Discovery Island

In the world of abandoned theme parks and places, Disney’s Discovery Island is one of the more popular, or perhaps just one of the more well-known. Since it’s Disney, there’s a plethora of information and research out there. And after all, it’s a physical place on Disney property, in plain sight of the more than 57 THOUSAND people visiting Walt Disney World in Florida each day. Despite this, Discovery Island has remained abandoned for two decades. This week on The Abandoned Carousel, the story of Disney’s Discovery Island.

Podcast credits: Podcast cover background photo is by 4045 on Episode cover image: Sam Horwitz, CCby2.0. Theme music is from “Aerobatics in Slow Motion” by TeknoAXE. Incidental music includes “Virtutes Instrumenti” and “Myst” by Kevin Macleod /; “Sheltered Swan” and “image film 043” by Sascha Ende via Sound effects via Sparrows by Otad; Chipping Sparrow by jpbillingsleyjr; Tropical Island by richwise; Hades and Thunder by roadie; oiseaux vautour by roubignolle; Myst Book Homage by cosmicembers; “Construction, Jackhammer, Manual, A” and “Roller Coaster Screams A” (Expedition Everest) by InspectorJ (


I thought I’d take a bit lighter topic this time after two episodes involving significant unknowns and Google Translate. This week, I’m going to tell you about an abandoned theme park that’s in plain sight of the 57 thousand people that visit Walt Disney World in Florida each day. As with my early episode on the history of Disney’s Skyway, it’s absolutely wild to think about an abandoned park at a Disney property. But it’s more likely than you might think, especially in Florida, where Disney owns such large swaths of land.

I’ll tell you right off the bat that I’m not breaking any significant new ground in this episode. You know that if it’s Disney, it’s been incredibly well-documented, and that’s the case too with the history of Discovery Island. As always, though, you know that I like to go down a rabbithole or two, so hopefully you’ll learn a new tidbit even if you are already familiar with the story of Discovery Island. 

So let’s get into it, and go over the curious case of an abandoned part of Walt Disney World.

A Brief History of the Origins of Walt Disney World

Much ink, digital and analog, has been spilled on the topic of Walt Disney, Disneyland, and Walt Disney World. In general, Disney parks are the most-visited in the world in terms of attendance numbers, and individual Disney parks consistently occupy the majority of the top 10 most visited parks, worldwide. Taking all the individual parks and properties together, Walt Disney World in Orlando FL would be considered the largest in the world. Numbers vary by source, but WDW is said to be about 39 square miles. This is the size of San Francisco, or slightly less than twice the size of Manhattan. 

The genesis of Walt Disney World is generally considered to be the opening of Disneyland itself, over in Anaheim, CA, in July of 1955. Soon after the success of the park’s opening, Walt Disney was confronted with the physical limitations of the urban area of Anaheim surrounding his new park. His magical themed paradise was surrounded by a berm of land to keep out reality, but guests faced an abrupt transition entering and exiting the park. The businesses that sprang up around Disneyland made no effort to replicate the theming or experience that made Walt’s park so magical, much to his dismay. 

 Walt Disney and his business associates began scouting for locations for a new Disney property, the heir apparent to the success of Disneyland, as early as 1961, six years after Disneyland opened. They wanted that perfect combination of things, a perfect combination that so few of the parks here on TAC actually have: a temperate and desirable climate, and a location near a major population center. In addition, Walt was looking for something Disneyland didn’t have: a large quantity of land for Walt to purchase, to avoid the creep and blight that could be seen on the edges of Disneyland’s tight boundaries. 

 In early 1965, rumors began appearing in the Orlando Sentinel, the local paper for what was then a small farming community. A number of large transactions had been recorded in the area. Over the next few months, many large and small land transactions were recorded, to and from a variety of mysterious buyers. There was much speculation about who the purchaser was, with aerospace industry being considered most likely, given the proximity to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. 

By October of 1965, hardworking journalist Emily Bavar published an article in the Orlando Sentinel deducing that the buyer was, of course, Walt Disney. The official announcement had been scheduled for November, but the governor was forced to confirm the newspaper reporting early. 

1965 press conference announcing Walt Disney World. Public domain image via the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

A video was made in 1966 specifically for Disney employees and Florida legislators and locals. It is an incredible piece of Disney history, shot just two months before Walt died. It’s only recently been made available to the public, and you can watch it for free online.

1967 press conference for WDW. Public domain image via State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

It was a long process. Before any earth could be moved or buildings built, there was the question of local government and legislation. Remember, this is an area comparable to a large city. Between 1966 and 1967, legislation regarding the “Reedy Creek Improvement District” was put into place by the Florida government regarding municipal concerns like drainage, waste management, pest control, utilities, roads, etc. Essentially, based on my understanding, Disney was given a large degree of self-sufficiency, and only one governing body was required to oversee the varied and constantly changing nature of the project. It also meant Florida taxpayer money didn’t contribute to the project, and that Disney didn’t have to rely on state agencies for project approval. 

