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Years ago, River Country would have been bustling with families who had traveled far and wide to visit the attraction. Fast forward to the present and the park lies in ruin. Seph Lawless
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The story starts in 1976, when Disney's River Country attraction opened its doors to the public. In so doing it became the Walt Disney World Resort's first water park. Seph Lawless
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Along with the nearby Discovery Island (seen to the left), River Country comprised one of Disney's most popular attractions, drawing tourists from all over the states and beyond. As a matter of fact, throughout the '70s and '80s, visitors considered these two parks the highlight of the resort.Seph Lawless
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Now, more than 40 years after the Disney officials first opened the park, these sites only offer views of desolation.Seph Lawless
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The shift from thriving park to neglected wasteland started in 2001, when Disney officials closed the park without prior warning. Seph Lawless
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After the company decided to finally close the park in 2001, many speculated as to whether it would ever reopen. Seph Lawless
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Just four years later, Disney made an official announcement that the park would not reopen. Rather than work with a clean-up team to dispose of the rides, officials simply closed the gates and locked them. Seph Lawless
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Ohio-based photographer Seph Lawless recently visited the abandoned park to learn about its history and see if it held any clues as to why a franchise as image-conscious as Disney would leave the park to decay over the years.Seph Lawless
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To get close to the site, Lawless hired a boat at Disney World and used a high tech drone camera to snap pictures of the abandoned theme park. Seph Lawless
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Drone in tow, Lawless captured never-before-seen images of the remains of both Discovery Island and Disney's River Country. Seph Lawless
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According to Lawless, he doesn't intend to use his photos to shame Disney, but rather encourage them to do better. "The goal here isn't just to say that Disney is ruining the land... The message is they built something, they benefited from it and then they just left it there to rot. They could have done something with that land that would have benefitted the environment and the existing wildlife." Seph Lawless
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Regardless of his intent, Disney officials didn't take too kindly to Lawless' entrance into the park, and banned him from returning to Disney World when they discovered him on the premises. Seph Lawless
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Lawless concluded that he simply got too close to something Disney didn't want him to see. As he told Newsbeat, "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."Seph Lawless
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When Lawless inquired as to why Disney had closed the parks, he said staff equivocated. "They didn't even have a clear response," Lawless said. "One Disney employee said it's because the pollution from the nightly fireworks that they have and pollution from the fairs and boats. Others said that it's because of some kind of bacteria that caused a death in 1980."Seph Lawless
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Regarding the latter, Lawless is referring to an August 1980 event wherein a rare amoeba entered the nose of an 11-year-old boy. The amoeba attacked the child's nervous system and eventually killed him. Seph Lawless
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Ten years later, Walt Disney World began prohibiting swimming in the lakes near Discovery Island and River Country. They also issued an explicit statement telling visitors that the beaches were only for sunbathing. Seph Lawless
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While Disney suffered a bout of bad press, business didn't suffer much. In fact, at the time, the Associated Press claimed that there was "no reason to blame Disney World for the tragedy," as amoebas of this type are common throughout U.S. lakes and happen to thrive in hot weather. Seph Lawless
29 Haunting Pictures Of River Country And Discovery Island, Disney’s Mysteriously Abandoned Theme Parks
More than a decade ago, Disney World permanently closed the gates of two of its previously most popular theme parks: Disney's River Country and Discovery Island. Instead of demolishing the parks, Disney has allowed them to rot in plain sight.
This a bit of an odd choice for a park known for its immaculate appearance.
Over the years, many have illegally entered the Disney's River Country in hopes of documenting the disrepair and perhaps understanding why the parks were closed in the first place.
Using a drone camera, photographer Seph Lawless has captured exclusive, never-before-seen images of the abandoned parks.
What Happened To Disney's River Country And Discovery Island Theme Parks?
Disney's River Country opened in 1976 as Disney's first water park. Together with Discovery Island just across the river, these two theme parks were considered some of Disney's best attractions in the 1970s and 1980s.
That was until the park was suddenly shut down in 2001, without warning. Disney opted not to reopen Disney's River Country. They gave no explanation as to its closure and they left the rides and attractions to decay.
There have been rumors that the park closed due to pollution from firework displays. Even more sinister: the possibility a visiting child had been killed by a bacterial infection he contracted from the park.
Whatever its reasons, there's no denying that the scene left behind at Disney's River Country is eerie. It was not easy for Lawless to gather these photos, as the parks are heavily surveilled. But take a look at what Lawless found on his difficult and covert mission through the abandoned park, and perhaps puzzle for yourself why exactly the parks were so mysteriously closed.
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.