Back in the mid-1970s, Walt Disney World was not the sprawling, multi-day resort destination that it is today. The only theme park on offer was the Magic Kingdom, and EPCOT Center wouldn't open until the start of the next decade. Yet Disney desperately wanted to increase the length of time that guests spent staying at its selection of on-site hotels. A stop-gap solution was needed.
To keep its hotel guests amused and in-situ for longer, Disney decided to build its first ever water park: Disney's River Country. Although other water parks existed prior to River Country’s debut on June 20, 1976, it has often been argued that – just as Disneyland was the first “true” theme park – River Country was the water park to truly carry off a coherent theme, rather than simply throwing together a selection of slides and pools.
Alas, unlike Disneyland, Disney’s River Country was not to stand the test of time. When Michael Eisner took over as Disney CEO in 1984, he took a far competitive approach than predecessors. Disney’s neighbours in Florida were no longer viewed as “complementing” the Disney experience – instead, they were simply viewed as competition to be crushed.
One of those competitors was Wet ‘n’ Wild Orlando, these days owned by arch-rival Universal. Wet ‘n’ Wild was larger than River Country, and Eisner decided to take it on by building a full-scale water park, Typhoon Lagoon, which opened in June 1989. A third water park, Blizzard Beach, followed six years later, leaving the tiny River Country looking somewhat surplus to requirements in the eyes of Disney’s management.
River Country's capacity was limited, and its days were numbered. It shut on September 1, 2001, but remains in place today - it was abandoned rather than demolished.
Still, many folks have happy memories of visiting Disney’s River Country during its golden years. Let’s take a look back at some of the park’s most notable features and characteristics.
5. The theme
Located near Discovery Island on the shore of Bay Lake, River Country boasted a rustic "wilderness" theme. The theming was heavy on rocks and boulders, and was designed to resemble an "old-fashioned swimming hole".
According to the excellent Walt Dated World, Fred Joerger, who had worked on the likes of Big Thunder Mountain and Tom Sawyer Island, was responsible for designing River Country’s extensive rockwork. On top of the larger boulders were strewn pebbles from streams in Georgia and the Carolinas. The natural feel of the park was enhanced by the sand that was abundant throughout.
The overall effect, just as Disney hoped, was that entering River Country felt like stepping into a scene from a Mark Twain novel. With added water slides, of course.
4. The water
The water that was used by Disney’s River Country was one of the most unique aspects of the park. It was drawn directly from Bay Lake, passing through a unique filtration system before entering the various slides and pools.
A giant flexible tube acted as a “bladder” between Bay Lake and River Country, expanding and contracting to keep the water level inside the park slightly higher than that of the lake. The water was then pumped up to the top of various slides, plunging downwards, and ultimately – thanks to the higher water level in River Country and the associated effects of gravity – falling back into Bay Lake itself.