Shhhh! It’s a Secret! Secrets of Disney Cruise Line’s Castaway Cay
The island is 3 miles long and consists of 1,000 acres, but only 55 acres are developed. It is located near Great Abaco Island and was formerly known as Gorda Cay.
As with all things Disney, Imagineers create a backstory and history for every attraction, shop or show, and Castaway Cay is no different. When you first arrive on the island you see the island’s story:
“Three explorers set sail to the scattered islands of the Bahamas in search of fame and fortune. They brought along their families and a diverse crew. Through mild mishap and extreme good fortune, they located the objects of their desire–sunken treasures and the secret of youth. Though castaway on this island, they had no desire to leave due to the breathtaking beauty of this tropical paradise.
Visitors to this island can still see the original structures built by the explorers and take part in many of the same pleasures our castaways enjoyed years ago. Disney Cruise Line welcomes you to the island paradise of your dreams, Castaway Cay.”
It is commonly believed that Disney owns Castaway Cay. The island , Gorda Cay, is actually owned by the Bahamian Government and Disney leases the island from them.
The current lease will expire in 2096. It took eighteen months, $25 million and 50,000 truckloads of sand to transform Gorda Cay into Castaway Cay, a castaway-themed island with buildings designed to look like they had been built from timbers following a shipwreck.
Although never completely confirmed, it is rumored that pirates frequented the island in the early 1700’s. The island was located just north of a trade route used at the time.
The island offers many hidden alcoves and was believed to provide great hiding spots for pirates to anchor and lie in wait to ambush passing ships. Two treasure hunters from Nassau in the 1950’s came across a few objects just off the shoals of the island including three coins and a 72 pound silver ingot. Markings showed the objects belonged to Spain’s King Philip IV, and that the treasures were aboard the San Pedro, a Spanish Galleon that sank in 1733.
THE ABANDONED AIRSTRIP
Many years ago, Gorda Cay was originally used for farmers from neighboring islands. Because the fertile soil was excellent for growing, locals from other islands would boat over and use the land to farm.
In the 1960’s, a businessman, Alvin Tucker, looking for investments flew over the island with a real estate agent from Nassau. He purchased 150 acres of the island, one of the first investments and purchases he made in the Bahamas. The only way to get to the island was by boat, so his plan was to clear land for a runway for easier access. He is responsible for the 2,400 foot runway that still exists today. The runway is no longer used for planes but does serve as a bike and tram path to Serenity Bay.
As time went on this beautiful and isolated tropical hideaway was discovered by criminals and put to use. 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, he could not because – the police were supposedly in on it as well.
Anyone owning parts of the island were no longer welcome and were being chased away by men with large guns and Dobermans. Residents of neighboring islands saw up to six planes a day landing. Alvin began to visit less and less, and eventually sold his land to a private company.
An American living in Florida, who had secretly used the runway himself for years to smuggle drugs, was the man behind the private company that purchased Alvin Tucker’s land. His name was Frank Barber. Barber would also rent out the use of the airstrip to other drug smugglers.
Along with Frank Barber’s smuggling business, he also planned to turn part of the island into a resort for tourists and got as far as building a large hanger adjacent to the airstrip before he was stopped. In 1983, there was a major drug bust on the island and authorities found over $100 million dollars worth of cocaine. A few days later, Barber was arrested, went to jail and died in prison.
For a brief time after his arrest, activity on the island continued and it was rumored that Barber was still in control from behind bars. After his death, the smuggling stopped.
THE POST OFFICE
The post office on the island is a real Bahamian post office with special Bahamian postage specific to Disney Cruise Line, and a “Castaway Cay” postmark.
GIANT PALM TREE
One of the first questions many ask after arriving at Castaway Cay is “Why is that palm tree so big?” All Disney lovers know that Disney never wants anything to look out of place so that giant palm tree is actually a not-so-cleverly disguised communications tower located in the middle of the island disguised as a palm tree. The communications tower is used for the local Bahamas cell phone carrier, as well as to transmit radio frequencies for cast members who work and live on the island.
The island makes much of it’s own fuel. Sea water is desalinated for drinking with reverse osmosis water processors. Some water is procured in Port Canaveral and delivered to Castaway Cay by the ships to an 80,000 gallon fresh water storage tank on the island.
On Castaway Cay, an innovative recycling program re-purposes used cooking oil from the ships’ galleys and combines it with diesel fuel to power machinery on the island. The program reduces waste and carbon dioxide emissions, saving up to 8,000 gallons of traditional fuel each year.
Hidden from the view of guests are a sewage treatment plant and the two facilities that turn sea water into fresh water.
CASTAWAYS ON CASTAWAY CAY
Over 100 people live on Castaway Cay. These “castaways” are a mixture of guest services employees – those that interact with the guests from the ships; island maintenance; horticulturalists; boat captains, landscapers, engineers; etc. There are also a small number of cast members that commute by boat from the neighboring island, Abaco.
Other island Cast Members come from the ship ~ some of the ship Cast Members go onto the island to work as food servers for example.
All of the resident “castaways” live in the Crew Compound. They have a crew beach, gym, football pitch, indoor recreation area, crew mess and, of course, they live on one of the most beautiful Caribbean islands. Food and other supplies are brought in by the ships themselves, so while everyone is enjoying their vacation, workers are diligently off-loading supplies from the ship.
Those that may have some time off when the ship is docked, can go on the ship, watch some movies and relax.
Many of the island “castaways” will use the ships as their “taxi” ride home after several weeks or several months on the island. When it is their turn to have some time off, they will board one of the cruise ships as they are leaving the island and get a ride back to Cape Canaveral.
Disney Cruise Line keeps several staterooms unoccupied to be sure there is room for these “rescues!” If you think you might want to be a castaway on the island – you can find available jobs on Disney Cruise Line’s Career listings under “Island Opportunities.”
Before being turned into Castaway Cay, Gorda Cay was also popular for filming movies. The beach where Tom Hanks first meets Daryl Hannah in Splash is on the island. Part of the film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was also filmed there.
SUN BURN TREE
There is a gumbo limbo tree that Disney planted on the island. Cast Members call it ‘the tourist tree’ because its red, peeling bark resembles a sun-burnt tourist.
20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA
Many guests know that if you go snorkeling just off the family beach, you’ll find a nautilus submarine that used to carry passengers to the depths of Atlantis in Fantasyland at Walt Disney World Resort. Snorkeling around this is a surreal experience for theme park fans and something you can only do at Castaway Cay.
Sea Urchin Research
Researchers at Castaway Cay are helping to restore the health of coral reefs through a unique research project transplanting native sea urchins in The Bahamas. The urchins help to control harmful algae levels that can choke out corals, and the project is providing vital research for rebuilding coral reef systems that serve as homes for tropical fish and marine life.
A little extra info: Just like the tributes paid to many by the windows along Main Street USA, there are some signs around Castaway Cay that pay tribute to executives at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.