Operation Waterfront: Christmas Fishing

Not many people say they’ve spent Christmas fishing at Disney World, but somehow we managed to do it. Out of pressuring from my brother, we booked a guided fishing excursion out of Wilderness Lodge across the Bay Lake on Christmas Day to try my hand at bass fishing. Down at the hotel’s marina, we waited as a guy in a covered motorboat sidled up to the pier and docked. This was Paul from Melbourne Beach, a fisherman who had worked on Disney’s waterways for seven years. With a bunch of live bait and a great sense of humor, he welcomed us on board and set off across Bay Lake, which lies east of the Seven Seas Lagoon and the Magic Kingdom resort area. Bay Lake is the only naturally-occurring body of water in the park; it was here before Disney began construction. Every other lake, canal, or stream in the resort is man made.


Paul drove his motorboat to the north side of the lake. Somewhere behind these trees is a hidden Disney compound, where they keep all their boats when they aren’t in use. The boat dropped anchor on the shore off of a patch of floating grasses, lily pads, and a decrepit wooden dock long since fallen into disrepair. Here, Paul opened a built-in crate filled with live bait, small tuna-looking fish that were hooked onto our rods. After walking me through how to cast and reel in, I put my rod in and within a few minutes had a bite. But for my first time, I didn’t know how to do it properly, and Paul took the rod and brought the fish into the boat. It was a largemouth bass.

That was nice, but I wanted to actually reel one in without assistance. I didn’t have to wait long; the rod went taught, and I was cranking the wheel hard against a bass. Paul became beside me with a net, and having tired the fish out, brought it closer to the boat and into the guide’s net.

This was a great accomplishment for me. I’m no outdoorsman, but I was satisfied with my relative competence at tiring it out. I guess playing all those fishing side missions in Red Dead Redemption 2 actually paid off. Paul lifted it out of its neck and I got a good look at it; it indeed had a gaping mouth, with dull eyes. The color was mostly dark green, except for a soft white underbelly and transparent yet prickly fins on the bottom. The fish struggled, and I could see the gills on its sides flapping outwards. Right then Paul asked me if I wanted to hold it.


Not being a wimp, I said “sure” and Paul held the fish, sticking his finger into the bottom lip. He told me to hook mine in there and hold it from there. I wasn’t so sure about keeping the animal suspended by its lip, because part of me imagined I would hold it wrong and actually sever the fish’s jaw, and I’d be left there holding its disconnected mandible. I was tense as I stuck my thumb in, and all of a sudden Paul let go and the fish was suspended over the motorboat deck. I looked panicked, but I was holding the fish well. It flapped a bit, and the gills bulged, but I held firm.

Holding a largemouth bass in front of Contemporary Resort.

Next he showed me how to use my free hand to put it under the stomach and turn it horizontally. He certainly knew how to take good photographs. I threw it back into the lake; this is all catch-and-release. But Paul said plenty of people don’t realize that beforehand. He even mentioned that a few times he had people board the boat carrying coolers with the intent of hanging a fish on their wall.

I caught a third fish, and learned how to properly cast the rod. Being this close to the marshy shoreline, there were moments where your line would tug on some aquatic grass and then break loose. There was an abundance of time, though, to talk with Paul. He mentioned how you could also fish in the EPCOT lagoon- an entirely synthetic body of water. He said how awesome it can be “to catch a fish in America and reel it in in Japan.” That would be a great experience to do next time. It’s on my list. After our time alongside the river of grass, we cruised across the Bay Lake and past the Contemporary Resort. Connecting Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon is an overpass above the highway to the park. So your boat goes on a concrete channel over cars, a whole bunch of water over a moving roadway. We entered Seven Seas Lagoon, which was dredged out. I asked Paul that if Bay Lake was natural, why not put the Magic Kingdom in front of it instead of building an artificial one right in front of it? Paul explained the Magic Kingdom was selected in its space before the lake was built; the water was only an afterwards construction. Paul rode us into the marina at the Polynesian Resort, and told us that at the dockside fish populate below the planks, waiting. I could wave at passersby and focus on my line. We were there twenty minutes and all of us caught at least one fish. I was able to use the net twice. The last fish I caught, according to a weight apparatus, weighed about 4 lbs. These fish were all large; Paul referred to them as “dinosaurs.”

En route to Wilderness Lodge, we had to stop at the Wilderness Campgrounds north of the hotel. We passed through a straight with two notable landmarks, one on the left and two on the right. On the left passing north, you can see Discovery Island. This island, now overtaken with foliage, was once a pavilion for Disney where audiences would visit and see many exotic animals, including lemurs. The island was shut down with the opening of Animal Kingdom, and now it sits there in Bay Lake, like a ruined tomb. Urban explorers are said to have set foot on the island (many resorts offer rental speedboats) and were banned for life from Disney assets. I kind of like Disney, so I didn’t mind keeping a wide berth from it. On the right, you could see some wooden poles and structures. Paul said these were old ruins as well, (I believe an abandoned water park) that are now to become a new resort.

Discovery Island on Bay Lake from the Wilderness Lodge.
The ruins of a forgotten attraction.

My favorite of these hidden monuments, on the right side, is a single tree sticking out of the water isolated from the rest of the forest by water. It’s possibly dead, but the tree itself isn’t the neatest thing. It’s what hangs off of it. Hanging from it are dozens of crisp white tennis shoes tied together by the laces. Where I come from, if shoes are suspended from a high point, it’s a meeting place for buying narcotics. But Paul gave a more plausible explanation. He said that when the boat captains on the lake retired, they would go out to the lake and throw their shoes over the branches. This tradition, a view into the lives of the people who sail the waters of this theme park, illuminated the careers of these folks who make the Happiest Place On Earth work. On the ferries I had sailed past this tree before, but I had never noticed this tree. And now, it is apparent and I hope to see it again. This is a lovely monument, a hidden gem of Disney World, and was a climax to this expedition to explore the lesser-known corners of the park.

The Captain’s Shoe Tree, Bay Lake, Florida

We disembarked with Paul, and thanked him for giving a great tour of the area, telling such hilarious jokes, and revealing the inner workings of this theme park. Employees like him bring the place to life and show the people behind the facade that make it work. And relaxing on the lagoon, seeing how the hurried, worried tourists run, was a glorious respite to the intense crowds at the parks. I give this whole experience a full 5/5 stars, and recommend Paul from Melbourne Beach. He’ll show you how to have an amazing time out on the lake with a bunch of largemouth bass.

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