Disney’s Discovery Island
Located in the middle of Bay Lake, there is an island known today as Discovery Island, which is owned by Walt Disney World. The island though, has a long history going as far as the early-1900s when the island was called Raz Island.
The Raz family owned the island, using the land for farming up until the late-1930s when the land was purchased by Delmar “Radio Nick” Nicholson for $800, renaming the island to Isles Bay Island. He lived on the island with his wife and pet crane for 20 years before selling the property which would be used as a hunting retreat and again renamed, Riles Island. The property was finally purchased by Disney in 1965.
The island was renamed Blackbeard’s Island, but remained undeveloped until 1974. The Buena Vista Construction Company added nearly 15,000 cubic yards of soil, increasing the island to 11 acres. Over 1000 tons of boulders and trees were exported from other countries such as China, South Africa and the Himalayas, to be used in creating an entirely new landscape for Disney’s new attraction, Treasure Island.
On April 8, 1974, Treasure Island opened. It was accessed by either taking a direct trip 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. Though the island was named after the 1950 film of the same name, the island’s loose pirate theme was largely overlooked by the dozens of animal exhibits.
In 1978, Disney renamed the park, Discovery Island, losing any references to pirates and focused more on the island’s rich, botanical settings. Charles 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. As an extension of other responsible environmental practices on the part of the company, the animal care on Discovery Island was a very public and important component.
Disney’s conservation efforts were recognized in 1981, when it was made an accredited zoological park by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. The park was also widely known for housing the last Dusky Seaside Sparrow before it died in 1987, and then officially declared extinct in 1990.
In September 1989, the Orange-Osceola state attorney and a U.S. attorney in Orlando filed 16 charges against Cook and four other Discovery Island employees with a large number of allegations included the mishandling of vultures and other wild birds, the destruction of ibis and egret nests and the shooting of hawks and falcons.
According to Disney employees, the vultures attacked animals and defecated on a boardwalk, the hawks, falcons and owls attacked show pigeons and the egrets and ibises were noisy. Investigators found a metal shed measuring 20 feet long, 8 feet wide and 7 feet high with no windows, ventilation, water or perches. Old food, feces and feathers were on the floor. 19 vultures were in the shed at the time, one of them dead, though Cook told investigators that as many as 72 vultures have been kept in the shed at once. Jim Found, the manager of Discovery Island, told investigators that they even had discussed destroying the vultures before.
Even though it was a major blow to Disney’s public reputation, they were able to keep the park open in a respectable manner.
Disney had decided to close the park soon after Animal Kingdom debuted. On April 8, 1999, 25 years after the park had opened, Discovery Island closed.
In 2009, knowledge of Disney’s abandonment of Discovery Island became widespread when photographer Shane Perez posted a story on his blog of when him and and few of his friends ventured out onto the now-defunct island. The story explains how they made their way through River Country, another abandoned Disney park, as it provided the closest shore-to-shore access to the island. Utilizing waterproof bag to hold dry clothing and their camera equipment, they swam across the lake to the island. You can read the full story on his blog here.
The blog post became viral, appearing on hundreds of news outlets, blogs, and websites. With the statute of limitations here in Florida being 4 years, Disney could not press any charges and instead, banned Shane Perez from their parks forever.