Anyone who has been to Walt Disney World in Florida will know that it is a sprawling destination with theme parks, resorts, a shopping district, golf courses, a racing oval and everything it takes to operate an entertainment complex of nearly 25,000 acres! That’s 39 square miles or 101 km2. To put that into context, Walt Disney World is larger than 5 independent countries – Vatican City, Monaco, Nauru, Tuvalu and San Marino. It’s no wonder then that there are areas that most guests don’t even know exist. One of which is Disney’s Discovery Island which is hiding in plain sight in Bay Lake. Ferries pass by on a daily basis, transporting guests from some of the resorts to the Magic Kingdom. It can be seen from Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. Many guests have no idea about the island’s past.
The island was originally called Raz Island, named for a family which lived there and was purchased for $800 in the 1930s, at which point it was renamed to Idle Bay Isle. The island was sold to Walt Disney in 1965, now going by the name of Riles Island, and was a part of his secretive plans to buy land to build Walt Disney World.
Disney’s Discovery Island originally opened in 1974 as Treasure Island, giving guests a chance to observe the island’s many species of birds and animals. It was the first attraction to open following the launch of the Magic Kingdom three years earlier and was followed soon after by the nearby Disney’s River Country, a water park also located on Bay Lake. When the island became recognised as a zoological park, the name was changed to Discovery Island and it remained as such until its closure.
The island proved popular for a spell with attractions and exhibits showcasing the animals. The Discovery Island Bird Show featured macaws and cockatoo, Monkey Colony was home to capuchin monkeys and Bamboo Hollow housed lemurs. Other exhibits included Vulture’s Haunt, Toucan Corner, Cranes’s Roost, Pelican Bay, Flamingo Lagoon, Tortoise Beach, Alligator Pool and Eagle’s Watch. In 1999, Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened at Walt Disney World and the decision was made to close Discovery Island and move the animals to the new park or other zoos. It closed to the public on April 8th 1999, 25 years to the day after it opened. The last animals left the island in July of that year. As a fitting homage, an area called Discovery Island was created as the centre of the new Animal Kingdom park, continuing the legacy of giving guests a chance to observe and learn about animals.
Following the closure of Discovery Island, plans to convert it into an attraction centred around the video game Myst were floated however they amounted to nothing and it has remained abandoned ever since, much like the nearby River Country water park. Issues surrounding the safety of the water within Bay Lake in which Discovery Island is located have been debated over the years although no problems arose when the park was open. A Florida state law banning unchlorinated water for use in water parks was one reason suggested for the closure of Discovery Island and River Country. There’s hope among enthusiasts that both might see a new lease of life yet, much like the formerly abandoned Disney’s Pop Century Legendary Years.
In the middle of Bay Lake, deep within the heart of the Walt Disney World property, lies Discovery Island. It is a former wildlife attraction/sanctuary that was closed in 1999 and has been left to run wild since. This is the story of my trip there quite a few years ago when I lived in FL. In the time since, I’ve learned a few disturbing facts about the lake and as such would not recommend that anyone attempt to re-trace our footsteps. I’ve heard from more than a few people that there are actually alligators that live in the lake, something I hadn’t even thought of, assuming this was just some other Disney attraction. Even more alarming, I’ve also heard that the main reason Disney closed the adjacent water park is because of the presence of Naegleria Fowleri bacteria in the water which can infect human nervous systems and nearly always results in death.
I’d heard about the island from some Orlando locals. They told us that there were rumors that there were bunches of animals still left running wild on the island. They hadn’t visited it themselves but told us that it was about 100 feet off the shore of the also abandoned River Country water park and that boat traffic was infrequent on the lake. We arrived with a plan involving an inflatable boat, 150 feet of clothesline(to pull the boat back across for other people), a large hand pump, and a few oars. After an ordeal smuggling the suspicious supplies into the Fort Wilderness campground via the Disney Shuttle buses, we finally made our way through the abandoned Water Park and got to the shore. To our dismay, we discovered that the island was in fact at least 300 feet away and that passenger ferries crossed between the island and shore every 5-10 minutes. It would make paddling across virtually impossible. We left defeated and I vowed to return and conquer the island some day.