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Forgotten Walt Disney World: Discovery Island

How a little island in Bay Lake paved the way for an entire theme park.

by
Chris Queen

Bio

July 4, 2013 - 4:00 pm
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Discovery Island

The story goes that when Walt Disney and other company executives toured the land that would become Walt Disney World, Walt spotted a relatively unspoiled looking island in the middle of Bay Lake that fascinated him and inspired him to develop the first phase of his Florida Project on that corner of the land. This little island went on to play a unique role in the history of Walt Disney World, not just for the attractions that made the island their home for 25 years, but especially for what it inspired. That island was Discovery Island.

In his excellent (but, sadly, out of print) book Since The World Began, Jeff Kurtti retells the history of what would become Discovery Island:

From 1900 to 1937 it was called Raz Island after the family that lived and farmed on it. In the late 1930s Delmar Nicholson (known as Radio Nick) purchased the island for $800 to make a home for his family. Radio Nick was an outdoorsman, botanist, civic leader, and Florida’s first radio disc jockey. For more than 20 years, Nick, his wife, and their pet sandbill crane lived on the island, which Nick called Idle Bay Isle. Nick and his wife grew many varieties of fruits and greenery, which they sold to local markets. Ill health forced Nick to sell the island, and a group of local businesspeople purchased it as a hunting retreat. Disney purchased the island in 1965.

The island was unique among the features of the land at Walt Disney World in that it was not man-made. Walt wanted the island to have a pirate theme, and it opened in April 1974 as Treasure Island. DisUnplugged takes us on a tour of Treasure Island as it stood 40 years ago:

Guests would arrive by boat to Jolly Roger Wharf and going counterclockwise, would first come upon Cap’n Flint’s Perch, where a number of birds including parrots and macaws could be seen.

Down the path was Buccaneers’ Cove, where animal presentations would take place. Guests would then pass through the North Inlet on their way to Lookout Point. Explorers would cross Black Dog Bridge and round the bend to Doubloon Lagoon and then Mutineer Falls. Further down was Dead Man’s Island, Skelton Island, and then the Skelton Lair. Reaching the northeast corner of the Island guests would come up to Skelton Lair and further down the path was Buccaneers’ Roost. At this point guests would come to a forked path, heading right they would pass Black Dog Swamp and Cape of the Woods. As they headed to the north end of the island guests would come upon the wreck of “The Walrus” and then Scavenger Beach. Heading towards the southwest end was the beautiful and lush Flamingo Lagoon, then Rum Point, the Touchan Cage and the Mizzen Mast. Finally, working back towards the Jolly Roger Wharf was the Mates and Maidens, “Ye olde reste rooms,” as described by Disney.

[...]

Treasure Island was intended to be a low-keyed, relaxing quarter or half-day diversion from the hustle and bustle of the Magic Kingdom. Ironically, that was one of the biggest reasons why it never caught on and eventually led to its demise.

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