Site preparation began a few weeks after the legislation went through, and the actual construction began in spring of 1969. 

Walt Disney World is big on a whole different scale, which you might not realize if you’re a person like me who’s never been. In general parlance, “Walt Disney World” is synonymous with the flagship Magic Kingdom theme park, but technically of course, the WDW Resort is the entire property. What’s called Bay Lake was the largest natural body of water on Disney’s property, adjacent to what is now the site of the Magic Kingdom. The lake had to be drained and drudged as part of the construction process.

Here, then, is where we tie in the focus of today’s story, Discovery Island.

Discovery Island Before Disney

Bay Lake, the natural lake on the WDW property, originally had one island, the future Discovery Island. Of course, before it was Discovery Island or even Disney property, it had a long history.

1967 aerial view of Bay Lake and Idyl Bay Isle (center), before WDW development began. Public domain image via State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Much of this section of the story owes to a delightful and recent article by user Gulopine over at RetroWDW. Their article traces the known history of the island prior to becoming Discovery Island, and they do this in a nice way, by following the land records and paper trail. I encourage you to read the article, as they link to all the property records and newspaper articles, going into much greater depth than I do here.

The island has had a paper trail of named owners dating back to a railway development company in the 1880s. Of course, a railway doesn’t have any use for an island, so after a few years, Plant Investment Company sold just the island. The land went through several owners before being sold to one Joel Riles in 1906. It’s believed that this is the Riles for whom the island was originally named, for of course, it was originally known as Riles Island. 

There does seem to be some confusion about the name, as Kurtti’s seminal history Since the World Began refers to the name as “Raz Island” during this period, named after the family that supposedly farmed on the island back then. The RetroWDW article stated that they could find no evidence of a property record by this name, however.

In the early 1910s, Riles let the act of paying his taxes slip his mind. As such, the property just slipped back to the state of Florida, entering a period of what must have been some debate. The state appears to have sold the property to a prominent local businessman W. H. Reams. While Reams was waiting for his official deed, Riles sold the property to a man named Jim Greer, despite having no legal claim to the property. It seems likely that Greer got his money back from Riles, as a few years later, Reams, the actual owner, sold the property back to Greer, making a tidy profit in the process. 

This wasn’t the end of the drama for the island. Greer deeded the island to a presumed relation, F. H. Greer, who only owned the island for a few years before selling it to another party, F. A. Rollins. RetroWDW speculates that this likely sparked some family drama, selling the island so soon after his presumed parents had gone through so much to purchase it for him in the first place. Even worse, Rollins fell into the trap of failing to pay his taxes! The state took possession of the island, and Jim Greer’s widow, Susan Greer, purchased the island yet again! 

After nearly another decade, Susan Greer sold the island. With all the hassle surrounding her family’s land ownership over the years, she made the sensible legal decision to obtain a quitclaim from the family of the tax delinquent Rollins, ending any further confusion or entanglements in the history of the island.

Idyl Bay Isle and Radio Nick

From here, the ownership of the island is more well-documented in common history. Susan Greer sold the island to Delmar Nicholson in 1937, for the princely sum of $800. He was a popular local guy, known as Radio Nick – he was the first radio DJ in Florida and was considered a radio pioneer. He lived on the island with his wife Alice, and apparently with a pet sandhill crane. When he wasn’t running for local political office or talking on the radio, he was a botanist and outdoorsman, growing a variety of orchids on his private island, among other things. 

Radio Nick renamed the island from Raz Island (or Riles Island) to Idyl Bay Isle. He set up the first Idemoor lime grove in Florida there, and apparently also grew mangoes and avocados on the island’s 11 acres.

Radio Nick owned the island for a good while, but ill health forced him to dial back the farming trade. Though the unsourced histories of the island describe Nicholson as living on the island for 20 years, he actually sold the island after only 12 years, to the Thomasons, a couple living in Oklahoma. It’s speculated that they may have continued to live in Oklahoma while allowing Nicholson to continue living on Idyl Bay Isle, as they also granted him power of attorney over the island for three years. 

By the mid-1950s, the Thomasons sold the island to a group called the Bay Isle Club for $55,000. The paper described the island at this time as “the most beautiful spot of its kind in Central Florida”. The Bay Isle Club was helmed by three businessmen who apparently used the island as a hunting preserve. Occasional trips out to the island were still publicized in the paper throughout the 50s. As I mentioned at the top of the segment, RetroWDW goes into more detail on all of the property transactions than I have time for, especially in this section, so please check out their article.

Roy Disney and company inspect the Walt Disney World property, thought to be taken on Discovery Island. Public domain image via State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Bay Isle Club Sold to Disney 

Of course, as I’ve already told you, Disney snapped up a bunch of property in Orlando in the mid-60s as they were developing the future Walt Disney World Resort. This included the large Bay Lake, and its island, Idyl Bay Isle. Rumor, from the well-known story about the island, is that the sight of Idyl Bay Isle as seen from a helicopter was what sold Walt himself on the Orlando property.

