Castaway Cay was the first private island in the cruise industry where the ship docks alongside so guests do not have to tender to land.
The island is still largely undeveloped, as only 55 of the 1,000 acres are being used. Castaway Cay now has approximately 60 Disney Cruise Line permanent residents who keep the island running daily; the numbers fluctuate between the busy season and off season.
Gorda Cay was first settled in 1783. Gorda's airstrip (now Castaway Cay Airport) was once used as a stop in the 1930s for bootleggers then for drug runners.
Gorda Cay had also been used for filming in 1983. The beach where Tom Hanks first encounters Daryl Hannah in Splash is on the island. Part of the film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was filmed on the island.
In 1997, the Disney Cruise Line purchased a 99-year lease for Gorda Cay from the Bahamian government, intending the cay as the line's private island, and renamed it Castaway Cay. The company spent $25 million while construction took 18 months This included dredging 50,000 truckloads of sand from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. 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 (520 m) channel about 35 feet (11 m) deep and ranging from 200 to 400 feet (120 m) wide.
An additional race, Castaway Cay Challenge, was added to the Walt Disney World Marathon weekend series in 2015 with the 5K race taking place on Castaway Cay.
On February 26, 2015, a 38-year-old man from New York died after drowning at the adult beach at Castaway Cay. A death from a medical condition occurred on March 1 of that year on a ship docked at the island.
A post office on the island has special Bahamian postage specific to Disney Cruise Line, and a "Castaway Cay" postmark. The island is developed in the theme of a castaway community, with buildings made to look as if they had been improvised after a shipwreck. The facilities are maintained like any other Disney theme park, and the shops accept guests' stateroom keys for payment. The food service is operated as an extension of the cruise package. A variety of activities are available to guests including bicycle hire, personal watercraft rental, massages overlooking the ocean, snorkeling, para-sailing, volleyball and basketball. There are monkey bars and a rope for children to climb across set about 30 metres (98 ft) in the ocean on one beach and a slide about 25 metres (82 ft) into the ocean on another beach. There are three beaches for guests: one for families, one for Cabana guests, and another exclusively for adults, called Serenity Bay.
Two submarine-ride vehicles from the now-closed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage ride at Walt Disney World lie underwater in the snorkeling area. The Flying Dutchman pirate ship, from the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, was formerly on display in the lagoon, but as of November 2010, it had been removed and taken to another location on the island where it was dismantled.
Castaway Cay has facilities for the exclusive use of the ships' crews, including beaches and recreational areas. Approximately 60 Disney Cruise Line crew members, boat captains, drivers, landscapers, and maintenance personnel live and work full-time on the island, and are supplemented by crew from the ship when one is in port. Food and other supplies are brought in by the ships themselves. Sea water is desalinated for drinking with reverse osmosis water processors.
Castaway Cay Airport (ICAO: MYAG) is a private use airport located on the island. The airport is infrequently used, although it is still listed as active.