Did Pablo Escobar really use Disney’s private island to sell drugs?

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If you Google “Castaway Cay” and “Pablo Escobar” you get tens of thousands ofdisney Search results. Click on it and you’ll likely find a story about how the infamous leader of the Medellin Cartel used Disney Cruise Line’s private island in the Bahamas as an airstrip to smuggle drugs between South America and Florida.

The legend is so pervasive that it has made its way into the established tradition of Disney’s first stop on its Caribbean cruises. But is there any truth to the myth? We dug into Castaway Cay’s past – and found an even stranger story.

Until the Walt Disney Company purchased a 99-year land lease in 1997, Castaway Cay was known as Gorda Cay. It’s only about 1,000 acres, and very little has been developed. Gorda Cay is one of nearly 700 islands that make up the Bahamas and, like many other islands in the Bahamas, is tied to pirate history. In the 1700s, pirates prowled the crystal clear waters in search of Spanish galleons laden with valuable goods stolen from the Americas. Some of these ships ended up at the bottom of the Caribbean.

Throughout the 20th century, modern pirates searched the area around Gorda Cay for sunken ships. In 1950, two Nassau men discovered a 72-pound silver bar near the cay; one historian guessed it was sunk in the 1650s and estimated its value then at $1,150 – an astonishing $211,000 today, adjusted for inflation. Inspired by the silver bars and gold coins sometimes dredged from the sandbars, John Steinbeck is said to have even worked on a screenplay called “Treasure of Gorda Cay”. (Unfortunately, except for a mention in a 1958 Hedda Hopper column, it appears the project never went into production.)

In the late 1970s, stolen goods of a different kind arrived at Gorda Cay: drugs. The sparsely populated islands of the Bahamas became a hotbed for drug traffickers who needed to refuel their small planes on their way from Colombia to the United States; it didn’t hurt that the Bahamian government was perfectly happy to sell some of its islands to dodgy private buyers.

The most famous of these was Carlos Lehder, a prolific runner in Escobar’s Medellin Cartel. Lehder operated from Norman’s Cay, south of Gorda Cay, and his operation turned the beautiful waters of the Bahamas into a war zone. Locals and pleasure-seekers alike were terrified of the armed men now patrolling the beaches. In 1980, a couple from Florida sailing in the area were murdered on their boat; US officials believed they had inadvertently stumbled upon cartel activity.

The infamous Norman’s Cay airstrip, where Carlos Lehder once sold drugs for the Medellin Cartel.

Eric VANDEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

A 1981 Miami Herald article detailed some drug operations going on in full daylight; Nassau residents reported seeing small planes dropping bales of marijuana onto waiting yachts. “It was as blatant as anything you’ve ever seen,” one person said. The Herald story included a section titled “How Experienced Sailors Stay Safe”; one of the suggestions was to “avoid lingering in areas where drug trafficking would be significant, such as Williams Island near Andros, Norman’s Cay in the Exumas, Gorda Cay in the Abacos, and the Bimini Chain “.

Although the Colombians conducted operations in other parts of the Bahamas, Gorda Cay was the territory of an American named Frank Barber. He had recently purchased part of the island and set up a tidy business for himself: leasing the short airstrip of Gorda Cay to smugglers transporting weed, cocaine and Quaaludes to the United States. When Barber was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency, he agreed to turn informant. He took payment from the pilots and then forwarded some of their names to the DEA. Along the way, he met a business partner – DEA Agent Jeffrey Scharlatt. Together, Barber and Scharlatt protected some dealerships and sold others, while dividing the profits.

In 1982, Barber’s duplicity got him arrested again. He entered into a plea deal, agreeing to give up Scharlatt in exchange for a reduced sentence. The two men ended up in jail and the Gorda Cay airstrip went silent. Remarkably, that same year, film crews arrived to shoot the romantic comedy “Splash.” Just months after dangerous drug dealers left Gorda Cay, Tom Hanks was filmed meeting Daryl Hannah on his white-sand beach.

Seven years later, Disney Cruise Line announced it was signing a 99-year land lease with the Bahamian government to develop Gorda Cay into its own private island.

A view of Castaway Cay, Disney Cruise Line's private island.  Seen in the water is a ship used in the filming of

A view of Castaway Cay, Disney Cruise Line’s private island. Seen in the water is a ship used in the filming of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. This vessel has since been removed.

Suraark/Getty Images

“After a year of extensive research for an island paradise in the Bahamas, we chose Gorda Cay because its natural beauty, size and location will provide the ideal private island experience for our guests,” said Arthur A. Rodney, president of Disney Cruise Line. , told the media at the time.

Disney Imagineers descended on the island, renaming it Castaway Cay. They wanted to keep it relatively wild, with vibes of being marooned on a desert island (though still luxurious). “We didn’t want it to be like being in the parks,” Imagineer Jim Durham told the Orlando Sentinel in 1998. “You’ve been dawn to dusk at the park and now it’s time to relax.”

Two beaches received the usual amenities – bars, restaurants, gift shops – and the airstrip turned into a causeway. A tram connecting the two beaches now runs along it.

“It’s so pristine,” Rodney said, accidentally identifying exactly why the cay was a haven for centuries for lawbreakers. “There is nothing nearby.”



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