Disney, under one of their many local shell companies at the time, purchased the island from the Bay Isle Club. They also followed good sense and got a quit claim from Radio Nick, to ensure that all their i’s were dotted and t’s crossed, that he wouldn’t come back and disrupt the big theme park plans. 

And that was that – Disney now owned the land for Walt Disney World Resort, including this single natural island.

Roy Disney inspecting what is thought to be Discovery Island. Public domain image via State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Disney’s Treasure Island

So, site prep: 1967. Construction: 1969. Opening: 1971. 

Our island was not initially touched. It sat as scenery in the middle of Bay Lake, along with the other manmade islands made from the excavation work on the theme parks. On park maps, the island was named Blackbeard Island, but no development had occurred.

1971 aerial view of the Magic Kingdom, Bay Lake, and the future Discovery Island (top center). Public domain image via State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

It took until 1974 for work to actually begin on the island. Initial development involved transporting over 50,000 cubic yards of dirt to the island in order to build up its acreage. Boulders and trees were reportedly imported, as well. A name change was in order too, from Blackbeard’s Island to Treasure Island. The nominal theme was a pirate’s hideaway, with shipwrecks and buried treasure throughout. By April of 1974, Treasure Island was open. The main draw was the quiet nature preserve, with a variety of exotic plants and colorful birds. 

The copy on the guide map read: “Look closely, mateys, as you visit Treasure Island today. For the memories still linger here of Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins, of Black Dog and Ismael Hands, of Dr. Livesey and Capt’n Flint. And the voice of ol Ben Gunn still haunts these woods and paths – still laughing, mocking. Listen closely, as Ben Gunn’s words may be the clue to where the treasure hides to this day.”

Of course, the theme was based on the 1950 Disney movie of the same name, of course itself based on the classic 1883 novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. The Disney movie was re-released in 1975, coincidentally, a year after the island opened to the public, which I’m sure helped promo for the WDW attraction. 

Despite the copy, the pirate theme was fairly light. The main focus were the birds and the plants. This is a link to a FB album showing original guest maps. The earliest maps advertised four types of cranes (sandhill, demoiselle, african crowned crane, and sarus cranes) as well as flamingos, macaws, cocktaoos, bald eagles, and blue peafowl. 

The only real remnant of the pirate theme besides the names, even at these early days, was the single beached wooden ship. On the north side of the island, there lay the “remains of the Walrus”. The wooden ship was beached on the shimmering white sands, and kids were encouraged to climb on it and jump off it. Yes, it was nine feet high at points. No, there were no safety regulations. This was the 70s. 

And funnily enough, though it’s hard to think of it this way now, in the 70s, there were glimmering sandy beaches around most of the island. Jet skiiers were even able to pull up to the shores and hop off.

There were plans for additional grand pirate-themed adventures, as seen in a 1975 visitor map: Billy Bones’ Dilemma, the Blockhouse, Spy Glass Hill, Ben Gunn’s Cave, and Wreck of the Hispanola. But none of these came to pass, as the number of birds and plants quickly began to outpace the amount of visitors on the island.

Disney’s Discovery Island

By 1978, the pirate theme was fully abandoned, and the name of the island was changed, from Treasure Island to Discovery Island. Discovery Island was fully entrenched as a bird sanctuary, as an educational paradise. The emphasis was truly on the island’s conservational and environmental efforts, on animal care, etc. The focus was also expanded beyond birds, with new alligator and Galapagos tortoise exhibits.

At one time, Discovery Island was the US’ most extensive breeding colony for scarlet ibises. The island won several different awards, and was noted for being the first zoo to breed a Toco toucan in captivity. 

By 1981, Discovery Island was officially recognized as an accredited zoological park by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. To put this into context, we can turn to the ever-accurate Wikipedia. There are some 2800 different animal exhibitors as of 2019, and only about 10% (280) are accredited. So this does actually appear to be a big deal, speaking to the company’s serious intents in this area as more than just an entertainment facility. 

Reportedly, at one point the island was home to over 140 different types of animals and over 250 species of plants. 

Dusky Seaside Sparrow at Discovery Island

One of the well-known stories about Discovery Island is how it was home to the last ever dusky seaside sparrow. Yes, tragically, a species went extinct on this little island, despite efforts at breeding and preservation by the caretakers. 

This sparrow was identified, localized to Florida’s Merritt Island on the Atlantic Coast, near Cape Canaveral. Their downfall, of course, was all manmade, and much related to the space race. DDT used to kill mosquitoes in the area in the 1940s and 1950s did the birds no favors. In the 1960s, Merritt Island and its surrounding marshes were flooded to help control mosquitoes around Kennedy Space Center. Later that decade, the Beeline Expressway, making commuting easier for space center workers, was built right through one of the birds’ marshes. And then there was pollution and wildfires. Each offense destroyed the birds’ very specific habitat, and this highly localized species simply was not genetically programmed to move elsewhere.

