January 24, 2024 | Samantha Henman

Discovery Island: Disney World’s Lost Enclave


Disney World’s Lost Enclave

Though Walt Disney World covers 25,000 acres, only half of that has been used by the park—and then, of course, there are the areas that are abandoned, the most intriguing of which is Discovery Island.

The island has had many names and purposes throughout its existence, though it now stands as an abandoned oasis.

 Let’s take a deeper look at the evolution and eventual downfall of this forgotten paradise.

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The Early Years

In the mid-60s, Walt Disney began acquiring land in Florida around Bay Lake, using dummy corporations so as to not attract attention. One of the properties that he bought was a small island in the lake which, at the time, went by the name “Riles Island”. 

Though Walt Disney World opened in 1971, the island—which was to become Treasure Island—didn’t open until 1974. 

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Welcome To Treasure Island

Treasure Island, which was later renamed to Discovery Island, featured a variety of wildlife that visitors to the park could observe, including Capuchin monkeys, lemurs, tortoises, alligators, and flamingos.

Visitors could also get close to a variety of other exotic birds, including the last know dusky seaside sparrow, with a stroll through the Avian Way apiary.

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Stamp Of Approval

As well as being a home for rare animals, Disney wanted Discovery Island to be a place for learning about these wonderful creatures. To that end, the island was full of interactive exhibits that taught people the importance of wildlife conservation.

Since it was such a great place to view some of the world’s most exotic animals, the park achieved official designation as a zoological park and was renamed Discovery Island.

However, despite the initial success of Discovery Island, things soon took a dark turn.

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A Cruel World

In 1989, the idyllic appearance of Discovery Island. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claimed that the Disney was harming vultures that landed on the island.

It was hard to believe such allegations, but it didn’t take long for Disney to confirm that some vultures had perished when the park’s employees tried to capture them. With this admission, the company gained the attention of the authorities.

It all came to a head when State and Federal authorities hit the company with 16 charges of animal cruelty.

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Animal Kingdom

The charges related to animal mistreatment weren’t a good look for Disney, and it soon became clear that Discovery Island was not long for this world.

The good news was that the company had already been planning to build a new attraction called Animal Kingdom. Disney began to move Discovery Island’s animals to Animal Kingdom before eventually closing the island in 1999, exactly 25 years after it had first opened its gates.

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Abandoned 

Though it was not the first time that an attraction closed, what was remarkable was that Disney essentially abandoned Discovery Island. 

They left buildings and other structures behind untouched for the past 25 years—but just because it’s non-operational doesn’t mean that it’s been completely deserted.

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Intruders

While people can see Discovery Island from several Disney attractions, including the Disney Monorail and boat trips that transport people from the Contemporary Resort to Wilderness Campground, stepping foot on the abandoned island is strictly prohibited.

But that hasn’t stopped people from trying to catch a glimpse of the forgotten oasis.

 A number of “urban explorer” types have visited the island in the decades since it’s been closed, and they’ve left us with rare photos of what Discovery Island looks like today. 

One of these trespassers took things a step further—and attempted to live on the island.

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Home Sweet Home

The most notable intruder to Discovery Island was a Youtuber who took up residence on the island in 2020 during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Richard J McGuire, 42, told law enforcement officers that the island looked like “a tropical paradise”—but McGuire had also filmed videos of himself covering himself with leaves to hide from authorities. 

McGuire later took a plea deal, paid a $100 fine, and accepted a lifetime ban from Disney World. 

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The Legacy Of Discovery Island

Today, Discovery Island is a strange combination of well-preserved buildings and structures that have been completely rotted. Nature has reclaimed the park, and tree branches and foliage snake through the buildings, adding to the eerie atmosphere that the island is now known for.

While some have claimed that Disney plans to turn the island into villas, others think it’s more likely that nothing will change. No one really knows why Disney refuses to re-open Discovery Island, but one employee blamed pollution from the park’s nightly firework display.

Whatever the truth may be, it seems that Discovery Island is fated to remain abandoned and secluded from the rest of the world.

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