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.
So why did Disney close River Country? Walt Dated World offers theories:
There are several theories for the closing of River Country. Even though the park was popular during the hot summer months, the majority of the water was unheated. Because of this, River Country would often close for refurbishment in early fall when it became cooler or it would be closed during the middle of the week.
Rising admission prices and the addition of two larger water parks on Disney property may have made many visitors feel that River Country was no longer a good value for the price of a ticket compared to the limited number of things to do there.
Disney tried to rectify this problem in 1998 when it offered what it called the All-American Water Party. This seasonal event celebrated every day as the Fourth of July. Games such as sack races, tug-o-war, and a water balloon toss were offered and Disney characters would dance as a country band played during a “good ol’ fashioned barbeque.” By 2002, the Water Party was a thing of the past… The events of September 11, 2001 and the resulting decrease in tourism may have also played a part in River Country’s demise.
Disney officially announced on January 20, 2005, that River Country was permanently closed, though the company did not give an official reason and simply abandoned the space. Guests can see River Country as it sits today from the beach at Fort Wilderness or from the boats coming to and from the campground. In 2009, the folks at Imagineering Disney, another blog dedicated to Disney history, were somehow able to get into what used to be River Country and photograph what they called the “watery ghost town.” They published their photos in a four-part blog series, and the photos made their way to The Weather Channel. (Imagineering Disney was able to tour the site by invitation and strongly discourages trespassing.)
Former River Country guests look back fondly on the park — including my family. Walt Disney World has two top-notch water parks in Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, but neither park matches the charm and down-home fun that River Country offered. Sadly, Walt Disney World’s original park now remains a thing of the past.