Reportedly, environmentalists tried to rally support around 1969, but government agencies weren’t interested – this wasn’t something big and flashy like a bald eagle, it was just a little sparrow. There was no political support.

In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, and finally, finally money became available to buy a dusky seaside sparrow wildlife refuge. But it was too late. 

The last known female of the species was seen in 1975. 

By the end of the decade, biologists led by Herb Kale were forced to comb the wetlands for any remaining sparrows. Five males were taken into the care of Kale to begin hybridization breeding. Government funding began to dry up. In 1983, Kale found private support: the few remaining males were moved to Disney’s Discovery Island. In his excellent essay in the book Wild Echoes, Charles Bergman writes: “The idea of a small brown sparrow, increasingly an anachronism in its own life, spending its final years amid all the bright and exotic birds on the island, was a wrenching anachronism.”

The breeding efforts were not successful, however, particularly because the federal government refused to support the effort, claiming that even an eventual 99% cross would never be considered a true dusky seaside sparrow. The last male of the species, named Orange Band, died in 1987, marking the extinction of the species. Listen to the sounds of the dusky seaside sparrow: 

The hybrid crosses were all also lost. Two years later, in 1989, a windstorm knocked a tree into the roof of the hybrid sparrows’ compound. One was killed and the remaining birds vanished, and with them, the species. In 1990, the dusky seaside sparrow was officially labeled extinct.

Charles Cook, in an interview with the NY Times, said at the time that the mood, while serious, wasn’t all negative. “”People here feel that […] the program gave the bird a chance to tell its story,” Cook said. “That bird could have become extinct seven years ago and gone entirely unnoticed. Its story gave everyone a chance to reflect on our own mortality and our effect on the environment.””

Life at Discovery Island

The years rolled on. A decade after converting to the Discovery Island branding, the island seemed to be doing well. After landing at the dock, guests walked along a winding path that made a loop through the island. The only real decision guests could make was about whether they’d take the path past the Toucan Corner that became the boardwalk along the beach near the old shipwreck, or whether instead they would go through Avian Way (a large enclosed aviary where guests walked through an elevated boardwalk), the Crane’s Roost, and Pelican Bay, where the two paths joined up again. There was, of course, the Thirsty Perch, a stand for light refreshments. According to rumor, the birds learned about the stand and took great pleasure in stealing condiment packets, particularly mayo packets, until they were forced to be covered. 

Other animals roamed free, if not tame, like the multiple varieties of flamingoes in the Flamingo Lagoon. A bald eagle, on loan from the US Department of Interior, was displayed at the Mizzen Mast. In the Buccaneer’s Roost, most of the island’s crane species resided. There were deer and swans, tamarin and kookaburra, lemurs and egrets. The island served as a home for permanently disabled animals, and worked to rehabilitate and release other native Florida species. Zookeepers and workers hosted informational meet and greets to introduce the animals to the island’s guests.

Lawsuit at Discovery Island

But life was not perfect on the island. In 1989, a lawsuit was filed against Cook and several of his employees. The allegations were many, and all revolved around alleged mishandling of birds, destruction of nests, and shooting of birds; most of the charges were related to the vultures.

Disney reportedly called it a misunderstanding. Reportedly, the company claimed that the vultures, hawks, falcons, and owls all attacked other animals on the island, and that the vultures were pecking at other animals and guests. The nest destruction and shootings were reportedly accidental in the course of attempting to move and control the animals, which the island had a permit to do so. Investigators reportedly found inhospitable conditions, with an unreasonable number of vultures being confined to a windowless, featureless shed. 

In early 1990, the company settled the suit, paying $95,000 to avoid going to court. Reportedly, this sum was three times the amount they’d have paid had they been convicted of all the charges in court. According to the spokesperson quoted in the paper at the time, they wanted “”to avoid a costly, protracted court proceeding,””. The subtext too is that Disney seemed to want to avoid the negative press that would’ve been associated with such a proceeding. 

The curator was replaced, and a committee reviewed the island on a regular basis for a year to ensure that no further violations were occuring. Reportedly, this didn’t affect the island’s zoo accrediation. And from the general sense of my research, public impression doesn’t appear to have suffered significantly either.

