Castaway Cay (Gorda Cay), Bahamas History

Gorda Cay gets its name from the spanish word for "fat" or "round".  Most of the Bahamian island cays are long and narrow due to the Caribbean currents and rock/reef structure that they are formed from however Gorda Cay is an abnormally roundish tropical paradise (hence the name) with its nearly even 3.1 mile x 2.2 mile size.  Disney has not always owned this tropical paradise located in the Bahamas, it purchased a 99-year lease for it from the Bahamas in 1996. In fact, most of the world didn't even know the island even existed before 1950.

It is 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 of the popular pirates who frequented the region and called it home during that time period, such as Edward Teach (AKA "Blackbeard") and Anne Bonney, may have used it in their nefarious travels. With its numerous hidden alcoves, it would provide a perfect hiding spot for pirates to camp out and wait for passing ships.  The infamous Disney pirate ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies "The Flying Dutchman" has also been rumored to frequent these waters...

Some evidence of this came to light in the 1950's when two treasure hunters from Nassau came across a few objects of interest just off the shoals of the island; three coins and a 72 pound silver ingot, these items featured markings showing that they belonged to Spain’s King Philip IV. These treasures seemingly came from the San Pedro, a Spanish Galleon hauling treasure back to its king that was sunk in 1733.

Unlike most of the other islands in the region, Gorda Cay was round and built up behind the exposed reef, rather than on top of it. This provided about 1000 acres of tropical paradise which enabled farmers from Abaco, a large Bahamian island 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.  It was also used as a refuge for fishermen caught in bad weather. The shores provided a nice place for them to wait out a storm on many occasions. These fishermen sometimes came back with their families in nicer weather for picnics on the picturesque beaches.

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In the 1960s, Alvin Tucker flew over the island with a real estate agent from Nassau. He eventually bought 150 acres of it. Alvin was a businessman and loved investing in tropical locales.  Gorda Cay was one of his first of many purchases in the Bahamas but at the time only way to get to the island was by boat, so Alvin planned to clear land for a runway for easier accessibility. He’s the one responsible for the 2400 foot runway that still exists today, however it’s no longer in use for its original purpose, it now serves as a bike and tram path to Serenity Bay, which is the “adults only” area of Castaway Cay.

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As time went on this tropical hideaway seemed to be too good for others to pass up as well and they began using it for nefarious purposes yet again. Alvin heard that his private airstrip was being used by drug smugglers to bring narcotics into Florida. He tried to put a stop to it but was not able to due to the fact that the police he went to for help 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 was becoming known for it's notorious drug operation. 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 Alvin Tucker sold his land too. Now that the island was largely his own, he began to operate his own little drug empire exclusively on the island.  Aside from his own illegal activities, Barber rented out the airstrip to other smugglers looking to bring their goods into the country. But if you were unfortunate enough to not make arrangements with him before hand, Barber’s associates would be more then happy to take your products off your hands for you…by gunpoint!

On a slightly more legal 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 besides the airstrip before he was caught for his misdeeds. In 1983, there was a bust on the island involving $100 million dollars worth of cocaine. Barber went to jail for it and was sentenced to five years but he died in prison before he could serve the duration of his time. Activity on the island continued even after Barber's imprisonment and it was rumored that despite being behind bars, Barber was still in control! After his death, however, the bustle began to slow down to nothing.

In 1997, 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. This included dredging 50,000 truckloads of sand from the Atlantic Ocean to expand the beaches. The pier and its approaches were constructed to allow the Disney ships to dock alongside, thus removing the need for tenders to get the passengers ashore. To create the mooring site for the ships, workers dredged sand and used explosives to blast coral and form a 1,700-foot channel about 35 feet deep and ranging from 200 to 400 feet wide.  Interestingly enough, even with all that work and money poured into 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 whole back story was created for Castaway Cay. Despite the island’s already rich history, the Disney version is a little more wholesome!  Nowadays, the island's only inhabitants are the 90 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.  A few native Bahamians come to the island by boat on days there is a ship docked and run the local souvenir shop where they sell local goods and Bahamian souvenirs.

Click here to read Disney's Castaway Cay "wholesome" backstory...