happily ever after in full Disney style.