Weird Wednesdays: Abandoned by Disney

FILE - In this June 5, 2012, file photo, visitors stroll along Main Street at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Thousands of Walt Disney World workers are voting on whether to accept a contract proposal that would increase the starting minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next three years while enabling Disney to use more part-time workers and require new workers to stay in their positions longer before transferring. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

If you ask any random person on the street which organization is most likely to take over the world, they’d most likely say Google. Maybe Amazon, or Facebook or perhaps Apple. They all have a ton of power, money and are ubiquitous in 21st century western life.

Me, however? I think it’s Disney. Sure, they might not make as much money as the companies I mentioned above, but they have one thing on their side: people’s hearts and minds.

Most Americans, and a large percentage of the world population for that matter, have grown up with the Mouse in one way or another. Disney movies are a beloved part of many people’s childhood, and with the company acquiring more and more entertainment studios, (the latest being Fox), it’s only a matter of time before ol’ Walt has a hand in every major movie company in the U.S.

Trips to Disneyland and Disney World in particular are considered the pinnacle of many people’s vacations, no matter whether they are a child or an adult. Disney, for their part, puts a massive amount of effort into maintaining, upgrading and running the parks, particularly in keeping the “magic” alive. I could go into the mind tricks, optical illusions and other subtle things the parks employ to help maintain the facade, but today we’re going into what Mickey doesn’t want you to see (besides Walt’s frozen head.)

Disney’s River Country is an entirely abandoned park located in Walt Disney World. It was built in 1976 and lasted for a quarter of a century before being unceremoniously shuttered in 2001.

Let’s take a step back.

1976 wasn’t a pretty year for the Mouse. The Walt Disney Company was going through a bit of an animation slump in the wake of Walt and Roy Disney’s deaths, with tensions rising at the studio as animator Don Bluth and nine other artists dealt with the messy production of “The Fox and the Hound” (a film that would end up delayed, as the group left in 1979).

Disneyland and Disney World weren’t doing so hot either. Spiking gas prices were draining tourist numbers out from the bottom, and the parks had been stagnant in new attractions.

As a solution, Walt Disney World opened a brand new water park near the inland Bay Lake: Disney’s River Country. The first water park to be opened by Disney, it featured an inner tube river, water slides, pony rides, small splash pools for young children and character meet-and-greets.

The park was opened on June 20, 1976, the day before summer’s start. President Gerald Ford’s 18-year-old daughter Sarah Ford inaugurated the park by taking the first trip down the Whoop n’ Holler water slide, a 2,000-gallon-a-minute attraction that was the crowning piece of the park.

The park got all this water from Bay Lake, a temperate freshwater body. While overhead views made it look like the park was seamless with the lake itself, a barrier (called ‘Bay Bridge’) blocked off the recreation areas from the actual water, which was otherwise pumped in through filters to strain out all the alligators and other nasties.

During its first year, the park was wildly popular. Families swarmed, and the Mickey Mouse Club filmed a song, “River Country,” at the park in 1977.

However, in 1980, disaster struck. An 11-year-old-boy died from the microorganism Naegleria fowleri, also known as the brain-eating amoeba, after swimming at River Country. The park closed for a couple of days while the water was tested, and then reopened when the water was deemed all-clear.

The incident, contrary to popular belief, was not the reason the park closed. Instead, it kept operating (despite two drownings in 1982 and 1989) until September 1, 2001, when the park closed for the fall season-- and, as it turned out, for the last time.

Y’see, it doesn’t take a brain-eating amoeba to stop the Mouse. Instead, it takes money, or the lackthereof.

River Country had, in the years leading up to its closing, been losing both patrons and profits. The infrastructure was becoming older and harder to maintain, and tourists were attracted to newer, flashier spots such as Typhoon Lagoon.

Additionally, the terrorist attacks on September 11 caused attendance to drop dramatically across all parks as people became afraid to travel, which goes to show there are some things that even Disney magic can’t fix.

Magic didn’t fix the park either, which sat abandoned for about 17 years while Disney tried to figure out what to do with it. In the meantime, as the structures decayed and became overgrown with Floridian wildlife, it became a hotspot for urban explorers and gators alike.

It all came to an end in spring 2018, when Disney announced plans to demolish the ol’ eyesore and build a hotel on it, officially ending the era of River Country once and for all.

So, next time you head down to Florida for your annual Disney trip, keep in mind the dark secrets Mickey might be hiding. Because behind those cheerful, always-open eyes…

The Mouse is watching.

Stay magical (and alert!), folks. And, until next week… stay weird.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.