Home » River Country: The Hoot ‘n Holler History of Walt Disney World’s Abandoned Waterpark

River Country: The Hoot ‘n Holler History of Walt Disney World’s Abandoned Waterpark


Believe it or not, there was a Disney World before Lightning Lane. Before Genie+. Before FastPass, or Advanced Dining Reservations, or Park Hopping, or Animal Kingdom, or the Disney-MGM Studios, or EPCOT. Disney World existed without apps, or Wifi, or Mobile Orders, or Boarding Groups. In an era of increasing connectively and complexity, it’s almost difficult to imagine…

But long, long ago, Walt Disney World was a leisure resort; a destination defined not by pre-planninglost perks and new upcharges, and connecting with The Walt Disney Company’s stories, characters, and franchises, but by sunbathing! Sailing! Biking! Picnicking! Golfing! Year after year, glimpses of that simpler time are harder and harder to find… Like dreamy visions, original remnants of the Disney World of the 1970s fade out of existence, unremembered.

But even among the countless Lost Legends that defined the “Vacation Kingdom of the World,” few can so perfectly capture its “kersplashingest, kid-laughingest, slippery-slidingest, raft-ridingest, rope-swingingest, swan-divingest, summer-swimmingest, sun-snoozingest, picnickingest, old-fashioned” spirit quite like River Country.

Shuttered decades ago and abandoned in plain sight until its recent demolition, Disney’s first water park is a treasure trove of memories; a good, ole fashioned swimming hole that served as a bayside playground for generations… So if you’re ready to dive into the history of Disney’s abandoned-and-erased water park, “bring a swimsuit and a smile. You’re likely to wear both out… at River Country.”

Journey of Water

It’s probably appropriate that any history of River Country begins with the journey of water. After all, the story of Walt Disney World’s earliest years really is the story of the resort’s relationship with water. Construction officially kicked off on “The Florida Project” in October 1965. But the first thing engineers started building wasn’t a castle. It was a lake.

When Disney’s team of engineers arrived in Central Florida in the mid-’60s, they quickly learned the power of water in shaping the state. In many places in Florida, a shovel of displaced soil will refill with water as quickly as it was excavated. The state’s low elevation and high water table meant that Disney’s land southwest of Orlando was practically a marsh. To make matters worse, the region’s seasonal habit of dropping torrents of water via near-daily thunderstorms meant that water needed somewhere to go.

Having met Walt at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, it was U.S. Army General Joe Potter who was recruited for the task of taming the area that would become Walt Disney World. Having once served as Eisenhower’s appointed governor of the Panama Canal Zone, Potter had actually retired in 1960… but Walt’s plans for Florida were enough to bring him back to work. Potter was, by all accounts, an engineering genius, and much of the resort’s infrastructure still relies on Potter’s master-planning that linked underground utilities, water treatment plants, power plants, and 55 miles of drainage canals, reservoirs, and levees – all of which were marvels of modern engineering for their time.

Without a doubt, Potter’s biggest achievement by size must be the recreational centerpiece of the entire resort: Bay Lake (a natural, mile-wide lake predating Disney’s arrival) and its man-made extension, the Seven Seas Lagoon (the first thing “built” as part of the Florida Project). (Today, one of the ferries that carries guests across the water to Magic Kingdom is named the General Joe Potter in his honor.)

Though development around the property in the 50 years since has been vastly spread from the concentrated 1971 core, there’s no question that in the ’70s, Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon were the architectural and programmatic centerpiece of the “Vacation Kingdom of the World.” Disney’s early survey work had asked Americans what they expected when they envisioned a vacation to Florida, with “white sand beaches” ranking among the top of the results. So Disney’s Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake would give guests what they wanted: a place to fish, sail, tank, swim, camp, and eventually, slide…

The Expanding and Contracting World

Those early years after Disney World’s 1971 opening would look practically naive to new generations of fans today – a single theme park and two resort hotels (the Polynesian Village and Contemporary) around the Seven Seas Lagoon, and the Fort Wilderness campground on nearby Bay Lake. Beyond Disney’s borders, a world of what Disney considered “supporting” businesses emerged. Just as hoteliers had gobbled up property along Harbor Blvd. in Anaheim, businesses feverishly bought up real estate around Central Florida, ushering in an era of new motels, businesses, and attractions.

