Walt Disney and the Tale of Shipwreck Island at Walt Disney World

Walt Disney and the Tale of Shipwreck Island

Walt Disney’s Exploration Misadventure Turned into a Walt Disney World Tale for the Ages

Do you know the story of Shipwreck Island at Walt Disney World?

As an original Walt Disney World traveler, I have heard many stories from Cast Members and historians over the years — many about the pre-opening days of Walt Disney World. Sometimes, such as with this tale, the stories involve Walt Disney himself.

These tales are part of the enchanting history of Walt Disney World Resort and the story of Shipwreck Island is one of my personal favorites.

Shipwreck Island at Walt Disney World

Shipwreck Island at Walt Disney World is seen here from the monorail. It is on the left in the photo.

Bay Lake was a pre-existing body of water, but it was still a very wild place

The story of Walt Disney and Shipwreck Island is a legend in Disney history. It goes like this…

The eastern tip of Shipwreck Island, Bay Lake.

The eastern tip of Shipwreck Island, Bay Lake, Walt Disney World.

In the very early days of the Walt Disney World property (back in the 1960s), much of the land was barely-inhabited Florida swampland. There are many great accounts of the work that Disney Imagineers did to turn otherwise unusable land into what became Walt Disney World. But before that even happened, Walt Disney himself was personally involved in scouting locations for the vision that he had for creating his new Magic Kingdom.

Shipwreck Island is not often named on maps.

Shipwreck Island is not often named on maps.

Shipwreck Island is located at the western most point of Bay Lake — in the waterway between Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Wilderness Lodge. How the island got its name is the topic of this piece of Disney history.

Shipwreck Island on the right, as seen from the dock at Disney's Wilderness Lodge.

Shipwreck Island as seen from the dock at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge.

How Shipwreck Island on Bay Lake got its name

As the story goes, one day Walt Disney was out scouting the Bay Lake area by boat. Bay Lake was a pre-existing body of water, but Seven Seas Lagoon next door was basically swampland that would later be dredged to become the body of water we know today. As a side note, the beautiful white sand that you see on the beaches of Magic Kingdom Resort Hotels was found at the bottom of Seven Seas Lagoon as it was being dredged.

But I digress…

Disney boat passing Shipwreck Island.

A Disney boat on its way to Wilderness Lodge passes by southern shoreline Shipwreck Island, on the right.

Stranded

One day, Walt ventured out in a boat by himself to look around Bay Lake and he ended up stopping and parking his boat on the shores of this island (yet unnamed) to take a look around.

South western tip of Shipwreck Island.

The south western tip of Shipwreck Island on Bay Lake at Walt Disney World.

Later that day — many hours later — others noticed that Walt Disney was missing. With no cell phones or long range walkie talkies on hand, Walt Disney had no way to call for help. Imagine being stuck on a mosquito infested island in the Florida heat — in alligator rich waters — with no way of getting off or letting anyone know. Presumably, Walt was also without oars or a paddle.

When you think of it in current terms, it might be easy to say “why didn’t Walt just swim across the channel on either side?” When you look at it from today’s standards — with Disney’s Wilderness Lodge and Contemporary Resort within a stone’s throw — that seems like an easy way out. But it’s pretty safe to say that back in the 1960s, this entire area was thick Florida swampy woods, with the prospect of gators approaching at any moment. Jumping from the flame to the fire was probably not something that Walt had any inclination to do. And so he stayed put…waiting.

With Walt Disney missing somewhere in the Florida swamplands of Bay Lake, a frantic search began to find where Walt may have gone.

Finally, the search party located Walt’s boat and found Walt Disney, who had become stranded on the island after his boat motor wouldn’t start when he wanted to leave. Walt and his boat were rescued and from that point onward the island became known as Shipwreck Island, after Walt’s unfortunate exploration misadventure.

Shipwreck on Disney's Discovery Island in 1980.

I believe that this shipwreck on Disney’s Discovery Island was a nod to Walt’s adventure on Shipwreck Island. I took this photo in 1980 — you can River Country in the background.

I often wonder if the shipwreck that once graced the shores of nearby Treasure Island (aka Discovery Island) was placed there by Disney Imagineers as a nod to this Walt Disney story.

Today, Shipwreck Island remains an unused and uninhabited place. But next time you pass by, imagine what is must have been like to be stranded there in what was then the deep wilderness of the Florida swamplands.

The southern shore of Walt Disney World's Shipwreck Island.

The southern shore of Walt Disney World’s Shipwreck Island.

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Mike Belobradic: The Finer Side of Disney Travel
Luxury Travel Blogger – Deluxe Disney Travel Specialist
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