Loving the Great Outdoors the Disney Way - River Country: Disney's First Water Parkby Rod Wheaton, contributing writer
Just this past January for the Walt Disney World Marathon, I had the occasion to head back to Fort Wilderness for a week's visit. This trip though, was very different because for the first time, I experienced a Walt Disney World trip as an "all-guys" trip. No wife, no daughter, just my teenage son, my dad and my two best buddies. Now typically you might not think of Walt Disney World as a destination a bunch of guys set for a "mancation," but there were a few reasons that made it perfect, and staying at the Fort was one of them.
The idea for a "mancation" started on our last trip back in November. We knew we'd be coming back for the marathon, and all of us guys who normally travel together with our families thought it might be the ideal time to come with just the boys, camp out together, and do some catching up. While we love traveling with our families, we thought it might be a new way to experience Walt Disney World from a very different point of view. We were so right… traveling as a bunch of guys together in Walt Disney World was a great experience, and right away we found there were things we explored in and around the Fort we don't always take time for when it's a bigger group.
One evening we had just had dinner at the Trails End Restaurant, and still being early, we went for a walk down the lane alongside the restaurant and in a short time found ourselves staring at the overgrown, ivy-laden gates of a long-extinct and nearly forgotten Walt Disney World attraction: River Country, Walt Disney World's first water park. Here and there were even a broken board or two you could peer through to get a look at what was left inside. One of the guys in our pack hasn't been a Disney geek as long as the rest of us have. Naturally as we stood there in the early evening light, staring at the locked gates, he wanted to know what used to be there. That started me reminiscing about this old relic and treasure.
A Whisper from Fort Wilderness' Past
River Country is an extinct attraction that still brings back a lot of fond memories for many. When it opened in June of 1976, it was a complete reimagining of how guests could enjoy the water. Some argue it was the first water park not only in Walt Disney World, but the first dedicated water park anywhere. In keeping with the rustic surroundings of Fort Wilderness, River Country was billed as a throwback to the "old fashioned swimmin' hole." It featured tire swings, inner-tubing through man made white water rapids, water slides, a nature trail, and had two distinct bodies of water: a "normal" clear swimming pool with slides; and a broader, much bigger swimming area that was fed with water from Bay Lake.
The use of a barrel bridge and other floats made it appear as though you were swimming directly in the lake's water. In reality though, River Country's water was drawn in and filtered through pumps from the lake, and designed to keep water levels in the park higher. This insured that water would only flow back out to Bay Lake—never in—and keep the water clean.
River Country's opening was a big event; President Gerald Ford's teenage daughter was invited and took the inaugural official first ride down the signature attraction, Whoop 'N Holler Hollow, a 260-foot water slide. River Country continued to be a main attraction at Walt Disney World for many years.
The park was featured in a 1977 episode of The Wonderful World of Disney entitled "The Mousketeers at Walt Disney World." Members of The New Mickey Mouse Club were filmed enjoying the park's attractions to the tune of a song entitled "River Country." The Fort Wilderness Railroad was repurposed once more and became the primary transportation to and from River Country's gate. River Country had quickly become a guest favorite.
The Beginning of the End
For years, River Country continued to be a popular draw for Walt Disney World guests. A particular tragedy in 1980, though, foreshadowed an issue that eventually would be a factor in its closing. An 11-year-old boy on vacation with his family contracted an extremely rare amoebic parasite that can be found in warm, fresh bodies of water. The deadly disease caused by this amoeba (amoebic meningoencephalitis) attacks the brain and nervous system and has a fatality rate of 95 percent. The young boy died and it was later determined he had contracted the amoeba in the water at River Country.
This specific event didn't cause the park to close immediately, however. Disney had always gone to great lengths to filter River Country's water, but despite its best efforts, it was not possible to avoid every possibility. River Country continued to operate for another 21 years after this sad loss. What River Country solidly demonstrated was that people loved the idea and fun of a water park.
In 1989, Michael Eisner's "Disney Decade" was in full swing, and the second water park, Typhoon Lagoon opened. Blizzard Beach followed shortly thereafter in 1995. Both parks were much larger than River Country, and featured a large number of attractions. Yet despite these new competitors, River Country remained a charming, popular getaway nestled within the tranquility of Fort Wilderness.
In 2001, several factors came together that were the death knell of River Country. The September 11 terror attacks severely impacted Walt Disney World attendance in general. Due to the heavy decline in visitors to Walt Disney World, the decision was made to put its reopening off indefinitely after its regular refurbishment closure late in 2001.
There were also other developments that contributed. Concern over health and safety from waterborne pathogens had caused changes in Florida laws, which now prohibited the use of unchlorinated water in water park attractions. In April of 2002, the Orlando Sentinel reported that it was possible River Country would not reopen. It never did.
Today, there is one "Easter Egg" left that is actively used in Fort Wilderness: the water tower in the Fort's main pool. It was removed from River Country and refurbished to be used as a part of the new water slide. There is no marker to tell you this, but it's a great piece of Fort history and trivia to know.
If you want to see what remains of River Country, all you have to do is turn left out of Crockett's Tavern, head up the street running parallel to Bay Lake, and you will come to the gates that close it off from view. As my friends and I found, there is an occasional gap in the fence that will let you peer inside—a few foolhardy souls have ventured inside and taken video that is easily found online.
Personally, I like to remember it the way it was when I went there as a teen. But if you'd like to see a relic from the past that is still lit by leftover lamplight in the evening glow, it's worth a walk to see River Country, Disney's first water park.