Though it’s hard to imagine today, Disney’s perspective at the time was that such businesses were “good neighbors,” bolstering the overall attractiveness of the region, increasing Central Florida’s tourism capacity, and serving as “supporting” side shows for a visit to Walt Disney World. So of course, in those initial years as crowds turned up in droves to the new Walt Disney World, Disney began working on plans to expand its property’s attractions and capacity…

But when the United States supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, opposing Middle Eastern countries – including Saudi Arabia – initiated an oil embargo on the U.S., which caused the price of crude oil triple. President Richard Nixon rushed to ration gasoline, but across the country, fuel prices soared and cars lined up for miles around gas stations. As a result, tourism across the Western world collapsed, Disney’s stock price was cut in half, attendance at Magic Kingdom crashed, and just two years into its existence, Walt Disney World’s plans for expansion were cancelled.

After six months, the oil embargo was lifted in March 1974. But the fight to convince guests to return to Central Florida was just beginning. With demand low and its “good neighbor” hotels struggling, it wouldn’t make sense for Disney to jump back into production on planned lakefront hotels like the Asian Resort, the Venitian Resort, or the Persian Resort. Instead, they’d focus their rebound on an area of the resort much less likely to compete with local businesses, and much more likely to draw locals… a water park.

Fort Wilderness

Though Magic Kingdom get all the pomp and circumstance, we can’t forget that it wasn’t alone when it opened in 1971. Of course, there were its two landmark hotels, the Polynesian Village and the Contemporary – often said to be reflections of Adventureland and Tomorrowland, respectively. And following that line of thinking, there was the resort’s complement to Frontierland: Fort Wilderness.

Back then, $11 per night got you a campsite, air-conditioned shower facilities, and steamboat transportation right to Magic Kingdom’s front door (launching from the shores of Bay Lake and sailing over the waterbridge by the Contemporary that connected the natural lake to the man-made Seven Seas Lagoon). A stay at Fort Wilderness may have been a radical departure from the luxury hotels along the Seven Seas Lagoon, but it was also true to the “Vacation Kingdom’s” ethos – a place to unwind, explore, and relax. (A reason some still favor Fort Wilderness for their vacations today!)

What you might never have considered is just how massive Walt Disney World’s Resort and Campground really are. Fort Wilderness’ campsites, trails, cabins, and amenities are located in a 750-acre cypress and pine forest, with the actual, developed “Resort” filling around 400 – larger than Magic Kingdom and EPCOT combined.

Fort Wilderness was the perfect place for Disney to invest after the 1973 oil crisis – an asset in Central Florida whose low-cost, low-pressure accommodations could appeal to locals, and whose expansion wouldn’t step on the toes of Disney’s neighboring hotels, still hurting from the economic downturn.

On January 1, 1974, the Fort Wilderness Railroad opened. A 2 ft. 6 in. narrow gauge railway (slightly smaller than the 3 ft. gauge Walt Disney World railroad), the 3.5 mile route was part luxury, but part necessity, ferrying guests between the the resort’s reception area and the “Main Settlement” north near Bay Lake.

Disembarking there, guests would find Tri-Circle-D Ranch – “Home of the Happiest Horses on Earth” that pull horse-drawn carriages on Main Street, U.S.A. As well as offering pony rides and horseback trail riding, the ranch was also open to the public as a petting zoo.

Guests could also find Fort Wilderness Landing, with boat launches not just to Magic Kingdom, but to Treasure Island (later, Discovery Island) an explorable, 11-acre island animal sanctuary that opened that April.

Perhaps the star of 1974’s expansion to Fort Wilderness, though, was Pioneer Hall, debuting in June of that year with the headlining, toe-tapping hootenanny that is the “Hoop-de-Doo Musical Revue.” (Despite rumors that insisted it was extinct, “Hoop-de-Doo did survive the 2020 pandemic, re-opening June 23, 2022 – eight months into the resort’s 50th Anniversary celebration.)

To see Fort Wilderness by the end of 1974 is to see the three-year-old resort at its brightest; a true destination for post-recession visitors and eager locals that beautifully encapsulated all that was pure and simple about the earliest years of Walt Disney World.