Audience Perspectives on Discovery Island

It may be evident by this point, but despite the exceptional focus on nature, Discovery Island was still a part of the WDW Resort. And it wasn’t an attraction drawing in huge crowds. The island required its own special entrance ticket – $5 for kids 3-9, and $10 for ages 10 and up. By the nature of being an island, too, the only access was by boat, leaving from one of the resorts across the lake. Consensus is that the island was considered at least a half-day adventure, so some planning was definitely required. Additionally, the island was polarizing for its slow-paced educational nature. Guests either thought the area was calm and peaceful, or dull and boring. Yes, there was a bird show held at the “Parrots Perch”, and yes, you could walk around and look at all the birds and animals. But, it was essentially a zoo in the center of an amusement park…was this what people were going to do with their precious Disney vacation time?

Closure of Discovery Island

In 1989, Disney began planning a new theme park at WDW Resort: Disney’s Animal Kingdom. 

Of course, the world around Discovery Island had not been stagnant. Magic Kingdom, the flagship theme park, as we’ve already discussed, opened in 1971. EPCOT opened just over a decade later, in 1982. And in 1989, the third major theme park, MGM Studios opened. Of course, there were water parks (like River Country and Typhoon Lagoon) as well as multiple hotel resorts and shopping destinations. 

The plans for Animal Kingdom reportedly began soon after the opening of MGM Studios (now called Disney’s Hollywood Studios). Five years later in 1995, Michael Eisner officially announced the project, now well underway. A board of advisors reportedly helped develop the project from the beginning, with a goal of emphasizing wildlife conservation. Despite public criticism calling the future park a glorified zoo, consultants for the advisory panel saw only a positive outlook for the park, saying “”We’re at a time when population is growing so rapidly that the only wildlife we’ll be able to save is the one we care about,”” Construction proceed quickly, and Animal Kingdom officially opened on Earth Day, April 22, 1998. 

In practice, Animal Kingdom drew significantly on the experiences with Discovery Island. With an area between 5 and 6 times that of Magic Kingdom, the new park had plenty of space for animal conservation – much more than just birds. Reportedly, some 1700 animals of over 250 different species currently reside at the park, with breeding programs even allowing restoration of species from Animal Kingdom back into the wild, such as with the white rhinos reintroduced to Uganda.

It wasn’t all just another glorified zoo, though. Animal Kingdom is the home to all the trappings of a regular theme park, too, including restaurants and dozens of rides. Even a full-fledged coaster was there – Expedition Everest, a Vekoma steel coaster featuring the tallest artificial mountain on any Disney property.

All of this detouring is of course to say that Animal Kingdom nicely filled the space that Discovery Island occupied. And the cons of Discovery Island, it’s small size and physical boundaries due to being an island, were absent in Animal Kingdom. Plus, Animal Kingdom was an actual theme park. 

The writing was on the wall for Discovery Island, as the guests who would’ve visited there instead chose to go to Animal Kingdom. Attendance reportedly declined, while maintenance costs remained high.

The official closing date for Discovery Island was April 8, 1999, marking a clean 25 years in operation. Wikipedia claims without source that the island was operational for several more months, through July of 1999, as the animals were transferred to Animal Kingdom. At Animal Kingdom, the main hub was renamed to Discovery Island in tribute to the park’s roots. A charming version of the island’s “last day” is available online, including plenty of pictures. “It’s a little bit sad when we say goodbye to an old favorite, but change is part of the process.” said the Disney spokesperson in a statement at the time.

Abandoned Discovery Island

After Discovery Island closed, nothing obvious changed. Buildings were still there, the dock was still there, the lights were still on. Yes, for at least a decade after the island was shuttered, the lights still went on at night throughout the island in an eerie display. This included lights on the interior of the island, as if someone or something were still traversing it at night. Between August and October of 2006, the island’s main dock was removed, leaving only pylons. By this point, the only access to the island was the small employee service dock.

2007 image of the Discovery Island dock. Source: BestofWDW from USA [CC BY 2.0]

Water travel is a regular way to get around Walt Disney World, so none of this went unnoticed. Guests documented the foliage growing up on the island’s white sand beaches, hiding the sand and completely engulfing the former “shipwrecked” boat formerly called The Walrus. It’s still there, but it’s no longer visible, completely covered over at this point by green.

Of course, as this is a podcast about abandoned and defunct theme parks, of course we ask what kind of abandoned imagery is out there. Well, Discovery Island is a well-kept secret. Access to Disney property, especially on an island in gator-infested waters, is definitely not an easy explore. Between 1999 and 2017, there were only two known urban explorations of the island. One was by “Nomius” and the other was by a guy named Shane Perez. Shane’s name is the more notable, as he used his real name and sat on the images for over four years in order to sit out the statute of limitations on being charged for trespassing. He was banned from Disney properties for his troubles, but his images are still some of the most well-known of the abandoned property. 

The images reveal eerie sights, like a dry erase board last written on in 1999, a snake preserved in formaldehyde inside a soda bottle, animal cages with doors hanging open, soda machines covered in dust and grime, and an empty -80 freezer, once used for biological samples, long since thawed. 

