Once upon a time, the Walt Disney World company purchased an island in Bay Lake, Florida. The suits at Disney then turned the patch of land into a wildlife park – a place where visitors could marvel at animals in their natural habitat. But in 1999 the island closed suddenly, meaning it was left to be reclaimed by nature… and scouted out by devil-may-care types. Yes, over the years urban explorers have ventured there – and they’ve been astounded by what the place has become.
Disney bought the island back in 1965, before the Walt Disney World Resort was built. They opened it in 1974 under the name “Treasure Island.” Later on, they renamed it “Discovery Island.” Both names evoked a sense of fun and adventure. Who doesn’t love an island?
Disney perfectly understands the allure of a mysterious island. Their first entirely live-action movie was Treasure Island in 1950 – presumably this was the reasoning behind the initial name of the zoo attraction. However, as time went on they would realize the allure was maybe too great.
Things went well for Discovery Island at first. It was accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, so visitors could rest assured that the animals were treated well. Disney began raising birds, tortoises and other animals on the island. At one point the island was home to America’s biggest Scarlet Ibis breeding colony.
Among the other animals kept on the island there were Galápagos tortoises, alligators, flamingos, capuchin monkeys and vultures – just the type of creatures that captivate children. Guests could also enjoy a display from Disney’s trained birds, eat at the restaurant, or browse the gift shops while exploring.
So where did it go wrong for Discovery Island? Well, essentially, it simply became surplus to requirements when Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in 1998. Animal Kingdom was bigger, hosted more creatures and contained the thrill rides that visitors were looking for. After moving the animals to the new park, Discovery Island quietly closed.
There was another rumored reason the island might have closed, and this one involved something the Disney company had absolutely no control over. The lake around Discovery Island contained hidden dangers. Not only was it home to alligators – dangerous creatures completely unlike the relatively docile ones Disney kept on the island – there was also lethal bacteria.
Bay Lake contains Naegleria Fowleri bacteria, a strain so deadly that any human contact with it means almost certain death. Not far from Discovery Island is another closed Disney attraction, River Country, and an 11-year-old boy died there due to the amoeba while the park was still in operation in 1980.
However, it wasn’t the death which led to River Country being closed – there was nothing Disney could have done. Instead, like Discovery Island before it, the waterpark simply shut down in 2001 due to low attendance and bigger attractions opening. However, the presence of dangerous lifeforms in the water was still a very real threat at Bay Lake.
Yet for some people, the danger was part of the attraction. Urban explorers were desperate to get a look at the closed, abandoned Discovery Island. In 2009, 10 years after the little zoo shut its doors, explorer Shane Perez broke into it. Only later, he wrote on his blog, did he learn about the gators and deadly bacteria in the lake. He tried to dissuade anyone else from attempting to reach the island.
Such was the mystery of Discovery Island that in 2013 a popular horror story began circulating which incorporated elements of the shuttered park. It was called “Abandoned by Disney” or “Mowgli’s Palace.” In the story, the narrator explores a deserted Disney-owned island, overrun with plants and wild animals. Stranger and stranger things begin happening to him and eventually he encounters a living, terrifying photo-negative Mickey Mouse mascot.
The “Abandoned by Disney” tale was, of course, not remotely true, but it fascinated people and brought the Discovery Island story into the limelight. The original author, Slimebeast, a.k.a. Christopher Howard Wolf, wrote on his website beneath his original post, explaining, “I had read about the real abandoned ‘Treasure Island’ resort and decided to make it a location like that instead of the actual Disney World park.”
And inevitably, Perez’s advice about the real dangers of the island went unheeded. In 2017, noted urban explorer and YouTuber Matt Sonswa was inspired by Perez’s blog post to sneak onto the island himself and make a video. Sonswa is well known both to Disney fans and Disney security. As of 2019 he’s been banned from the parks, although that hasn’t stopped him.
In Sonswa’s 2017 video, the state of Discovery Island is laid bare for all to see. Buildings that appeared to once contain office supplies and equipment have been left to rot. Near the beginning of his exploration, Sonswa and his friend Chris find a notice board with paperwork from December 1999 left displayed on it.
It appears that people had left their marks on the island in a number of ways. One old door is marked with a name and the date “10/10/89.” In another area Sonswa finds a whiteboard apparently used by the former zoo staff, as intriguing tidbits such as “Made new leashes for Ed. Raptors,” are written on it.
After that, Sonswa stumbles across something very creepy indeed. In one abandoned building there’s a Diet Coke bottle with what appears to be a preserved snake specimen inside it. Shaun Perez also encountered this during his 2009 trip to the island, and it baffled people.
As one person wrote in the comments of Perez’s piece, “Just noticed the diet coke bottle with the snake in it. How long has coke been using that bottle shape? I don’t think it has been 10 years. That is really weird. Someone has more recently been collecting snakes!” However, someone else commented that the bottle shape was introduced in 1994.
During his exploration, Sonswa encounters Discovery Island’s old animal hospital and island headquarters. In one freezer, there’s a bag of something marked “Flamingos” and “10 Nov 1999.” But the whole container is absolutely filthy, and certainly not been used for a very long time.
Eventually Sonswa and Chris reach a part of the park called the Avian Way, which was once home to some of the island’s birds. Sonswa said, “I wish there were still parrots here,” but of course they’re long gone. The netting that had once kept them on the island, however, remains.
