Water Wonders of the World: Seven Seas Lagoon & Bay Lake

Heart of Walt Disney World’s first phase relies on 2 adjoining bodies of water

Aerial Image of the still-under construction first phase of Walt Disney World prominently shows the Seven Seas Lagoon in Bay Lake Ca. early 1971 (Disney)

BAY LAKE, Fla. – When you plan a visit to Walt Disney World, enjoying its four theme parks likely tops your must-do list.

But what guests might not realize is that there are a host of water activities that can be enjoyed, thanks for planning done by Walt Disney more than 50 years ago.

Early model of the first phase of Walt Disney World, ca. 1969. The location of the water bridge linking Seven Seas Lagoon & Bay Lake can be seen center right, near the Contemporary Resort. (Disney)

The initial dream for Disney World was to be a “vacation kingdom oriented to land and water recreation and entertainment.”

The Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake have played a crucial role in keeping that dream alive.

Walt Disney himself ultimately picked the site for his Florida Project when he spotted Bay Lake while flying over the area, scouting locations.

What is now Discovery Island (then Riles Island) in Bay Lake, as seen from a Disney scouting flight in the late 1960s. (Disney)

Planning for Walt Disney World started in October 1965, and full construction commenced early in 1969 when “7 million cubic yards of earth was moved to create Seven Seas Lagoon,” according to Disney.

Testing one of the passenger ferries still under construction in 1971. The Contemporary is under construction in the background (Disney)

In the initial survey, the site of the lagoon was deemed unstable and unsuitable for construction, according to Disney, so the earth that was removed from that site was relocated to form a ground-level floor for Magic Kingdom. The fill dirt covers the famed 9-acre subterranean service tunnels known as the Utilidors.

Even before the first guests arrived, Disney knew the man-made Seven Seas Lagoon could serve as an “aquatic red carpet” into the “happiest place on earth” by way of steamboat transportation. And 50 years later, guests continue to make their way into the theme park this way.

A ferry boat carries guests to and from the Magic Kingdom, keeping cars far away from spoiling the illusion (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

“One of the world’s most unusual transportation networks will provide effortless travel at any time between Magic Kingdom, the resort hotels and the visitor parking center,” one of Disney World’s first marketing brochures said.

“Guests will leave their automobiles either at the day-visitor center (located nearly 1 mile from the theme park entrance) or at their hotel, in the case of vacationers staying in the theme resorts. Guests will then travel around by water on board steam-powered side-wheelers and excursion steamers… and by land aboard surface vehicles including air-conditioned, high-speed monorail trains.”

This concept art of the first phase of Walt Disney World's "Vacation Kingdom" hung in each guest room in the Contemporary and Polynesian Village Resorts, and shows the importance of Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon (Disney)

Here are some interesting facts about the iconic Seven Seas Lagoon:

The white-sand-beach-lined lagoon is home to three small islands, named Blackbeard Island, Castaway Cay and Beachcomber Island.

A fun fact about Castaway Cay is that it has been the launching point for perimeter fireworks at Magic Kingdom, according to Disney, and shares a name with Disney Cruise Line’s private island in the Bahamas.

Two Disney World resorts reside entirely along the Seven Seas Lagoon: the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa and the Polynesian Village Resort.

A sailboat rented by guests near the Polynesian, with the Magic Kingdom in the distance, ca. 1972. Note the trees that were not bulldozed when excavating The Seven Seas Lagoon (Disney)

The lagoon is 14-feet deep and covers 220 acres.

A water ski show was presented regularly near the Magic Kingdom in the early 1970s. If you were to dive along the island closest to the Polynesian Village Resort, you could spot what remains of an enormous wave making machine, designed to create surfable waves to add to the atmosphere of the resort. It worked, but had the unintended consequence of eroding the meticulously planned white sand beaches, and was abandoned.

An early photo of the Polynesian Village resort shows the white sand beaches made from soil excavated from the bottom of Bay Lake (Disney)

Swimming was once allowed and encouraged, but now is prohibited.

Rocks and ropes were added to the shoreline to make that point clear after a young boy named Lane Graves was grabbed and drowned by an alligator while wading with his father behind the Grand Floridian on June 14, 2016 -- days after the Pulse nightclub mass shooting.

A small memorial to Graves was placed on the grounds of the resort.

Photo provided by Orange County Sheriff's Office of Lane Graves

Unlike the lagoon, Bay Lake is a natural body of water that was part of the property when construction began.

In 1969, the 450-acre lake was drained of 3.5 billion gallons of tannic acid-tainted water. Its bottom was entirely scraped clean because it was “filthy with root structures, silt, muck, and decades of debris,” Jeff Kurtti said.

Bay Lake before construction crews drained it in 1969. (Disney)

As Bay Lake was cleaned up, pure white sand was discovered beneath the muck, Disney said. That sand was then used to create the beaches around Seven Seas Lagoon.

The two bodies of water are linked by one of the most overlooked and underappreciated engineering feats from the early days of Disney. Imagineers created a water bridge. Boats pass from Seven Seas Lagoon to Bay Lake and back in what seems like a natural canal from on top. It’s really the roof of a tunnel leading cars to the Contemporary Resort and buses to The Magic Kingdom.

