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Setting the stage

Image: Disney

Imagine it – it’s the latter half of the ’70s. Bob Seger, Paul McCartney, Elton John, and Diana Ross rule the airwaves while Rocky and King Kong dominate the box office.

At Disney World, a one-day ticket to Magic Kingdom will set you back almost $8. But if you spent it hoping to see the beloved Main Street Electrical Parade that’s been the park’s nighttime headliner since 1972, you may want to ask for a refund. In a grand “glowing away” ceremony, its run ended – probably forever – to make way for the patriotic street party America on Parade (above).

It makes sense. After all, it’s the Bicentennial, celebrating 200 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence signaled the United States’ official start as a nation. Only a few things are more “American” than Disney World: baseball, apple pie, and a summer day spent picnicking at the ol’ swimmin’ hole. Luckily, the latter is now a part of Disney World.

Image: Disney

It all begins at Fort Wilderness – the “Vacation Kingdom of the World’s” campground. When you think about it, it’s not really an odd place for a waterpark. In fact, the promise of River Country fits well with Fort Wilderness’ rustic throwback to the tales of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn – icons of American history (not withstanding the fact that neither ever really existed).

As with so much at the sprawling Walt Disney World, it begins with a drive. Fort Wilderness is located off of Vista Blvd. Of course, that’s just the start of the journey. “As the crow flies,” it’s more than a mile from the campground’s gateway to the Main Settlement on Bay Lake. Parking at River Country is very limited, so your best bet is to park in the day guest lot right off the road and make your way to the Gateway Depot. A ride on the Fort Wilderness Railroad will set you back 50¢ if you’re not saying at the resort.

1978 prices. Image: Disney

In many ways, the journey to the park is an attraction in its own right. The train chugs through the cypress and pine forests of Fort Wilderness, criss-crossing pathways suited for foot traffic and golf carts, chugging by “trading posts,” and curving around camping areas. (The train’s narrower gauge makes it surprisingly nimble.)

At last, we’ve arrived at the Main Settlement – the lakeside village that’s home to Pioneer Hall, the Trail’s End restaurant, the Settlement Trading Post, the Tri-Circle-D Ranch, and the Fort Wilderness Landing that ferries guests out to Treasure Island. But our destination is around Pioneer Hall, where a rustic wooden gate marks the park’s entrance. In 1976, a day’s admission will set you back $4.00. Once you’ve ponied up the cash, the gates are open wide. Welcome to River Country!

River Country

Image: Disney

At first glance, River Country may not look like much. But frankly, that’s what makes it so charming. To your left is the Cookout Pavilion – a perfect place to store your coolers for when bellies start to grumble around lunchtime.

You’ll want to head that way anyway if you didn’t wear your swimming suit. Just past Pop’s Place are the restrooms and lockers to get suited up for a day of fun in the sun.

Photo from the 1976 Walt Disney Productions Annual Report, via Yesterland

Find a spot along the white sand beaches that trace the park's main water feature – Bay Cove. Your biggest choice now is whether to settle in with a sunhat and good book, or to make a beeline for the lagoon.

Looking out across the water, you’ll see kids climbing ropes and nets strung between wooden masts; climbing onto the wooden docks and zipping down the cable ride that ends with a splash; riding the rotating boom swing out over the water; diving from perches; grabbing onto floating barrels to bob in the lagoon; or squealing as a spinning tire swing perlilously spins along the water’s surface… Easy choice, right?

Image: Unknown

All of it recalls the picture perfect dream of an American history that lives on in books and films – of a carefree childhood spent off in the woods with friends, playing pretend and making use of nature’s wonderland. Long before the world was santized, parents helicoptered, and safety regulations took the fun out of breaking bones, this was the American dream shared by all children… The real, natural world as a playground.

Speaking of which, while squeaky-clean, “Shamu blue” pools may be norm at water parks today, it sure isn’t so at River Country. At a glance, it would appear that guests frollicking in the park’s Bay Cove really are wading into a natural inlet of Bay Lake. Believe it or not, they are…! Kind of.

In fact, engineers invented an ingenious system to power River Country. Every minute, 8,500 gallons of water were indeed pulled from Bay Lake, passing through filters before being pumped up to the park’s highest point – the rocky “mountain” supporting the park’s slides. That filtered lake water would then cascade down the park’s two water slides before crashing into Bay Cove which – like a real, natural lake – had a sandy, rocky bottom.

