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Mysterious Places: Journey to Discovery Island

When one thinks of eerie places to explore, Disneyworld doesn’t top the list…but perhaps it should.

The Magic Kingdom has abandoned a number of theme parks, perhaps most famously in Japan, where the Nara Dreamland languished after squabbles over licensing fees relinquished it to a pale imitation of the “real thing.” After Toyko Disneyland opened, a death knell sounded for the park, which was abandoned and later demolished.

However, there are still two semi-accessible abandoned Disneyworld parks right in the United States that are plenty creepy.

Florida’s Discovery Island was originally intended as a wildlife preserve and a breeding ground and sanctuary for rare birds. It appears many of the birds opted to stay behind after the park closed in 1999. Shane Perez, a brave explorer and a man after my own heart, managed to find a way to sneak onto the abandoned sanctuary in the early 2000’s.

Discovery Island by The Sun

Looks like a nice place for a stroll, no? Photo credit: The Sun

 

As Perez writes in his blog, “Almost immediately, we realized we were not alone on this island. We could hear all sorts of noises in the trees surrounding us. We were literally surrounded by what sounded like thousands of birds. We could hear them cawing and cooing in all directions; some sounded almost like people speaking. With every branch we stepped on that made a snap, a group of birds would be startled and take off all at once, making even more noise.”

Birds aren’t frightening to most of us in the light of day, but they can make an abandoned island even creepier, as I learned on Poveglia, where a startled pigeon almost gave me a heart attack.

What We Leave Behind

Adding to the feeling that they were visiting an amusement park after the end of the world were all the objects left behind, which included dozens of photographs and a collection of snakes preserved in various containers, including a Coke bottle. One wonders what Disney had intended to do with those.

While the main docks were still well lit, adding to the eeriness, the interior paths plunged Perez and his friends into darkness. Thankfully, they’d come prepared, bringing small red lights to guide their exploration (and minimize their chances of security guards spotting them). Though they’d expected a spooky experience, one thing they hadn’t expected was that they’d be risking their lives during the swim through Bay Lake to the island.

Perez talks about making their way around an “abandoned water park,” which was River Country, Disney’s first waterpark. When it opened in 1976, it created quite a stir because it was more natural than the obviously manmade attractions so common today. Hearkening back to Twain’s tales of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, it was designed to resemble an old-fashioned swimming hole. Featuring a chemical-free water filtration system, it had pools with sand floors instead of concrete. The attractions included a manmade lake, rope swings, 16-foot water slides, flume slides, and an inner-tube river ride.

River Country by Seph Lawless

River Country: home to alligators and brain-eating amoebas. Photo credit: Seph Lawless

But there’s a little problem with chemical-free water attractions in Florida–namely, alligators. Rumor has it that the manmade lake now has plenty of them, along with a brain-eating amoeba known as Naegleria fowleri. After an 11-year-old boy died from the amoeba he’d acquired at River Country, the waterpark was permanently closed. (Three other boys died from the same affliction that summer, but only one was connected to the park.)

Thankfully, Perez and his friends managed to make it home unscathed, but another man was not so lucky. Forty-two-year-old Richard McGuire was arrested during the height of 2020’s coronavirus lockdown for setting up camp on the island. Abandoned or not, it’s still private property. Proceed at your own risk.

Would you be brave enough to visit Disneyworld’s abandoned theme parks? What is the spookiest place you’ve ever explored?

Thanks to courageous explorers Shane Perez and Seph Lawless for sharing their experiences. All photos by Seph Lawless unless otherwise indicated.

If you think these places are creepy, how about an abandoned asylum?

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19 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I have a collection of abandoned places in my Pinterest account, including many from Discovery Island. Abandoned theme parks are just so surreal. They’re also really sad. It doesn’t sound like Disney can really do anything with the place now.