Between trains, horses, boats, and hoedowns, Disney had successfully transformed the northern edge of Fort Wilderness into something much more than a campground. But don’t misunderstand – Fort Wilderness was not yet complete! In supercharging Walt Disney World’s most rustic resort, designers had an idea that could propel the property into a must-visit entertainment destination within the Vacation Kingdom of the World…

Designing Something New

Among themed entertainment aficianados, it’s often said that Walt and his designers had created the world’s first master-planned theme park. Even though amusement parks had existed and evolved for a half-century before, it was in the tide of Disneyland that the genre was crystalized and all else was marked “before” or “after.” From “Main Street” to the hub-and-spokes layout; themed lands to showbuildings around the park’s perimeter, designers had quite literally written the “rules” as they went, developing a now-sacrosanct set of standards, principles, and even words for the industry.

Now, they just had to pull it off again. Because sure, there were pools and waterslides across the country by the 1970s. But a “water park“? Like the theme park two decades before, it simply didn’t exist yet. Disney’s Imagineers would have to once more invent something totally new, learning via the “school of hard knocks” what worked and what didn’t.

Given that it would be located on a six acre plot of Fort Wilderness overlooking Bay Lake, Disney’s first water park would need a rustic theme to match. That came by way of the same inspiration behind Tom Sawyer Island at Magic Kingdom – beloved American playwright Mark Twain. Stylized around The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Fort Wilderness’ new addition began development as “Pop’s Willow Grove” – an ol’ time, ol’ fashioned swimmin’ hole recalling the good ol’ days of rope swings and playing in rock-bottomed rivers.

But how would Disney disguise water slides in a rustic setting? Imagineer Pat Burke was put on the task. In a 2011 interview with Disney and More, Pat recalled, “I worked with [architect] Dick Kline on River Country, which I believe was the first themed water park with trestle-supported slides that I know of. I remember the problem with trying to figure out the slide and its supporting trestles. We had no computers yet and I was given a flat drawing of the proposed slides”

Burke used layered fiberglass to build a topographical model of the proposed park (above) and the rocky hills slides would depart from. Then, he bent rubber garden hoses to the shapes depicted on the initial 2D drawing. Once they were situated along the model’s hillsides, they were used to mold scaled slides. “I built the slides out of fiberglass, just as the real ones would be, and figured out the themed wood tower heights needed for a marble to roll down them.” If the marble made it to the bottom on the scales model, Burke figured a person would make it on the real thing.

With the layout of the hills and slides set, work passed to Fred Joerger – one of the very first Imagineers assembled in the design of Disneyland (having been poached from Warner Bros. in 1953). Joerger had become Disney’s in-house expert when it came to sculpting rockwork, including such projects as Magic Kingdom’s Tom Sawyer Island and the volcanic rocks formerly found in the Polynesian Village resort’s lobby.

Joerger reportedly had an almost-unimaginable ability to sculpt naturalistic, regional rock forms from clay. In an interview with the LA Times, Harriet Burns recalled of Joerger, “He just had the aesthetic ability to do it himself. What would take a whole team before, he would do overnight.” (When Joerger himself was asked how he could so effortlessly model rockwork, he replied, “You just have to learn to think like a rock.”) Ultimately, the work Joerger did for River Country made the park appear beautifully real, without a hint that its rocky forms and boulders had been man-made.

Between Burke’s model and Joerger’s rockwork, River Country was ready to move into development. Which is where one of the park’s more interesting features was designed, and where our “journey of water” comes full circle… But to get into the water at River Country, we’ve got to travel back in time and settle in for a sunny day of fun…

So let’s step back in time to June 1976, as President Ford’s 18-year-old daughter Susan took the inaugurual plunge down the park’s premier waterslide and officially decreed River Country open for business. Ready for a dip?

Setting the stage

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.

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.

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

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.

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?

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.

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.)

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…

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


It’s so easy to see what generations of guests loved about River Country; a joyful, playful, ol’ time escape spent leaping off docks, swinging from ropes, and splashing down slides in Florida’s eternal summer sun. It’s almost hard to believe that such a purely good place could exist; such a quaint, charming, hidden gem of a joy right in the massive machinations of Walt Disney World.

Given that, it may be difficult to imagine why the resort’s first water park ultimately closed. Understanding what happened to River Country requires us to leap forward to the New Millennium. Through a modern, 21st century lens, it’s easy to see that a few very important factors led to the park’s decline…

1. Size

At just six acres, the tiny little park wedged between the campground and Bay Lake had extraordinarily limited capacity, even for the early days of Walt Disney World. Guests were often known to arrive at the park shortly after sunrise to find that the park was closed “at capacity” – reportedly, only about 4,000.

