Abandoned: The Rise, Fall and Decay of Disney’s River CountryBy Nick Sim, Sunday, March 29, 2015 05:13
Six acres of aquatic fun
The experiment with a themed water park proved to be an immediate success. In its 1976 Annual Report to shareholders, Walt Disney Productions boasted: “Six acres of aquatic fun await visitors to River Country, which opened at Walt Disney World’s Fort Wilderness Campgrounds last June. As many as 4,700 guests per day have already enjoyed its Ol’ Swimmin’ Hole, white water rapids, raft rides, rope swings, beaches or a plunge down a 260-foot, 2,000 gallon a minute water slide called Whoop ‘n Holler Hollow.”
Indeed, the park’s limited capacity meant that it was often forced to shut its gates. Disney began to ponder further expansion projects for Fort Wilderness, such as creating a rustic “fun house” or growing the resort beyond the water park.
So what exactly could guests expect when they visited River Country? Step back in time and join us for a quick tour of the original Disney water park…
First, you’ll need to get there from your hotel. There’s very little parking available at River Country itself, so once you’ve arrived at Fort Wilderness by bus or car you’ll have to hop on to a bus, a tram or – in the park’s first couple of years – the Fort Wilderness Railroad, a steam-powered railway that stopped operating altogether in the early 1980s.
Arriving at the park’s suitably rustic-looking entrance, you’ll need your admission ticket (or you can grab one from the Ticket Hut).
In 1977, as a member of the general public you’d have paid $4 for an adult, or $3 for a child. This works out as about $15.50 for an adult, or $11.50 for a child in today’s money when adjusted for inflation – significantly less than the $61.77 / $53.25 gate prices you might pay at Blizzard Beach or Typhoon Lagoon. Even in 2001, a day ticket for River Country cost $16.91, the equivalent of around $23 today.
Combination tickets, such as the one shown above, were also available that covered admission to Treasure Island (later renamed as Discovery Island).
When you pick up your park map, you may understand why a visit to River Country is so cheap. Here’s a nicely-designed map from 1993:
And here’s one from the park’s final years:
As you can see, River Country is a much smaller and more intimate park than Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach, with fewer blockbuster attractions. Most sources peg the size of Typhoon Lagoon as 56 acres, making it around 9-10 times larger than River Country.
If you’re not already changed, head to the Main Service Building, where the changing rooms, restrooms and showers are located. You’ll need a locker and a towel, available from the building’s Towel Window. The excellent Walt Dated World tells us that towel rentals cost 50 cents back in 1991, rising to $1 by 2001. In the latter year, locker rentals cost $4 to $6, plus a $2 deposit.
Once inside, you’ll notice that this isn’t a regular water park. In the words of Disney’s Jeff Kurtti in Since the World Began, “The grounds are grassy and inviting, a boardwalk creates a nature trail through a cypress swamp, a wide beach invites sunbathers, and the swimming areas feature flume and raft rides.” Instead of concrete, you’ll find sand and rocks underfoot.
First, let’s head to Bay Cove (pictured above), the main swimmin’ hole that is connected directly to Bay Lake (with the “bladder” in place to keep unfiltered water out). It’s surrounded on one side by a huge, sandy beach covered in sun loungers – perfect for parents to rest while their kids frolic in the water, and often populated by birds such as ibises and cranes. The pool itself also has a sandy bottom.
On the opposite side of the pool is a large mountain (the same one we saw modelled earlier). A series of slides wind their way down this, spilling out into the lagoon and acting as its water source. Riders plunge into the lagoon in an area that is some six feet deep – they need to be competent swimmers, as they’ll have to swim a little distance before their feet can touch ground.
There are two ways to reach the water slides by foot – the Barrel Bridge (a walkway floating on a series of barrels, similar to the one found on the Magic Kingdom’s Tom Sawyer Island and seen at the top of the image above) and the Bay Bridge, which sits on stilts and runs right alongside Bay Lake (seen at the bottom of the image).
First up is Whoop ‘n Holler Hollow, the park’s headline attraction. It actually consists of two slides – one 260 feet long, and another 160 feet long.
Both are fiberglass body slides featuring very sharp turns that are navigated at high speed, making this a pretty rough experience when compared to the slides at Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach.
In places, the slides are surrounded by very convincing-looking fake rocks, Big Thunder Mountain-style. The "wooden" trestles look more rustic than those typically used to support water slides.
Next let’s head to White Water Rapids. We’ll join the queue in the water itself, picking up an inner tube (black during the park’s early years, and yellow later on). We’ll then glide through an area known as Raft Rider Ridge, lazy river-style, before plunging into a high-speed section and crashing down into the pool below.
Again, this is a pretty wild experience, made all the more so by the fact that multiple guests are allowed to ride the rapids simultaneously – so there are a whole bunch of people riding along in close proximity.
At the bottom, we’ll be dumped into Bay Cove’s lagoon once again.
There are several small attractions located within the lagoon itself.
The Boom Swing sits on a tiny island, and allows us to grab onto a wooden ship’s boom before swinging out and splashing down into the water. The Cable Ride sees us grabbing a handle and sliding down a cable, zip line-style, before letting go and plunging into the pool. And the Tire Swing lets us swing out on a tire before attempting a graceful dive into the water below.
On the other side of the Barrel Bridge lies Kiddie Cove, which – as its name suggests – is aimed at younger guests.
There are four small slides built into the rocks here, offering a much tamer experience than the big slides in the neighboring cove.
Kids can play with floating mock alligators in the water, and a sandy beach and a playground are also on offer.
