Inside Disney’s creepiest theme park
One of the world's creepiest abandoned amusement parks is set to undergo a $350 million revamp.
The Walt Disney Company is reportedly hiring contractors for a large new themed hotel and timeshare resort on the former River Country water park site, with construction expected to start next year.
But the eerie Florida park has a haunted quality - and apparently Disney doesn't want you to see it.
'WHAT'S DISNEY TRYING TO HIDE?'
In 2016, an American photographer, who operates under the pseudonym Seph Lawless, broke into River Country.
His haunting captured images of the abandoned theme park went viral, but it came at a cost: Lawless received a lifelong ban from Disney World.
Writing on his Facebook page, Lawless said: "Officially banned from Disney World for life, which is ironic because I already banned Disney from my life after they raised ticket prices.
"Disney is upset at me, but why do they get so upset anytime someone gets too close to the abandoned Discovery Island.
"What are you really hiding Disney? No corporation should be powerful enough to hide the truth and not clean up their own mess."
He said he'd been told to stay away from Disney World sites despite legally renting a boat from the company and taking the photos using a robotic drone.
Looking at the images below, you might never guess it was once a place where thousands of eager laughing families congregated every day.
The photos show large pools filled with dirty water, moss and vines twisting around fences and abandoned offices covered in dirt and old papers.
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."
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 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, you better get in quick.
Just don't let Disney catch you there.