Through today’s lens, it’s probably easier to frame River Country as an elaborate, separately-ticketed pool, picnic area, and water playground for Fort Wilderness than a “waterpark” proper.

That’s made more evident by the lack of practical access to the park in a modern Walt Disney World. Where once the Seven Seas Lagoon had served as the focal centerpiece of Walt Disney World and its hotels and attractions, by the New Millennium, the resort’s gravity had shifted.

So had its transportation system. Unlike 1976 – when guests at either of Disney’s two hotels could take a boat to Fort Wilderness and River Country – by the 2000s, a trip to River Country required a commute. Reaching the park required using internal Disney Transportation including multiple transfers. With its lack of parking, River Country wasn’t a park built for Disney World’s 21st century crowds or touring patterns.

2. Sickness


On August 28, 1980, a wire story from the Associated Press was widely published across U.S. newspapers:

A rare but deadly disease caused by amoeba found in Florida fresh-water lakes has claimed its fourth victim – a New York youngster who spent his vacation swimming at Walt Disney World’s River Country. 

The disease, amoebic meningoencephalitis, attacks the nervous system and brain, doctors say. It killed two Florida children earlier this month and appears to have been the cause of death of another youngster, a state health official said.

The latest death was that of an 11-year-old boy who visited the Orlando area during the first week of August and swam at the water attraction at Disney World, said Dr. John McGarry, director of the Orange County Health Department.

Both the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the New York Health Department absolved Disney of any wrongdoing since the deadly amoeba in question “can breed in almost any freshwater lake in hot weather.” There were almost certainly no further instances of the amoeba being contracted at River Country since it has a fatality rate of over 95%. Still, the lingering idea of contaminated water culled from Bay Lake must’ve taken some of the fun out of River Country’s ‘natural” setting…

3. Safety

As the first of its kind, evidence of Disneyland’s “naivete” adds to the park’s charm. At River Country, the “learn as you go” method led to some trouble.

In 1982 – two years after the amoeba-related death of an 11-year old – a 14-year old named Howard Pueppke rode Whoop ‘n Holler Hollow down into Bay Cove, where he drowned. Though Disney’s warning signs had indicated “Rapid Water – Strong Swimmers Only”, the family’s attorneys argued that there were no indications of how deep the water in Bay Cove was at the slide’s exit. Seven years after that, a 13-year old reportedly drowned in the park of similar circumstances.

It’s not that injury and death are impossible at water parks, but River Country’s may have been avoidable. According to David Koenig’s Realityland, a Disney lifeguard testified that on some days, up to 75 people would need assistance after plunging into the lagoon. Perhaps the untreated lake water, lack of depth markers, and dark, sandy bottom made Bay Cove more difficult to lifeguard than modern, painted pools. (Pueppke’s family was awarded $375,000 in their suit against Disney.)

Though clearly River Country remained open for decades after the three teenage deaths in the ’80s, there’s no doubt that the park lacked the “best practice” signage, pool depths, and planning that are now industry standard. And while the home-spun safety practices of the “wild, wild west” ’70s may have been “good enough” in the ’80s and ’90s, it’s hard to imagine River Country standing up to scrutiny in the modern, litigious age. Especially as growing alternatives offered a much more modern take on the water park concept…

4. Sabotage

Though River Country’s 1976 debut pretty inarguably makes it the first water park, it was 1977’s Wet ‘n Wild down the street that often trumpeted the title. Conceived by SeaWorld founder George Millay (known as the “father of the water park industry”), the International Drive water park shows just how hot the Central Florida tourism market had become even by the mid-’70s – as if the 1973 oil crisis had been a lifetime ago.

Remember, too, that in the ’70s, Disney was more apt to embrace competitors as complements, supposing that a rising ride in Orlando would lift all ships. Besides, such (as Jeff Kurtti puts it in Since the World Began) “freeway-adjacent water parks” with “exposed structural supports, impersonal scale, and cold, aquamarine fiberglass structures” were a stark contrast to Disney’s environmental River Country, which Disney imagined would speak for itself as the more quality, enjoyable product.

When Michael Eisner became CEO of Walt Disney Productions in 1984, that view changed. Eisner saw Walt Disney World as an area of unlimited growth potential… if Disney was willing to fight for it, and make some enemies along the way.

