The Weather Channel has run a fascinating feature on weather.com: a photo gallery of “Creepy Abandoned Theme Parks.” The post lives up to its name — the photos show an eerie emptiness to the parks, which run the gamut from a park decimated by Hurricane Katrina to a Ukrainian park scheduled to open just days after the Chernobyl disaster. One of the parks in the photo gallery tells the story of a slice of Disney history that is long lost — River Country.
Back in Walt Disney World’s early days in the first half of the ’70s, the Vacation Kingdom that Walt and Roy Disney and the Imagineers had in mind was not fully realized. There simply wasn’t much to do beyond the Magic Kingdom, the resort hotels and campground, and a little golf. The Imagineers knew they needed to add more to the park to lure guests for longer stays. In a burst of development in the mid ’70s, the company built the Disney Village Marketplace (now the core of the Downtown Disney area) and developed River Country adjacent to Fort Wilderness Campground & Resort.
This water park opened on five acres at a corner of Bay Lake near Cypress Point at Fort Wilderness on June 20, 1976. It was officially opened by Gerald Ford’s daughter Susan and was designed to be like the type of swimming hole you’d imagine in a Mark Twain novel. According to Disney press releases, gravity kept the millions of gallons of water fresh in River Country. A giant flexible tube at the mouth of the Ol’ Swimmin’ Hole opened into Bay Lake and served as a “bladder” as it expanded and contracted to keep the River Country water level six inches higher than the lake. This was accomplished through the use of a special sensor system.
Water from Bay Lake was pumped through the inside of River Country’s artificial mountain to the top of the flumes and raft ride at the rate of 8,500 gallons a minute. Following the principle that gravity causes water to seek its own level, the River Country water spilled over the top of the tube back into Bay Lake and provided circulation in the water. There were natural sand beaches underfoot instead of the concrete found at a regular waterpark.
Fred Joerger, who did rock work on attractions such as Big Thunder Mountain and Tom Sawyer Island designed the rocks at River Country and scattered them with pebbles from streambeds in Georgia and the Carolinas.
River Country consisted of several sections. The Ol’ Swimmin’ Hole included rope bridges and a 330,000 gallon sand-bottom pool. Kiddie Cove contained activities just for the little ones. Whoop ‘n’ Holler Hollow hosted two longer flume slides, and Raft Rider Ridge included a white-water rapid slide. The Upstream Plunge was a heated pool with short flume slides that dropped guests quickly into the pool. The park included a shop and dining options; guests could bring their own picnics. The park remained popular into the ’90s, often closing due to capacity on hot summer days.