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For years, Jeff Heimbuch has been writing about Disney. Many of his articles have appeared in Celebrations Magazine. But Jeff has always had a little '626' inside him anxious to come out. Unlike his column's namesake, Stitch, he might not paint the Castle blue, but he will paint the park red with entertaining stories, fascinating insights, and daring ... experiments.

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The Colorful Story of Castaway Cay

Jeff Heimbuch uncovers the island's checkered past

Castaway Cay! Lovely place, isn't it? So clean, so wholesome, so ... Disney.

Well, yeah, but it wasn't always like that.

Castaway Cay has history that would make Mickey curl up into a little ball and whimper softly. Jeff Heimbuch popped the lid off Castaway Cay and now lares bare its sordid - but fascinating! - past.

As you probably already know (and if you didn't, you should go check out my cruise report!), I just got back from a Disney Dream preview cruise. And because of that, I'm still in a 'cruise' type of mood.

Sure, the weather here in New Jersey may be a bit on the chilly side (and that's an understatement!), but I still imagine myself sitting on a private island in the Bahamas with a drink in my hand.

And so this week's installment of The 626, an amazing story of pirates, smuggling, and adventure on the high seas! Sounds just like a live action Disney film, doesn't it? However, you will be surprised to learn that it's actually the history behind Disney's own private island, Castaway Cay.

You see, Disney didn't ALWAYS own this tropical Bahamian paradise. In fact, most of the world didn't even know the island existed before 1950. So what was this place like before Disney magic turned it into a castaway's dream? That, my friends, is where the truth is almost certainly more interesting than fiction!

But be warned, travelers... these waters weren't always as safe as they seem!

Pirates on Castaway Cay

Though it has never been completely confirmed, it's rumored that pirates frequented the island in the early 1700s. The island laid just north of a trade route used at that time, so it is entirely possible that many notorious pirates who then sailed those waters - pirates like Blackbeard and Anne Bonney - may have sighted it or even landed on its shores. With its numerous hidden alcoves, the island would have provided a perfect hiding spot for pirates to anchor in ambush for passing merchant ships.

To lead credence to this theory, two treasure hunters from Nassau came across a few objects of interest just off the shoals of the island in the 1950s: three coins and a 72 pound silver ingot. Markings showed that they belonged to Spain's King Philip IV. These treasures seemingly came from the San Pedro, a Spanish Galleon hauling treasure back to Spain that was sunk in 1733.

Farmers on Castaway Cay

More recently, the island was known as Gorda Cay. Unlike most of the other islands in the region, which are narrow and long, Gorda Cay was round and elevated behind the exposed reef rather than existing on top of it.

This good fortune provided about 1000 acres of pure paradise. Farmers from Abaco, part of the mainland seven miles away, would come to the island for part of the year because the soil was fertile and relatively rock free. They leased their land from the Bahamian government and lived in a tiny village along the beach on the Cay's southern side.

Gorda Cay was also used as a refuge for fishermen caught in bad weather. The shores provided a nice place for them to wait out dangerous storms. These fishermen sometimes came back with their families in nicer weather for picnics on the picturesque beaches.

Smugglers on Castaway Cay

In the 1960s, Alvin Tucker flew over the island with a real estate agent from Nassau. He asked to circle the island a few times, and before the plane even landed, he bought 150 acres of it. Alvin was a businessman who loved investing in tropical locales, and Gorda Cay was among the first of his many purchases in the Bahamas.

The only way to get to the island in those days was by boat, so Alvin planned to clear land for a runway to afford easier access. He's the one responsible for the 2400 foot runway that still exists today. The runway is no longer in use for planes but instead serves as a bike and tram path to Serenity Bay, the 'adults only' area of Castaway Cay.

As time went on, though, this tropical hideaway was discovered by criminals and put to use for their nefarious purposes. 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, it was to no avail - the police were supposedly in on it as well! Alvin began to visit less and less, and eventually sold his land to a private company.

By the 1980s, Gorda Cay had become notorious. Various newspapers reported that people who once owned parts of the island were no longer welcome, and were being chased away by men with large guns and even larger Dobermans. Residents claimed that they saw up to six planes a day landing on the airstrip.

This dark time in the island's history can be attributed to Frank Barber, an American who lived in Florida. He was secretly using the runway himself for years to smuggle drugs into the country, and turned out to be behind the 'private company' that bought Alvin Tucker's land. Now that the island was largely his, Barber began to operate his own little drug empire exclusively on Gorda Cay.

Aside from his illegal activities, Barber rented out the airstrip to other smugglers looking to bring their goods into the country. But if you were unfortunate enough not to make arrangements with Barber ahead of time, his associates would be more than happy to relieve you of your cargo - at gunpoint!

On a slightly more savory side of things, Barber also had plans to turn part of the island into a resort for tourists. He got as far as building a large hanger adjacent to the airstrip before he was arrested for his crimes. In 1983, there was a bust on the island involving $100 million dollars worth of cocaine. Just a few days later, Barber went to jail for it. He was sentenced to five years, but died in prison before he could serve his time.

Activity on the island continued even after Barber's imprisonment. It was rumored that, despite being behind bars, Barber was still in control! After his death, however, the smuggling bustle turned into a trickle.

Tourists on Castaway Cay

Some years later, Disney bought the island to turn into a private getaway for their cruise guests. It took some 18 months and about $25 million dollars for them to develop it into Castaway Cay. The work included dredging sand from the Atlantic Ocean to expand the beaches and building a pier so guests wouldn't have to use tenders to get back and forth from the cruise ship. Interestingly enough, even with all that work and the money spent on it, only about 55 acres of the 1000 acre island are used. The island opened for business for the first time on July 30, 1998.

Much like everything else at Disney, a back-story was created for Castaway Cay despite the island's already rich history. Of course, the Disney version is a bite more wholesome!

Nowadays, the island's only inhabitants are the 70 or so Disney employees, including custodians, boat captains, drivers, landscapers, and maintenance personnel. Most of the cruise ship's cast members come onto the island when the ship is docked to help round out the rest of the staff.

And Now You Know!

So there you have it folks - the secret history of Disney's own private getaway.

Not exactly what you expected, huh? To be honest with you, me either! It's amazing how Disney was able to turn a smuggler's paradise into a major tourist destination!

Next time you're on the island, astound your friends with the true story of Castaway Cay!

Don't stop there! Check out more The 626...

Castaway Cay Fast Facts

  • It's pronounced 'key' and not 'cay', as it is often mistakenly called.
  • For you coordinate geeks out there, Castaway Cay is located at 26.04'608N 77.32'283"W.
  • The island is 3 miles long and consists of 1000 acres, only 55 of which are developed.
  • Just like the mailboxes at the Magic Kingdom will mark your postcards with a Walt Disney World postmark, a Bahamian post office on the island will stamp your mail with one from Castaway Cay.
  • Before purchasing the island, Disney filmed a part of their hit movie 'Splash' there. The beach where Tom Hanks first encounters Daryl Hannah's mermaid character is located on the island.
  • Castaway Air Bar was built to resemble a tin hangar as a tribute to the nearby runway.
  • Native Bahamians commute via boat to the island to sell locally made goods in one of the shops.
  • Hidden from the view of guests are a sewage treatment plant and two facilities that turn sea water into fresh water.
  • A Nautilus sub from the old 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea ride at the Magic Kingdom has been partially sunk off the beach. You can see it while snorkeling.
  • There is a gumbo limbo that Disney planted on the island which Cast Members call 'the tourist tree' because its red, peeling bark resembles a sun-burnt tourist.
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