The 13th Floor

Exploring Two of Disney’s Most Nightmarish Abandoned Parks

Earlier this year, Greg Burkart shared a particularly creepy creepypasta about Mowgli’s Palace, an alleged Disney park that was built in the 1990s and abandoned before it opened. Mowgli’s Palace was allegedly made of a strangely porous material and haunted by evil Disney character costumes that could walk and talk and kill on their own. It is a completely unbelievable story, but one that might have its origins behind a very real abandoned Disney park. Actually, two: Discovery Island and River Country. Both parks were part of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and are the only two Disney parks to close permanently.

Discovery Island was purchased by Disney in 1965 as part of their massive land grab leading up to the building of Walt Disney World. When the park opened in 1974 it was called Treasure Island and built as a place to observe wildlife. The name was changed in 1976 and in 1978, it became a zoological park accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

Discovery Island was known for its breeding of rare birds, and was the home of the last-known dusky seaside sparrow, which died in 1987 and was declared extinct in 1990. Other attractions at the park included trumpeter swans, a bird show featuring trained macaws and cockatoos, lemurs, brown pelicans, flamingos, tortoises, cranes, and the United States’ most extensive breeding colony of scarlet ibis.

With Animal Kingdom opening in 1998, and visitor attendance to the island down due to the fact that Discovery Island was only accessible by boat, Disney decided to close the financially-strapped park. The animals were relocated to Disney’s Animal Kingdom and other zoological parks across the country. To this day, the island remains abandoned. There were rumors that the island might become a honeymoon resort, or possibly even an interactive adventure based on the MYST video game, but none of these plans ever came to fruition.

In 2009, after hearing rumors about the island’s existence, urban explorer Shane Perez and some buddies decided to see what remained of the island. After swimming through gator-infested waters, Perez found something akin to a horror movie set:

“Almost immediately, we realized we were not alone on this island. We could hear all sorts of noises in the trees surrounding us. We were literally surrounded by what sounded like thousands of birds. We could hear them cawing and cooing in all directions, some sounded almost like people speaking. With every branch we stepped on that made a snap, a group of birds would be startled and take off all at once, making even more noise.”

Among the abandoned buildings and overgrown wildlife, Perez and his team made several haunting discoveries: staff photographs left in abandoned offices; snakes preserved in jars and, oddly, a Coke bottle; and a pair of angry baby vultures.

Just across Bay Lake, River Country was the first Disney water park, opened in 1976 and designed to be like an old-fashioned “swimming hole.” It featured a chemical-free water filtration system and pools with sandy floors instead of concrete like most water parks. Attractions included a man-made lake, rope swings, 16 foot water slides, flume slides, and an inner tube river.

River Country was hugely popular when it opened, leading Disney to build two more water parks: Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach (both of which are still operational). The new water parks were larger, with bigger thrills and modern attractions, leading to a steep decline in attendance. River Country closed September 1, 2001 for the season, but it turned out to be a permanent closure.

The official reason for the permanent closure was that, after the 9/11 attacks, Disney was losing money on all its properties, and decided to “halt” the reopening of the park until demand grew. But there were other factors that might have something to do with the closure, including a change in Florida laws requiring water park attractions to use chlorinated water.

More frightening was a rare but deadly amoeba (Naegleria fowleri) that caused the death of an 11-year-old boy who had visited the water park. It was the fourth such death of the summer, but the only one confirmed to have been caused by River Country.

River Country never reopened but, like Discovery Island, was never demolished. There are rumors that the park may open exclusively to guests of the adjoining Fort Wilderness hotel, but judging by some of the photos, Disney would probably be better off starting over.