Once upon a time, a ship washed ashore a tropical paradise known as Treasure Island. No, I’m not talking about adventurous tale told by Robert Louis Stevenson. I’m looking out across Bay Lake to the wildlife, and particularly bird, sanctuary that was created in Walt Disney World during the early part of the 1970s. That doesn’t mean that the two stories don’t intersect, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Treasure Island was an 11 and a half acre island sitting in the middle of Bay Lake. Though the island had names before Disney came to Florida, and would have others after, Treasure Island was the name it was given when the attraction opened in April of 1974. This sanctuary, while not as grand as Disney’s Animal Kingdom, was the company’s first foray into introducing guests to living and breathing exotic animals and plants. Its latter name, Discovery Island, would even be utilized at Disney’s Animal Kingdom after the island closed.
As stated above, birds were the primary focus of the island. In fact, when Treasure Island opened it had over 200 exotic birds that called the island home. Given the climate of central Florida, the birds were from tropical regions the world over. Though it was worth mentioning and repeating that the birds were not tame or trained, and so it was best for guests to not handle or try to feed the birds. Or, as one guide referenced, it was unwise to ask the birds for directions. Of the 200 species of birds, many lived in Smuggler’s Roost, which in 1974 was one of the largest aviaries in the world, but other areas such as Buccaneers’ Roost or the Mizzen Mast also made the birds at home. Everything from Blue Peafowl, to the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, Vulturine Guineafowl, four types of cranes, two species of flamingo, macaws, cockatoos, barn owls, and even a Southern Bald Eagle (on loan from the Department of the Interior) resided in some corner of the island. And that’s not even a complete list of the birds who called Treasure Island home.
To make these feathered friends feel more at home, tropical plants from many of their homelands were relocated to Treasure Island. From East India could be found giant stands of bamboo, while passion flowers from South America, Indian orchids, and gardenias from China added fragrance to the environment. In addition to the beautiful sites and scents, plants such as banana trees and palms filled in the gaps, created canopies and nooks, and became nesting grounds for the island’s residents.
Treasure Island was a tropical paradise that could have been plucked from any tale of buccaneers and buried gold. There were plenty of references to the island’s namesake story and pirate legends. Characters and locations from Stevenson’s Treasure Island were given their due throughout the sanctuary, such as Black Dog Bridge, Jim Hawkins’ Crow’s Nest, Skeleton Island, Cape of the Woods, North Inlet, or Cap’n Flint’s Perch to name a few. The Jolly Roger, the black flag with a skull and crossbones, even flew above the Jolly Rodge Wharf (clever name, huh?) where guests docked at the island’s entrance.
If you have been around the Main Street Gazette for any length of time, you know how much joy I take in the names given to people and places, the backstories that populate the worlds created by Imagineers. That holds true for Treasure Island, but perhaps more heart-warming to me in the case of this old island, were the quotes of Treasure Island itself placed upon this map. One from Stevenson, as the narrator of Treasure Island, and another from the marooned, and certainly a bit mad, sailor, Ben Gunn.
To this day, the remains of the Walrus, Captain Flint’s one-time ship, still sit upon the shores of Treasure Island. The island would be renamed Discovery Island in 1977 and close for good in 1999, 25 years after the first guest stepped ashore. The sanctuary’s winged residents have long since been given other homes, but local birds have taken over the island as their only personal haven. Although guests can no longer visit the pirate’s lair and tropical paradise, Treasure Island’s place in the annals of Walt Disney World history is well established. And who knows, perhaps one day pirates will return to this island in the middle of Bay Lake. Until then, the treasure of the island's tale is, as Ben Gunn put it, "'Tis for you to find, sez I!"