Rediscovering River Country

River Country - All 3 "Swimmin' Holes"When I was young, Fort Wilderness was the place for me.  We always stayed there, no matter what, whenever we visited Walt Disney World.  We would load up the Pop-Up Trailer, and drive the twelve hours to Disney World.  This was a Spring Break ritual throughout my whole childhood.  Being young at the resort, we would do everything they had to offer -  Play on the playgrounds, use the free basketball in the wooden boxes, swim at the Meadow Pool, and even rent bikes.  Evenings were filled with trips to the beach to watch the Electric Water Pageant, campfire movies, and of course looking through the trading posts.  The reason we took the camper was for money saving and of course having our own beds to stay in.  This meant many meals from the comfort of our own campsite, so Trails End and Crockett's Tavern were reserved for very special occasions, and sometimes years went by between visits to those places.  River Country was another place that really wasn't somewhere I went.  Why would we pay to go swimming when back at that time we had a choice of three places - The Meadow Pool, The Wilderness Pool, and of course the beach.  If you don't remember, the beach was open to anyone.  You could swim in Bay Lake!  We would spend tons of time there, so paying to swim at a water park wasn't part of our vacation.

I recall one time visiting River Country, and if my memory serves me correctly it was around 1993.  I don't remember much, other than the fact that those really tall slides really made me laugh as a kid.  The ones that had the 4 foot drop off into the water.  That is about it though, nothing else sticks out.  So when I saw they closed River Country many years ago, it wasn't something that I'd have to be super sad about each time I visited.  I remember just looking left, wondering what it was like, and continuing to the beach or boat launch at Fort Wilderness.  The past few trips to Disney World though, my interest has peaked.

I started out venturing back to the fenced area, to see if anything was left behind.  If you decide to walk back to that area of Fort Wilderness, which is totally legal and within the boundaries they provide, you will see a large green fenced area.  This is actually past the old River Country Main Entrance.  The neat thing about this is that you get to use the old River Country restroom facilities.  They are extra big, like a water park would have, and even have some items that are weirdly out of place for their current use.  One of them has a wall mounted hair dryer!  Very interesting and it could bring back a neat retro memory for you.  You really cannot see much if you look around back there, but I decided to stand up on some Disney Rock to see if anything else existed.  This is what started my journey...

 The first two images are where you are allowed to walk.  You can also see some of the rocks I stood on to get these shots.  Looking over the fence you will see the pool area.  This was a chlorinated pool that had the large drop off slides I was referring to earlier.  I also was able to see a small hut, I really don't know what that is for.  These few images kind of wet my appetite for more.  If the pool was still there, I knew there were slides, zip lines, rope swings, and of course the Old Swimmin' Hole....  Later that day, after enjoying some liquid courage at Crockett's Tavern in Fort Wilderness, I decided to explore a little bit farther.  I followed the fence line, almost into the woods.  I'm not the type of person who jumps or vaults over a fence, so I thought maybe I could get a few more shots through cracks or breaks in the fence.  As I followed the fence, I stumbled into a cast member parking area for Pioneer Hall.  This had me slightly worried because I was pretty much off the path Disney provides for us normal people.  I knew I was in an area which could get me into trouble, but I continued around planning on just saying I was lost, which I sort of was!

Upon continuing, I found a large gated region in the fence.  It looked like it hadn't been opened in awhile.  Cars were parked all around it, sort of like an extra parking lot for pioneer hall.  The gate was chained, but not locked.  This was that moment where I look around and think this is way too easy.  The chains and locks were just hanging there and not doing anything at all.  In all honesty, I just walked right into River Country, easier than you could of when it was open for business.  As I walked in, I started walking quickly thinking I would be thrown out in no time.  Without really paying attention, I ended up back at the pool that I could see looking over the fence.  The thing that I noticed was how gross it was, and how seriously dangerous it was.  I know a random child isn't going to stumble back there, but still, for Disney it surprised me how they just left it.  I also noticed what happens to Disney Rock when you don't take care of it.  This is very similar to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad Rock, and it was quite damaged and ugly.

At this point I figured alright, I've seen enough and I don't want to get in trouble.  I knew I didn't really kick down any fences, just walked through an open gate.  There is still a level of nervousness that is in you because you know this place is closed off for a reason.  I knew there used to be more, but I wasn't sure if it had all been removed and filled in.  Time was wasting so I started to head back towards the gate, figuring somebody would be waiting for me where I came in.  I did a quick pause, just to listen for activity, noise, people, Disney SWAT, anything.  It was creepy silent and I felt like I could look a few more minutes.  I walked past the gate, on my left, and came to something that made me realize my journey had come to an end.  The Kiddie Cove area appeared to be filled in and grown over.  My hopes of them reopening River Country were pretty much lost.  As you can see from the pictures, not much is left.