Perhaps the weirdest item Sonswa and Chris find on the island is a plastic tray of shrimp. It appears to be newly opened, and the two urban explorers are baffled. What on earth was it doing there and who had placed it? Understandably creeped out, they decide it’s time to hurry up and leave the island.
Commenters on the video also expressed concern about the shrimp. One person wrote, “I don’t think Matt or Chris put it there because they both seemed genuinely disturbed by the shrimp being found, and I doubt that a bird carried a totally new opened package of shrimp all the way to the island because it would’ve eaten it. So does that mean that people may have been going to the island for a while now and HAVEN’T been documenting/recording it?”
Sonswa actually had an answer for that question. He responded, “We noticed a hunting camera labeled ‘Disney pest control’ pushed up against the wall aimed at the now empty container of shrimp. It’s scary to think me and Chris obliviously walked right in front of this camera multiple times on two separate days.”
Another person suggested that Disney were “planning something for the island and they want to see what may be there that they have to treat for.” They added, “I’d imagine that they would come back and check to see if the food is gone. If so, they would then check the camera to see what ate it.”
One point that was made very clear in Sonswa’s video was that Discovery Island was still a dangerous place. Walkways were littered by fallen trees, some bridges had holes in them after years of weather damage, and at one point the explorers encountered moist mud which they thought might be quicksand.
And yet, the obvious dangers still couldn’t keep people away. In October 2018, a YouTuber called Standard Stealth posted a video called “Spending the Night on Disney’s Discovery Island.” Whereas he had been there before with a friend of his, this time he would explore the island all on his own.
At the beginning of the video Standard Stealth talks himself and the viewers through the surroundings. He says, “I spent the night on Shipwreck Beach. I fell asleep for a little bit. It’s a little spooky out here out at night but either way you know I’m not really a superstitious person.” He then adds,” I didn’t see any negative Mickeys,” a reference to Abandoned by Disney.
There was, however, lots of debris from past urban explorers lying around. At the start of his adventure Standard Stealth found a backpack that contained clothes and Red Bull, and in the vid he quips, “Maybe this is Matt Sonswa’s stuff.” If it was, there was more evidence of Sonswa later on, too: his name on the ruined whiteboard.
In fact, many urban explorers had left their names on the board. And in the comments of the video a user called Florida UrbanExploration wrote, “I forgot all about that white board. Can’t believe my name is still up there after all these years. Good looking out, dude.”
There were plenty of creepy things still on the island. Right at the beginning of the video Standard Stealth finds a selection of “weird animal bones” on the ground. Not long after that he finds dangerous steel wires sticking out, some unfriendly spiders, and of course lots and lots of foliage. Luckily, he brought a machete with him.
Standard Stealth also spots River Country off in the distance. Unlike Discovery Island, River Country’s location had been given a second chance at life by that point. In May 2018 Disney confirmed that they would be building something else over it, a new nature resort called “Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge.”
According to Standard Stealth’s video, most of the pathways through Discovery Island are now covered in vines, including Avian Way. However, the island is not exactly uninhabited. At one point, Standard Stealth spots some vultures hanging out in the trees overhead. He remarks, “Pretty good place for a vulture, I guess you could say.”
In one of the buildings Standard Stealth finds a mysterious item labelled with a “Do not touch” sign. He whispers, “Yeah, I don’t know what this is but it’s weird. It’s a trap? It looks kind of fresh.” So there’s a further pointer to suggest that Disney was doing something, at least, on the island.
As he travels the overgrown island, Standard Stealth talks about the reasons for the zoo’s closure. The opening of the new Animal Kingdom park rang the death knell, of course. But before that, he notes, “I know Disney had some allegations of animal abuse, which is a pretty big deal.”
That sounds as if it could be another rumor, in the vein of the amoeba death story… but it’s true. Despite the accreditations from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, animal abuse allegations have indeed been made against Disney. They were also extremely serious ones.
According to an article published 1989 in the Orlando Sentinel, workers at Discovery Island had “routinely fired a rifle at hawks, beat vultures to death with a stick and destroyed the nests and eggs of ibises and egrets, according to state and federal investigators.” And that wasn’t even all of the accusations.
The Discovery Island workers had apparently kept vultures in cruel, cramped conditions, at one point placing 72 of them in a shed only meant for three. Ultimately, 15 of them died. And a log book uncovered during the case revealed two employees discussing the “fun” of trapping vultures.
Even though these awful events happened a decade before the park actually closed, and there’s no indication any abuse continued at the park after charges were filed, the whole story gives the abandoned Discovery Island an even more sinister air. You might think the vultures are satisfied now that they have free run of the place.
Will Discovery Island ever be brought back to life? That’s the big question. Apparently, before the island deteriorated into its current state, Disney had meetings about turning the area into a mystery-themed “Myst Island” based on the best-selling computer games. But this obviously never came to fruition.
Even so, the fact that urban explorers have discovered cameras and traps implies that Disney is still taking an interest in the island. The new lodge set to be built over the River Country area is scheduled to open in 2022, so it’s possible that Disney will investigate a new use for the adjoining island?
At the moment though, Discovery Island remains a haven for urban explorers (despite the risk of being banned from the whole resort) and a glorious source of inspiration for many. There’s no more deadly bacteria there than there is anywhere else and there’s certainly no murderous Mickey. Nothing is lurking in the overgrown grass. But that being said, Walt Disney might even approve of such imaginings.