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Abandoned: The Rise, Fall and Decay of Disney’s River Country

The future

For the creators of River Country, witnessing the decline of the park has been a painful experience. “I’m sorry to see River Country in its present condition and hope that something good comes of it,” said Imagineer Pat Burke in his 2011 interview with Disney and More.

Following River Country’s closure, there were persistent rumors that the park would reopen at some point as an exclusive pool area for Fort Wilderness guests. However, looking at images of the abandoned park and considering that it has now been in decline for well over a decade, that seems impossible. River Country is beyond repair – it would need to be completely rebuilt. It seems more likely that Disney would build a third, larger water park if it saw enough demand for one.

Disney Vacation Club logo

In 2010, a number of reports suggested that Disney was planning to build a new Disney Vacation Club Resort on the River Country property, expanding its timeshare empire. Engineers were said to have been spotted running the rule over the site to determine what needed to be done to clear away the remnants of its attractions.

Buffalo Junction artwork

At the time, Screamscape reported that the project would be “based on the old Buffalo Junction plans from years ago." Buffalo Junction, also known as Wilderness Junction, was set to be a 600-room resort along the southern shore of Bay Lake next to River Country. The Disney Drawing Board reports that the resort would "have been similar to Disney’s Boardwalk, but themed to the Old West, with horses on sawdust-strewn streets, and would have had a copy of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show from Disneyland Paris." However, the plans were shelved in 1992 when recession struck and the disastrous debut of Disneyland Paris threw a number of other projects into doubt.

In an interview with the Orlando Business Journal, Dennis Spiegel, president of consulting firm International Theme Park Services Inc., said: “We have heard rumors about this for a couple of months now. They are trying to look at it from an extended-stay viewpoint - having more for guests to do on-site in addition to the parks.” Spiegel went on to suggest that River Country could still be resurrected as an exclusive benefit for DVC guests.

Then it all went quiet. The rumors have resurfaced every now again (most recently in early 2014), but Disney is yet to confirm any future plans for the River Country site.

A walk down memory lane

River Country Vinylmation

Our journey through the history of Disney’s River Country ends here. But during your next trip to Walt Disney World, you can still catch glimpses of some elements of the park – ones that continue to be maintained and looked after. And you won’t have to climb any fences to do so.

There are a number of River Country “Easter Eggs” sprinkled around Walt Disney World. Firstly, if you want to imagine how early guests arrived at the park, keep your eyes peeled in the Typhoon Lagoon parking lot. One of the coaches from the Fort Wilderness Railroad is used as a prop there.

Fort Wilderness Railroad Carriage

Over at Fort Wilderness, parts of the park itself are still in use. The former entrance gate now acts as the gate for the Mickey’s Backyard BBQ Dinner Show. This is held in the former Cookout Pavilion that doubled as the water park’s hurricane shelter. You can still see a two-window ticket booth on your arrival at the BBQ, advertising “Relaxing Pool & Springs”, “White Water Adventures” and “Guest Services”.

River’s Country main service building is also still in place, providing public restrooms for guests at the dinner show. You can’t take a shower (these sections have been closed off), although signage still suggests that you can. The restrooms themselves are extra large, and host unusual items like a wall-mounted hair dryer. Elsewhere, the section of the building that features a white wooden door once acted as the Towel Window and Lost & Found facility for River Country.

Meadow Pool slide

At the BBQ, you may also spot a tiered seating area with a pattern imprinted onto the concrete consisting of four circles and a square. This was the site of the legs of River Country’s water tower. Head for a swim in Fort Wilderness’ Meadow Pool, and you’ll notice that the water tower is now in place there. This was one of few items to be salvaged from River Country back in 2009, becoming part of a new water slide.

Scattered around the area near the main service building are some remnants of Fred Joerger’s meticulous River Country rockwork. As you take them in, think back to the glory days of this tiny, beautiful and fondly-remembered little water park, and hum along to the tune of the Mouseketeers’ “Big River Country”…

River Country.  Big River Country!

There's a lot about it, to brighten up your soul.

River Country.  Big River Country!

Come and join us for a visit to the ol' swimmin' hole!

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There are 61 comments.

Can't we get a petition started to get WDW to bring the park back? I'm sure if we got enough signatures and did an online/social media campaign to bring it back something would happen.

Things deteriorate so rapidly in the swampy Florida climate, it would be impossible. It would have to be razed and built from scratch.I don't think they'll ever do that; I remember safety concerns being expressed in the 80's. It really wasn't for anyone but strong swimmers, a couple of kids drowned and that was that.

Thank you for a wonderful trip down memory lane. As a native of Orlando, my family enjoyed many of the Disney ammenities in the 70s and 80s including fun times at Disney's first water park while we "camped" at Fort Wilderness (in mobile homes), before some of us actually became part of the cast that made the magic come to life.

My family loved Water Country. I agree that it should be revamped and re-opened. Make whatever improvements and/or corrections. It was a place that was not so action packed as Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. It was a place that families could just go and have a more sedate experience which sometimes is just what is needed as Disney World can be very hectic at times. We often stayed at Fort Wilderness when our girls were small, and they still talk about their vacations there to this day. It is so sad to see Water Country in its present state. We now have a grandson, and he has been to Disney World once. It was so unfortunate that we could not share Water Country with him on this visit.

This was a fantastic, in-depth article. I only went to River Country once. It was when we stayed at Wildness Lodge in the early to mid-90s. I was probably 7 or 8. I personally didn't appreciate the river water feel and I was terrified of all the big rides, but I still love Disney and this was such a fun trip down memory lane.

This is so sad and surprises me that Disney would allow this to happen. As a frequent visitor to Fort Wilderness Campground we so hoped they would make this an exclusive swimming area for campground guests. Especially since more lately the two small pools available at the campground cannot accommodate the number of guests there daily. The last time we were there the main pool was well over capacity and it was not an enjoyable experience at all.

i visited river country in the late 1970 s and stayed in Fort Wilderness was a great time. Now grown and living in Florida and Disney pass holder. Wish they would plan to bring back River Country Thank You Disney

If just like to say that I really enjoyed this article. Very in depth and it's a shame it's in the state it is.

I so wish I could take my kids here! I loved it!! The two new watermarks do not have the same feel. Sad.

Very long winded way to explain that better situated water parks with better parking made River Country obsolete. 911 brought all this to a head. With two other water parks, River Country simply was no longer needed. They should demolish it though.

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