Disney Cruise Line: The History of Castaway Cay


The Disney Cruise Line, by many, is considered
to be one of the best cruise lines operating today. Their fleet of four ships sail to destinations
that range from Europe to Mexico and to Alaska. The Bahamas, their original and most popular
destination, has the special distinction of making stops at Castaway Cay, Disney’s private
island. Like most Disney escapes, Castaway Cay is
a picture-perfect getaway with a carefully crafted backstory that was dreamed up by Disney’s
imagineers. The real story of Castaway Cay, however, is
far more interesting. Now today the island is known as Castaway
Cay. It’s the name that Disney gave it in the
summer of 1996 while it was being developed for the Disney Cruise Line. However up until that point, the island went
by the name of Gorda Cay. So first, let’s talk about the buried treasure
of Gorda Cay. That’s right, real actual treasure. In 1656 a convoy of ships from the Spanish
fleet was passing through the Little Bahama Bank while making its way back to Spain. They found themselves in strong winds that
took them into particularly shallow waters and it was then that the rear guard of the
convoy, the Nuestra Señora de la Maravillas, ended up colliding with another ship. At the time the ship was carrying over five
million pesos worth of cargo, including coins, silver bars, jewels, and more. All of it sank along with the Maravillas and
the vast majority of the 700 souls on board died that night. Of course the Spanish fleet wasn’t about
to let all of the cargo just sit at the bottom of the ocean, so over the following few years
various ships were hired and ordered to salvage as much of it as possible. Funny enough, but most of the silver that
had gone down with the ship had, itself, been salvaged from an even earlier shipwreck in
1654. The following year after the wreck, two salvage
ships were transporting some of the recovered cargo from the site of the wreck to Puerto
Rico when they, themselves, ended up shipwrecked. This time the wreck occurred just south of
Gorda Cay. It was reported that some of the survivors
buried whatever they could save from the wreck on the island itself. Now before you start packing your shovels
and setting off on a Disney Cruise to find buried treasure, the salvage on the island
was later recovered as was plenty of the salvage that had gone down with the ships. However between shifting sands, weather, primitive
technology, and mapping and record keeping that wasn’t always completely accurate,
it wasn’t common for everything to be salvaged from a wreck. Most of the time a good amount of it would
end up lost. Also by the way, if you’re keeping track,
that would mark the third time in four years that those silver bars would sink to the bottom
of the ocean. I’m not saying cursed treasure exists, but
ya know, if it did exist, that’s probably what it would look like. Now let’s fast forward over 250 years and
meet a man named Art “Silver Bar” McKee. Born in 1910 in New Jersey, Arthur McKee Jr.
would be known by many as the pioneer of modern day treasure diving. His love of diving would not only flourish, but develop into a business that allowed him to make a living out of salvage diving. He had found valuable artifacts here and there,
but it would be his Gorda Cay expedition that would be his defining break. He set out with a team of divers to Gorda
Cay in hopes of finding salvage from what was believed to be the wreckage of the San
Pedro. Now today we know that wasn’t the case. In the 1960s the actual wreckage of the San
Pedro would be discovered closer to the Florida Keys. The wreckage they were actually exploring
was that of the two ill-fated salvage ships that were coming from the Maravillas. Art would find, on that diving expedition,
three silver bars weighing 60, 70 and 75 pounds each and it would be what earned him the nickname “Silver Bar”. Art would continue to dive for many more years
and even opened up a museum in Florida called “The Museum of Sunken Treasure” to show
off his findings from many of his adventures. Up until this point, McKee’s expedition
was probably the most exciting and notable thing to happen involving Gorda Cay. However by the 70s and 80s that would definitely
change. In the 1960s approximately 150 acres of the
island was purchased by a businessman by the name of Alvin Tucker. He had lived in the Bahamas at that point
and was pretty well off for himself. Well off enough that his plans for his part
of the island included building a runway for his own private plane. Now at this point the island wasn’t really
what you would consider populated. A handful of people used it for farmland during
the right season, but there was no village or city or anything notable on the island. It was largely left alone. Even though Tucker owned the land, he didn’t
