Since 1998 Castaway Cay has been known as Disney’s very own private island. Many Disney cruise fans highlight Castaway Cay as being their very favorite port stop.
Many people incorrectly think that Disney owns Castaway Cay. The island is actually owned by The Bahamas. Disney took a 99 year lease of Castaway Cay in 1997.
However, what do we know about Castaway Cay History?
Discover the fascinating past of this Bahamian Island which has been associated with pirates, drug barons and smugglers.
The Early History of Castaway Cay
Castaway Cay is a beautiful island in the Bahamas. It covers about 1,000 acres and is 3 miles long.
Castaway Cay is close to the Abaco Islands which are 180 miles south of the Florida coast. This chain of islands and cays, divided loosely into North, Central and South Abaco, spans 120 miles. The Abaco Islands are a spectacularly beautiful tourist destination known for clear blue seas, paradise beaches and luxury accommodation.
It’s location and lush landscape have made it a very attractive place to settle, for a number of different reasons. It was a relatively ideal place to live. The soil on the island was fertile and easy to turn into farming land to grow food.
The island was first known as Gorda Cay. The first settlers arrived in 1783. The European settlers were loyalists escaping the American Revolution.
Farmers were able to grow food and soon a small village had formed on the island. The islanders also made a living salvaging ship wrecks and by building small wooden boats.
Were There Pirates on Castaway Cay?
These days Captain Jack Sparrow is a regular visitor to Castaway Cay, but was this a place where real pirates were to be found in days past?
It is very possible, although not proven, that Pirates frequented Castaway Cay in the 1700’s, prior to becoming a village settlement later on that century.
Many islands in the Bahamas were used by Pirates and it is likely that Gorda Cay would have been one of them.
The island lies to the north of a trading route which was well established in the early 1700’s. It would have been ideal hunting ground for Pirates.
The terrain on the island would certainly have been attractive for Pirates to hide out and plan their ambushes from a safe haven.
Of course, where you have pirates, you would expect to find treasure. In the 1950’s treasure hunters found a huge sliver ingot and three gold coins. They were identified as belonging to King Philip IV of Spain.
It is thought that this treasure came from the Spanish ship San Pedro, which sunk in 1733 close to Gorda Cay. This certainly adds some evidence to the theory that pirates once used Castaway Cay as a base.
Castaway Cay Development
Long after the pirates left and well before Captain Jack Sparrow arrived, Castaway Cay, or Gorda Cay as it was then known entered into a new era. Smugglers of a different kind arrived.
Alvin Tucker was a successful, legitimate business man. He saw the potential for Gorda Cay when he flew over it with his realtor in the 1960’s. He was a successful investor in the Bahamas and immediately saw the potential of this beautiful island.
Mr Tucker purchased 150 acres of Gorda Cay – this was just the first of many real estate investments he made in the Bahamas. He saw the potential in investing in prime quality real estate in this area.
Of course, the island had one major issue – you could only access it by boat. Alvin had the brilliant idea of building a runway on the island so that access would be much easier. He therefore commissioned a 2,400 runway for the island.
This was good business sense at the time – access to the island would have opened up so many possibilities for the island.
The runway is still on Castaway Cay, but it is not used as an airstrip. It is now used as a road to get to Serenity Bay, which is the adults only beach on Castaway Cay. You will also ride down this road if you rent a bike to explore.
Darker Times of Castaway Cay History
However, a very different type of business person also saw the possibilities for the island.
Gorda Cay has it’s share of a shady past – like many small islands it became a haven for smugglers once again. Drug smugglers.
The drug traffickers saw the opportunity of the airstrip on Gorda Cay to facilitate getting their goods into Florida. Gorda Cay entered into a dark phase where it was rumored that even the police were in on the criminal activities and therefore it became impossible to control.
Unable to do anything about the criminal activity on the island Alvin Tucker sold his interest in the island to a private company, Leisure Club Ltd.
This company was subsequently revealed to be backed by Frank Barber. a known drug smuggler.
Frank Barber thought it would be a great idea to use the island for tourism as well as running his drug operation there. He is known to have had plans to build an hotel on the island.
However, in 1982 his reign came to an end when the police raided the island and found $100 million worth of cocaine. Although these dark times were only a small part of Castaway Cay history, this is the part that many still seem to be interested in.
Disney Arrives on Gorda Cay
With the closing of the unfortunate chapter of the islands history, Disney saw it’s great potential.
Disney’s first enterprise on the island was not as a private island destination, but as a filming location. Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah arrived on the island to film Splash in 1983.
Disney’s Castaway Cay Private Island
Many people think that Disney owns Castaway Cay. It doesn’t. It was leased from the Bahamas for 99 years in 1996. Disney Cruise Lines wanted the perfect Bahamian Island where it could easily dock and guests could spend the day in paradise
One thing that was very important to Disney Cruise Lines was that guests should be able to just walk off the ship, without the need to take a tender boat.
This meant not only building a dock, but also making sure that there was a channel large enough that the ships could sail through to get to the dock.
To create the Castaway Cay dock, a 1,700 foot channel around 35 feet deep needed to be created. This channel ranges from 200 to 400 feet wide.
The transformation of Castaway Cay to Disney’s Private Island paradise took around 18 months and cost $25 million.
Disney Castaway Cay Backstory
As with all Disney attractions, the Imagineers always have a back story. This is the backstory for Castaway Cay.
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.”
Flying Dutchman Castaway Cay
The famous ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies was once anchored in Castaway Cay. She arrived on June 24th, 2006.
The Flying Dutchman on Castaway Cay was an imposing sight, docked right next to the Disney Magic or Wonder. This ghostly shop was a popular feature of the island.
The Flying Dutchman made the perfect back drop for a character meet and greet with Jack Sparrow. It was certainly one of the best photo opportunities for a Disney cruise to be pictured with Jack Sparrow with the ghostly Flying Dutchman in the background.
Sadly the Flying Dutchman didn’t remain for very long at Castaway Cay. She was only there until November 2010 so never got to welcome the Disney Dream or Fantasy to the port.
The fate of the Flying Dutchman? Rumor has it that she was removed to another part of the island where she was dismantled.
Want to Know More About Castaway Cay?
We have visited Castaway Cay many times and have written comprehensive guides to help you to anjoy your time on this magical island.
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Alison Meacham is the founder of EverythingMouse Disney Blog. For over 15 years she has shared her love of Disney Parks, Disney Cruises and Universal Orlando. In over 30 years of Disney Travel she has spent countless months in Disney Parks and has sailed on over 45 cruises. A British native and now a United States resident she splits her time between California, Florida and the UK. And spends a serious amount of time sailing the seven seas. She helps over 200,000 people per month follow their Disney travel dreams.