Walt Disney World is a popular place to go for a swim. Outside of the theme parks, it is probably the most popular activity at the resort. It is home to two beautifully themed water parks. But there used to be three. The first water park on property, River Country, operated from 1976 until 2001. It was located just off Bay Lake between Fort Wilderness and the later built Wilderness Lodge. The park was designed as an “Ol Swimmin Hole”, like something out of a Mark Twain novel. It has a natural look, right down to the green lake water of the main swimming area. The park set the stage for Disney’s later water parks, but ultimately did not survive them.
River Country was divided into three main sections (Bay Cove, Kiddie Cove, and Upstream Plunge) in addition to a nature trail called Cyprus Point that went out over a swampy section of Bay Lake on a boardwalk path. Upstream Plunge was a more traditional swimming pool, completely separated from the natural lake water of the rest of the park (not green water.) This was also the only section of the park to have heated water. The main feature here was a pair of water slides that gave this pool its name. They featured a short, steep plunge, with the slide abruptly ending about seven feet above the pool. This type of water attraction was never used by Disney outside of River Country. The short length and easy escape at the bottom made the lines here move quickly, even when they were long enough to make it all the way down the stairs. I remember hours of climbing up to the top of the rock formation, splashing down over and over again. The pool also featured rock work similar to that of Big Thunder Mountain, and unlike at the other water parks, jumping from the rocks here was encouraged (in the deep end of the pool of course.)
The main section of the park, and what made River Country so unique, was Bay Cove. This natural water swimming area, with dark green water and a sandy bottom, actually did use water from Bay Lake (although the input was controlled, and the water was filtered, but not chlorinated.) The entire area looked as though someone just built a bunch of slides and swings in a natural bay, and an entire water resort sprung up around it. While Typhoon Lagoon is themed on a natural disaster, and Blizzard Beach completely throws reality out the window, River Country fully embraced nature, right down to the color of the water. It was a much more down to earth experience, especially when compared to the total fantasy worlds of the other two water parks. The expansive swimming area, devoid of wave machines, gave River Country the opportunity to play with other activities not seen at more controlled water parks. Bay Cove featured non slide attractions such as the Boom Swing, onto which guests could grab and swing out over the water, and eventually drop in, and a good old fashioned tire swing. Most exciting were the Cable Rides. These T-bar rope rides were similar to the one in the Ski Patrol area at Blizzard Beach, but these were as much meant to be used by adults as children (although adults who did not lift their legs up above the water did not get very far.) There was also a volley ball net out in the water, which allowed teams of strangers to compete against each other. I remember taking part in a game once that lasted for several hours (long enough to have a fairly substantial sunburn on my shoulder. But it was worth it.
This is not to say that River Country was devoid of water slides. Bay Cove featured three, a pair of body slides called Whoop ‘n Holler Hallow, and a tube slide called White Water Rapids. Whoop ‘n Holler, of all the slides at this park, is what I most remember when I think of River Country. Despite being rather short and tame looking, these slides packed a punch, especially if you went down the slide lying on your back. These slides ramped up the speed quickly, and the tight corners gave you the somewhat unnerving sensation that you were going to be flung right out of the slide and into the greenery below. The quick ride meant that the wait for this slide was usually quite reasonable (especially in the parks later years.) It was another one I remember riding over and over again, usually alternating between the longer and shorter slides. This was a decidedly low tech affair. There were no indicator lights to tell you when it was your turn to go. When the person in front of you passed a marker on the slide, it was your turn to go. You also got a very nice view of the Contemporary with the Magic Kingdom off in the background from the top of the longer side.
