Whatever Happened to River Country? The History Behind Disney’s Abandoned First Water Park

Would you believe that the Walt Disney Company allowed a full theme park to rot away in the middle of Walt Disney World for nearly two decades? We’d forgive you for being skeptical, as the story sounds completely antithetical to Disney’s usual M.O.. However, it’s true. This is the story of that park – River Country – from its construction to its awkward closure and what the future holds for the land.

River Country opened on June 20, 1976, near the grounds of the Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. The park was one of the first major additions to Walt Disney World after its 1971 opening, and was one of the earliest fully-themed water parks ever built.

Themed as a “Tom Sawyer swimmin’ hole,” the park – which was originally known as Pop’s Willow Grove in development – continued numerous water-based attractions that would become industry standard at water parks in future decades. These included large water slides, an inner-tube river, a sand-bottom lake, and a play area featuring tire swings and bridges.

The park was also known for its unique filtration system, which used fresh water from the adjacent Bay Lake. The water was cleaned and filtered and used in the park’s attractions, meanwhile the he park’s water sat at a higher level than the lake’s, which ensured that unfiltered water from the lake couldn’t enter the park.

This aerial photo shows the now-abandoned River Country, bottom center, Discovery Island, right, the Contemporary resort, top center, and Shipwreck Island, located between the Contemporary and Wilderness Lodge properties. [The Walt Disney Company]
River Country was a staple of the Walt Disney World attraction lineup for 25 years, and over that period it was witness to the evolution of the vacation kingdom. When the park opened, the entire complex was made up of the Magic Kingdom theme park, two resort hotels, a campground, and a small shopping village. By 2001, that roster had expanded to include three more theme parks, over 30 hotels, and – perhaps most damaging to River Country in the long run – two more water parks.

While River Country was revolutionary when it opened, by the turn of the century, the park had not only been surpassed by outside competitors, but also by Disney’s own Typhoon Lagoon (opened 1989) and Blizzard Beach (opened 1995).  Up against those heavily themed thrill parks, the comparatively tiny River Country felt positively quaint. In turn attendance began to suffer, and by 2001, Disney’s first water park was living on borrowed time.

Blizzard Beach

The proverbial “other shoe” dropped on November 2, 2001, when River Country closed for its annual winter refurbishment… and didn’t reopen with the other two water parks. Disney initially remained silent on the issue for months before releasing a statement in 2002, which said the park would be closed for the remainder of the year. The park remained closed in 2003 and 2004 before Disney officially announced in 2005 that River Country was closed for good.

There have been many theories bandied about online as to why River Country closed. One of the primary theories revolves around the idea that the closure was due to a brain-eating amoeba that was present in the park’s water. This rumor likely grew out of the death of of an 11-year-old boy who did in fact contract a fatal case of amoebic meningoencephalitis from the park’s water. However, that incident occurred in 1980, 21 years before the park closed. There were also two tragic drowning deaths at the park during the 80s, neither of which had anything to do with the park’s closing. Rather, the biggest reason for River Country’s closure is that the park simply couldn’t sustain demand next to its much larger siblings, especially in the midst of the massive travel slowdown following the attacks of 9/11.

However, the park’s closure isn’t the end of its story. Disney, uncharacteristically, didn’t demolish River Country after its closure. Instead, they simply fenced off the park and allowed it quite literally to rot.

@RyanElijah Twitter

The park’s Life After People-like state attracted many urban explorers who illegally broke-in to explore and document the crumbling slides and pools, sharing their images on the internet for all the world to see. This led to River Country attaining an almost cult-like fame among many, even those with little interest in the rest of Disney’s parks.

Disney finally began work on the site in 2016 by filling in the Upstream Pool. Over the next two years, the company continued tearing down and removing the park despite making no official announcement of what they’d be doing with the land. Finally, in October of 2018, Disney announced that the new Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge vacation club resort would be constructed on the site.

Reflections Concept Art

The resort, which will features rooms and theming based on films including  Bambi, The Fox and the Hound, Brother Bear, Pocahontas, and The Princess and the Frog, is scheduled to open in 2022.

