The Exciting Real History Behind Disney's Castaway Cay
by, 09-16-2011 at 10:29 AM
Last January, I was lucky enough to take a preview cruise on the Disney Dream. It was my first cruise ever, so it was quite an experience for me all around. Sure, the weather here in New Jersey may be getting to be a bit on the chilly side now that the summer is over, but I'm still imagining myself sitting on a private island in the Bahamas with a drink in my hand...months after the fact!
This week's topic ties directly into that. It's an amazing story of pirates, smuggling, and adventure on the high seas! Sounds just like a live action Disney film, doesn't it? However, you will be surprised to learn that it's actually the history behind Disney's own private island, Castaway Cay!
You see, Disney didn't ALWAYS own this tropical paradise located in the Bahamas. In fact, most of the world didn't even know the island even existed before 1950. So what was this place before Disney magic turned it into a castaway's dream? Well, that, my friends, is where the truth is almost certainly more interesting than fiction! But be warned, travelers…these waters weren't always as safe as they seem!
Though it has never been completely confirmed, it is rumored that pirates frequented the island in the early 1700s. The island laid just north of a trade route used at that time, so it is entirely possible that many popular pirates who roamed the region during that time period, such as Blackbeard and Anne Bonney, may have come across it in their travels. With its numerous hidden alcoves, it would provide a perfect hiding spot for pirates to camp out and wait for passing ships.
To lead credence to this theory, two treasure hunters from Nassau came across a few objects of interest just off the shoals of the island in the 1950s; three coins and a 72 pound silver ingot. Markings from these items showed that they belonged to Spain’s King Philip IV. These treasures seemingly came from the San Pedro, a Spanish Galleon hauling treasure back to its king that was sunk in 1733.
More recently, the island was known as Gorda Cay. Unlike most of the other islands in the region, which are narrow and long, Gorda Cay was round and built up behind the exposed reef, rather than on top of it. This provided about 1000 acres of pure paradise. Farmers from Abaco, part of the mainland seven miles away, would come to the island for part of the year because the soil was fertile and relatively rock free. They leased their land from the Bahamian government, and lived in a tiny village along the beach on the Cay’s southern side.
It was also used as a refuge for fishermen caught in bad weather. The shores provided a nice place for them to wait out a storm on many occasions. These fishermen sometimes came back with their families in nicer weather for picnics on the picturesque beaches.
In the 1960s, Alvin Tucker flew over the island with a real estate agent from Nassau. He asked to circle the island a few times, and before the plane even landed, he bought 150 acres of it. Alvin was a businessman, and loved investing in tropical locales, and Gorda Cay was one of his first of many purchases in the Bahamas.
The only way to get to the island in those days was by boat, so Alvin planned to clear land for a runway for easier accessibility. He’s the one responsible for the 2400 foot runway that still exists today. Though it’s no longer in use for its original purpose, it now serves as a bike and tram path to Serenity Bay, the “adults only” area of Castaway Cay.
As time went on, though, this tropical hideaway seemed to be too good for others to pass up for nefarious purposes yet again. Alvin heard rumors that his private airstrip was being used by drug smugglers to bring narcotics into Florida. Even when he tried to put a stop to it, it was to no avail…the police were supposedly in on it as well! Alvin began to visit less and less, and eventually sold his land to a private company.
By the 1980s, Gorda Cay was becoming a bit notorious for its dealings. Various newspapers reported that people who once owned parts of the island were no longer welcome, and were being chased away by men with large guns and even larger Dobermans. Residents claimed that they saw up to six planes a day landing on the airstrip.
This dark time in the island’s history can be attributed to Frank Barber, an American who lived in Florida. He was secretly using the runway himself for years to smuggle drugs into the country, and turned out to be behind the “private company” that Alvin Tucker sold his land too. Now that the island was largely his own, he began to operate his own little drug empire exclusively on the island.
Aside from his own illegal activities, Barber rented out the airstrip to other smugglers looking to bring their goods into the country. But if you were unfortunate enough to not make arrangements with him before hand, Barber’s associates would be more then happy to take your products off your hands for you…by gunpoint!
On a slightly more legal side of things, Barber also had plans to turn part of the island into a resort for tourists. He got as far as building a large hanger besides the airstrip before he was caught for his misdeeds. In 1983, there was a bust on the island involving $100 million dollars worth of cocaine. Just a few days later, Barber went to jail for it. He was sentenced to five years, but died in prison before he could serve his time. Activity on the island continued even after Barber's imprisonment. It was rumored that, despite being behind bars, Barber was still in control! After his death, however, the bustle began to slow down to nothing.
Some years later, Disney bought the island to turn into a private getaway for their cruise guests. It took some 18 months and about $25 million dollars for them to develop it into Castaway Cay. This included dredging sand from the Atlantic Ocean to expand the beaches and building a pier so guests wouldn’t have to use tenders to get back and forth from the cruise ship. Interestingly enough, even with all that work and money poured into it, only about 55 acres of the 1000 acre island are used. The island opened for business for the first time on July 30, 1998.
Much like everything else at Disney, a whole back story was created for Castaway Cay. Despite the island’s already rich history, the Disney version is a little more wholesome! You can read all about it here: http://www.bamferproductions.com/leg...astawaycay.pdf
Nowadays, the island's only inhabitants are the 70 or so Disney employees, including custodians, boat captains, drivers, landscapers, and maintenance personnel. Most of the cruise ship's cast members come onto the island when the ship is docked to help round out the rest of the staff.
So there you have it folks…the secret history of Disney’s own private getaway. Not exactly what you expected, huh? To be honest with you, me either! However, it's interesting to see how Disney can take something with a seedy past and turn it into a major tourist destination! But next time you're on Castaway Cay, you'll be able to marvel your friends with the true story behind its beginnings!
CASTAWAY CAY FAST FACTS!
- It's pronounced "key" and not "cay," as it is often mistakenly called.
- For you coordinate geeks out there, Castaway Cay is located at 26¡04'608N 77¡32'283"W.
- The island is 3 miles long and consists of 1000 acres, only 55 of which are developed.
- Just like the mailboxes at the Magic Kingdom will mark your postcards with a Walt Disney World postmark, a Bahamian post office on the island will stamp your mail with a Castaway Cay one.
- Before purchasing the island, Disney filmed a part of their hit movie "Splash" there. The beach where Tom Hanks first encounters Daryl Hannah's mermaid character is located on the island.
- Castaway Air Bar was built to resemble a tin hangar as a tribute to the nearby runway.
- Native Bahamians will commute via boat to the island to sell locally made goods in one of the shops.
- Out of view of guests are a sewage treatment plant and two facilities that turn sea water into fresh water.
- A Nautilus sub from the old 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea ride at the Magic Kingdom has been sunk off the beach. You can see it while snorkeling.
- There is a Gumbo Limbo, a type of tree, that Disney planted on the island, which Cast Members call 'the tourist tree' because its red, peeling bark resembles a sunburnt tourist.
by Jeff Heimbuch
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