In 2017 and 2018, a guy named Matt Sonswa posted two different videos, showcasing in delightfully high quality video with over an hour of footage from exploring the island. A 2018 video from “Standard Stealth” similarly documents the abandoned state of the island in high definition. I strongly encourage you to check them out – literally a 90s abandoned Jurassic Park kind of deal. Hurricanes and storms have taken their toll, knocking trees into buildings. And the unchecked vegetation growth over 20 years has led to nature more or less taking it all back. It’s so eerie to think about everything just sitting and waiting and rotting away, since 1999, in plain view of the thousands who visit the park each day. Just sends shivers up your spine.

Buildings on Discovery Island barely visible through the undergrowth in 2007. Source: BestofWDW from USA [CC BY 2.0]

Rumors About Discovery Island

Rumors about the future of Discovery Island have persisted since the island closed in 1999. There were discussions about making the land a spot for some very exclusive, very expensive villas, like those suitable for honeymooners. 

Other rumors swirled that the land could become a haven for nighttime entertainment, a Pleasure Island type thing. 

Some even say that the island is left in its abandoned and dilapidated state as it is still a protected bird habitat. 

Rumors about Myst and Discovery Island

One of the most prominent rumors was that Disney had been in talks with Robyn and Rand Miller, the creators of the infamous Myst series of PC games. Of course, Myst was the bestselling PC game for several years, and was notable for driving the adoption of the new CD-ROM technology as a standard feature on computers. I’d love to spend an hour talking about the development of Myst, its technological and design breakthroughs, and its legacy as a gaming series, but alas, there’s definitely not time in this episode. Should I decide to establish a Patreon, this might be a topic that I’d post there. 😉 Think about it.

So. Late 90s, Myst was huge. Myst had come out in 1993, and the sequel, Riven, came out in 1997. It was popular. Reportedly, Myst developers were in talks with Disney about making the island into some sort of Myst-like experience. For quite some time, these were just rumors. Jim Hill over at Jim Hill Media wrote a great article back in 2004 about this. Reportely, Disney was in talks with both Robyn and Rand Miller, as well as Richard Vander Wende, who’d been their collaborator on the Myst sequel Riven. 

Myst video game cover, used under fair use as described at the Wikipedia page:

The rumors is that they would create Myst Island, where a limited number of guests would spend a day on the island, solving Myst-style puzzles on a day-long adventure unlike anything else at Disney. Theoretically, no two guests could’ve had the same experience. This was considered a test project for a new type of immersive theme park experience, an antidote to the “wait three hours in line for a three minute ride”, and was spurred by Disney’s own guest surveys.

This sounds incredible and amazing, so why did it never go anywhere?

Robyn Miller spoke with The AV Club in 2016, confirming the long-held rumors about the interaction of Myst and Disney, saying “That was absolutely true.” He elaborates: “we went down and looked at it and walked around it, and it was incredibly Myst-like. It was perfect for Myst. So we were all excited”, he said. 

Not even Miller is clear about why the project never went forward, but there’s plenty of speculation. The first is the common explanation for many of Disney’s possible projects on Discovery Island. Any project on the island would first require demolition, not only for the structures, but for all of the islands utility and infrastructure. All of it was rapidly aging, and not sufficient to handle the demands of modern visitors. But to demo it all would require heavy equipment to be ferried over: an expensive prospect. 

More specific to the Myst project, any “Myst Island” would require a significant amount of cutting-edge technology. In 2019, this maybe would be doable at a reasonable cost, but 20 years ago in 1999, the technology picture was very different. (Reminder: Google started in 1998, the Nokia brick cellphone was the hip thing, and the original iMac with its candy colors was shipped in late 1998.) 

Ultimately, it’s the nature of the island that truly sinks any future for the project. It’s logistical: any supplies have to be ferried over by boat. If the only access for either guests or supplies is by boat, then Florida’s sudden storms, which shutter the boat service, could wreak havoc and trap guests. And then there’s the simple fact that Disney owns boatloads of land in the “Florida Project”. There’s plenty of space elsewhere where Disney can build at a cheaper cost with less maintenance and logistical requirements. At this time, there’s no motivational reason for them to do anything with Discovery Island, no attraction that could outweigh the building and maintenance costs.


So for twenty years, Discovery Island has sat abandoned, weathering hurricanes and storms, without any maintenance. There are no current plans for the island. It’s simply another inaccessible part of the background scenery, a story that folks can tell on the various behind the scenes Disney boat tours one can rent at the park. 

It’s lost in plain sight now, but back in the day, Discovery Island was said to be the very reason that Walt Disney himself was interested in choosing the Orlando property for his new theme park. It’s said that upon flying over Bay Lake and seeing then Idyl Bay Isle, he said something to the effect of “This is it.”

As the Disney rep said on the closure of the island, though, change is part of the process, not only at Walt Disney World but in our everyday lives, as well. Discovery Island has changed from natural landscape to fruit farm to hunting preserve to theme park back to natural landscape again. The circle of life, so it goes.


