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Disney's Discovery Island | Photo © 2018, www.standardstealth.com

Disney’s Discovery Island

Location Class:
Built: 1974 | Abandoned: 1999
Status: AbandonedPrivate Property
Photojournalist: David Bulit

Raz 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 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.

Treasure Island

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 of 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. The island would later be used as a filming location for another movie, Treasure of Matecumbe (1976).

According to the 1977 brochure, the island was inhabited by over 400 exotic birds with one of the largest walk-through aviaries in the world. The wildlife on the island included Blue Peafowl, Vulturine Guineafowl, Caribbean and Chilean Flamingo, the Southern Bald Eagle, African Crowned Crane, and Demoiselle, Sandhill, and Sarus Crane. Plants were imported from all around the world such as gardenias from China, orchid trees from India, and banana, palm, and bamboo from East India.

1977 Treasure Island brochure
1977 Treasure Island brochure

Discovery Island

Due to low attendance, Treasure Island closed down and reopened in 1978 as Discovery Island, losing any references to pirates and focusing more on the island’s rich, botanical settings and wildlife conservation. The aviaries were expanded and provided a breeding facility for rare and endangered birds.

Charles Cook, the park’s head curator, 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.

1990s Discovery Island Map
c. 1990s map of Discovery Island


In 1989, Disney was accused by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals of mistreating vultures that landed on Discovery Island. Disney admitted that some vultures died in the process of being captured by employees. The Orange-Osceola state attorney and a U.S. attorney in Orlando filed 16 charges against Charles Cook and four other Discovery Island employees with a large number of allegations including 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, the charges were ultimately dropped after Disney made improvements, but did not admit to any wrongdoings.

Disney decided to close the park soon after Animal Kingdom debuted. On April 8, 1999, 25 years after the park had opened, Discovery Island closed. The park remains closed to this day with no future plans., located not far from Disney’s River Country which closed in 2001. This hasn’t stopped people from visiting the park though.


In 2009, a photographer by the name of Shane Perez posted a story on his blog that detailed how he and a group of friends utilized a waterproof bag to hold dry clothing and their camera equipment and swam across the lake to the island. The story became viral and due to 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.

In 2020, Richard McGuire was arrested on April 30th after triggering a trail camera around 7 a.m., prompting Disney security to contact the authorities. Orange County sheriff’s deputies spent several hours canvassing the area in search of McGuire, trekking through the derelict zoo’s rusty animal cages, crumbling restrooms, and collapsed boardwalks. Unable to locate McGuire, they gave up and ended the ground search, but Disney employees remained vigilant along the shoreline. Sometime around 8 p.m., the deputies were called back when a man in a small motorboat was seen crossing the lake. McGuire made contact with authorities on the shore and one deputy asked, “Did you go camping?” McGuire replied, “Yeah. That’s a tropical paradise. I was going to stay out there for about a week.” He later released videos on his Youtube channel indicating he had arrived at Discovery Island the previous night. He later entered a plea of no contest and was fined $100, plus court and prosecution costs, and earned a lifetime ban from Disney properties.

Matt Sonswa, another Youtuber who used to regularly post videos of himself trespassing on Disney property, also posted footage taken with a GoPro of Discovery Island. Sonswa has been banned from Walt Disney properties after getting caught at DisneyQuest located in Downtown Disney and was charged with misdemeanor trespassing and felony burglary. A couple of his more well-known videos include a look inside Walt Disney’s private airplane and footage of himself climbing Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

Many other explorers have made the trip out there either out of curiosity or for the notoriety of being one of the few who have been there. The following photos are courtesy of one such explorer who you can find out more about via their website, www.standardstealth.com.

Disney and local authorities have warned the public not to venture out to the island due to safety concerns. In 2016, two-year-old Lane Thomas Graves was killed by an alligator while playing on the shores of Seven Seas Lagoon which shares a waterway with Bay Lake. Disney has since put up signs along the shoreline warning guests about alligators in the area.


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David Bulit is a photographer, author, and historian from Miami, Florida. He has published a number of books on abandoned and forgotten locales throughout the United States and continues to advocate for preserving these historic landmarks. His work has been featured throughout the world in news outlets such as the Miami New Times, the Florida Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR, Yahoo News, MSN, the Daily Mail, UK Sun, and many others. You can find more of his work at davidbulit.com as well as amazon.com/author/davidbulit.

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