Anyone who calls themselves a Disney fan is undoubtedly attracted to the dark and mysterious side of the global entertainment corporation, especially when it comes to the theme parks. We all crave a peek behind the curtain, an opportunity to step into a shadowy corner where only the elite few are permitted to go. That dream has rarely materialized itself more clearly than in the abandoned Disney World expansion Discovery Island located in Florida’s Bay Lake. Purchased by Disney in 1965 and opened to guests as a wildlife observation facility in 1974, Discovery Island (then named Treasure Island) was sculpted and landscaped with nearly 15,000 cubic yards of soil, thousands of boulders and trees, and a wide variety of native plant life. Upon its completion and expansion, the island boasted an expanse of 11.5 acres and an impressive amount of wildlife including five Galapagos sea tortoises, the largest colony of Scarlet Ibises in the United States, brown pelicans, a flamboyance of flamingoes, an American bald eagle, and hundreds of species of native and exotic animal life.
The idea behind the park was a simple one – allowing guests to observe many different varieties of animals in a close simulation of their natural habitats. It could be reached via a boat tour from the Disney World resort, and was initially given a pirate theme to accompany the Treasure Island moniker. In fact, before Disney even bought the property, it had been Blackbeard Island and inhabited only by a man, his family, and their pet crane, assumedly named Dr. Frasier. The pirate theme of its early days was discarded in 1981 when the island received an accreditation from the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, so a renaming and thematic overhaul to Discovery Island soon followed. No longer a pirate playland, the island then began a primary focus on its animal inhabitants, especially on the breeding of rare birds indigenous to the area. This was a proud moment for Disney, having spent the initial years of the attraction’s existence devoted towards conservation and animal preservation efforts. Those shining moments only lasted so long, however – the last known Dusky Seaside Sparrow died at the park in 1987, and the species was proclaimed extinct three years later. This was the beginning of the end of Discovery Island.
In 1989, various local and federal attorneys filed 16 charges against park curator Charles Cook and four other employees on animal abuse violations including vulture facility overcrowding, destruction of nests, and even the shooting of hawks and falcons with a rifle. Nearly 100 black vultures were obtained for display on the island, but the large predatory creatures did not take to their newfound captivity very well. They destroyed property, attacked other animals and visitors, and defecated on a large section of boardwalk inside the park. Disney declined to comment on the legal nightmare headed their way, but the effect of these allegations was proving to be nearly insurmountable. Disney somehow managed to maintain operation of Discovery Island for another ten years, but upon opening of the resort’s Animal Kingdom park, the island was finally closed 25 years to the day of its inaugural date on April 8, 1999.
Despite the failure of the attraction, Disney Imagineers weren’t done with the island just yet. A few years before the official closure of Discovery Island (credit to Disney for at least planning ahead), meetings were taken with Rand and Robyn Miller, creators of the PC game phenomenon ‘Myst’. Early plans and concepts were laid out for a next-generation interactive experience called ‘Myst Island’, in which guests would participate in a puzzle-based adventure that would traverse the entire island. It would be sold as a separate one-day excursion trip for Disney World guests, and would offer the opportunity to solve clues and riddles in exchange for a prize at the end, presumably something from park sponsor Dr. Scholl. Imagineers even sought to take on the fairly unpredictable Florida weather and supply a near-constant flow of mysterious fog to envelop the island at all times. Let’s just hope they didn’t plan to hide any vultures in that fog. In any case, despite enthusiasm about the project from both sides, Myst Island never came to be. The discussions of making a video game into reality fell apart due to financial reasons, and never made it off the drawing board. An attraction based on the ABC television show LOST was also discussed by Imagineers in 2009, but despite the wild screaming of my subconscious about this absolutely incredible idea, it never materialized.
A fascinating epilogue to the history of Discovery Island came in 2009, when internet blogger/self-proclaimed urban explorer Shane Perez and a crew of three friends decided to ignore rumors of alligators and brain-eating bacteria in the surrounding waters and swam to the island in the dead of night. They explored the also long-abandoned River Country water park en route to Discovery Island, and their findings were quite remarkable. Completely abandoned and overgrown (although very well-lit, for some reason – creepy!), Discovery Island was chock full of, well, discoveries. (Funny how much more fascinating nature can be when left to its own devices.) Hundreds of birds and small animals still roamed the premises, and the still-standing buildings were full of such oddities as abandoned cages, old photos of employees, dead snakes preserved in soda bottles, and the remnants of long-defunct veterinary facilities. They even came across a recent nest of baby vultures who took to hissing and charging at Shane upon their arrival. A little payback for their horrendous treatment years earlier was almost certainly in order. Rumors have even swirled about Shane Perez being banned for life from all Disney parks in retaliation for his actions, which, for the fans, would almost certainly be the harshest punishment of all.