Rumors have been circulating recently about a Disney Vacation Club project planned to occupy the site of the former River Country water park. Although I’m pleased to see this area in consideration for some much-needed attention, I have some concerns about the final result.At face value, the rumor has some validity. The land is prime real estate for further expansion – it lies directly in-between Fort Wilderness & Campgrounds and the Wilderness Lodge and can potentially offer walking access to the nearby resorts as well as direct boat access to Magic Kingdom and the surrounding resorts. For those that don’t know, River Country was located directly adjacent to the Fort Wilderness Resort, but has sat abandoned and relatively untouched by Disney since its closing in 2001. The abandoned water park itself has infamously become a bit of a liability for Disney, as it has become accustomed to regular break-in attempts from dare devils and explorers who hear about it on the ever-expanding internet. The fact that Disney has left this abandoned and potentially hazardous structure untouched for this amount of time is surprising.A rumored project of the same magnitude circulated about a decade ago, but nothing ever materialized. It would be wise for Disney to put this to an end and level the water park. However, my concern lies with what is coming.The entire Fort Wilderness/ Wilderness Lodge area used to be one of my favorite areas of Walt Disney World. It is isolated, peaceful, and immersive. If you were staying at one of the resorts, you didn’t have to walk far from your room to find a corner of the woods where there was not a person in sight. Just the sights and sounds of nature, and maybe the occasional boat passing on its way to Magic Kingdom. In reality, I know this is a classic Disney illusion. The sounds of nature are just piped in through speakers disguised as rocks. And you’re never far off from a well-hidden backstage area.
In 2017, all of this started to change when the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) expansions opened at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. Now I must admit, the rooms are fantastic and they’re an excellent thematic expansion for the DVC. But since then, the resort just hasn’t felt the same. There’s certainly less trees, and less places that feel like I’m really away from everything else. The illusion has been spoiled.One of the last untouched gems of Walt Disney World was the trail between the two “Wilderness” resorts. This path was truly untouched. No lights, no signs, and barely a path at all. It was so isolated and rugged that I thought that Disney had actually forgotten about it.
The largest part of the Wilderness Lodge expansion occupies a space that was formerly part of that trail, and with the rumored DVC expansion is set to replace what remains, I’ve become concerned with the philosophies regarding expansion at Walt Disney World. I know that expansion and change are necessary, in fact I want Disney to give this area attention. But please do it in good taste. These resorts’ greatest assets were subtle – it really felt like being in the Wilderness. The latest expansion at Wilderness Lodge demonstrates a more sloppy mimicry of the wilderness theme at the expense of the immersion. The end-goal of EXPANSION still leaks through, there just isn’t any illusion to it anymore. And of course, I worry that the future expansion could increase this effect tenfold.
Is Disney building too much too quickly? Absolutely not. In the past, that has been one of their greatest strengths as a company, and theming was not sacrificed. For example, just look at Port Orleans Riverside or even Wilderness Lodge itself. Both of these resorts were created during the major string of expansions led by Michael Eisner. Nothing has changed since then except for that it is now starting to feel like too much. So I implore Disney to give these plans a second thought, whatever they are. I’m excited for this area to get some much-needed attention, but let’s maintain the verisimilitude of that Disney-illusion that keeps them distinguished from the competition.