Abandoned: The Rise, Fall and Decay of Disney’s River CountryBy Nick Sim, Sunday, March 29, 2015 05:13
Throughout its temporary closure between 2001 and 2005, River Country stood devoid of guests, awaiting seasonal maintenance before it could reopen. Of course, that seasonal maintenance never came – and the park simply remained in place. Disney never bothered to demolish it – it simply fenced off the areas that were no longer needed and stopped upkeep on them. The result is a fascinating study in how quickly nature can reclaim a Disney-built attraction.
Walt Disney always intended for his theme parks and resorts to be places that could be altered and improved by tearing out old attractions and installing new ones. But Disney actually has a long history of leaving attractions in place longer after they have closed. There are numerous examples from the past – the Submarine Voyage attractions at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom both stood idle for years before their eventual replacement (in Disneyland’s case, the ride was finally overhauled to become the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage). Some of the towers of the Skyway cable car systems were removed long after the rest of the ride closed. Even today, if you take a close look as you wander around Disney’s parks, you’ll often find evidence of abandoned attractions.
It’s not really that surprising, then, that Disney simply left River Country to rot, given that it already had ready-made replacements in Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach.
And rot it has. The walkways are treacherous and overgrown. The beaches are similarly unusable, while the pools themselves are now considerably more “natural” that they were intended to be, and certainly not inviting to swimmers. The artificial rocks that were so carefully created by Fred Joerger are cracked and damaged.
You can get an impression of how the passage of time has affected River Country by looking at aerial images of the park from the period since it closed:
The most striking images, though, are the ones taken from close-up. At this point, let us be clear: we do not recommend exploring the abandoned River Country. Not only is it trespassing, but it’s also increasingly dangerous as plant life and wildlife have reclaimed the area. Disney itself has this to say: “While we appreciate the enthusiasm of our fans, undeveloped areas of Walt Disney World are off limits to guests. As a private property owner, we have the right to trespass guests who deliberately enter unauthorized areas."
However, there are ways to investigate River Country’s current state without climbing fences – and they are surprisingly unchallenging. If you ride the boat from Fort Wilderness to the Magic Kingdom, you’ll spot the Cypress Point Nature Trail’s boardwalk – which, sadly, is gradually crumbling away and falling into Bay Lake. And if you visit the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, it’s pretty easy to peek through the cracks in the ugly green fence that separates the rest of Fort Wilderness from River Country. You can reach the fence by turning left out of Crockett’s Tavern and walking up the street running next to Bay Lake.
Inevitably, some adventurous (many would argue foolhardy) souls have crept into River Country since it closed its gates. Rollins College professor Dr Rick Foglesong, who has studied Disney for many years, explains: “This one was teeming with Disney nostalgia…What fun for a kid to have a Huckleberry Finn experience and sneak into River Country.”
One account from 2012 of such an experience explains: “The gate was chained, but not locked. This was that moment where I look around and think ‘this is way too easy’. The chains and locks were just hanging there and not doing anything at all. In all honesty, I just walked right into River Country, easier than you could have when it was open for business. As I walked in, I started walking quickly thinking I would be thrown out in no time. Without really paying attention, I ended up back at the pool that I could see looking over the fence. The thing that I noticed was how gross it was, and how seriously dangerous it was…I know a random child isn’t going to stumble back there, but still, for Disney it surprised me how they just left it.”
The author, “Mr. Oswald”, continues: “A few more minutes wouldn’t hurt, I decided. I looked farther into the park, and noticed something that looked like signs of life. When I say signs of life, I mean retro items that were in my memory from years long ago. Ropes, bridges, and of course that dark water that was the main swimming area. It was still there! It hadn’t been filled in or thrown in the trash, the entire park was basically frozen in time right before my eyes.”
For those of you who are unable to take a look for yourselves, there are some striking "then and now" images below (you can see many more images of the abandoned River Country over at DISboards and Retro Disney World). Where possible, we offer a comparison to the park’s operational state – and the level of decay is pretty clear.
We’ll start our tour at Bay Cove. As per the account above, the lagoon remains in place, with many of the in-water attractions such as the tire swing still clearly visible.
“The water is eerily still, nothing was really jumping out or swimming around,” explains Mr. Oswald. “The docks, ropes, wires, swings, and almost everything else were all still there. I noticed an old inner tube floating in some weeds.”
The two crossings, Bay Bridge and the Barrel Bridge, are still largely intact.
The slides on Bay Cove’s mountain are in danger of disappearing completely. Mr. Oswald continues: “The overgrowth is something that I cannot emphasize enough, in five more years this place will be totally covered up.” The Whoop ‘n Holler Hollow slides are still in place, although they are becoming increasingly derelict.
The state of White Water Rapids is even worse. As long ago as 2009, it looked like this – with the slide itself barely visible.
Adjacent to Bay Cove, Kiddie Cove is now filled in and grown over. The rockwork and slides remain, but there’s no water for little ones to splash into any more.
Upstream Plunge, River Country’s only heated pool, looks considerably less inviting than it once did.
Even now, in the park’s abandoned state, you can sense a sense of just how huge the drop was from Slippery Slide Falls down into the pool below.
There’s very little left of Indian Springs, where kids once frolicked among water sprinklers.
There’s even less left of the park’s once-sandy beaches, which are now entirely overgrown.
Despite the decay, there’s still plenty of evidence that this was once a working water park. Signage has been left in place, along with detail and theming work.
One of the clearest signs of decay is clearly visible to guests travelling by boat to the Magic Kingdom:
The Cypress Point Nature Trail is gradually collapsing into Bay Lake, providing a perfect metaphor for the park that hosted it.