Walt Disney World has always had a global reputation for impeccable attention to detail and maintenance of the magic throughout their parks. But, there may be a darker side to the “Most Magical Place on Earth.” Only 300 feet away from the city’s shore, abandoned park Discovery Island lays untouched and overgrown in Bay Lake, chock full of tropical vegetation and wildlife that has been left to its own devices for years.
A Tropical Paradise
On April 8th, 1974, Disney’s newest park called “Treasure Island,” located on the 11.5-acre island in Bay Lake, Florida, opened to the public. Originally based on the 1950 adventure film Treasure Island, this park featured pirate theming strewn across the island. However, this all changed when plans to bring in a vast array of tropical birds came to fruition and the island transformed from a pirate’s dream to a tropical paradise.
It wasn’t until 1978 when Disney decided to rebrand Treasure Island, opening it back up as “Discovery Island” and removing any remnants of the original pirate theming. It would now focus on the wildlife aspect of the park, to the point where it was recognized as a zoological park by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Housing around 600 birds, the park featured a walk-in aviary, bird shows, and a flamingo pool. Discovery Island had a wide variety of wildlife to see, such as flamingos, pelicans, peacocks, eagles, swans, and even alligators.
An Untimely Closure
Although Discovery Island never came close to the popularity and success of Disney’s other parks at the time, things really made a turn for the worse when they came under fire for their alleged treatment of the wildlife. Disney was accused of having its employees enact bird abuse on several counts across the park. A two-month investigation into this resulted in 16 state and federal charges, which Disney settled out of court by paying $95,000.
Although the bad press from this incident was damaging, the park managed to stay open for ten more years. The final blow to Discovery Island was most likely the opening of Disney’s newest park in 1998: Animal Kingdom. The combination of low attendance, high maintenance costs, accessibility only via boats, and Animal Kingdom’s opening led to Discovery Island’s closure on April 8th, 1999, exactly 25 years after it’s opening.
Interestingly enough, the other island park that Disney ran called “River Country,” which was very close by to Discovery Island, ended up closing two years later in 2001. This was supposedly due to a deadly bacteria found in the water called naegleria fowleri, however there was only ever one proven case of this occurring at the park.
Abandoned by Disney
Perhaps the most fascinating, and haunting, aspect of Discovery Island is the abandoned state that Disney has left it in. Nearly 20 years after its closure, all original buildings and attractions on the island have remained, sustaining major damage from hurricanes and decay. This is made even spookier by the fact that Disney has kept all of the lights on in the park, giving it the appearance that it’s still running. The only hope so far for the island to see the light of day again was a team up between Disney and the creators of the video game Myst. The two hoped to revamp the island and have puzzles that guests could solve as they explored, but this never got past the concept stage.
Today, the only thing still running in Disney’s parks that bears the Discovery Island name is an attraction in Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom titled “Discovery Island Trails.” This attraction has you wander through calming paths, walk across wooden foot bridges, and explore cave tunnels below the great tree of Animal Kingdom. Seeming like a much more convenient and controlled version of the original Discovery Island, it includes several wildlife encounters with white storks, West African crowned cranes, lesser flamingos, macaws, lappet face vultures, and more. So, the next time you visit Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World, consider exploring these trails to get a feel for what the now-abandoned park may have been like all those years ago.
Animal Kingdom Merchandise
Your WDW Store is home to thousands of gifts related to Disney’s films and parks, including Animal Kingdom’s 20th Anniversary. You can find goodies related to the new home of Discovery Island and all its avian friends right here.