  1. Treasure Island (1950 film). In: Wikipedia. ; 2019. Accessed November 8, 2019.
  2. Jamie Sincage – Guest Maps of Discovery Island- From the beginning… Accessed November 6, 2019.
  3. Disney Avenue – Posts. Accessed November 6, 2019.
  4. Bright Sun Films.
  5. 1966 EPCOT Film – Restoration Complete. RetroWDW. Published May 2, 2014. Accessed November 6, 2019.
  6. A Modern Day Look at Walt Disney World’s (Abandoned) Discovery Island. Your Mileage May Vary. Published December 1, 2018. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  7. Selga G. Angry AP – Disneyland and Walt Disney World nostalgia: The orginal Discovery Island. Walt Disney World’s lost theme park! Angry AP – Disneyland and Walt Disney World nostalgia. April 2011. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  8. Any rumors about the old discovery island? The DIS Disney Discussion Forums – Accessed November 10, 2019.
  9. Association of Zoos and Aquariums. In: Wikipedia. ; 2019. Accessed November 9, 2019.
  10. Bay Isle Club. Orlando Evening Star. November 23, 1955:10.
  11. BIRD-ABUSE CHARGES RAISE QUESTIONS ABOUT DISNEY – Orlando Sentinel. Accessed November 10, 2019.
  12. Dannie Learning How to Use a Water Fountain. Accessed November 6, 2019.
  13. Dark Roasted Blend: Abandoned Disney, Part 1. Dark Roasted Blend. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  14. Defunctland – Interview w/ Urban Explorer Matt Sonswa: “The Craziest Stories You’ve Ever Heard” – 1:22:19.!1f920. Accessed November 11, 2019.
  15. Hill J. Did Disney World visitors “Myst” out on an amazing new interactive attraction? Jim Hill Media. Published May 24, 2004. Accessed November 3, 2019.
  16. Discovery Island. The Photography of Shane Perez. December 2009. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  17. Discovery Island. Accessed November 4, 2019. 17. Discovery Island. Accessed November 10, 2019.
  18. Discovery Island – Worth it? WDWMAGIC – Unofficial Walt Disney World discussion forums. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  19. Discovery Island – Orlando, Florida – Atlas Obscura. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  20. Discovery Island (ABANDONED SERIES) from All Disney You Should Know. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  21. Discovery Island (Bay Lake). In: Wikipedia. ; 2019. Accessed November 3, 2019.
  22. Discovery Island [The 626 | Disney Dispatch]. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  23. Discovery Island | Extinct Disney. extinctdisney. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  24. Discovery Island Abandoned Disney’s Lost Park. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  25. Discovery Island in Lake Buena Vista, FL (Google Maps). Virtual Globetrotting. Published October 21, 2005. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  26. George. Discovery Island: The Early Years. ImagiNERDing. March 2008. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  27. Disney Almost Created A Myst Theme Park In Florida. /Film. Published September 13, 2016. Accessed November 10, 2019.
  28. Disney Announces Plans For a Wildlife Theme Park – The New York Times. Accessed November 10, 2019.
  29. Disney DISCOVERY ISLAND (1993): Historical video – YouTube. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  30. Disney Discovery Island Urban Exploring. Accessed November 10, 2019.
  31. Geryak C. Disney Extinct Attractions: Discovery Island. October 2018. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  32. Disney Has a Pair of Abandoned Properties. Published March 28, 2016. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  33. Disney Seeking Settlement in Wild Bird Case – Los Angeles Times. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  34. DISNEY SETTLES 16 ANIMAL CRUELTY CHARGES ATTRACTION WILL PAY $95,000 TO AVOID GOING TO COURT – Orlando Sentinel. Accessed November 10, 2019.
  35. Staff TB of TS. DISNEY TO CLOSE ITS STRUGGLING DISCOVERY ISLAND. Accessed November 10, 2019.
  36. DISNEY TO CLOSE ITS STRUGGLING DISCOVERY ISLAND – Orlando Sentinel. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  37. Olito F. Disney World mysteriously closed an island 20 years ago and left it in ruins. Take a look inside. Insider. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  38. Unknown. Disney’s Discovery Island. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  39. Disney’s Discovery Island – Abandoned – Treasure Island. Accessed November 9, 2019.
  40. Disney’s Discovery Island (archived). Imaginerding (via Internet Archive).<1=_blank&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr. Published March 24, 2008. Accessed November 3, 2019.
  41. Disney’s Discovery Island | Abandoned Florida. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  42. Disney’s Discovery Island Alumni. Accessed November 6, 2019.
  43. Disney’s Forgotten Theme Park – Abandoned Discovery Island – YouTube. Accessed November 10, 2019.
  44. Dusky seaside sparrow. In: Wikipedia. ; 2019. Accessed November 9, 2019.
