Disney History: Looking Back at River Country

In 1976, Walt Disney World guests would take to the water for the first time. For just $4 per person, River Country called to guests who were looking for respite from the heat and humidity and it offered a reason to extend their Walt Disney World stay. Although this year marks the 15th anniversary of River Country's closure, guests can still catch a glimpse of the defunct park from areas of Fort Wilderness, but it is officially off limits to guests. How did River Country come to be and what happened to it?

River Country LogoDo You Remember River Country?

River Country was created in response to the oil shortages of the early 1970's that hit the Florida tourist market hard. Domestic tourists in the 1970's arrived in central Florida almost exclusively by car. Unlike Disneyland, Walt Disney World was built to be a destination resort and there was not enough local tourism to sustain the resort in the long term. Disney's answer? "Plus" the experience, of course. River County's job was to draw in more locals and entice travelers to book a multi-day stay, even if that multi-day stay was a budget accommodation at nearby Fort Wilderness Campground instead of the luxury of the Contemporary or Polynesian Resorts.

Just A Good Ol' Swimmin' HoleJust A Good Ol' Swimmin' Hole

River Country was roughly 10% of the size of Typhoon Lagoon, but it made some important contributions to its sister park and other Walt Disney World locations that would ultimately contribute to River Country's demise. River Country was the first themed water park. Imagineers took Walt Disney's idea of turning the classic amusement park on its head and applied the theory to water parks, which in the mid-1970's were mostly just pools with slides, but the lessons learned from River Country paved the way for some current guest favorites. Both Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach owe their theming and variety of attractions to the River Country's research and development. The sandy bottom pools would provide inspiration for Beach Club's Stormalong Bay and the buffer and filtration idea that allowed guests to swim safely in filtered Florida lake water survives as part of the pool assembly at Wilderness Lodge.

River Country had One Pool River Country had One Pool

Guests enjoyed 25 summers of fun at River Country and when the gates closed in September 2001, guests anticipated that they would reopen the following summer as usual. However, a combination of safety concerns, increased competition, lack of capacity, and changing standards for the quality of water at theme parks in Florida all contributed to the decision not to reopen River Country in 2002. The final decision to cancel the 2002 season is most likely a result of the September 11 attacks. The attacks left Disney scrambling for short-term cuts in the face of fear over travel and economic troubles domestically and River Country was one of the easiest places to trim the budget.

River Country Now Sits  Overgrown and DerelictRiver Country Now Sits Overgrown and Derelict

River Country still stands at the edge of Fort Wilderness, but it has been left in ruins and so much of the park has been reclaimed by nature that it would be extremely dangerous to explore the park today. There has been speculation that someday this park could be revitalized as a pool area exclusive to Fort Wilderness or a DVC-only water park, but no actual plans have been released by Disney to support either of these theories. By now, the park is so far gone that it would require large amounts of demolition and excavation before the salvageable portions could be rehabilitated. So for the being, it will continue to decay and we will continue to speculate about what it may become in the future.

Do you remember days swimming and splashing in the sun at Disney's first Water Park? Leave a comment and share your story.

A big thanks goes out regular WDWFG Guest Author Holly L. for sharing a little bit of her knowledge of Disney with us. If you'd like to read more about Holly's Disney Adventures, you can find her sharing on our member forum.
More thanks goes to Steven & Courtney Johnson for their River Country photos via Flickr.

Warren wrote on Wed, 06/08/2016 - 22:19:

Warren's picture

I was twelve and drive my mom nuts. It was a fun time and wish it was still there. I remember renting small motor boats to ride in the lagoon. The last thing that I loved as a kid was treasure island. I got to spend an evening at an area I think it now the Grand Floridian searching for treasure. It was fun in the days when it was just Magic Kingdom. .

Stacey wrote on Thu, 06/09/2016 - 01:19:

Stacey's picture

Interesting. Love every minute of The Yacht &Beach Club, especially the pool and easy walking access to Epcot

Ernest Freestone wrote on Thu, 06/09/2016 - 02:55:

Ernest Freestone's picture

Yes fondly. I was maybe 12. Spent most of the day swing people on the swing. The tube ride was awesome. Funny I remember it as a hour long trip. As a adult the fact it may have been 10 feet high makes me laugh. Shameful the new Disney that just closes things and offers little in the place of new. Hoping they figure out the mistakes they continue to make before its too late.

Kristen K. wrote on Thu, 06/09/2016 - 21:08:

Kristen K.'s picture

We've got a tin of stuff coming in the way of new Ernest, it just takes time for construction. While I can remember everything happening "over night" while I was a kid, it takes a bit more than just the wave of a magic wand to truly build the magic Disney fans have come to expect. There are new adventures opening up all the time at Walt Disney World!

tdubb wrote on Sat, 06/11/2016 - 00:32:

tdubb's picture

I agree ernest.....be careful disney
..universal is slowly taking over central florida...better more advanced rides and dont seem to always have their hands on your wallet

Lisa B. wrote on Sun, 06/12/2016 - 13:40:

Lisa B.'s picture

Trust me! They ALL have their hands in your wallet Ernest. Universal I think more so with Disney catching up. We come to Universal and Disney every year. Universal charges you to park your car at the hotel at $20/day. They claim they don't own the parking lot! Also, they charge you a daily resort fee. Now if you stay at Cabana Bay or new Sapphire Falls, you can't use your key as an express pass. You'll have to buy that separately. Don't let me even start about Halloween Horror Nights prices. Disney will eventually charge a resort fee, charge you for parking and how about all of the PREMIUM events they are creating to gauge their loyal Disney vacationers. Honestly, I think Disney will be catering to the DVC members and the rich!

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly. If you have a Gravatar account associated with the e-mail address you provide, it will be used to display your avatar.

More information about formatting options