    Reply
    • JH

      The most recent article I’d read said they were turning it into a resort, but I don’t see how that would work. Talk about a missed opportunity! Hire a few brave guides and security guards, and open the place up to adults at night as a haunted attraction. Make people sign a waiver form and have the place be “at your own risk.”

      They’d probably make quite a bit of money.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Thanks for sharing about this! I’m going to try and check out his whole blog post.

    Reply
    • JH

      Glad you enjoyed it, Randee. His post is definitely worth a read, especially with this damn virus putting a gigantic crimp in our real-life exploring.

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    What kind of birds are on the Island? Does he say? Anything unusual? I’m fascinated. Of course, I’m still thrilled when Baltimore Orioles come to the feeder, so I’m easily entertained when it comes to our feathered friends.

    Reply
    • JH

      The birds he mentioned prominently were two baby vultures that were in the staff area. Though they were babies, they were quite aggressive, and hissed and lunged at his group until they moved on.

      I suspect it was too dark to get a good look at anything else.

      I love birds too! I’m excited by chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, red-winged blackbirds, woodpeckers, goldfinches–you name it. I love watching them.

      Reply
  4. Avatar

    I wouldn’t want to visit any of Disneylands theme parks, abandoned or not! As for spooky places I’ve visited haven’t found any yet worth a mention! Having said that, not been to Poveglia yet!!!

    Reply
    • JH

      Seriously, Jim? Isn’t almost everything haunted in the U.K.?

      I don’t expect to convince you, but Disneyland is actually a pretty fun time. The worst part is waiting in line.

      Reply
  5. Avatar

    I love abandoned places. I’ve had one urbexing adventure myself and would love to have more!

    Reply
    • JH

      Argh! Don’t leave me in suspense, Samantha! Details, please. Where? When?

      Reply
  6. Avatar

    I had no idea Disney had 2 abandoned in the States. I would find that pretty cool to visit but i would never ever get into the water. Alligators and brain eating jellyfish sound like something out of a 1950s horror movie. The eeriest place was when my ex and I were in Prague and we went downstairs, in a museum, to see the original stones holding up St. Charles Bridge. It felt eerie and I wanted to go back up the stairs but my hubby told me someone is coming down so I got off the stairs. I saw a shadow and we heard the footsteps but…nothing. we went up and no one was around. It was a very, very small museum and no one fitting the description of the man’s shoes and black dress-a priest, came in or out. Needless to say we were freaked

    Reply
    • JH

      Oh, that’s super creepy, Birgit! You just gave me goosebumps. Thanks for sharing that story.

      I had something similar happen to me at a museum where I used to work. Heard footsteps, felt someone coming up behind me, but no one was there. And there was absolutely no way they could have gotten out of the gallery without my seeing them. The museum was closed at the time.

      Reply
  7. Avatar

    Modern day explorers! Having encountered multiple alligators on our recent visit to Florida, I’ll pass on swimming through infested waters. So many things are abandoned these days. From buildings to work sites to amusement parks, apparently. I find it sad that so dreams failed and resources were wasted.

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s true. I never thought about the sadness of it all. I just wanted to explore them for the creepy thrills. 😀

      Reply
  8. Avatar

    I’m not very good at being a rule or law-breaker, but man… some of these abandoned places make me want to risk it. There’s just something about abandoned places that have always called out to me. When I was younger, I’d go exploring in woods and the highlight was always stumbling across an abandoned barn, shed, house, or other such structure. Is it weird that something about abandoned, end-of-the-world looking locations speaks to my soul?

    Reply
    • JH

      Right? Except for the brain-eating aspect…

      Reply
  9. Avatar

    I have a morbid fascination with abandoned theme parks. It was spurred by a story idea, saving photos I found on Pinterest, and an active imagination. I’d like to visit the park, or explore other abandoned parks, but not stay overnight.

    Reply
    • JH

      That sounds like a good compromise. They are fascinating. I love how nature slowly reclaims abandoned buildings.

      Reply

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