The Things They Left Behind: Disney’s Two Abandoned Parks

ENTERTAINMENT | December 13, 2019

Discovery Island. Source: (youtube.com)

The Walt Disney Company is constantly expanding its theme park business, opening new parks across the world, adding new attractions to their existing parks, and completely revamping the ones in danger of becoming outdated. This is why it may be surprising to learn that there are two Disney parks in Orlando, Florida, which were abandoned and left to rot for decades.

The first park to be abandoned was Disney’s Discovery Island. The island was originally purchased in 1965 along with the rest of the land which was used to build the Walt Disney World. It is located in the middle of Bay Lake, across from Disney’s Contemporary Resort and the Wilderness Lodge, and could only be accessed by boat.

Abandoned building on Discovery Island. Source: (abandonedfl.com)

The park originally opened as Treasure Island in 1974 and featured shipwrecks, secret caves, and buried treasure, all of it inspired by the 1950 movie Treasure Island. In 1976, the name was changed to Discovery Island and the theme was reimagined. It was converted into a zoological park, accredited by the Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, and housed an array of over five hundred endangered species, including the last dusky seaside sparrow which died in 1987 and was declared extinct in 1990. The main attraction of the park was the aviary which included an elevated walkway which allowed guests to walk among the flying birds. Other attractions included the Alligator Swamp, the Flamingo Lagoon, Primate Point, and the Monkey Canopy.

Still from Matt Sonswa’s video exploration of the island. Source: (youtube.com)

Discovery Island closed on April 4, 1999, shortly after the opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and has been closed ever since. Most of the animals were relocated to the new theme park while the rest were sent to other zoological parks. There was no official statement regarding the reason for the closure but it was mostly made superfluous by the opening of Animal Kingdom and closed as a result of declining interest. Despite the fact that Disney has banned anyone from attempting to visit the island, several curious adventurers have slipped in under the radar.

In 2009, it was visited by Shane Perez, whose description of his findings was downright creepy. Not only did he claim to still hear thousands of birds in the trees around him, but he also found evidence that the island was abandoned in a hurry - photographs and office equipment left behind. Even creepier was the discovery of snakes preserved in jars and, in one case, a coke bottle. This description was backed up by YouTuber Matt Sonswa, who videoed his exploration of the island in 2017.

Visitors at the River Country water park at Walt Disney World in 1977. Source: (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

The second park to close was River Country, Disney’s first water park, which opened in June 1976. It was themed as an “old-fashioned swimming hole” with a chemical-free water filtration system, and sand floors instead of concrete. President Gerald Ford’s daughter Susan was the first to ride its main attraction, a slide called the Whoop’n Holler Hollow. Other attractions included a man-made lake, rope swings, flume slides, an inner tube river, and multiple water slides. The park averaged 4,700 guests per day during its first year.

Abandoned pool at River Country. Source: (pinterest.com)

However, the park was plagued by tragedy. In 1980, an eleven-year-old boy died after amoebic meningoencephalitis, a rare infection that attacks the brain and nervous, caused by an amoeba found in Florida’s freshwater lakes. Three other kids had died from the infection that same year, but this one hadn’t been swimming anywhere except River Country, thus indicating it to be the source of the amoeba. Disney was not held liable as it was deemed to have been out of their control. The same cannot be said, however, for the next death to be linked to the park. It was in 1982 when a fourteen-year-old boy drowned in the lake after riding the Whoop’n Holler slide. The family sued and won, as there was no sign to indicate the depth of the water. A third death, another drowning, occurred in 1989, this time a thirteen-year-old boy. However, despite these tragedies, the park lived on.

Overgrown and dirty slide at River Country. Source: (pinterest.com)

In September 2001, the park closed for the season, as was customary. But in April 2002, it was announced that it would not reopen. Many speculated that it was in some way linked to the deaths, or at least the first death, citing new Florida laws regarding water filtration. Others blamed the September 11 attacks and the resulting decline in tourism. However, a more likely reason is that, like Discovery Island, River Country had become redundant. Typhoon Lagoon, which opened in 1989, and Blizzard Beach, which opened in 1995, were both much bigger and had more attractions.

Both parks were left standing after closing; however, River Country is currently being excavated so that a new hotel can be built in its place. The new hotel, which will be called Reflections - A Disney Lakeside Resort, is expected to open in 2022. There does not seem to be any plans, however, for renovating Discovery Island and Disney seems content to allow nature to reclaim the former zoological park.

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