One day Discovery Island was teeming with wildlife, and seemingly the next, the island was abandoned without a clear reason why.
Discovery Island was once a popular Walt Disney World attraction -- that is, before the conglomerate expanded to what we know it as today. The beautiful kingdoms, their captivating rides, and Disney’s iconic and lovable characters have outshone the 11-acre island park. Discovery Island is slowly fading from visitor’s memories, having been abandoned for 20 years.
Whether you used to visit Discovery Island on field trips or with your family -- and still reminisce on your time there fondly -- or are simply curious about all things Disney (and what could have been) we’re shedding light on the mystery that surrounds this once-captivating zoological park.
Where Is Discovery Island?
Located in the middle of Disney World’s Bay Lake, Discovery Island used to be accessible from the various resorts surrounding the water. Additionally, park-goers could access the lush island by purchasing a ticket for the Walk Disney World Cruise. Transportation via waterways was the only way to reach the island as there were no bridges connecting the island to the mainland.
The island can still be seen from the surrounding shoreline, but the distance and dense shrubbery restricts the view of most of the island. There are a few Disney resorts that may have a better view, namely Disney’s Contemporary Resort and the Wilderness Lodge, which are located directly across the water.
Motorized boats and kayak rentals are available from Fort Wilderness, inviting visitors to enjoy Bay Lake. Although these boat rides provide an opportunity to get closer to the thickly vegetated island, do not attempt to charter your boat to the island: Walt Disney World has officially banned anyone from visiting.
What Was On Disney World's Discovery Island?
Initially, the island in the middle of Bay Lake was called Treasure Island after Disney’s 1950 film of the same name. It was themed with shipwrecks, secret caves, and buried treasure. After a few years, Treasure Island was reopened as Discovery Island in April 1976 , this time with a different concept.
The island was rich with flora and fauna, and the purpose of the “new” Discovery Island was to showcase interesting birds and protect wildlife. It was even accredited by the Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums as a zoological park. At its peak, the park housed over 500 endangered species including tortoises, bald eagles, and scarlet ibis.
The tropical island was a place where you could encounter free-roaming birds, watch animal shows, and walk along the treetops. An elevated walkway within the aviary was one of the main attractions -- a place where families could walk and watch birds fly almost at eye-level.
Additionally, visitors could stroll through designated sections such as the Alligator Swamp, the Flamingo Lagoon, Primate Point (with lemurs), and the Monkey Canopy. The island’s dedication to the animals was further reflected by its onsite animal hospital and nursery.
When Did Discovery Island Close?
Discovery Island closed on April 4, 1999, marking almost 25 years after it first opened to eager Disney goers. The animals were relocated to Disney’s newest theme park, Animal Kingdom. Those who were not transported to Animal Kingdom were given to other zoological parks across the States.
The island has remained closed to the public since 1999. Additionally, Walt Disney World has banned all outings to the park -- in fact, you’re not allowed to get within 50 feet of its shoreline -- and legal action may be taken if you’re found trespassing. Photographer Seph Lawless, who published drone and zoom photos of the abandoned Discovery Island and River County in 2016, has been banned from visiting Disney World parks for life.
Why Did Disney Close Discovery Island?
Although the closure of Discovery Island remains somewhat of a mystery, there are viable explanations. Some have amplified the intrigue of the closure with conspiracy theories and controversy, though the most likely reason for the island’s closure comes down to finances.
Some believe the island park was closed due to the presence of Naegleria fowleri bacteria, which killed an 11-year-old boy, in the water across the lake at River County Park. However, this incident occurred in 1980, almost 20 years before the park was closed, so this reason is unlikely.
Another reason could be the controversy over how employees handled the animals in 1989. Walt Disney World was investigated after an anonymous call tipped authorities off to inhumane treatment of birds on the island. It was found that several employees engaged in illegal activities including shooting at hawks, trapping and beating vultures with sticks, and destroying bird nests. Disney wound up settling, and the negative press could have resulted in potential visitors steering clear of Discovery Island.
The most likely reason, however, is that the new, shiny theme park we know as Animal Kingdom opened in 1998. Discovery Island became less popular as Animal Kingdom was larger, more exciting, and easier to reach via car rather than by boat. Due to a decrease in visitors, it’s likely that Discovery Island was no longer profitable. Logically, this accounts for Disney’s decision to close the attraction rather than keeping it open.
What Does Disney's Discovery Island Look Like Today?
Given the inaccessibility of the island and rumors about its fate, many Disney fans are dying to know what Discovery Island looks like today.
A few people have trespassed over the last few years, and their excursions have provided photos and personal anecdotes to feed the hungry public. Most recently, YouTuber Matt Sonswa and his friend filmed an hour-long exploration of Discovery Island. His video shows footage of what the island looked like as of 2017 and was the first video to capture the state of the forgotten park.
Overall, the most interesting aspect of the video is that it seems as if the park was left in a hurry. Photographs, office supplies, an incubator, and a cooler with animal food and medicine -- things that you would expect to be cleared out before closing the park indefinitely -- remain. The video also shows a snake preserved in a Diet Coke bottle, also photographed by Shane Perez in 2009.
The years have not been favorable to the structures on Discovery Island, either. Hurricanes, humidity, and lack of upkeep have left plaster peeling off the walls and collapsed, rotten, wooden roofs. Surprisingly, more windows are intact than not. The well-known aviary has a few missing planks and the netted canopy is weighed down by branches and leaves. Yet the elevated walkway is largely intact (save for a few fallen trees on the path).
Although it might be tempting to visit the abandoned island for yourself, as a few bloggers, vloggers, and photographers have done in the recent past, remember that Discovery Island is not open to the public and you should not attempt to visit it.
Will Disney World Ever Reopen Discovery Island?
There have been rumors of Discovery Island reopening over the years, but it seems unlikely. At one point, there were stories about the island becoming a honeymoon resort. At another time, some said that it would become another theme park modeled after a video game. Most of this is hearsay without any official statements to back up the claims.
Looking at the most recent footage, it’s hard to imagine Walt Disney World returning to the island to restore the attractions of its Discovery Island years. Clearing the island and rebuilding from scratch seems most logical, but disposing of all the abandoned materials on the island would be costly. Perhaps Disney has determined to ignore the island and let nature take its course. This has paved the way for people like Seph Lawless to criticize Disney for not taking responsibility to clean the wreckage.
It’s hard to tell what will become of the island, but as of now, Discovery Island’s attractions remain, slowly decaying and sagging under the weight of overgrowth, as they have been for the last 20 years.