With a new vision from the top, the longstanding hotels, attractions, and businesses Disney had viewed as “complements” were recast as “competitors” in a zero sum game. Within a decade of Eisner’s arrival, Disney World had opened a dozen new resort hotels at the “Moderate” and “Value” levels in an effort to reclaim ground lost to “off-site” hoteliers. His Disney had also launched incentives tailor-made to contain guests to Disney property and funded targeted projects meant to crush would-be competitors, like EPCOT’s The Seas to subdue SeaWorld; the Disney-MGM Studios to halt Universal; Pleasure Island to overtake Church Street Station; and of course…

In 1989, Disney officially opened its second water park – Typhoon Lagoon. Combining modern amenities, “next generation” waterslides, a wave pool, a lazy river, heated water, enormous guest capacity, Eisner’s ambitious, expensive, cinematic storytelling and set design that International Drive competitors couldn’t match, and of course, its own gargantuan parking lot, Typhoon Lagoon was a hit.

It was also nearly 20 acres – three times the size of River Country. Even then, more water park capacity was needed to meet the demand of a growing Walt Disney World.


Not coincidentally, in 1989, Goofy (in a turn-of-the-century striped swimsuit) was officially adopted as the mascot of River Country, and daily visits by Disney characters in their ol’ time swimmin’ gear became staples of the parks on summer afternoons. (Chip and Dale were perennial favorites, arriving by boat or even on horseback.)

It was a valiant attempt to keep River Country fresh next to Typhoon Lagoon. It might’ve even helped bolster the park’s appeal for families without thrill seeking teens who turned the newer, bigger park. But ultimately, Disney saboutaged its own park not once, but twice.

Six years later in 1995, Disney debuted a third water park, Blizzard Beach. At 26 acres, Blizzard Beach offered even more space, more capacity, and more attractions.

(Side note: True to Eisner’s ethos, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach are often cited as the leading cause Wet ‘n Wild’s demise. Millay sold all 10 Wet ‘n Wild’s when he retired in 1998, with Universal Orlando snapping up the original in Orlando. Universal operated the park until December 31, 2016 when it was closed for good. The next summer, Universal’s Volcano Bay debuted on the official Universal campus. Wet ‘n Wild was demolished and today Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn occupies its lakefront location.)

With Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach thrilling guests of the ’90s, Disney World had outgrown River Country. It’s almost incredible to imagine that for at least a few years, River Country – with its ’70s swimming hole aesthetic, limited capacity, lake water, and old fashioned attractions, co-existed with two ultra-modern and much, much larger water parks. But there’s probably one factor that led to the definitive end of River Country above any other…

5. September 11

River Country

In many ways, a shared national crisis of the 1973 oil embargo was the spark that created River Country. Then nearly thirty years later, another national crisis spelled its end.

The September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City brought the entire world to a shuddering halt, and interest in tourism and air travel fell to never-before-imagined lows. Across the travel industry, a massive financial collapse saw the end of incalculable projects and expansions.

In the wake of September 11th, Walt Disney World mothballed entire hotels, projecting years of catastrophically low attendance, reduced budgets, and cancelled vacations.

It made sense to close River Country that fall – just ahead of its typical off-season refurbishment during Florida’s chillier months. But instead of re-opening in Spring 2002 as expected, River Country didn’t.

River’s End

On April 11 2002, the Orlando Sentinel reported that “Walt Disney World’s first water park, River Country, has closed and may not reopen. […] Disney World spokesman Bill Warren said that River Country could be reopened if ‘there’s enough guest demand.’”

But of course, in light of the park’s size, competition from Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, and the downturn in tourism, that demand never came. Summer after summer, River Country remained standing but not operating, its rocky peaks and lake water lagoon visible on the shores of Bay Lake for anyone who bothered to look. A “temporary” closure lasting months or even years isn’t unheard of (especially after 2020).

Nor was it tremendously surprising when, in 2005, Disney officially fessed up that River Country was closed for good. Long-since surpassed by bigger, bolder, and more ambitious water parks – and four years after its “temporary” closure – Fort Wilderness’ little willow grove with its splashy swimmin’ hole would never re-open. But the weirdest thing about River Country isn’t that it closed… it’s what happened afterward.