Most of the pools at River County are not heated (this is, after all, a “natural” swimming hole). The exception is the kidney-shaped, 330,000-gallon Upstream Plunge, which is split into two halves by a cordon of buoys.
One half is dedicated to swimmers and divers, while the other half acts as the plunge pool for Slippery Slide Falls.
This features side-by-side 16-foot long chutes, the signature feature of which is a seven feet drop into the water below.
Seven feet! No other Disney water park boasts a similar drop-off slide.
There are things to do at River Country that don’t involve swimming. Indian Springs is a small wading pool, equipped with water squirters. Nearby, the Cypress Point Nature Trail is an elevated boardwalk across a cypress swamp, surrounded by sunken trees and plentiful wildlife.
You’re free to bring your own food with you to River Country, and to eat it in the Pop’s Willows picnic area, surrounded by cypress trees (you may recall from earlier that "Pop's Willow Grove" was the working title for the entire park during its development). If you’d prefer to buy something to eat, Pop’s Place serves fried chicken, hot dogs, sandwiches, french fries, cookies and ice cream. The smaller Waterin’ Hole stand also serves snacks and hot and cold drinks. The Cookout Pavilion – not actually part of River Country – doubles as the park’s hurricane shelter.
Souvenirs are available from River Relics, along with essential supplies. In the late ‘90s, we can also head to Hair Wraps, where we can have some color added to our hair-do (or, more likely, our little girl’s hair-do).
“Who’s that waving encouragement as you flume down a rustic mountain at Whoop ‘n Holler Hollow? Is it? It is! I can't believe my eyes! It’s Goofy in swimming trunks!”
“And over there – wading into Bay Cove watching kids swing on a rope and splash into the water. It can’t be! But you bet it is! Seems that a few Disney characters have invaded River Country on summer afternoons. Guess they figure it’s the best way in the world to cool off and have some rib ticklin’ fun at the same time. Why not join them? You’ll find them basking in the sun and havin’ a great time every day between 1 and 5pm.” – River Country brochure, 1989
Goofy was the main mascot at River Country – and yes, he really would don his swimsuit and fly down the park’s slides. Chip and Dale would often tag along, and trio would make grand entrances by boat or on horseback.
The Goof and his friends took on a bigger role in 1998, when Disney introduced the All-American Water Party in an attempt to prop up flagging attendance at River Country. During this seasonal event, every single day was the Fourth of July (you could, of course, head down to Pleasure Island in the evening and celebrate New Year’s Eve on the very same day).
Pluto and Minnie would join Goofy, Chip and Dale, all dressed in All-American garb. A banjo band would play while guests stuffed down barbecue food, and games such as a tug-o-war, a water balloon toss and sack races would round out the fun.
By and large, most guests seem to have happy memories of River Country – at least judging by the comments received on previous articles we’ve published about the park.
“Oh my gosh - this place was fabulous,” recalls one commenter. “We used to camp at Fort Wilderness every summer and would spend a couple days at River Country. I can remember going home after the first visit – having never been to a water park (there weren't any back around 1976) and struggling to explain to my friends exactly WHAT it was...So much fun. It felt big, and there was a lot of ground to cover.”
“My favorite was the inner tube ride [White Water Rapids], which started and ended with small waterfalls you would go over. There would be a zillion tubes all tangled together and over you'd go...so much fun. The grounds were gorgeous, built around that lake, and the water even then was very murky, so it had a very ‘real’ feel to it. The slide into the pool [Slippery Slide Falls] terrified me, as it ended about eight feet above the water and you would just DROP. We would stay till they closed at 10pm and you would just be exhausted. It made Fort Wilderness seem like a destination.”
Jennifer also has fond memories of White Water Rapids. “Sometimes you’d get knocked out of your inner tube and have to try and grab on to another one to finish going down. The first time I went to River Country I was five and too little to ride it, but eventually it was my favorite ride in the park.”
The uniqueness of the park during its early days was one reason for its popularity. “I was there with my boys in the 70s,” recalls Diane Caccioppo. “[It was] the only water park, and awesome for its time.”
Even after the much larger and more elaborate Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach opened, many guests retained their affection for River Country. “I remember going there when I was about 13 (I’m 32 now),” says Jenn. “Even though River Country was a bit ‘old’ and worn, we still enjoyed it.”
“We made it there twice before it shut down in 1995 and 1996,” adds Jim. “It’s too bad since this park had some unique rides not found elsewhere.”
“I loved visiting River Country (and Discovery Island) with my children when they were small,” recalls Sherry Lowe. “I have very fond memories of visits to both parks with them. River Country was a great option for a water park if your children were small - much more laid back, a great place to unwind.”
Despite its appeal to many, River Country was not universally loved. In particular, the rough nature of its slides and the big drops (and deep pools) at the end of them made it a more challenging affair for weak swimmers than many modern water parks. “I was an adult the one and only time I went there with my family,” recalls Barb. “I felt you had to be a pretty strong swimmer to really take advantages of the amenities. Not much to do if you weren’t.”
The “natural” stylings of River Country are often cited as a major reason why guests enjoyed visiting the park – but they did have their downsides. “I hated it,” says Dennis O’Toole. “The ground was too rocky and not protected from the heat.”
Perhaps the most famous visitors to the park were the Mouseketeers, who filmed a musical number for a 1977 edition of The Wonderful World of Disney. Altogether now:
River Country. Big River Country.
It's a hoot. It's a holler! It's a water jamboree!
River Country. Big River Country.
If you're hot around the collar it's the cool place to be.