Image: Disney

After lake water was pumped through slides and then washed down into the swimming hole, it would then spill over a rubber “bladder” that kept River Country’s water level six inches higher than Bay Lake’s – a “one-way” flow ensuring that unfiltered water (and Bay Lake wildlife) stayed out of River Country. The result is that River Country’s main attractions really did run on filtered – but untreated – lake water, creating the appearance (and chilly experience) of a “natural” swimming hole!

There are three ways to reach the rocky hills that serve as the park’s backdrop… and the entrance to its waterslides. The first two are easy. Inland, the Barrel Bridge provides a bobbing pathway between the snack hut and the the hillside, where tiered steps lead up and across a covered bridge and ultimately up to the peak.

Just at the point where the park’s Bay Cove meets the larger Bay Lake, the Bay Bridge is a boardwalk leading to the mountain. (True thrillseekers can stop at the island halfway across the bridge, climb up a ladder to an old wooden crow’s nest, and dive into the lake below.)

Image: Disney

The toughest way to get to the mountain is to swim there. Just in the center of the lagoon, stairs emerge from the water, leading up cascading tiers of steps that connect all of the park’s slides. For those who reach the top, River Country had two signature experiences in store…

Image: Unknown

The first is the White Water Rapids. Guests grab an inner tube and race to the ride’s starting point. It begins calmly enough, with inner tubes of guests bobbling along “Raft Rider Ridge…” But before long, the pace picks up as rafts are sent crashing down “white water” falls, dipping and diving over cement ridges that churn and roil the water.

And of course, this is the ’70s we’re talking about. If you fall off your raft – oh well! Let the water carry you down. If you don’t, the hoardes of riders behind you will. In the spirit of free-for-all enjoyment, you’re liable to meet a new friend on the White Water Rapids by crashing directly into them. And of course, it all ends with crowds of guests spilling down a straightaway ramp and crashing back into Bay Cove.

Image: Unknown

If you manage to make the climb up the hill again, you can hop into either chute of the park’s main attraction: Whoop ‘n Holler Hollow. These two, 260-foot-long, trestle-supported body slides splash and slalom and slide to and fro, winding and twisting around and through their own support structures and beneath the branches of wind-tossed willows.

As each slide twists and turns, you’ll be whipped up the walls of the chute like a toboggan. But you won’t fly out. Don’t worry – Disney’s vice president Dick Nunis volunteered as a “slide tester” before the park’s opening, allegedly discovering the hard way which slides’ walls needed extended.

Image: Unknown

Even once you’ve made it down Whoop ‘n Holler Hollow, the fun’s not over. Over on the other side of Barrel Bridge lies the shallower water of Kiddie Cove with its own beach-side playground, in-water props, and sets of four slides perfect for the younger set.

But for the ultimate thrillseekers, you’ll have to look beyond Bay Cove.

Image: Disney, via D23.com

Even though most of the action in River Country happens in Bay Cove, the park does have a second body of water to explore! The 330,000 gallon Upstream Plunge pool looks a lot more like the kind you’d expect in a waterpark – shimming, crystal clear, and blue. Beyond what you can see, it’s also chemically treated and – best of all – heated.

If you want to just soak, swim, or dive off the edge, the Upstream Plunge pool is a perfect place to do it. Just don’t cross the floating line of buoys in the center of the kidney-bean-shaped pool. Look up at the rocky slope rising out of the water and you’ll see why. Sixteen feet over the water, daredevils have climbed to the peak and are ready to undertake River Country’s wildest ride.

Image: Disney, via D23.com

If you’ve got the courage to muster it, Slippery Rock Falls will send you hurtling down a steep slide that ends in a seven foot drop-off, plunging you into the waters of the Upstream Plunge pool. Hey, at least it’s heated!

For families who’ve exhausted themselves in the water, the natural ease of River Country enters to save the day. Whether it’s a lunch at Pop’s Place or a walk along the Cypress Point Nature Trail that winds through the lakefront forests and then across a boardwalk in Bay Lake, this is the kind of place to slow down, take it all in, and make a memory or two. You may even want to head to the nearby ranch for a horseback ride, or hop a ferry to Discovery Island with a combo ticket, and end the day at the Hoop-de-Doo Musical Revue for a true escape from the hustle and bustle of Walt Disney World.

Image: Disney

For thousands and thousands of visitors to Walt Disney World, River Country was a staple. Mornings, afternoons, and even evenings were spent by the water, plunging and swinging and sliding and soaring and swimming the day away.

River Country was a true treasure; a gem of the “Vacation Kingdom” tucked away in modern Walt Disney World. But like all of our dreamy visions of what was, it couldn’t last forever. On the next page, we’ll take a good, hard look at the problems that arose with River Country, and how the world – and Walt Disney World – changed around it.

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