I paused again in this area, just to listen for anybody coming to escort me out.  Still nothing, it was almost strange how nobody knew I was in here.  I figured Disney would have eyes on this place, just to keep people out or prevent somebody from getting hurt.  A few more minutes wouldn't hurt I decided.  I looked farther into the park, and noticed something that looked like signs of life.  When I say signs of life, I mean retro items that were in my memory from years long ago.  Ropes, bridges, and of course that dark water that was the main swimming area.  It was still there!  It hadn't been filled in or thrown in the trash, the entire park was basically frozen in time right before my eyes.  The one thing that started to make me nervous was the possibility of running into a random Florida animal.  This area looks untouched and overgrown, who knows what is living here and how mad it would be if you disturbed it.  I proceeded very carefully across the old rope and barrel bridge.  Thinking back, this was something that could have made the trip a complete disaster.  If this bridge collapsed, broke away from the land, or anything like that, I'd be the first person swimming at River Country in ten years.

If you examine the photos above, you will notice a few things.  The water is eerily still, nothing was really jumping out or swimming around.  The docks, ropes, wires, swings, and almost everything else were all still there.  I noticed an old inner tube floating in some weeds so I snapped a photo of that.  The large bird photographed must be a resident of Discovery Island, just surveying another lost Disney Park.  I continued up and found some stairs and different things up the hill.  I was getting nervous at this point, so my memory is a bit hazy as to what was exactly where.  The entrances to many slides were completely blocked and overgrown.  The rock stairs were in nice shape, just covered in brush.  In this upper area, I noticed many different stairs and decks leading to the different slides and water attractions.  I didn't want anything breaking under my feet, so I stuck to the areas which were solid or cement.  The overgrowth is something that I cannot emphasize enough, in 5 more years this place will be totally covered up.  Unless of course they build the DVC resort that is rumored for Fort Wilderness.  Here are the things I saw on the upper levels.

This upper area was very neat to see, the detail work and signage was all very cool.  Some signs were in very nice shape, others were totally white from the sun.  I did notice while I was walking around that I was very visible to the passing ferry boats, I started to wonder if they would call me in.  So with that thought, I quickly but carefully recrossed the barrel bridge, and headed for the gate.  I walked out the gate easily and quietly, just to make sure I didn't alert somebody who wouldn't be happy with my adventure.  After walking 20 yards or so, I realized I had gone the wrong way.  I hooked a right out of the gate instead of left, which was the way I came from.  The nerves of the whole situation just caught up with me, so I figured I am kind of out in the open now, I am going to get caught.  Somebody will see me because this is close to the service roads for Fort Wilderness and the horse area.  As I went to turn and walk the other way, I noticed what looked like cages from Jurassic Park.  You know the scene at the beginning when they shoot the Raptor, it reminded me of that.  The risk of getting caught was worth it at this point for me, what Disney has going at the end of this road had me more intrigued than ever.  Here is what I saw...

This all seemed odd to me, so a quick Google search led me to what these are.  Sentinel Chickens, from what I read, are used to see what insects and bugs are in the area.  So basically if they bite the chickens Disney knows they are in the area and they know what to do to protect the guests.  Totally behind the scenes stuff that was really cool to see, they were very well taken care of and looked like normal chickens.  The clear containers mounted on the pole, I have no idea.  It looked like they could trap insects, but that is a total guess from me.  The phone to call Discovery Island was back here too.  Keep in mind, this is by that dock you pass on your left on the way to Wilderness Lodge or The Contemporary, so I was right by the lake.  I didn't pick up the phone, but how creepy if somebody answered on the other end...

All in all, I managed to see all this without getting into trouble.  Walking back out to the settlement area in Fort Wilderness, I got some weird looks from cast members, mainly because I was coming from behind Pioneer Hall and the Backyard BBQ area, but nobody really seemed to be angry or upset.  Knowing that, I would suggest that people do not go back here.  My whole trip was complete luck that something bad didn't happen.  The entire area is unstable and crumbling as we speak, also who knows what animal will be waiting for you back there.  I didn't put every photo on the story, but they are all in the Abandonedland Photo Gallery, so have a look.  I think the hopes of them ever reopening River Country are lost.  I asked a cast member at another hotel on Bay Lake why it closed.  He told me that it closed for the same reason we can't swim on the white sand beaches of Bay Lake anymore.  Florida made a rule that if you swim at a public pool or park, you have to be able to see your feet in the water.  That rules out River Country then doesn't it?  I really would like the deadly brain eating parasite story to die, I don't know why that story became the main reason these places closed.  It may be partially true, but you can still go water ski with Sammy Duvall at The Contemporary Resort on Bay Lake.  Either way, it was an interesting look back in time at Walt Disney World.  Looking back, I kind of wish I was able to swim at River Country before it closed.  It would have been neat to be there the last day.  Does anyone know if they made a big thing of it closing? Is the last day River Country was open captured in images or film? Post your comments or stories if you'd like.

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Mr. Oswald
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This is Alison from Walt Dated World. The site now has a new address and you can access the new site here: https://waltdatedworld.com/id220.htm Please any links and bookmarks.

Irving
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Irving

Wow!!!!…amazing Mr. Oswald!. Thanks for sharing. It’s cool (and sad) to see the fate of this once wonderful “swimmin’ hole”

Brian Elias
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Brian Elias

Ironically, this was posted on the Disney Parks Blog today.
http://disneyparks.disney.go.com/blog/2012/06/vintage-walt-disney-world-looking-back-at-river-country/

Interesting contrast between the photos. 😉