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Whatever happened to Disney’s plans to replace and reimagine River Country?

Forty-six years ago this week, a brand-new water park called River Country opened at the Walt Disney World Resort.

It was Disney World‘s first-ever water park, located at Bay Lake behind Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground. It opened on June 20, 1976. Throughout the water park, there was the theme of an old-fashioned “swimmin’ hole,” complete with Disney character theming that featured Goofy and his many misadventures.

When Did River Country Open at Disney World DPB

Credit: D23

Disney’s River Country was home to several different water-themed attractions. They included Upstream Plunge, Slippery Slide Falls, Kiddie Cove, Barrel Bridge, White Water Rapids–a 330-foot long lazy river, Bay Cove (which featured a tire swing, a boom swing, and a cable ride), Whoop ‘n’ Holler Hollow, Bay Bridge, Indian Springs, and the Cypress Point Nature Trail.

Whoop-N’-Holler Hollow in River Country at Walt Disney World Resort

Credit: Disney Parks

According to the Daily Mail, when River Country first opened in 1976, it did so with an opening ceremony that was attended by more than 700 newspaper reporters and their families. In the first year the park was open, it saw enormous success–averaging more than 4,700 Guests a day.

river country water park disney

Credit: Disney Parks

For all its glory, tragedy befell Disney’s first water park in 1980 when an 11-year-old boy contracted amebic meningoencephalitis, an infection of the brain and nervous system caused by amoeba found in water at River Country. Later in 1982, a 14-year-old boy drowned in the park, and in 1989, a 13-year-old boy drowned. But despite the three deaths, River Country continued to operate.

That is, until 2001, when the water park welcomed its last Guest. It was to undergo scheduled maintenance and repairs and reopen to the public in 2002, but that never happened. Instead, Disney’s River Country stood still, as if frozen in time, for three years before Disney finally made a formal announcement about the park’s official closing in 2005.

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Beyond 2005, the once-busy family water park was rendered permanently silent. No sunblock-laden Guests visited. The sound of running water was gone. The lazy river became so lazy, it died, and no lifeguards sat atop their usual perches.

disney river country water tower closed sign

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Disney’s River Country had not only closed; it had become a dingy, dilapidated museum to the Disney World that once was–the Disney World of days gone by.

No matter the reason for an attraction or structure’s closing at Disney World, the closing is usually preceded or followed by news of a new attraction or structure to take the place of the former one. And under normal circumstances, Disney World is known for upkeep, for cleanliness, and for its more hygienic practices.

But the state of ruin found at Disney’s River Country shocked and confused Guests. While the now-defunct River Country has long been a restricted area to Guests of the Walt Disney World Resort and to the general public, over the years, so-called “urban explorers” have made their way into the barren and desolate areas that once hosted sunkissed Guests who were looking for a family-friendly way to beat the heat. They’ve returned from their journeys with photos of what was once a family water park, teeming with Guests, with music, with lines for attractions, and with moving water.

Credit: Business Insider

Credit: Imagineering Disney

Credit: Imagineering Disney

Now, however, River Country has stayed in an ever-worsening state of disrepair since its last Guest left in 2001, with no official word from Walt Disney World about the exact reason it closed and whether there were plans for the water park to ever be reimagined–and plenty of rumor fodder for those who love a good story.

That is, until 2017.

Details revealed for new nature-inspired Disney resort, Disney's Riviera Resort at D23's Destination D

Credit: ITM

That year, at the D23 Expo, plans for a brand-new Disney Vacation Club Resort were unveiled, complete with detailed artist’s renderings. Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge was to be located between Disney’s Wilderness Lodge and Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground on the site of the former River Country water park. Plans called for the opening of the new DVC Resort to take place sometime in 2022.

Credit: Disney

Then, two years later, at the 2019 D23 Expo, more plans were unveiled. This time, the plans called for a restaurant to be constructed inside the new Reflections Resort. According to the D23 Expo announcement, the new restaurant would be one inspired by Disney’s The Princess and the Frog.

Credit: Disney

But almost as quickly as plans for the new resort were announced, they were seemingly scrapped, albeit with little official word from Disney. Plans were even removed from the 2017 D23 Expo announcements webpage, leaving Guests to once again wonder whether River Country would actually be reimagined or if it would stay a barren space of wasted opportunity and murky-colored memories.

Then, on March 15, 2022, the Walt Disney World Resort officially announced plans for new Disney Vacation Club villas at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. Along with that announcement came the news that plans for the Reflections Resort had been formally canceled, according to Disney Fandom, but even that is up for debate. Fans have searched high and low online for exact, specific wording from Disney, confirming the scrapping of the new Reflections Resort, and most have come away with little more than an inkling.

NEW DVC Tower Coming to the Disney's Polynesian Village Resort - DVC Fan

Credit: Disney

According to DVCFan, however, plans for Reflections were indeed canceled in 2021:

As a further indication that Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge has been permanently canceled, construction permits have emerged today for the removal of several “office trailers” from the surrounding property. This removal further validates the cancellation or long-term delay of this project, although we will likely never receive an official confirmation from Disney on the subject.

Earlier this week, aerial photographer extraordinaire Bioreconstruct tweeted photos from his journey high above the location where Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge was to be constructed.

According to The Street, Disney has been completely mum about plans for its new lakeside lodge since the pandemic first became a reality in the U. S.

“The Reflections hotel site has been cleared, but it does not appear that the project is currently moving forward,” reads a post at TheStreet.com. “It makes it clear [Reflections Resort is] not being worked on actively.”

So, whatever happened to Disney’s plans to replace and reimagine River Country? At the time of this publication, your guess is every bit as good as ours.

About Becky Burkett

I'm an enthusiastic writer who finds joy in random things like cold weather, snow, "I Love Lucy," "The Andy Griffith Show," journals full of blank paper, countdowns to Christmas, the month of December, "Toy Story," "Sleeping Beauty," my 4 kids, my 4 shih tsus, Disney Parks history, Imagineering and visiting the parks. I think Walt Disney is the standard against which genius should be measured. I love to write about Disney Parks, Disney history, all things Imagineering and PIXAR. I adore the colors, story and art direction of Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" (Team Make it Blue!), and "Toy Story" is life (minus "Toy Story 4"). I believe Walt Disney was so much more than an entertainment and theme park tycoon; I believe he was a savant with a vision for life and how it could be if happiness and kindness are strived for. I love Biergarten at EPCOT and 1900 Park Fare at Disney's Grand Floridian. You can find me croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room, chillin' on the PeopleMover or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. I'm always looking for Imagineers in the parks, and I'd rather meet Joe Rohde and Tony Baxter than anyone in Hollywood! Hey, if you dream it, you really can do it!