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Will pirates soon be returning to Treasure ... er ... Discovery Island?

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Will pirates soon be returning to Treasure ... er ... Discovery Island?

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Christy S. writes in to say:


When I was a little girl, my father and I flew down to Walt Disney World. This was just a year or so after the resort opened and I distinctly remember taking a boat ride with my father out to some island. Once we got there, these pirates led us on a treasure hunt which ended with a marshmallow roast on the beach.

I have such clear memories of that day. But whenever I mention this experience to other people who've been to WDW, they look at me as if I've got two heads. They insist that Disney World never ever had an attraction like that. That I must have dreamed the whole thing up.

My father's been dead for over 20 years now. So I can't really ask him if we went on a treasure hunt with some pirates the first time that our family vacationed at Walt Disney World. So I was hoping that you could clear up this mystery for me, Jim. Did Disney World ever have an attraction like this? And if so, what was it called?


Christy S.

You're talking about Treasure Island. The original incarnation of WDW's Discovery Island. That 11 1/2 acre wilderness preserve that the Mouse used to maintain out in the middle of Bay Lake.

Copyright 1974 Walt Disney Productions.
All Rights Reserved

Very early on in the development of Walt Disney World, WED had wanted to turn what was then known as Raz Island into one of the resort's real highpoints. Of spending millions of dollars to turn this overgrown hunk of land into ... Well, Tom Sawyer Island on steroids.

Mind you, for a while there in the late 1960s, the Imagineers couldn't agree on a name for this project. So -- for a time -- Raz Island was redubbed Blackbeard's Island (in honor of the studio's 1967 release ). But once the wizards of WED realized that that Peter Ustinov comedy didn't really provide enough creative fodder for a project that was as ambitious as this, they opted instead to rename Raz after Walt Disney Productions' 1950 release, "Treasure Island."

And if all had gone according to plan, "Treasure Island" was to have featured a dozen or more elaborate recreations of the settings from that Robert Louis Stevenson tale. Among them:

  • Ben Gunn's Cave: Which -- according to the "Future Attractions" portion of the very first Treasure Island map that Disney World printed for the resort's visitors -- was to have been "As mysterious as the strange hermit himself. Its exact location is unknown even today ... But we know it's someplace on the island."

  • The Blockhouse: Site of the battle for the treasure map. "Though fully armed ... we were still out-numbered by Long John Silver's buccaneers."

  • Spy Glass Hill: A fantastic group of rocks at the heart of the island. In this primeval playground, you'll discover the secrets of this treasure isle.

Unfortunately, given the enormous cost involved in turning Raz Island into Treasure Island (i.e. the construction crew had to move 15,000 cubic yards of sandy soil and 1,000 tons of boulders & trees by boat out the island in order to turn Raz into a tropical paradise), the pirate theming kept getting cut back. Until -- in the end -- all that was built was the Wreck of the Hispaniola. Which was located on the Northeastern side of the island.

Copyright 1974 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

And as it turned out, adding pirate theming to what was -- in essence -- a bird sanctuary proved to be problematic. Veteran Imagineer Leota Toombs used to tell the story about that plastic pirate skeleton that was part of the decor inside of Treasure Island's buzzard aviary. One morning not too long after the island first opened to the public, the curators arrived to find ... Well, buzzards being buzzards, they thought the skeleton that was in their cage was real. More importantly, that it was a potential food source. So -- overnight -- they pulled apart that pirate and scattered his plastic pieces all over their cage.

Realizing that this looked a little grisly (More importantly, out of concern that -- if the buzzards continued to pick at the bones of this broken buccaneer -- that they then might accidentally ingest some plastic), the curators quickly cleared this faux corpse out of Treasure Island's vulture enclosure.

Anyway ... Getting back to your pirate treasure hunt question. For a short while there, Disney World officials did try and make Treasure Island's pirate theme work. Which is why -- in an effort to boost attendance levels -- they began offering special excursions to guests who were staying at the Contemporary & the Polynesian Resorts. Cast members dressed as pirates would take small groups over to Treasure Island in the late afternoon. Where -- after giving these guests a treasure map that would lead them through most of the island's aviaries in search of clues -- the group would then regroup down on the beach at sunset. Where (just as Christy remembered) they'd roast marshmallows and sing sea shanties before these guests then had to reboard their boat and head back to their respective resort.

Unfortunately, given Treasure Island's short operational hours (Due to the fact that all of the animals on display first had to fed and their cages cleaned before any guests could be allowed on the island, Treasure Island was typically only open to the public from 12 Noon to 6 p.m. ), it just didn't make any sense to Mouse House managers to spend any more on pirate theming to the island. If anything, these folks felt that they should cut back on the Yo-Ho-Ho and look for new ways to make dough-dough-dough.

Which is why -- in January of 1976 -- Treasure Island went down for retooling. And when the isle re-opened to WDW guests in April of that year, it had a brand-new name (i.e. Discovery Island) as well as a snack bar.

Copyright 1976 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

And for the next 23 years, Discovery Island remained open. But was it never quite as popular (more importantly, as profitable) as the company would have liked. Which is why -- when Animal Kingdom opened in April of 1998 -- Disney used that as an excuse to begin shifting most of the island's animals and exhibits over to that theme park.

And ever since Discovery Island was officially closed off to visits from WDW guests (That happened on April 8, 1999), the Imagineers have been wondering what they should do with this piece of property. Among the ideas that have been floated over the past 9 years was building a set of exclusive honeymoon cottages on the island. There's also been some pretty serious talk of turning this remote corner of Disney World into an elaborate interactive gaming environment. Some place that would allow tourists to explore the worlds of "Myst" or ABC's "Lost."

