Memories of River Country
I have many wonderful Disney memories, picked up over the years during all those magical trips to the sunny south. But I've also racked up a few Disney regrets. This blog is about one of those regrets!
I never made it to Disney's first water-park, River Country . . .
Everything I've read and everything I've heard about River Country has convinced me that it was exactly my kind of place! A modern six acre water park with dramatic and exciting water slides, all cleverly disguised as an old fashioned swimmin' hole from the days of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer! Yup! My kind of place!
Fortunately, Carol and Rob were there several times and she brought home some great memories as well as plenty of brochures, postcards, tickets and photographs to add some color to my descriptions of their memories. There was plenty of descriptive information in the Tickle Trunk!
Some of these images are thumbnails, click on the image to see a larger version you can read more easily.
Here's how that 1987 brochure described River Country: "Dive into the bygone days of the ol' swimmin' hole with River Country's twisting water slides. Hop on your inner tube for a white-knuckle white water rapids ride. Relax in a sparkling 330,000-gallon swimming pool. Or let your guppies go off on their own at Kiddie Cove, a specially designed area for youngsters. A sandy beach and winding nature trail complete the idyllic scene.
Towel rentals and lockers are available as well as a snack bar with food, soft drinks, beer and wine. Or you can pack a picnic basket and enjoy a full day of fun in this unique corner of the world."
River Country opened with fanfare June 20, 1976 when Susan Ford, President Gerald Ford's daughter, took the first trip down Whoop 'n Holler Hollow and splashed into Bay Cove, the larger of the park's two main bodies of water.
The park was located beside Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, along the south shore of Bay Lake. There was very little parking available for River Country; most visitors used Disney transportation to get there. Guests who arrived at the campground by boat simply walked a short distance to the River Country entrance. Those arriving by bus transferred to a campground tram or bus and rode to The Settlement area before walking a few hundred yards to River Country.
Bay Cove was the main "swimmin' hole at River Country. It had a sand bottom and was filled with filtered water drawn from Bay Lake. This very natural looking man-made lagoon was separated from the lake by a large inflated dam which kept the water level in the lagoon about six inches higher than the adjacent lake. The filtration system drew water from the lake, filtered it and sent it to the various slides throughout the attraction at a rate of 8,500 gallons per minute. Surplus water spilled out over the top of the dam and returned to Bay Lake.
At one side of Bay Cove were the two large water slides, Whoop 'n Holler Hollow and White Water Rapids, and opposite was the main beach covered with white sand, beach chairs and umbrellas. The lagoon tapered in depth, from the sandy shore at the beach it grew deeper as you approached the slides. The slides dropped adventurous guests into six feet of water and there was a bit of a distance to swim before they were able to touch bottom. This area was for experienced swimmers only!
Whoop 'n Holler Hollow was the most exciting of the slides! There were two fibreglass body slides, one 160 feet and the other 260 feet. Riders careened and sloshed through plenty of twists, bends and tight hairpin turns before plunging into the lagoon.
At White Water Rapids riders rode an inner tube as they bobbed past man-made rocks and through Raft Rider Ridge, next to Whoop 'n Holler Hollow, before entering the high-speed chute and splashing down into the lagoon. The water slides featured a lot of man-made rock, similar to that seen at Big Thunder Mountain and other places throughout Walt Disney World. Most riders floated around on the tubes for a few minutes before trekking up the queue to ride again!
In the middle of the lagoon was a small platform which had two water activities. At the Boom Swing guests could dangle from a wooden ship's boom, swing out over the bay and drop into the water. There was also a Cable Ride, similar to a "zip line", where the daring could grab a handle, slide down the cable and let go to enjoy a cooling plunge into the water! Nearby, in the water, was a Tire Swing. Swimmers could climb up onto a raft-like dock and board a tire-swing. It took practised skill to swing back and forth and then time your release to achieve a graceful dive!
Bay Cove was bounded by two bridges which gave easy access to the slides. Bay Bridge was located near the inflated dam on the Bay Lake side. A "tipsy" floating Barrel Bridge, similar to the one at Tom Sawyer Island, separated Bay Cove from Kiddie Cove where children could enjoy a shallow beach and four small slides.
The oversized heated pool was known as Upstream Plunge. Half of the pool was cordoned off for swimmers while the other was set aside for those who risked life and limb riding down Slippery Slide Falls. The side-by-side slides, along a sculpted concrete rock face, ended with a seven foot drop into the pool! No other Disney water slides have ever featured this sort of drop! Yeehaw!