The only use of inner tubes at River Country was on White Water Rapids. In keeping with the theme of the park, this slide looked as if it had existed before anyone ever though to grab a tube and take a ride down it. The queue to get a tube was in Bay Cove, literally. Guests would descend down into the water, making the wait much more refreshing than the out in the sun lines at other water parks. Unlike most inner tube slides, this one was more free flowing. Guests were allowed to go down more than one at a time, and the speed of the slide varied along the way, leading to an exciting drop down into bay cove. The free flowing crowd in this attraction actually had a negative impact on me early on. When I was a child, my father and I went to River Country and went down White Water Rapids. It was especially crowded that day and there were a lot of people on the slide. I was bumped rather hard and knocked out of my tube, bumping my head on the bottom in the process. It wasn’t serious, and this being before the sue-Disney-for-every-little-thing-that-happens era, we simply left the park. But it left a bad taste in my mouth and I did not go back for several years. Thankfully my older and wiser self did make a return and got to enjoy many years of River Country before its then unforeseen demise. I did notice in later years that there was a more controlled entrance to the slide, reducing the likelihood of a repeat. This anecdote aside, it was a lot of fun.
River Country was extremely popular when it opened, often reaching capacity early in the morning. It’s success would lead to Disney opening two additional water parks, Typhoon Lagoon in 1989, and Blizzard Beach in 1995. Those parks lacked the Ol Swimmin Hole feel of River Country, but concentrated more heavily on thrilling water slides. As the other parks grew in popularity, River Country began to fade. The positive side effect of this was that in its later years, River Country was a more pleasant experience due to the more manageable crowds, and a more relaxed atmosphere. My family stayed at Fort Wilderness all throughout the 90s, and I used River Country as a replacement pool, as it was just a short walk from the campsite. Despite the drop in popularity from it opening days, River Country still had a decent crowd, which often added to the fun, especially with the group activities added in the All American Water Parties that the park hosted near the end of its operating life. Billed as a Forth of July party all summer, the party featured characters and games both in and out of the water. Unfortunately, however, the parks days were numbered.
River Country unceremoniously closed on November 2, 2001. It was not uncommon for the park to go down in the off season, but word began to spread that this time was likely for good. The park did not reopen for the 2002 summer season. In the Birnbaum official guide for 2002, which was printed before the park closed in 2001, the park was still listed as always. But by the 2003 edition, the park only received a brief mention, stating that it was unlikely to operate in 2003. By the 2004 edition, no mention of River Country existed. It also began disappearing from company literature. In early 2005, Disney finally made official what everyone already knew, that River Country would never reopen. Many reasons have been given as to why the park closed. They have ranged from cost, to low attendance, to bacteria in the water, to Florida laws about natural water parks, to lack of ADA accessibility, to the fact that it was harder to get to than the other two water parks. Disney never gave an official reason, but I am inclined to believe that it was a combination of reasons, but that cost was the overriding factor. Water parks are not cheap to operate, and one with diminishing returns such as this was an easy way to cut costs, particularly in the rough tourism times that followed 9/11.
Almost as soon as the park closed, speculation began that it would be reopened in a new form. Many believed that it would come back as a swimming pool for Fort Wilderness guests, or possibly as part of a larger complex (perhaps finally fulfilling the Fort Wilderness Junction plans from early in the Disney Decade.) This never happened, although the current Fort Wilderness pool did eventually get a nod to the legacy of River Country. The barrel that was once at the entrance of the park (that would shoot water down onto passersby) is now used for a water slide at the Meadows Swimming Pool (a pool that for most of its history lacked any kind of slide at all.) Even years after being abandoned, there was a hope that Disney would decide to revisit their original water park. But a few years ago, pictures surfaced from inside, and it was not a pretty site. The park has not been maintained. Plant life has begun to overtake many of the structures, and the pools are now little more than swamps. Clearly, returning River Country to working order would be far more difficult than just flipping a switch, and very likely impossible. The remains of River Country are still visible on the boat trip from Fort Wilderness to the Magic Kingdom. At night, the lights inside the park are still on to this day, giving the place an almost eerie feeling to it.
It is a shame to have lost such a unique park. As water parks become more about pushing the envelope on thrills, River Country succeeded in being so enjoyable in its simplicity. Disney always had a fascination with nature, and with the pleasures of a simpler time. River Country was an excellent example of how this could be used to bring joy to decades of vacationers. It remains a cult favorite of those who were lucky enough to get to visit, and after nearly 10 years, we still look out across Bay Lake and wish we could slide down Whoop ‘n Holler one last time.