• Sunday, September 27, 2020

Vintage Disney: River Country

River Country was Disney’s first ever water park and opened to the public on June 20, 1976. Located near Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort along Bay Lake, the 6-acre park was originally titled Pop’s Willow Grove. During development, Imagineers were thinking of a place that Huckleberry Finn would hang out. That idea led to the water park’s old-fashioned rustic swimming hole theme. The primary mascot of River Country was Goofy, but Chip and Dale often made appearances as well. The trio would frequently make grand entrances into the park via boat or horseback.

River Country Origins

Originally the park was kind of an additional experience guests could enjoy while staying at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort. There was not a lot of parking on the property, so guests would have to park in a lot nearby. They would arrive at the actual water park via bus, tram or Fort Wilderness Railroad.

Once at the entrance, you either had to show your ticket or purchase one from the ticket hut. When the park opened tickets for a day were only $4.75 per adult and $3.75 per child. By 2001 tickets were still only $16.91 per person, making it Disney World’s most affordable park when it was open. When Discovery Island was still open, you could also purchase combination tickets for both parks.


River Country had two pools, five water slides, and two children’s areas. They were run by a unique filtering system that brought water into the park from Bay Lake. However, the park was designed to make it look like it was a natural swimming hole attached to the lake.

  • Bay Cove: The centerpiece of the park was the 2,000 M sand bottom lake that featured a tire swing, boom swing, cable ride, and rope climb
  • Boom Swing: A wooden ship boom, located on a tiny island in the cove, that guests could grab on to and swing down to splash into the water below.
  • Tire Swing: Guests could swing over the water on a tire above the cove.
  • Cable Ride: Riders could grab a handle and slide zip line style down a cable before dropping into the lagoon below.
  • Barrel Bridge: Similar to the bridge in Tom Sawyer Island, the bumpy bridge with barrels in it separated the water slides from the Bay Cove area of the park.
  • Upstream Plunge: A kidney-shaped clean water pool that was split in half; one side was for divers and swimmers and the other side was a let out pool for Slippery Slide Falls.
  • Slippery Slide Falls: Two 16-foot long chute water slides that dropped riders into Upstream Plunge from seven feet above the water.
  • Indian Springs: A small splash zone with spraying fountains for kids under 8 years old.
  • Kiddie Cove: Another kids’ zone with two big slides and a cove for older kids to enjoy.
  • White Water Rapids: A 330-foot long inner tube river that dumped into Bay Cove’s lagoon. The river was very lazy in some parts and then turned high speed and had crashing drops, making it a pretty wild ride at times.
  • Whoop’N’Holler Hollow: Two fiberglass body slides (260 ft and 160 ft long) that emptied into Bay Cove. These water slides would now be considered very uncomfortable in comparison to Disney’s water parks due to the high speeds and sharp turns.
  • Cypress Point Nature Trail: An elevated boardwalk surrounded by wildlife along Bay Lake.
  • Pony Rides
  • Mercury WaterMouse Rental

Guests were allowed to bring their own food and drinks into the park and enjoy picnic style dining at Pop’s Willow picnic area. There were also two dining locations open daily.

Pop’s Place served classics like fried chicken, hot dogs, sandwiches, french fries, cookies, and ice cream, and the Waterin’ Hole sold snacks and hot/cold drinks. You could also purchase food at the nearby Cookout Pavilion, which was not actually a part of River Country. It also doubled as the park’s hurricane shelter


River Relics was River Country’s one-stop shop for souvenirs or forgotten essential supplies such as sunscreen. At Hair Wraps, parkgoers could get a whole new hairstyle with cool braids or colorful hair wraps.

River Country’s All-American Water Party

In 1998, a new seasonal event was created in an attempt to bump up attendance at the park. River Country’s All-American Water Party made every day the Fourth of July. Guests could enjoy BBQ food, live banjo music, and picnic games like tug of war and sack races. In addition to Goofy, Chip, and Dale, Pluto and Minnie would all join the party in festive Americana outfits.

Surprise Closing

Like most water parks, River Country would close seasonally when the weather started to cool down. In November 2001, the park closed for what was assumed to be just a regular off-season closure. The park was expected to reopen in Spring 2002, but an announcement that April put the future of River Country in question. At one point, Disney officials said that the park’s reopening depended on “guest interest”, but still nothing happened.

In 2005, it was officially announced that the park was not going to reopen. Rather than being demolished, it was just left alone with a sign up that said: “Sorry River Country is Closed”. Most recently Disney announced that they had plans to drain and fill Upstream Plunge in August 2016. The slides have started disappearing into the plant life growing around it, but a bit of the park is still visible from Bay Lake.

Rumors About the Park

Because the park’s closing was pretty unclear and mysterious, there have been tons of rumors as to what actually caused the park’s demise. Some complaints of the park were about comfort and safety issues with the rough rides and a rocky “natural” theme that was not well protected from heat. Additionally, several incidents happened over the years despite safety signs all around the park.

Another common theory is that River Country had to close due to a rare but deadly amoeba that had been growing in Florida waters. Around the time that park first closed, a new law was passed in Florida that restricted paid swimming areas from using freshwater or filter in from lake areas. There was one confirmed death due to this amoeba contracted from River Country, but Disney was never considered officially at fault because the amoeba was able to grow in any freshwater during hot weather. However, this wasn’t a huge hindrance to the park. After undergoing a water quality control program, the park stayed open for another 21 years.

Competing Water Parks

Competition for River Country technically began early when Wet’N’Wild opened in 1977. However, the real problems didn’t start until Disney started trying to up their game by developing Typhoon Lagoon. Almost 10 times bigger than River Country, Typhoon Lagoon was a big hit. The success of Disney’s second water park led to the opening of Blizzard Beach soon after.

As the newer Disney water parks became more and more successful, the downfalls of River Country became much more apparent. The park could handle less than 5,000 guests in a day, much less than any competing water parks. The park’s lack of parking and rapid expansion of the resort also made it a lot harder to get to. However, expanding the park would have been way too expensive.

For more Disney history, check out these parades you probably forgot about! Want to explore Disney’s current water parks? Find discount Disney tickets and more on Tickets2You!

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