RiverCountry-then.jpg  RiverCountry-Slide.png
River Country in Fort Wilderness, Walt Disney World - as it looked with visitors in the late 1970s.

EDITORIAL - Upholding Walt Disney’s Standards
by B.J. Major
11/7/11 and 1/1/13

1.  River Country

For the record, I never planned to write any kind of editorial for this particular discography.  It would be the furthest thing from my mind regarding the subject matter, which is Disney music.  Disney music - to my way of thinking - has always been upheld to Walt Disney’s standards.  And to pull a phrase from Mary Poppins - it is “practically perfect in every way.”  Its soundtracks are legend; Disney music is beloved by all around the world, and as my page on the songwriters, arrangers and lyricists who worked with and for the Disney Studios make obvious - Walt insisted on using those who really knew their trade inside and out, those with exceptional talent, to write the music and lyrics that would accompany his ideas.  And the digital restoration work that Walt Disney Records (and in particular, producer Randy Thornton) has done in restoring and preserving for generations to come - the oldest movie soundtracks (as well as music from the Disney parks) - has been nothing but phenomenal.

My subject here of upholding Walt Disney’s standards stems from very disturbing photos I have seen on the internet regarding the state of some of the property in Florida that belongs to Walt Disney World.  Beginning in the 1990s, there were several decisions made by the then-CEO and executive team running the company that I would just never agree with - and if I can be so presumptuous, neither would Walt have agreed.  I’m quite sure of that. 

I’m just not sure how one could possibly justify the closing of a major attraction like the River Country water park in Fort Wilderness, then leaving the entire attraction to decay and rot in the extreme Florida climate.  The photos I saw included massive overgrowth of vegetation and trees, rusting metal water flumes, steps now barely visible, and a barrel on the ground that was so weathered by the elements that it literally split open.  Most of the wood was not visible, leaving only the black metal rings originally around the barrel, stacked on the ground.  As of this writing, this neglect has been going on for a decade.

I saw photos of trash piled up inside a small building that was originally for towel return.  I saw signs flattened to the ground, withered and faded by the weather.  Decay and neglect were everywhere in River Country.  Decay, neglect, and trash.  This, simply put, should not be.  Not only should decay, neglect, and trash never be a part of ANY Disney property, but to make matters even worse - this is property that is visible by anyone traveling on Bay Lake.  It’s not even a backstage area.  I was horrified at this entire prospect and the photos made me cringe. 

This was part of a place I dearly love.  I was a frequent guest at Fort Wilderness since it had opened - and once I began working for the Disney company in 1976, I even attended the cast member weekend opening of River Country in May 1976.  I’ll never forget that the employee newsletter, “The Eyes and Ears” headlined it “The World has a new country, River Country”.  Themed rustic like the rest of Fort Wilderness, it was really a fun place to spend a day trying out all the water activities (inner tubing, boom swing, cable ride, barrel bridge, tire swing, picnic and trail area, water flume slides) and catching some sun.  Having a snack at Pop's Place.  I enjoyed that cast member weekend there immensely and went back several times in the months to follow.

I have read the reasons for River Country’s closure and while I take issue with these reasons and believe that it could and should have been kept open despite those reasons, I could never agree with its total abandonment by the company.  If you were going to do something like this and close the area after it’s been open to the public for decades, then get rid of all traces of it, bulldoze the area and then restore it back to the way it was before River Country existed.  That’s what Walt Disney would have EXPECTED you to do, not leave an eyesore as part of his dream project.  He would definitely never have approved of building something and then walking away from it years later, leaving nothing to replace it.  This is what OTHER companies do; it isn’t what Disney does.  With all the care and detail he painstakingly took in all his plans, abandonment and neglect were never options.  It’s a total disgrace that the company is allowing this to happen.  I’m hoping that this situation gets rectified before too much more time passes.

fwrr-brochure.jpg  IMG_5132.jpg
2.  The Fort Wilderness Railroad

This railroad was as special to me as any that run in any of The Magic Kingdoms.  I remember many happy trips I took on this particular railroad through Disney's campsite resort.  On one vacation in 1980 when I noticed that the train was not running (and we were escorted to a bus stop instead), I was told by a Disney employee that the line was dismantled and sent to Tokyo Disneyland.  Until I found out differently years later, I thought that is exactly what happened, though I didn't understand why.  I certainly don't appreciate being told a lie like this. 

The Fort Wilderness RR was only in existence a few short years in the 1970s due to problems, several of which should have been taken care of while the line was being built.  I can't tell if Disney was in a hurry to get it done or what was the reason.  In any case, the engines and cars were beautiful, but among other things, the track was improperly laid (causing derailments and other issues).  Here is what one website that specializes in The Fort Wilderness Railroad has to say about it:

"The Wilderness Line started to have some operational problems in that time. A major problem was the way in which the track was laid, 'on the fly', without using rail bending machine, essentially spiking the rail down around curves, so the track was constantly trying to straighten out. The result was kinks forming, especially where the rail sections met on a curve. Making track matters worse, tie plates were not used in most locations, and the rock bed was basically poured right over the tracks without tamping it down. The track conditions resulted derailments. Being that Fort Wilderness was built over very soft swampy land meant that the track had to be in top condition. Serious attention was needed for the track. Gauge rods, rail anchors, and tie plates were added in problem locations to aid in maintaining the 30" distance between rails.

Another problem was the small amount of water the saddle tanks could hold, only 225 gallons, which is not much considering the 3 1/2 mile trip the engine had to make. There was only one water tower at the Gateway depot. The employees running the train had to be very diligent about filling the saddle tanks with water every trip or else the train would run out of water mid trip. This was forgotten at times, and resulted in stranded trains. The trains were fitted with a auto-shutdown device, so when the boiler level dropped to a certain point, the train automatically stopped to prevent a dangerous situation. The Wilderness Line had designed a Tow Motor car to tow the stranded train back to the depot to refuel with water."

To make matters worse, after the service on the line was discontinued and abandoned by Disney, they left the train (engines and cars) covered with only tarps (which eventually ripped and came off), out in the Florida sun, heat & humidity to rust and rot for years.  The train didn't even get the privilege of living out the rest of its life in a roundhouse under protective cover.  Only when a private steam train restoration society began negotiations with Disney to purchase the engines and cars did the Fort Wilderness RR get rescued for private restorations. 

Knowing how fastidious he was about all things that bore his name (and how dearly he loved steam trains in particular), can you imagine what Walt Disney would have said if he knew this neglect went on with one of his own trains?!



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