Originally developed as part of the Thunder Mesa Walt Disney World project, the now-iconic Big Thunder Mountain Railroad attraction faced a surprisingly uphill climb before it could take guests on “the wildest ride in the wilderness!” Canceled with Thunder Mesa, shelved due to Space Mountain, redesigned for the west coast, the Big Thunder project finally opened nearly eight years after conception in Disneyland’s Frontierland. This runaway mine train coaster speeds through stalagmite-ridden caverns, past scenes inspired by the classic Disneyland attraction, Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland, through the western town of Rainbow Ridge, past buttes and spires, and through “active” mining sites. This beloved wild ride can found at the Disney resorts Anaheim, Orlando, Paris and Tokyo.
Today’s Throw-Back-Thursday is for a now abandoned water park here in Central Florida. River Country at Walt Disney World was a seasonal park located near the Fort Wilderness Lodge. This first water park at WDW opened on June 20, 1976 and ceased operations on November 2, 2001. Four years later, Disney announced it would stay closed permanently. With Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon now open (they both opened in the ‘80’s), one more water park, especially a very old and small one, just isn’t necessary. In the almost 15 years since Its closure, the park is decrepit and falling apart; an epitome of a ghost park.
(Above: River Country when open)
Surprisingly, while I was raised here in Central Florida and went to WDW a lot, often camping in Ft. Wilderness, I never went to River Country. The water park looked like it was designed as some kind of cross between Tom Sawyer and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad; “an old-fashioned swimming hole” was Its theme; right down to the tire swings and rope bridges. Of course, back when it was created, the Imagineers didn’t understand the possible repercussions of some of their design choices. Such as, damming Bay Lake and using untreated, though filtered, fresh water for the park. This resulted in a water-born disease (with a 95% fatality rate) that killed at least one child.
(Above: Goofy was the official River Country Mascot)
(Below: The same slide today)
The park continued struggling on, barely making a profit with the competition of the two, newer water parks. Then, citing declining tourism rates everywhere after 9/11, the decision was to close the park, with a possibility of reopening at some point. However, that idea was abandoned in 2005 when Disney announced it would not reopen. It may also have had to do with “a change in Florida laws, which prohibited unchlorinated natural water bodies from being used for water park attractions”. [Wikipedia] It would have taken major overhauling to accomplish this change, and it just wasn’t worth it.
(Above: Main swimming hole then, a fresh-water lake… Below: and today)
Want to hear something REALLY creepy? The park has been closed 14 years. Occasionally, people sneak in to the park, taking pictures or video. Let’s face it…who ISN’T intrigued by abandoned amusement parks? I’ve got a whole board on my Pinterest page dedicated to just that subject! ( www.pinterest.com/guinnesswench )More than one person reports that path lights, water fountains, and plumbing still work and the park’s banjo MUSIC IS STILL PLAYING. Here’s a video of two guys who snuck in at twilight. Eerie.
(listen for the music about 3 minutes into the clip)
I haven’t been able to find any reason why the park was simply abandoned instead of being demolished. Most of the park was left in place, even towel boxes, rafts, etc., as if it fully planned to reopen for business. You would think that demolishing it would be preferable both for a liability issue (you just know at some point, some idiot is going to sneak in and get killed) and an environmental one. I can tell you, it doesn’t take long for things that are left neglected in Florida to be reclaimed by swamp. I just can’t believe the deterioration doesn’t hurt the environment. And why not use the land to create something useful?
(Water slides and pool then and now)
At any rate, if you never made it to River Country, it has to go on the “Things you’ll never see again at Disney” list. Then head over to Blizzard Beach or Typhoon Lagoon for a bigger and better water park.
This is the only ride in Frontierland, inspired by Utah’s Bryce Canyon and Arizona’s Sedona Peaks! The name comes from an old legend about a mountain in Wyoming that would “thunder” anytime someone tried to take cold from it.
Fun Facts: It took five years to plan this ride and about two years to construct it. The cost for this attraction was almost as much as all of the Disneyland attractions put together at that time!
Tip: Ride twice- once in the day and once at night! It’s a completely different experience at night, and you might catch a cool glimpse of Fantasmic!