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This Abandoned Island in Disney World Is a Playground for Urban Explorers

From Treasure Island to Exotic Bird Sanctuary

Bay Lake is a natural lake about a mile in length, located in Orange County, Florida with two natural islands within it. The smaller of the pair is named “Shipwreck Island” located between the Contemporary and Wilderness Lodge resorts, while the larger island at the center of the lake is known as “Discovery Island.”

While Shipwreck Island has always been uninhabited, from 1900 to 1965 Discovery Island was privately owned and used as a tropical island residence and private hunting ground. The island’s ownership and its name changed hands several times over the decades, before being sold off to Disney in 1965, six years before the official opening of the Walt Disney World Resort. On April 8, 1974, three years after Disney World’s opening, the large island at the center of Bay Lake was opened as Treasure Island.

The once privately owned Bay Lake Island was bought by Disney in 1965, which opened to Guests as Treasure Island in 1974.

Despite the name, Treasure Island was not an island attraction that promised thrilling pirate adventures and searches for buried treasure; it was instead a walk-through attraction that allowed Guests to observe tropical plants and wildlife.

The Island’s last owner, Delmar Nicholson, bought the island in the late 1930s and lived there with his family for over 20 years, growing many tropical plants during that time that thrived in the surrounding environment. The nature of the attraction warranted a name change, officially becoming Discovery Island shortly after opening. The re-branding officially turned Discovery Island into a zoological park.

An official map of Discovery Island, documenting the various paths for Guests to view exhibits showcasing exotic animals.

Guests who boarded ferryboats for the trip to Discovery Island would pay an additional fee for admission, step onto the dock, and be welcomed to a tranquil new environment. Away from the noise and crowds of the surrounding parks, Guests were able to walk along pathways under canopies of trees and vines, past sandy white shores and small lagoons, to discover rare and exotic birds and other animals.

Animal Kingdom, a larger more intricately-themed Walt Disney World zoological park inspired by neighboring Busch Gardens in Tampa, would open to Guests on April 22, 1998. This would lead to a decrease in Guest attendance for the smaller Discovery Island, which contrary to the Animal Kingdom had no real notable attractions, required significantly more effort to reach, and included an additional fee to enter. It would remain open for one year, closing on April 8, 1999, exactly 25 years after its opening.

Just Off the Coast of River Country

An aerial view of River Country Water Park at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, with Discovery Island seen in the top right.

Discovery Island was very clearly visible from Disney’s River Country Water Park, Walt Disney World’s first-ever water park. The park was opened to the public two years after Discovery Island’s opening, and as such the fate of River Country Water Park and Discovery Island’s futures would inevitably be intertwined.

On the campus of Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground, River Country had a rustic wilderness theme, appearing as an old-fashioned watering hole. To fit the theme the park featured a sandy bottom and a unique water filtering system using the natural water from Bay Lake, which was dammed off to create a natural-looking artificial lagoon complete with man-made boulders to complete the illusion.

In 1989, Disney opened the shipwreck-themed Typhoon Lagoon, and in 1995 it opened the melting ski resort Blizzard Beach. Both of the newer Parks offered bigger and better attractions for Guests. In 2001, River Country closed for usual seasonal refurbishments. And in 2005, after four years of silence, it was officially announced that River Country would be closed permanently.

A former swimming hole of River Country water park was reclaimed by nature as seen by urban explorers before its demolition.

In the four years, the already old-fashioned-looking Park had been reclaimed completely by the surrounding nature of Fort Wilderness. Largely forgotten by most Guests of Walt Disney World Resort and abandoned by Disney itself, the Park went from a charmingly rustic family water Park, to an eerie swamp ghost town.

As it was just a walk away from the Fort Wilderness Resort, curious urban explorers were fairly easily able to make their way past fences and into the complex of River Country Water Park, documenting their journey by capturing pictures for other morbidly curious fans. And once inside River Country, the more daring urban explorers were able to make their way their way to the edge of the Park, through the alligator-infested waters of Bay Lake, and to the shores of the abandoned Discovery Island.

Reclaimed by Nature

The pictures of Discovery Island that have emerged online from various anonymous urban explorers are utterly fascinating, especially when one views the progression of the images over time.

A view of one of Discovery Island’s many remaining intact structures, giving the illusion of an explorer’s outpost.

All of the main structures of Discovery Island remain intact. The canopies that hang over the dock which used to welcome Guests off the boats, the habitats of the various exotic birds, and the former offices of the animal’s caretakers all still stand. The doors and windows are thrown open, with wild vines crawling through them. Curiously, the view inside has an even more ominous feeling, with offices still including furniture, papers, and supplies from those who once worked there. It gives the illusion of scientists of a jungle outpost leaving their camp in haste to escape some kind of wild beast or natural disaster.

A row of small hut-like structures that once housed various exotic birds.

Construction on Reflections Begins

Discovery Island and River Country Water Park are unique as they are the only two Walt Disney World Parks to close permanently to Guests. But they also were very mysterious in nature, as after their closures they were abandoned by Disney and never mentioned again. This made the locations perfect for urban explorers.

Concept Art for Reflections: a Lakeside Resort exclusively for Disney Vacation Club members.

This was until April 20, 2019, when the ruins of River Country Water Park were demolished to make room for Reflections: a Disney Vacation Club Lakeside Resort between Disney’s Wilderness Lodge and the Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. But due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, construction was halted.

As of late 2020, all references to the Resort on Disney websites and in digital press releases have been removed. Aerial views of the construction site have shown that all construction equipment has been removed, too. These things suggest that once again River Country and Discovery Island have been left abandoned, perhaps forever.

Construction site of Reflections, with the remains of River Country water park completely demolished, and no further progress on the Resort.

The Future of Discovery Island

The seemingly permanent cancellation of Reflections is perhaps for the best. There are certainly many Park expansions or Resorts that could take the place of the River Country and Discovery Island area, especially given the more isolated nature of Discovery Island which could lead to an extremely unique Park experience.

Could it be the Port of Tortuga and Isla de Muerta from The Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, complete with a ride aboard Captain Jack Sparrow‘s Black Pearl to take you to the island? Could it be the return of the Pleasure Island Adventurer’s Club, with Guests able to go from an explorer-themed nightclub and restaurant to an island scavenger hunt paid experience? Could we see a realization of Animal Kingdom’s abandoned Beastly Kingdom- with a ferry boat taking Guests to an island zoo of dragons, unicorns, and other mythical beasts?

Or is this land cursed to remain closed to all but the few daring individuals who trespass on their grounds?

 

About Maggie Koch

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