live on the island full-time. By the late 1970s the US was facing a problem. The contraband trade was on the rise and much
of it entering into the country from South America was coming in through Florida. Among the many many different ways they were
smuggling it in, one of the ways included making stops on Caribbean islands to transfer
the contraband from one plane to another, or from plane to boat, which would then make
its way to the states. Now here’s Gorda Cay, a mostly uninhabited
and unknown island in the Bahamas that just happens to have a 2,400 foot paved runway. I mean, what do you think is gonna happen? It wouldn’t take long for smugglers to start using the island as a pit-stop on their way to the US. So by this point Tucker couldn’t even visit
his own island without putting his life on the line. Without any value or use of the land, he decided
to sell it off so it could become somebody else’s problem. What he didn’t realize at the time, however,
was that the buyer he sold it to just so happened to be Frank Barber, the very smuggler that
was using it already. The island was seized as a part of a raid
that also resulted in the confiscation of over $100 million worth of contraband,
and the land was subsequently returned to the Bahamian government. While Disney sure loves a colorful story,
they understandably didn’t have that in mind when they were looking for an island
to buy for their upcoming cruise venture. Instead it was likely the two beautiful beaches
and proximity to central Florida that won over the Disney company, and in 1996 for an
undisclosed price they’d purchase a 99-year lease on the island with plans to transform
it into a Caribbean paradise. Now the idea of buying a small island for
a cruise line wasn’t new at that point. Norwegian Cruise Line pioneered the idea in
the 1970s when they purchased Great Stirrup Cay and other lines had followed suit over
the years. However Disney did have one idea in mind that
would be new for the industry. Up until that point when it came to stopping
at smaller islands, it was standard for cruise ships to anchor off the coast of the island
and then ferry passengers back and forth using a smaller boat. The process was known as “tendering” since
the ships used to ferry the passengers were called “tenders”. They carried the name because these smaller
boats were used to tend to the larger ships. Disney, however, felt that the process was
cumbersome and slow, and that it would be far more convenient for passengers if they
could freely board and leave the ship throughout the day So they decided to build a dock for their
cruise ships. This was no easy task. Typically you try to build docks where it’ll
fit larger ships, but these small islands in the Bahamas have fairly shallow water. So Disney hired the American Bridge Company
to dredge up over 50,000 truckloads of material on the south-side of the island. It was used to simultaneously create a channel
deep enough for the cruise ships to enter, while also creating a man-made landmass that
passengers would disembark onto. In short, they dug out this, to built this. Obviously not wanting to disrupt the paradise
they just purchased, a lot of effort went into making the operation as noninvasive as
possible. Les Snyder, VP of construction at American
Bridge, said that “the layout of the landing island was very cautiously planned.” The location was picked to avoid digging into
coral, and the coral that did exist nearby was carefully covered with a protective netting
during construction to avoid any potential damage. Even the trees removed during the island’s
development were relocated to a temporary tree-farm before being planted elsewhere. While Disney’s typical MO at the time was
to construct a perfect fantasy world from the ground up, it was very clear that Disney
wanted to leave as much of Gorda Cay, now Castaway Cay, as intact as possible. While industry experts outside of the company
speculated that Disney might develop the island to feature more theme-park style offerings,
Disney ultimately went with a minimalist approach, focusing on the beaches. They even kept the paved runway, transforming
it into the path that connects the island’s two beaches. As for the price tag for all of this? Nobody outside of Disney knows. Industry experts estimated the cost at $25
million dollars, however Disney wouldn’t disclose the actual price. They did, however, confirm that the final
price was actually higher than that $25 million estimate. So all we know is that it cost more than that. Today the island is still a popular stop along
Disney’s Caribbean cruise itineraries, and it is almost universally praised for its beauty
and simplicity. It just happens to be beauty and simplicity
with a very interesting history.

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