As anyone who’s so much as glanced at our Lost Legends collection of in-depth attraction stories will tell you, big, beloved, and historic things close at Disney Parks all the time. In the last decade alone, Disney fans have bid farewell to rides ranging from Hollywood Studios’ Backstage Studio Tour to California Adventure’s Twilight Zone Tower of TerrorThe Great Movie Ride to Universe of EnergyMaelstrom to Snow White’s Scary Adventures; our friends at Park Lore have even traced how fans have said goodbye to the Main Street Electrical Parade a half-dozen times times!

As heartbreaking as each recent closure of a classic can feel, they all have something in common: they disappear to be replaced with something new.

That wasn’t necessarily the case at Disney Parks in the late ’90s, when an era of cost-cutting saw lots of “temporary” closures turn permanent – from the abandoned aerial highways of Disneyland’s PeopleMover still threading through the park’s Tomorrowland to the “temporary” closure of Magic Kingdom’s 20,000 Leagues. Like them both, after River Country’s “temporary” 2001 closure became permanent in 2005, the strangest thing happened: nothing.

River Country’s Ruins

For the better part of two decades, it didn’t take much effort to get a glimpse of the remains of River Country. Any boat ride from Fort Wilderness to Magic Kingdom would glide past its waterside rocks and trestle-slides, silent, and the old Cypress Point Nature Trail boardwalk, rotting and falling into Bay Lake. Visitors to the fabled Hoop-de-Doo Musical Revue could peak through the makeshift fence outside, warding guests away from the closed park.

And of course, “urban explorers” managed to find entrypoints, necessitating Disney’s spokesperson to advise, “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.”

That didn’t stop everyone. Rollins College professor and Disney historian Dr. Rick Foglesong said it best: “What fun for a kid to have a Huckleberry Finn experience and sneak into River Country.” In a 2012 account, user “Oswald” posted a must-read photo report and walkthrough of the by-then-abandoned River Country to RetroWDW.

What they discovered is a breathtaking study in how quickly nature can reclaim that which human’s build… and of Disney’s total abandonment of this six acre plot of Fort Wilderness. Bay Cove by then had essentially become an extension of the larger Bay Lake. Without refreshed lake water pumped up through the mountain and down its slides, its sandy-bottomed basin had become a stagnant pool of moss, still with rope swings and rafts and buoys throughout.

Bridges were rotted; rockwork stained by a decade of rain and sun and animal life; slides encased in moss and vines; sand beaches overtaken by scrubby grasses; structures crumbling; signs washed out; plants overgrown. For all it purported to recreate a “natural” swimming hole, the man-made River Country was a world away from nature’s version.

The park’s chlorinated pool – into which guests on Slippery Rock Falls plunged – had, of course, become as dark as Bay Cove, filled with rain water and plant life after decades of neglect, sawgrass growing through its concrete basin.

“Oswald’s” visit suggests that River Country couldn’t have been rehabilitated even if Disney had tried; a decade of abandonment had been enough to return to the park to nature, its water, wood, and rock now serving as homes for birds, fish, reptiles…

… and, oddly, chickens. (Actually, the caged chickens kept at River Country were not free-roaming birds who’d found a quiet home, but residents of the nearby Tri-Circle-D Ranch; so-called “Sentinel chickens” are part of mosquito-mitigation efforts. Chickens do not become sick from or spread mosquito-borne illnesses, but do develop measurable antibodies to them. If, for example, antibodies to West Nile Virus or Eastern Equine Encephalitis show up in sentinel chickens’ blood tests, mosquito control can act to combat the insects.)

It’s difficult to imagine any other Disney theme or water park enduring such a fate as River Country – simply walled off and left to rot. Yet for two decades, it did… A real piece of the “Vacation Kingdom of the World” – of the good ol’ days – abandoned in plain sight.

In a 2011 interview with Disney and More, Imagineer Pat Burke – who’d created the initial topographical model of the park nearly four decades earlier – said, “I’m sorry to see River Country in its present condition and hope that something good comes of it.” Well…

Rumors and remains

Despite the closure of River Country and the gravitational shift to Walt Disney World’s scale since the ’70s, there was never any doubt that real estate along Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake was still among the resort’s most prime. And today, prime real estate at Walt Disney World calls for – you guessed it – Disney Vacation Club timeshare inventory.

