In the depths of Florida’s Walt Disney World, away from the screaming children and perpetually-grinning mascots, an abandoned section of the theme park shows a darker side of the Happiest Place on Earth. Located in the middle of Bay Lake and 300 feet away from the shore of the city, the 11-acre abandoned Discovery Island still remains – and with it some of the life it housed when it was operating in decades past.
Originally intended to be pirate-themed, the island underwent various different plans before its final state as an animal sanctuary called Discovery Island. Initially dubbed “Blackbeard’s Island”, Disney planned for the area to house pirate shipwrecks, forts and inns. The name soon changed to “Treasure Island” with the introduction of over 600 native and tropical birds, as well as a variety of flowers, plants and trees.
Treasure Island opened on April 8, 1974, where visitors enjoyed the rich environment and wildlife including flamingos, pelicans and peacocks. The island’s natural inhabitants grew fast, surpassing the number of guests, and in 1978 it was reworked and renamed “Discovery Island” in an effort to attract more visitors. Discovery Island featured a walk-in aviary, bird shows and a flamingo pool.
In 1989, Discovery Island came under controversy due to rifles being fired at hawks, vultures being beaten to death, and the destruction of ibis eggs by employees.
Over a decade later, in 1989, Discovery Island came under controversy due to rifles being fired at hawks, vultures beat to death, and the destruction of ibis and egret eggs and nests by employees. The two-month investigation resulted in 16 state and federal charges on bird abuse, which Disney settled by paying $95,000 to avoid going to court.
With its lack of popularity and previous controversy, it was no big surprise when Discovery Island closed in 1999. April 4 was its last day to the public, having been open for almost 25 years. Most animals were relocated to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and the ones remaining were the natural inhabitants of Bay Lake.
Discovery Island would remain untouched by the public, and its last known visitor would be Shane Perez, a photographer, blogger, and explorer of abandoned spaces.
“I’ve learned a few disturbing facts about the lake and as such would not recommend that anyone attempt to re-trace our footsteps,” Perez wrote in his 2009 blog entry documenting the trip, which took place some years before the post. According to locals, alligators live in the Bay Lake which surrounds the island. The also abandoned River Country water park, adjacent to the island, supposedly closed down because of Naegleria fowleri bacteria in the water, “which can infect human nervous systems and nearly always results in death.”
“I’ve learned a few disturbing facts about the lake and as such would not recommend that anyone attempt to re-trace our footsteps,” wrote Perez.
Smuggling equipment into the park, Perez and his company planned to swim to the island at night during a time of infrequent boat traffic. Eerily, passing by Disney’s River Country before dipping into the water, the group saw that all lights were on despite the water park being abandoned.
Under the cover of night, Perez put his camera equipment in waterproof bags and swam to the island despite rumours of alligator-infested waters.
“Disney seems to like keeping all the lights on even in their abandoned properties in order to give the impression that they are still functional.”
Progressing through the overgrown paths with small red lights to not attract attention, Perez realized immediately that they were not alone. The group saw also that the island had not undergone maintenance since closing, making it difficult to figure out where to go. With each human step on a lying branch, whatever was on the island moved away from them.
“We could hear all sorts of noises in the trees surrounding us. We were literally surrounded by what sounded like thousands of birds. We could hear them cawing and cooing in all directions, some sounded almost like people speaking.”
Perez came across cages which housed the animals years before, veterinary facilities and storage areas. Objects found included old paperwork, photos and preserved snakes. Spiderwebs, “limited lighting, heavily overgrown paths, and disorienting animal noises” led to slow moving by the group.
They came across large abandoned enclosures for animals and humans, and in one corner, a pair of baby vultures. The birds aggressively hissed and and charged until Perez and his fellow explorers finally left.
Having covered only half the island in their three-and-a-half hours on land, the group soon swam back to the shores of Walt Disney World. Because of the hearsay of alligators and deadly bacteria, it is not likely that Perez – or anyone – will return.
WRITTEN BY: ALEXANDRIA LEE