Partial view of a former swimming pool, now overgrown with weeds and algae, at the abandoned River Country water park at Walt Disney World. Image provided by photographer Seph Lawless, from his 2017 book "<a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/1510723358">Abandoned: Hauntingly Beautiful Deserted Theme Parks</a>."
Partial view of a former swimming pool, now overgrown with weeds and algae, at the abandoned River Country water park at Walt Disney World. Image provided by photographer Seph Lawless, from his 2017 book "Abandoned: Hauntingly Beautiful Deserted Theme Parks." (SephLawless.com)

The Walt Disney Company is preparing plans and hiring contractors for a large new themed hotel and timeshare resort on the former River Country water park site, with construction anticipated to start next year.

International architecture firm WATG has been chosen to lead design of the new resort, and Balfour Beatty recently won a competitive bid process to serve as construction manager, industry sources with knowledge of the contracts told GrowthSpotter.

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Executives with each of the companies did not respond to requests for comment. A Disney spokeswoman also declined comment, saying "At any given time we have numerous projects in varied stages of development across the (Walt Disney World) resort."

Mouseketeers Lisa Welchel and Allison Fonte ride a tire swing with Goofy in October 1977 at Walt Disney World's River Country.
Mouseketeers Lisa Welchel and Allison Fonte ride a tire swing with Goofy in October 1977 at Walt Disney World's River Country. (Walt Disney Co. / Orlando Sentinel archive)

Located near Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground, Disney opened River Country as its first water park in March 1976, closing it 25 years later in November 2001. The company has not demolished the structures since, allowing nature to overtake the old attractions and swimming pools.

Known as "Project 89," the new hotel and resort is being planned for approximately 1,340 bays, an industry term used for a standard room measurement when considering the variability of multi-room suites.

Disney Vacation Club's timeshare program would have 300 "Equivalency Units" at the resort, which may absorb up to 940 of those bays based on the size of suites with multiple lock-off rooms. Standard hotel rooms (non-timeshare) would make up half or one third of the property.

A hard construction cost estimate for the new resort is near $350 million, with total development cost by Disney a higher figure.

Disney began drawing attention for Project 89 in March, when it filed water management district permits for geotechnical boring on the former River Country site. It later filed permit applications in early May for a temporary stockpile and fill site for Project 89, but in each case didn't share details on future development.

Partial view of a walking bridge and waterslide in the background at the abandoned River Country water park at Walt Disney World. Image provided by photographer Seph Lawless, from his 2017 book "<a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/1510723358">Abandoned: Hauntingly Beautiful Deserted Theme Parks</a>."
Partial view of a walking bridge and waterslide in the background at the abandoned River Country water park at Walt Disney World. Image provided by photographer Seph Lawless, from his 2017 book "Abandoned: Hauntingly Beautiful Deserted Theme Parks." (SephLawless.com)

WATG previously designed the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa at Walt Disney World, and was involved in later designing that hotel's convention center and wedding pavilion, but not the DVC timeshare segment of the property. WATG has designed hotels at Disney theme parks in Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Balfour Beatty is currently building the new 15-story tower and island expansion of Disney World's Coronado Springs Resort, and has construction contracts at Epcot.

Notable jobs Balfour Beatty has led in Greater Orlando in the past include building The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, The Hyatt Regency Orlando expansion (of the former Peabody), Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando, Cabana Bay Resort at Universal, Walt Disney World's Avatar attraction at Animal Kingdom, and more than 24,000 hotel rooms and vacation club units at Disney.

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Early insight on the size, target demographics and examples of town center design that Disney hopes to emulate for its western gateway property.

There are 30 Walt Disney-owned and operated resort hotels with nearly 28,000 guest rooms on the company's property, not counting third-party hotels that lease land from Disney.

The construction and opening of a new hotel on the former River Country site would follow work on a new Star Wars-themed hotel south of Disney's Hollywood Studios, which the theme park operator confirmed new details for in a news release Wednesday.

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at bmoser@growthspotter.com, (407) 420-5685 or @bobmoser333. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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