Abandoned: The Rise, Fall and Decay of Disney’s River CountryBy Nick Sim, Sunday, March 29, 2015 05:13
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!