Sitting fairly close to the first Disney wildlife park, Discovery Island, originally named Treasure Island and itself vacant, is another abandoned piece of land that once entertained thousands. Disney’s River Country on the banks of Bay Lake meant one thing – fun, and lots of it.
Beginning on June 20, 1976, when it first opened its doors, everyone was welcomed, no matter their age. According to an old brochure from the period, “Disney designers created the best ol’ fashioned swimmin’ hole this side of Hannibal, Mo. The whole family can have a splish-splashin’ good time.”
The water park itself featured in a TV series titled The Wonderful World of Disney, but it is nothing like the modern water parks of today. Being close to Bay Lake meant that water from the adjacent lake was used in the park, whose rides were separated from the lake by a wall.
But nonetheless, the park was equipped with a sophisticated system for filtering water. The idea behind the design of the water park was to create an artificial lagoon with a natural feel to it. The bottom of this swimming hole was filled with a smooth sand, and the park itself stood a bit higher than the lake, thus preventing any flooding.
Once inside, visitors were offered a range of choices including rides such as the Slippery Slide Falls, which took you “splish-splashin’” into Upstream Plunge. For adrenaline addicts there was the White Water Rapids, a 330-foot-long slide inside a tube.
The largest of them all was the Bay Cove attraction that was a half-acre of lake water. But not all was fun and games. River Country had three fatalities during its time of operation; two drownings took place, one in 1982 and the second in 1989. The third death occurred when, despite the state-of-the-art filtering system, an 11-year-old boy lost his life from a “brain-eating amoeba” – an organism known as Naegleria fowleri usually found in fresh water, such as lakes and rivers, that can cause lethal brain infections.
Despite these three accidents, the park didn’t lose any popularity and stayed open. Even the turbulent competition such as Disney’s Blizzard Beach and Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon didn’t stop Disney’s River Country from operating at a satisfactory level.
But then things changed in November 2001. As it did every year, the park closed its doors at the end of the season – a logical move once the warm weather was over. Everyone waited for the start of the next season, but the park never opened again.
In 2002, park officials made an announcement that River Country would remain closed for an indefinite period of time. Bill Warren, a Disney World representative, announced in 2002 that the park will remain closed until “there’s enough guest demand,” writes the Orlando Sentinel.
To this very day, the park remains closed and off limits to the general public. According to an article posted on the BBC website, “When you’re on Bay Lake you’re almost chaperoned. They have several security people on boats that watch you. If you get too close to the island they push you away. They’ll yell at you, they’re constantly watching you.”
In 2005 the Walt Disney Company made another announcement stating that the park will remain closed and most likely never reopen. Since then, the park has remained vacant and heavily guarded.
No reason was officially given for the closure of the park and following the opinion of the BBC “it would be unusual for [the death of the 11-year-old boy] to be linked to the closure of the parks when it happened 19 years before either was closed.”
Whatever the reason or reasons behind the closure remain to be seen, and until then there will be no more “splish-splashin’.”