Rob - ready to plunge!
Indian Springs was the first Disney splash pad for the kiddies, an area where they could run, splash and squirt each other. What could be more fun?
There was even an elevated boardwalk across the cypress swamp; sunken trees and wildlife were abundant all along the Cypress Point Nature Trail.
Goofy was the official mascot at the park and made frequent appearances. He sometimes arrived by boat, other times on horseback and always enjoyed a soothing and cooling plunge down one of the slides. In the late 90's every day was the 4th of July as Goofy and a number of other characters including Chip, Dale, Minnie and Pluto took part in River Country's daily All-American Water Party.
Rob has fond memories of several visits to River Country about three decades ago, "It was a great spot for a kid," he told me, "there was just so much to do! It was the first place I experienced water slides and I really enjoyed each one of them, but even better were the other water activities. The boom swing and the cable ride were terrific. I liked to ride the cable all the way to the end. When it jarred to a stop I could do a full back flip and land in a perfect dive. I used to float around the tire swing and watch as folks let go at the wrong time and did some nasty belly flops!"
Rob is a nature lover, so I asked if he liked the Cypress Point Nature Trail. "Oh yeah," he said, "I never missed it. There were plenty of birds along the shore, small deer roaming freely and a big alligator in a fenced in area."
Rob went on, "As a kid I saw River Country as a great place to have fun, but I didn't really appreciate the way it was built. Now, when I look back after more than thirty years I can see the nostalgia they built into the place. All of that new and modern stuff was made to look old and rustic . . . and the things I enjoyed most were so simple, dropping off an old wooden spar into the water or sliding down a wire and flipping into the pond. It reinforces the notion that newer isn't always better!"
Carol enjoyed it there too. Yes, she rode the slides, but she liked the heated pool much better than that chilly lagoon! Carol and her friend Judy scurried to commandeer their favourite table and umbrella so they could relax and enjoy some "down time" basking in the sun while the kids, Rob and Jenn, romped and played.
Carol was always near the water when she grew up; boating and swimming were a regular part of her family life so River Country was a natural for her. The rustic charm the Imagineers created on the shore of Bay Lake reminded her of her Canadian home on the shore of Buck Lake. She also had one unusual memory from River Country. It was the first place any of them ever encountered Chicken Tenders; they were served with a tasty red sauce and were a huge hit!
Sometimes there were three generations represented, when Carol's mother Sybil joined in the fun. There was something there for everyone!
Here's a funny little incident that happened while I was writing this blog. Rob was visiting Carol and I and he had just read a draft of this article. We were discussing it over dinner when I mentioned that during my online research I saw pictures of a River Country licence plate and a River Country beach towel. Carol quietly stood, went down the hall to the linen closet and in seconds came back with this towel.
That woman has everything!
So what happened to River Country? Why did it close?
There were a number of factors. First, both Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon had opened, in 1989 and 1995, and drew some guests away from the old swimmin' hole! Attendance was down, but there was another serious issue as well. It affected all bodies of water in Florida. A nasty little amoeba prevalent in Florida water was found to attack the nervous system and brain. It had already caused Disney to ban swimming at all of the other beaches around Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon.
River Country closed September 1, 2001, at the end of the warm-weather season, as it did every year. Everyone expected that it would reopen in spring of 2002 . . . then came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Attendance at Walt Disney World plummeted and management took drastic actions to control costs as their revenue plunged. River Country didn't re-open in the spring of 2002 and on April 11, 2002, the Orlando Sentinel reported "Disney World spokesman Bill Warren said that River Country could be reopened if 'there's enough guest demand.'"
Finally on January 20th 2005 came the expected announcement, River Country would not be reopening. The closure was permanent!
The only other Disney park ever to close was Discovery Island in April 1999; River Country joined it in 2001 but it didn't become "officially closed" until 2005.
The park now lies in ruin; you can still peek through the fence in some spots and see the crumbling slides that used to drop riders into Upstream Plunge. The walkway at Cypress Point Nature Trail is still visible if you ride the boat from Fort Wilderness to the Magic Kingdom, but it's rotting away and slowly falling into Bay Lake!
Dang! If time machines are invented and I get the chance for a "do-over", a visit to River Country will be very high on my list!