Steam ship "the Southern Seas" crossing the water bridge from Bay Lake into Seven Seas Lagoon near the Contemporary Resort, Walt Disney World. Ca. 1973 (Disney)

Bay Lake itself is home to two islands, most notably Discovery Island, which before 1976 was known as Treasure Island. Pre-Disney, it was called Riles Island and was a sometimes used as an illegal party spot by people in the know in Orange County.

a "shipwreck" for guests to explore on Discovery Island in the late 1970s (Disney)

Prior to Animal Kingdom’s opening in 1998, guests could take a shuttle boat to the island and explore a nature preserve and accredited zoological park, complete with local rare flora and fauna, along with an enclosed aviary, bird shows and animal encounters. However, the small boats needed to reach Discovery Island could not accommodate large crowds.

After the addition of Disney World’s fourth theme park, the rare Galapagos tortoises and other animals were relocated. The island closed for good as an attraction on April 8, 1999.

Discovery Island in Bay Lake, Walt Disney World before the nature attraction closed in 1999. (Disney)

The perimeter of Bay Lake houses three Walt Disney World resorts, the Wilderness Lodge, Fort Wilderness Campgrounds, and the Iconic Contemporary Resort, which has a Disney Vacation Club wing called Bay Lake Tower.

Bay Lake was also home to the world’s first themed water park. River Country opened on June 20 1976 as a tribute to “the Ole’ Swimming Hole” -- but larger and Disneyfied. It was dedicated by first daughter Susan Ford. An instant hit with resort guests, it led to the much larger Typhoon Lagoon in 1989 and Blizzard Beach in 1995.

River Country: the World's first themed water park opened in 1976 and closed in 2001 (Disney)

The largest section of River Country appeared to flow right into Bay Lake, and in fact used specially-filtered lake water as its primary source.

Tragically, an 11-year-old boy died after visiting River Country. He was infected by an amoeba common to Florida lakes that got to his brain. Some urban legends claim that’s why Disney closed River Country, but his death happened in 1980. River Country last welcomed guests on November 2, 2001, done in during the epic slowdown in tourism after September 11th, the popularity of the much-larger Typhoon & Blizzard parks, and the poor and inconvenient parking situation.

River Country: the World's first themed water park opened in 1976 and closed in 2001 (Disney)

Getting to and from River Country required taking a tram from a remote parking lot through the Fort Wilderness campgrounds. It sat abandoned until its pools were filled in during the Zika scare of 2016. The park was demolished in early 2019, to make way for a “Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge.” That Disney Vacation Club resort has been indefinitely halted since the pandemic shut down in March of 2020.

A new nature-inspired, mixed-use Disney resort will welcome families in 2022 along the picturesque shoreline of Bay Lake located between Disney’s Wilderness Lodge and Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground at Walt Disney World Resort. The deluxe resort, which will be themed to complement its natural surroundings, will include more than 900 hotel rooms and proposed Disney Vacation Club villas spread across a variety of unique accommodation types. (Proposed – Artist Concept Only, © Disney) (Disney)

Still to this day, Disney waterways are a “haven for recreational activities” which includes water skiing, guided fishing excursions, and boating of all kinds. You can take a spin on speedboats, sailboats, pontoon boats, canopy boats, pedal boats and sidewheel steamboats. Those boats also link the Magic Kingdom to its resorts.

The Electrical Water Pageant on Bay Lake as seen from the top of the Contemporary Resort (Disney)

Both Bay Lake and The Seven Seas Lagoon are also home to the oldest continual piece of entertainment at Walt Disney World. The Electrical Water Pageant was a pre-cursor to the Main Street Electrical Parade. In fact, when it debuted October 25, 1971 for the dedication and Grand Opening Festivities, it featured the iconic Baroque Hoedown tune that became the Electrical Parade’s signature sound just a few years later. The Electrical Water Pageant is still presented nightly, with electronic, instrumental versions of Disney songs as a soundtrack.

A Disney cast member performs a backstage inspection of the Electrical Water Pageant, the long-running nighttime show that will soon return to Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Walt Disney World)

Then as now, it features colorful animated sea creatures created on barges that, in daylight, look like large sections of chain-link fence. Most of those sea creatures are roughly the same as in 1971. The Water Pageant is free for anyone to watch, passing close to the resort hotels and campground.

A Disney cast member performs a backstage inspection of the Electrical Water Pageant, the long-running nighttime show that will soon return to Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Walt Disney World)
Disney 50

To all who come to this happy corner of ClickOrlando.com, welcome! Walt Disney World is counting down to its 50th Anniversary, and so are we. With 50 days until 50 years, we are taking a daily look back at the past, how Disney’s opening shaped Central Florida’s present and a peek at what’s in store for the future.

We’re also looking to hear your memories of Walt Disney World: What do you love? What do you miss? What are some of your magical moments? You can share them with us by sending us an email and we’ll post them all for everyone to enjoy. Some might even be featured during our News 6 TV coverage of Walt Disney World’s 50th.

Here’s to dreaming, and here’s to another half-century of The Most Magical Place on Earth!

About the Authors:

Ken Pilcher is a lifelong Floridian with more than 30 years in journalism experience. He joined News 6 in 2003 and has covered Central Florida attractions and theme parks since 1988. He currently produces News 6 at 7 p.m.