The Pre-Disney History of Discovery Island

Discovery Island holds a fond place in the hearts of many Walt Disney World visitors from years past, but what’s the history of the island before Disney took ownership? There are currently five islands in the waters around the Magic Kingdom, but most of them were made by Disney when carving out the landscape during early development. Discovery Island is the only one that existed naturally, before Disney got involved.

Image showing Discovery Island's location on a survey map
Discovery Island sits in the middle of Section 12.

For the purposes of property research, we have to describe the property properly. The official property description referred to in these transactions is the southeast quarter of the northwest quarter of Section 12, Township 24 South, Range 27 East (of the Tallahassee Meridian). To the left is a map from the Orange County, FL appraiser’s office, with Section 12 shown in a thick purple line.

The northwest quarter refers roughly to the west half of Bay Lake, with the western edge cutting right through where the Contemporary Resort sits today. The southeast quarter of that contains about two-thirds of the island. It’s reasonable to assume that in practicality, this would’ve included the entire island, because I haven’t found any transactions solely for the eastern portion; I doubt that anybody would’ve bothered dividing it.

The early years

The paper trail starts with the Plant Investment Company, a railway development company run by Henry B. Plant. He was buying up a lot of property in Florida throughout the 1880s to expand his railway network, and in 1884, he was granted all of Section 12, along with lots of other land in the area. The land was granted by Florida’s Internal Improvement Fund, which was tasked with working with corporations to establish railroads and canals throughout the state. I don’t have any information on what specific plans may have been in the works for the land, but an island is clearly of no use to a railroad operator. It must have taken Plant a few years to send somebody down to inspect the property though, because on February 1st, 1887, they sold just the island to one Charles Lackey.

I don’t yet have any information about Lackey, except that he owned the property for 16 years. Then on March 6th, 1903, he sold it to Peter Keen. Keen owned the property for just 3 years before selling it to Joel Riles on April 7th, 1906. I believe this is the same Riles for whom the island was named for a long time. Even many modern maps still refer to it as Riles Island. Wikipedia refers to the island as Raz Island during this time, which is also referenced in an Orlando Sentinel article, which in turn cites the book, Since the World Began by Jeff Kurti. It’s possible Raz Island was simply a misunderstanding of Riles Island, or it could be that a Raz family lived there without regard for ownership of the island. I couldn’t find any evidence of a Raz family every having a claim on the property, and all the existing references I could find referring to them are all unsourced.

Riles and Geer

Thus far, it’s been a pretty straightforward chain of sales spanning some 26 years. But now things start to get interesting. Joel Riles owned the property for 8 years before neglecting to pay his taxes, which resulted in the property being reclaimed by the State of Florida. We know this because the State subsequently sold it to a man named W.H. Reams at a tax sale in 1915. But apparently paperwork is troublesome for these kinds of things, because it took Reams another three years to receive a recorded deed for the property, after presenting the tax sale paperwork to the county.

Reams proves somewhat interesting on his own. He was a prominent Winter Garden resident and businessman who served in the Spanish-American war, nearly lost his home to a town fire, and was once wrapped in the mysterious disappearance of his uncle. He served the city as alderman, councilman, director of the West Orange Farm Loan Association, and later went on to become the mayor of Winter Garden. He seemed to like to see his name in the news, as he once written about for sending a box oranges to the Tampa Tribune. I haven’t yet found a definitive origin for the name of the nearby Lake Reams (and the Reams Road that surrounds it), but it’s likely that it relates to W.H. Reams or someone in his family.

But let’s not forget about Riles just yet. Though Reams purchased a tax certificate for the island in 1915, remember that he didn’t receive a proper deed to the property until 1918. Meanwhile, in 1917, Riles sold the island to Jim Geer, except that it was officially no longer his to sell. By that point, the State had already reclaimed the property, and Reams was two years into the process of taking ownership of it. I don’t know if Riles knew about the tax repossession or not, but I’m certain Geer had no idea that Riles had no legal claim to the property. It seems the records office was unclear on the situation as well, since the deed was filed away like any other.

I don’t have any further record of this particular interaction, but it’s likely Geer at least tried to get his money back from Riles after discovering that the property rightfully belonged to Reams instead. He clearly still wanted the island, and Reams sold it to him just a year after taking ownership of it, probably turning a nice profit, having purchased it at a tax sale himself. So after a false start with Riles, Jim Geer and his wife Susan finally take possession of Riles Island in 1919. I haven’t yet discovered anything interesting about them personally, but their story doesn’t just end here.

Just a year after buying the island, in 1920 Jim and Susan Geer transfer the deed to a man named F.R. Geer. The deed doesn’t stipulate the exact relationship between the two parties, but I believe it likely that this was a gift from parents to son. In addition to having the same surname, there’s another aspect of this later on that makes me believe this was the start of an intense family drama.

F.R. Geer owned the island for a few years himself, before then selling it to an F.A. Rollins in 1924. This likely upset his parents, who clearly worked quite hard to get that island, having purchased it twice, only to have their son sell it off again so quickly. Rollins adds insult to injury by failing to pay his taxes on the property in 1926, resulting in another tax sale on the island in 1927. By this time, Jim Geer has passed away, and his widow, Susan, makes the bold move of buying the property back from the State of Florida. In doing so, I believe she finally rectifies the mistake of leaving the island to her son in the first place.