  45. Sentinel CJ The Orlando. DUSKY SPARROW MAKES LAST STAND. Accessed November 10, 2019.
  46. Ap. Dusky Sparrow: Just One Left. The New York Times. Published April 1, 1986. Accessed November 10, 2019.
  47. Exotic palms growing on Disney’s abandoned Discovery Island. PalmTalk. Accessed November 5, 2019.
  48. “Explorers” invade Disney’s abandoned Discovery Island and River Country water park. Inside the Magic. April 2010. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  49. Florida Bird Sounds. Florida Museum. Published April 27, 2017. Accessed November 9, 2019.
  50. Peterson C. GOODBYE, DUSKY SEASIDE SPARROW. Washington Post. Published June 18, 1987. Accessed November 9, 2019.
  51. “I am Orange Band,” the last Dusky Seaside Sparrow. Welcome Wildlife. January 2015. Accessed November 9, 2019.
  52. Idyll Bay Isle’s 8th Anniversary – Accessed November 6, 2019.
  53. Infiltration. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  54. Interview: Matt Sonswa – Discovery Island Explorer. Park Pass. January 2018. Accessed November 5, 2019.
  55. Island Photos – Jamie Ann Corporon. Accessed November 6, 2019.
  56. Jamie Sincage – Pages from the memory album put together for Mary… Accessed November 6, 2019.
  57. List of amusement park rankings. In: Wikipedia. ; 2019. Accessed November 6, 2019.
  58. Listen to the The BSF Podcast Episode – Episode 2 – Matt’s Discovery Island Stories on iHeartRadio | iHeartRadio. Accessed November 11, 2019.
  59. Loving the Outdoors the Disney Way – A Look Back at Discovery Island. Accessed November 10, 2019.
  60. Map of Walt Disney World Resort – Accessed November 6, 2019.
  61. MattSonswa. YouTube. Accessed November 10, 2019.
  62. Myst Book Toll (in Homage to one of my favorite games) by CosmicEmbers. Freesound. Accessed November 11, 2019.
  63. Only one man has been back to Disney World’s secret abandoned island. This is what he saw. The Plaid Zebra. October 2015. Accessed November 8, 2019.
  64. ORLANDO’S “RADIO NICK” EARNED NAME, FAME IN EARLY DAYS OF RADIO – Orlando Sentinel. Accessed November 6, 2019.
  65. r/disneyparks – That is Discovery Island. I noticed that there are lights on it. I have two questions. Is this new? And also is there a sub dedicated to Disney abandoned stuff? Thanks. reddit. Accessed November 10, 2019.
  66. r/todayilearned – TIL that Disney World has not one, but TWO abandoned parks. reddit. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  67. Radio Nick grows limes in Florida – Accessed November 6, 2019.
  68. Rebecca Justice – Look at the neat trick! Accessed November 6, 2019.
  69. Spending The Night on Disney’s Discovery Island – Abandoned 2018. Accessed November 10, 2019.
  70. Kendall C. The “Lost” Disney Island That Could Have Changed Today’s Disney Vacation Experience. August 2017. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  71. Finnie S. The Disneylands That Never Were.; 2006.
  72. The Final Day of Disney’s Discovery Island. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  73. Leibacher H. The History of Bay Lake’s Discovery Island – World Of Walt. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  74. gulopine. The Pre-Disney History of Discovery Island. RetroWDW. Published August 8, 2019. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  75. Kubersky S. The shadowy world of Orlando’s theme park urban explorers: Are they legends or are they idiots? Orlando Weekly. Accessed November 10, 2019.
  76. Transportation and Ticket Center. Published August 25, 2017. Accessed November 3, 2019.
  77. Treasure Island / Discovery Island: A Look Back | The DIS Unplugged Disney Podcast. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  78. Treasure Island aka Discovery Island History – Theme Park Archives. AllEarsNet. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  79. Vanished World of Disney 7 – Discovery Island. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  80. Gerdes T. Walt Disney World’s Treasure Island Map.; 2007. Accessed November 3, 2019.
  81. WDW TBT – Discovery Island. I’m A Grown-Up Disney Kid. Accessed November 5, 2019.
  82. Widen Your World – Treasure Island / Discovery Island. Published September 14, 2005. Accessed November 3, 2019.
  83. Bergman C. Wild Echoes: Encounters with the Most Endangered Animals in North America. University of Illinois Press; 2003.
  84. Will Discovery Island ever be turned into something? WDWMAGIC – Unofficial Walt Disney World discussion forums. Accessed November 10, 2019.
  85. Yet Another Disney Blog: WDW Memories – Discovery Island. Accessed November 4, 2019.

Disclaimers: All text is copyright The Abandoned Carousel. Personal images from The Abandoned Carousel are licensed for you to use under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike 4.0 license. Images from others are used under license as noted in the image captions. When you click links to purchase products, TAC may earn a portion back from that purchase. Thanks in advance for your support!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.