River Country

So River Country truly is no more, and the space will be transformed, perhaps forever ending the saga (and intrigue) of the World’s original water park.

Were any of you lucky enough to visit River Country before it closed? Do you wish it was still open at Walt Disney World, or do you think the quaint park’s time had passed it by? Let us know in the comments below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

19 Replies to “Whatever Happened to River Country? The History Behind Disney’s Abandoned First Water Park”

  1. We always stayed at wildernesses (still do). Many good memories of the waterpark as a child. We do not do the other water parks. I anxiously waited to hear what they would be doing with the area only to be disappointed to hear another resort. Was hoping they would expand campground or something on those lines. That’s what’s so nice of the campground, you can truly quietly relax after a busy day at the parks.

  2. As a resident of Central Fl., we loved being able to take our children to River Country. It was inexpensive , small and so much fun. It was a shame it closed. My young son got caught in a whirlpool coming down the slide. He was to little to get himself out. He was yelling to lifeguard for help as he spun around and around.

  3. I was lucky enough to go to River Country many times when I was younger. My family always included River Country in our plans just like the Magic Kingdom. Unfortunately I do not go to Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach because they are just to big and chaotic. I have always hoped that they would revive River Country so my children could experience it and am quite sad that they never will. Sometimes bigger isn’t always better.

  4. We loved our days at River Country. After the other water parks opened and drew the people away from River Country, I hoped it would become the pool area for Fort Wilderness Campground. The pools in the campground are very basic. Other Disney resorts have specialty themed pools. This would have been a great addition for the Campground experience. Great Loss.

    1. I wished they would have left it for Fort Wilderness guests as well. It wasn’t so big that couldn’t have left it for FW guests use. We’ve never been to Disney’s two water parks. Too big and a little overwhelming.

  5. Recently visited Fort Wilderness campgrounds and I am so sad to see how the new resort is encroaching on the campgrounds. The beach is gone! And now given to Reflections DVC cabins.

  6. I loved River Country and have very fond memories of floating around the lazy river with my mother as a kid. I wish I had the chance to share that same experience with my own children.

  7. I never went to River Country, but I loved Mickey’s Backyard BBQ, which was in one of the old River Country’s buildings and has closed due to the Reflections construction. It was a really great and unique Disney dining / character experience (where else could adults have unlimited beer and wine included in their buffet meal, where else can kids dance hand in hand with Goofy to a live band?). I miss it.

  8. I have always been sad I never visited before it closed. My DH and I went to WDW a lot from 1999 till it closed and just never made it. Just like Pocahontas show at AK. Make sure you don’t keep skipping things as they may not be there next time.

  9. I’ve been to all three water parks. I preferred River Country. More laid back, relaxing and visually appealing. But, it’s time had come and gone. Attendance was way down and the people had spoken. Not thrilled that the land is going to be, yet another hotel (a timesharing one, at that). Discovery Island met a similar fate. Nice idea, and relaxing to walk around, but it was conflicted as to what they were actually trying to accomplish there. Their probably planning, yet another, hotel on the site as we speak.

  10. We stayed at the campground several times and always went to River Country. We enjoyed the relaxed, back in time feeling, as opposed to the other water parks. We definitely wish it was still there.

  11. I grew up staying at Fort Wilderness and continue to do so. We always went to River Country. It has always made me sad to see it slowly deteriorating when I pass by it on the boat on the way to MK. I am glad they have finally decided to do something with the property.

  12. I went when I was 6 years old in 1994. We stayed at Fort Wilderness Cabins and I still have memories visiting the water park.

  13. Yes, we spent a great day at River Country in 1980, back when we stayed off property. It was such a relaxing day. My 12-year-old nephew absolutely loved the fact that there were minnows the lake. He really enjoyed swimming with the “tiny fish”.

  14. We would stay at the campground every year and went to river country every time. Loved it. Wish it was still open would go now. Lots of great memories

    1. I remember my family going to River Country. We had a great time. I was so surprised to hear it closed. I miss the memories which I hold deep in my heart. The park was quaint but had so much character. I would definitely go back for new memories and reliving old.