Radio Nick

Susan owns the property for 8 more years, before deciding to sell it to a local man named Delmar Nicholson. But she’s smart; just to be sure there were no complications with the sale after the incident with unpaid taxes, she also secures a quit-claim deed from the Rollins family, officially revoking any claims they might try to have on the property. And with that, the Geer portion of the saga is over and we have a clear ownership of the land by Nicholson, beginning in 1937.

Nicholson was widely known as “Radio Nick”, as he was an early radio pioneer in the days before vacuum tubes. He’s been known to Disney fans for some time as well, particularly after having been mentioned in Since the World Began. Given his notoriety elsewhere, I won’t get into the details here, but another interesting thing is that his interest extended well beyond just the island. He managed to gain ownership of the entirety of Section 12, which includes all the northern-most portion of Bay Lake. Thus the entire island finally, officially, belonged to a single person.

In 1946, Idyl Bay Isle had clear signs of an organized fruit growing operation.

Nicholson enjoyed all that property for nearly a decade and earned quite a local reputation with his “Idyl Bay Isle”. By 1944, he was growing limes in Central Florida, which many thought was impossible. By 1946, he had mangoes as well. He held open houses on the island in 1945 and 1946. on the island,  to great success, and even hosted the local Girl Scout Leaders’ annual overnight trip for a couple of years.

Delmar “Radio Nick” Nicholson hosted local Girl Scout Leaders’ annual overnight trip on his Idyl Bay Isle (later Discovery Island)

Later in 1946, he may have been struggling to continue to afford so much property, because he sold part of it to Edward Vrabeck. This sale didn’t include the island itself, though; it was what’s now the northeast portion of Fort Wilderness. It’s still notable though, because Vrabeck built a small cabin on the shore of Bay Lake, which would later become immortalized on the podcast as Roy’s Cabin.

In 1949, having owned the island for 12 years, Nicholson sold the island, along with the rest of his property in the area, to H.D. and Flora Thomason. This also included his interests in a trademark called “IBI”, which presumably referred to “Idyl Bay Isle”. The Thomason’s are listed on the deed as residing in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I think it’s likely that they stayed there. They may have viewed the purchase as an investment or a potential future residence, or they may have simply been one of the many families outside Florida who were sold swampland under false descriptions. They may have even been fans of Nicholson and wanted to help in out in a hard time in his life, because they maintained a relationship after the sale.

Most of the unsourced histories of the island (including the Wikipedia article linked above) indicate that Nicholson lived on the island for some 20 years, which would suggest that he continued to reside there after selling the property to the Thomason’s. We see that in 1950, the Thomason’s granted Nicholson Power of Attorney over the property, which supports the idea that he was still living there, and they felt it was reasonable for him to maintain legal authority over its care. But this arrangement only lasted 3 years, before they revoked his Power of Attorney. During this time, Nicholson also officially dissolves “Idle Bay Isle” in 1952.

Bay Isle Club

By now it’s 1953, and he could have lived there for 16 years, but it’s likely that he continued to stay on the island, as we’ll see shortly. The next step gets interesting again. The Thomason’s decide to sell the property in 1955, which may have even been why they revoked Nicholson’s Power of Attorney two years earlier. They sold it to a large group of locals, with three trustees listed as Arnold, Beery & Root. The Thomason’s still owed on their own mortgage though, so there’s a stipulation in the new mortgage that the group pay the Thomason’s for their remaining responsibilities to Nicholson.

A little more digging reveals this new group to be called the Bay Isle Club (continued), which planned to manage camp sites on the property, but would keep the island itself private for their own use. At this point we also get an indication that Nicholson’s home on the island itself was the only developed piece of the entire property around the lake at this time. That said, they still opened the island for occasional social gatherings when it suited them, including the annual trip of the Orlando Optimists. The Thomason’s complete their obligations to Nicholson in 1959, and the Bay Isle Club completes its 6-year mortgage to the Thomason’s in 1962.

Disney steps in

That leads us to 1964, when a certain California-based global entertainment empire has its eyes on Central Florida. The island property sits on the northern end of the property Disney is looking at for their new Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. As the most significant body of water in the whole property, Bay Lake certainly draws a lot of attention to the prospective buyer.

Edward Vrabeck continued to own his piece of Bay Lake shoreline, including Roy’s Cabin, until September 1964, when he and his wife, Florence, sold it to Paul Helliwell as part of the acquisition process. Bay Lake Properties, one of Disney’s many local shell corporations, buys the island and remaining property from the Bay Isle Club, but not without seeing a quit-claim deed from Delmar “Radio Nick” Nicholson first. Given his long time on the island, it’s likely that Disney’s lawyers on the ground wanted to be absolutely sure that he couldn’t argue any claim to it once Disney took formal ownership.

What started as a potential expansion to a railway empire changed hands at least 15 times before ending as an important piece of Walt Disney World history. And even then, it’s been known under multiple names and held multiple purposes before being once again closed to guests for the foreseeable future. What’s next for this venerable piece of Central Florida history?

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P. W.
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This is really well done. Congratulations, and thanks for sharing!

James
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James

I always think the joke is on us. By leaving it abandoned, they let the rumors and history fester and the legend continues to grow.

Parkeology
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Riveting stuff! Makes you wonder how much of that original history is still on the island. Maybe a few rogue lime trees. Or the ghosts of long dead girl scouts.