Actually, nearly all of Disney’s Deluxe resorts in Central Florida have converted or constructed inventory to the Parks, Experiences, and Products division’s timeshare business.

In 2010, Internet discussion boards were alight with rumors that engineers had been spotted scoping out River Country’s remains, allegedly with intention of bulldozing the park and constructing a DVC resort. Insiders reported that the planned timeshare complex would likely borrow from ’90s plans for a Wild West-themed “Fort Wilderness Junction” resort and entertainment center once planned to be River Country’s neighbor (above, but cancelled, like so many other projects in the era, due to the 1992 financial collapse of Disneyland Paris). If that had been the plan, it, too, was abandoned. And River Country remained.

All the while, guests (most unknowingly) passed through the park’s entrance gates en route to Fort Wilderness’ “Mickey’s Backyard BBQ Dinner Show,” secretly held in the park’s former cookout picnic pavilion; they used River Country’s changing rooms (with showers sealed off) as the restrooms outside of “Hoop-de-Doo.” And they passed right around those rocks, meticulously sculpted by Imagineers four decades earlier.

Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge

In 2018, then-Chairman of Parks, Experiences, and Products Bob Chapek was on-hand at the semi-annual Destination D fan event to announce a long-rumored project: a new, 900-room Deluxe level resort and proposed DVC property en route to Walt Disney World.

Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge would be stylized as a “celebration of Walt Disney’s lifelong love and respect for nature,” drawing from natural color palettes and textures. Inside, the hotel would lean into a wood, glass, and steel aesthetic (that is, ubiquitously modern… Gone are the days of transportational and immersive hotels like Disney’s Wilderness Lodge.)

Concept art suggested that Reflections would be built around a glass-enclosed atrium providing views out onto Bay Lake and across to Discovery Island, with rooms and restaurants drawing inspiration from films set in American nature, like Pocahontas and The Fox and the Hound (nevermind that neither really fit with the aesthetic, and certainly neither made much sense wedged between Fort Wilderness and Wilderness Lodge.)

Only the promise of DVC cash flow could release the funds to finally remove the ruins of River Country. Land clearing began in spring 2019 as demolition equipment rolled into Disney’s first water park. Within months, it was gone – a giant construction zone looming behind Pioneer Hall. As for Reflections? Well…

One global crisis sparked the opening of River Country. Another caused its closure. And in 2020, a third avenged its demolition.

Though the six acre River Country parcel was cleared and ready for the construction of Reflections, the 2020 pandemic obliterated the tourism industry and saw every single Disney Park on Earth close its gates from anywhere between three months and more than a year. In August 2020, aerial footage revealed that the Reflections space had been seeded for grass rather than graded for construction.

Soon after, fans noticed that any mention of the hotel had been scrubbed from Disney’s website, blogs, social media, or archives of the 2019 D23 Expo. To date, Disney hasn’t mentioned Reflections since, all but assuring it’s off the docket for good.

It’s likely that DVC towers announced in 2022 for the Polynesian Village Resort (above) will serve as Reflections’ spiritual rebirth, restoring its promised DVC capacity to the market. (Though Imagineering fans roundly criticized Reflections’ generic, modern, interchangeable design aethetic, it turned out to have a benefit: it apparently took almost no editing to change the design from a lakeside American lodge to a Polynesian island longhouse!)

Remembering River Country

With its mathematically-optimized pathways and gargantuan infrastructure, so very little about Disney World was naive; inexperienced; invented on-the-fly. But River Country was. A rare remnant of those early years of Walt Disney World, it really was a good, ol’ fashioned “swimmin’ hole” for generations; a “kersplashingest, kid-laughingest, slippery-slidingest, raft-ridingest, rope-swingingest, swan-divingest, summer-swimmingest, sun-snoozingest, picnickingest” getaway that’s carved into the memories of hundreds of thousands of guests spread across its 25-year life.

When we look back on River Country today, it isn’t necessarily with the longing that goes with so many Lost Legends. It’s not that Walt Disney World today would be stronger if River Country were still around… Maybe instead, it’s that we’d love to spend a day at the Walt Disney World that needed River Country; a resort that really was a laid-back “Vacation Kingdom” making up the rules as it went, and where sunbathing, sailing, dinner shows, hiking, swimming, and sliding were full-day attractions in their own right.

Put simply, the Mouseketeers got it right when they sang:

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!