When this park opened, thousands of joyous families flocked to it every day. Now it's an abandoned wasteland — with a chilling backstory.
One of the world's creepiest abandoned amusement parks is set to undergo a $350 million revamp.
The first water park at Florida's Walt Disney World, River Country once teemed with excited children and their families, but was closed and left to rot in 2002.
According to news.com.au, the Walt Disney Company has reportedly hired contractors for a large new themed hotel and timeshare resort on the former River Country side and construction is expected to start next year.
However, the eerie park has seen its share of tragedies - and its current state is something Disney doesn't want you to see.
One photographer found this out when he rented a boat and filmed the property legally with a robotic drone.
'What's Disney trying to hide?'
Operating under a pseudonym, Seph Lawless has captured haunting images of the ruins of River Country, as well as many other abandoned sites in the United States and around the world.
His images show the theme park being taken back by nature, with moss and vines growing over old slides and other attractions. Offices sit empty, cluttered with dirt, papers and plastic containers.
You'd never guess it was once part of the "Happiest Place of Earth", welcoming families to frolic in the pools that are now filled with dirty water.
Two years before his visit, Disney issued a statement saying: "While we appreciate the enthusiasm of our fans, undeveloped areas of Walt Disney World are off limits to guests. As a private property owner, we have the right to trespass guests who deliberately enter unauthorised areas."
Despite this, Lawless published his photographs and described his experiences in an article for the Huffington Post – which led to legal threats from Disney.
"The next morning my editor reached out to me saying they were getting threatened by Disney and pulled the story," Lawless told Herald Travel. "I was upset so I took my story to all of my press contacts from NBC News, CNN and others and by the next morning I made my story go viral."
In several television interviews, he challenged Disney to "clean up their mess" – and the company's response was to ban him for life from all Disney properties and try and take control of his images.
"Disney's legal department threatened me to hand over all of my images for them to destroy. Not only did I refuse but I ended up publishing the images in my book: Abandoned: Hauntingly Beautiful Deserted Theme Parks."
However, he says legal action was dropped after Disney realised he was working for a production with the VICELAND network, which the company owns a majority of.
Lawless has also photographed abandoned malls across the US and said many Americans see his images and believe they are looking at third world countries.
"I want Americans to see what's happening to their country from the comfort of their suburban homes and smart phones.
"Sometimes words aren't enough so I started taking images and exploiting social media platforms, namely Instagram, to share in hopes of raising more awareness.
"This isn't social media, this is a social movement."
What really happened to the theme park?
Disney's River Country, in Bay Lake, Florida, was a huge deal when it first opened back in June 1976.
It was the first of the multi-billion dollar corporation's water parks — and it made quite a splash. In its first few years, the park was filled with excited families and squealing children speeding down slides. It was described as an "old-fashioned swimming hole" with "a twist of Huckleberry Finn", complete with rocks and man-made boulders.
In its first year, the theme park averaged 4700 guests per day.
Susan Ford, the 18-year-old daughter of President Gerald Ford, took the first official ride down the famous Whoop 'n Holler Hollow.
The creators wanted to give families the sense that they were actually swimming in an open lake, and created a massive artificial mountain to suck up lake water, filter it and then empty it through the park's slides into the pool.
A large rubber "bladder" was installed, inflated 15cm above the surface of Bay Lake, to separate it from the water park and ensure that unfiltered water could not pollute the swimming pools.
Despite this, in 1980 tragedy struck — an 11-year-old boy from New York died in the park after contracting amoebic meningoencephalitis, a rare infection caused by amoeba found in Florida freshwater. The amoeba swam up his nose and attacked his brain and nervous system.
The disease is almost always fatal, but Disney was largely absolved of blame.
According to an Associated Press report from 1980: "The two officials said there was no reason to blame Disney World for the tragedy because the amoeba can breed in almost any freshwater lake during hot weather. Officials have said there is no epidemic of the disease in central Florida, where all four cases were detected.
Disney officials said there was wasn't much they could do.
"'We are of course concerned and sensitive to any potential health or safety hazards to our guests,' said Disney spokesman Charles Ridgway. 'I don't know of any action that could be taken as a result of this.'
"Ridgway emphasised that Disney World conducts a thorough program of water quality control in co-operation with health officials," reported AP.
In 1982, disaster struck again. A 14-year-old boy from North Dakota drowned in the resort after dropping into the lake at the end of the Whoop'n Holler slide.
The boy's family sued the corporation, saying there was no sign posting about how deep the water was. After one of the park's lifeguards attested that dozens had to be rescued from the ride each day, the family received $US375,000 in compensation.
In 1989, a 13-year-old teenage boy from Florida also drowned at the park.
Left to rot for over a decade
Every year, the water park closed in September for the winter and reopened in April. But in 2002, that changed.
"Walt Disney World's first water park, River Country, has closed and may not reopen," the Orlando Sentinel reported that year in April.
Since then, the resort has been left to rot — filled with overgrown moss, dilapidated offices and abandoned rusty water slides covered in vines.
Disney World spokesman Bill Warren stated that River Country could be reopened if "there's enough guest demand" — but no one has set foot inside since.
Reports on the park's closure at the time suggested the deaths may have played a part — particularly the boy who was killed by amoeba.
A Martin County Times article, for example, stated: "Disney's River Country closed in September 2001, due in part to new Florida Laws prohibiting the use of natural water bodies, requiring chlorination and only municipal water supplies, for water park use.
"According to Ruin-Nation, a blog of abandoned places in the United States and beyond, 'The deadly naegleria fowleri bacteria is said to be alive in the (River Country) park's water during the hot summer months. This could also have added to the reasoning of the park's final season.'"
But there were other factors at play. The September 11 terror attacks saw tourist revenue to the US plummet and Disney's parks were affected nationwide. Staff members' shifts became shorter, contractors were laid off and construction was halted mid-build.
It also faced stiff competition from other parks — by the same corporation. In 1989, Disney opened its second water park, Typhoon Lagoon, which was larger than the first, had a more convenient location and boasted more attractions.
In 1995, Blizzard Beach opened. It could facilitate more guests, was larger than River Country and proved more profitable.
Disney's ambitious plans for the water park
The wasteland won't remain this way forever.
Walt Disney World Resort is reportedly building a new hotel with more than 900 beds where the park was once located.
According to The Orlando Sentinel, the unnamed deluxe resort is set to open in 2022 and will have a "nature-inspired theme".
"Walt Disney World is in the midst of our most significant expansion in the last two decades," George Kalogridis, president of Walt Disney World Resort, said in a statement.
He said the new hotel rooms "create thousands of new construction and permanent jobs and will drive economic opportunity and incremental revenue for Central Florida".
The company is also adding a range of new rides to its existing theme parks, including Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge in 2019.
In other words, if you want to see the remains of River Country, in its eerie, fractured state, this might be your last chance.
Just don't let Disney catch you there.