After stumbling across an article in The Orlando Sentinel about River Country, Walt Disney World’s first water park, I fondly remembered numerous visits to what is now a time ravaged piece of forgotten Disney. I’m not sure if my fascination stems from childhood memories or if it’s from the sadness of seeing what has become of a once great destination at WDW.
Looking at old photos (links posted below), it’s entertaining to see a fairly fit society in the late 70’s and 80’s, along with their (ahem) interesting choice of swimwear. Having gone in ’78, ’84, ’91, and 2000, I have plenty of fond memories of Tom & Huck’s old swimmin’ hole. Even with just a handful of slides, the wait never seemed that long. I distinctly remember people patiently waiting their turn for a trip on the tire swing, boom swing, or T-bar drop, which was especially relevant since there weren’t cast members at those areas (when I went) to co-ordinate traffic. No cutting, no pushing, no urgent need to rush past the people ahead of you, Disney’s first water park offered a laid back, relaxing experience to it’s guests.
When viewing pictures of a nature reclaimed River Country, I’m brought back memories of a small but fun water park that wasn’t bent on the latest thrill slide or scream plunge. Almost apocalyptic in it’s aura, hauntingly overgrown after years of neglect, I can still see myself in every area photographed just as if my last visit were only a month ago. Viewing the abandoned entrance of White Water Rapids, I distictly remember getting in my tube and struggling to get close enough to the launch, but far enough back to avoid the cold waterfall. Overgrown beaches, slides covered with fallen tree branches, and non-Disney inspired foliage makes one wonder if River Country was forsaken decades ago, versus the 5 to 9 years it actually was. It also reminds us of how fast nature can reclaim what was once hers, without the interference of man (or Mouse). Seeing the Contemporary Resort in the background of some pictures makes things that much more ominous. Any new ones with Bay Lake Tower would be even more mind bending.
The likely main reason for its closing had to do with a new Florida State law, which required all pools and water activities to have their water originating from a municipal water system (not natural bodies of water). Also, the water at River Country was not chlorinated due to its connection to Bay Lake, which I’m sure brought up sanitary concerns. This, combined with the competing Bizzard Beach & Typhoon Lagoon and the fact it was not the easiest park to get to (except for Fort Wilderness guests), also kept River Country’s days numbered as time went on. The cost to bring this piece of folklore up to code would have been astronomical and just wouldn’t have made sense by Disney standards.
When remembering the good old days and seeing current photos of the abandoned water park, one thing that always hangs in my thoughts is how WDW has chosen to just forget about one of their own. The first water park of it’s kind that gave decades of enjoyment to it’s guests has been cast aside and forgotten like a prom date with an early curfew. Knowing River Country was likely no longer as profitable as desired, this only helps confirm the rumors of how Disney “cleans house” when someone or something is no longer needed or profitable.
When last visited in 2000, I remember having a strange feeling that I may not be back to visit my first water park. Whether this was because I had additional options or just a gut feeling of what was to come, my hunch seems to have been accurate. Since Walt Disney World is always changing, there’s always the possibility I’m mistaken and River Country is on the design table, ready to come back in a new and updated form. It could even be used as a pool area for Fort Wilderness/Wilderness Lodge guests. Until then, the occasional pass on a Water Sprite rented from a monorail resort is all I have to see what once was a favorite destination of mine at Disney World.
Next Gone But Not Forgotten – Magic Kingdom’s Skyway
Orlando Sentinel “The Daily Disney”: Have You Seen What River Country Looks Like Today
DISboards – River Country
Imagineering Disney: Abandoned Disney River Country Part 1
WaltDatedWorld: River Country
Bing maps – aerial birds eye view
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