Of course, what's kind of ironic about all this is -- just recently -- WDW Entertainment supposedly considered a new concept for Treasure / Discovery Island. One that comes full circle (sort of) to what Christy experienced in the early 1970s. In that WDW visitors would once again take a boat out to that island, where they'd then have a pirate-themed adventure which would involve a food component.

Only this time around, the rogue that resort guests would be dealing with wouldn't be Peter Ustinov's Blackbeard and/or "Treasure Island" 's Long John Silver. But -- rather -- Captain Jack Sparrow of "Pirates of the Caribbean" fame.

Mind you, we're talking about a project that's allegedly only in the discussion phase at this point. More to the point, this would be a very exclusive experience. One that would (in theory) have such a high price point that WDW Entertainment (in conjunction with Food & Beverage) is reportedly only considering offering this Discovery Island outing to corporate groups. To be specific, companies that are willing to pay big bucks for something truly special the next time they hold a convention on property.

But isn't it funny how things works at the Mouse House? How a concept that was thought to be a failure back into the 1970s can now be revived in 2008 and possibly become a new income source for the Walt Disney Company?

Copyright 2007 Walt Disney Pictures / Jerry Bruckheimer Films.
All Rights Reserved

Which begs the question: How much would you be willing to pay to travel out to Treasure / Discovery Island, where you could then knock back a few rum drinks with a Johnny Depp lookalike?

Your thoughts?

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  • That's cool that Christy actually visited when it was a pirate adventure.  My family used to love going over when it was Discovery Island, and it would be fun to see it open again.

  • I have to say, the idea of turning Discovery Island into "the Island" from Lost sounds more exciting, unique, and profitable.

  • It depends on what kind of experience Disney is offering. I agree with dravanos that a "Lost" theme would be more interesting, but how long can they keep that going after the show has ended? Pirates of the Caribbean has more "staying power," and a bigger fan base. The Imagineers could take some of the cool elements of Pirate's Lair at Tom Sawyer's Island in Anaheim and make it 20 times better.

    Speaking of, what's going on with the second phase of Pirate's Lair at Tom Sawyer's Island?

  • Sounds like Christy got to experience something pretty unique with her dad. Sounds like a lot of fun!

    And I'm still sad that Myst Island never happened. I'm a huge Myst fan, and the chance to actually run around the island itself would have been sensory overload.

    I also hope (if this Pirate Island project happens) that it isn't made too exclusive. I'd definitely want to do something like this. I wonder what the theoretical capacity for this would be? Like, maybe the size of something like the Backyard BBQ?

  • How much would this experience be worth? If they really get to work at WDI and build a themed environment that would carry an afternoon and evening, I would be open to paying upwards of $250/head. Of course, I believe this should include a complete storyline that is followed through caves, exhibits, a treehouse, ship, etc. - adn that it should be complex enough to challenge adults while still being enjoyable to younger folks. The evening should end with a meal served at a Tortuga-style venue that could - and should - be duplicated in Adventureland. I agree that a Lost theme would be great also, but has limited appeal now compared to the Pirates franchise and will only decrease in value over the years.

  • HorizonsFan's post sounds exactly like "Night Kingdom."  Anyway, doesnt Jim's posted today blatantly contradict with his post of less than a month ago:  


    where he states that Disney isnt even willing to shell out money a Tortuga themed restaurant for Adventureland let alone the money for a new Elizabeth Swann audioanimatronic for POTC?  What about the lack of interest guests have shown in a $45 per person Pirate and Princess Party ticket?  I can't imagine that management/entertainment/F&B would spend the millions necessary for something on this scale with the existing infrastructure already in place right over in the Magic Kingdom.

  • Pudge took the words right out of my mouth. 30 days ago they're "over" Pirates and now they're going to turn an entire island into a Pirates island?

    Uh ... okay, Jim ... I'm sure they'll get around to it immediately after "Night Kingdom" opens ........ riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight ...

  • The Pirate and Princess parties are failing because they really don't offer much more than an extra few hours in the Magic Kingdom with a different parade and different fireworks. This sounds like a very different and much more intimate experience with much more opportunity to interact with characters.

  • When parasailing over Bay Lake, the island does still look pretty nice from up there.

    Mind you, the remnants of River Country, not so much.  Given the condition of other now unused sites from the 70s, like the old airport runway, I wonder just how bad the buildings on Discovery Island have gotten in their years of disuse.

    For a while, as a bird sanctuary, there was one bird species where those living on the island were the last anyone knew of.  The last one died in '87, according to Wikipedia.

  • I don't think POTC is completely off the drawing board as long as there is still talk of sequels. I'm hoping for Pirate Dinosaur Island myself. :)

  • The bird was the Dusky Seaside Sparrow. The remaining birds were brought to Discovery Island and lived in a special habitat. I remember seeing them when I was a kid.

  • I thought that island was protected by both the Sierra Club (because of a family of Eagles supposedly taking nest their) as well as Florida's Natural Wildlife something-or-other...

    The most recent rumor was that Disney would have to leap through too many hoops and cut through too much red tape to develop on their own property.  However, they ARE reopening the TreeHouse Villas and that was allegedly protected land as well.


  • I think Disney would be foolish not to do more with the pirates theme. "Pirates of the Caribbean" is not just a movie franchise, it's a Disney-created property, not based on any book or anyone else's concept. It's part of the original Walt Disney legacy. I think a Pirate Island replacing Tom Sawyer is perfectly fine. Walt always moved with the times.

  • I'd pay $200-300 per person easily for an experience like that. My wife would pay more lol.

  • I think converting River Country into a Pirate Theme water park and then Discovery Island become Pirate of the Caribbean theme island would be perfect.  Pirates themes have been around for a long time and I think they will never get old or dry up

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