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The end of an era: What happened to Wild River Country?

It was a place for field trips, company picnics, and where many families flocked to cool off. Now, the property sits for sale with an uncertain future.

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Kids who grew up in Arkansas during the 1980s and 90s likely have a story about Wild River Country. The waterpark opened in 1985 and was a summer attraction for more than 30 years.

It was a place for field trips, company picnics, and a place where many families flocked to cool off.

Now, it appears the park is gone for good.

“This is the end of an era,” former Wild River Country employee Teresa Arrigo told us.

Arrigo recalled wanting to work at the park after visiting as a child.

“I filled out my journal that night: ‘I went to Wild River Country today. It was awesome. One day I want to work there."’

She started as a lifeguard during college and worked her way up to assistant manager – a position she held until 2007.

Standing outside the parks’ gates in 2021, she saw a shell of the waterpark she treasured. Pieces of the slides sat in the parking lot just behind for sale signs lining Crystal Hill Road.

“It's heartbreaking honestly,” Arrigo said. “I think of what our community has lost.”

We visited Wild River Country in May 2019 as crews cleaned up from flooding days before opening for the season -- the season that would be its last.

The park never opened in 2020. It was not just the result of the pandemic, but also years of problems behind the scenes.

Court records show the park's former owners struggled to pay taxes over the past decade. According to our partners at Arkansas Business, JTS Capital Group of Waco, Texas recovered Wild River Country late last year at a $1.5 million foreclosure sale.

We reached out to the property's current owner as well as the commercial real estate group that has it listed for sale. Both declined requests for an interview.

Aerial images captured in April 2021 make one thing clear: the waterpark many have come to know over the past 35 years is no more.

Vertigo, Pipeline, Accelerator, and the other slides no longer tower above the park. Instead, their platforms stand bare. 

The once crystal blue water in the wave pool and lazy river has been replaced with brown.

“When you're passing by now, it's just an empty lot; it's getting to become an empty place,” Michael Schwarz, founder of AbandonedAR.com said.

According to Schwarz, Abandoned Arkansas is dedicated to preserving the state’s past through photography, research and documentation.

“I always try to ask myself ‘what we can do to reverse the situation or prevent it from happening to other places we cherish?’” Schwarz said.

In this case of Wild River Country, he believes it’s too late.

Photos posted on the website in February 2021 show extensive damage and deterioration on the property, along with trash and apparent vandalism.

North Little Rock police have responded to the park more than two dozen times since it closed in 2019. Reports of theft and criminal trespassing were among the calls.

Given the park’s condition, Arrigo and Schwarz agree its new owners were left with very few options.

“It's not the person who bought its fault that it's in the state it's in,” Arrigo said. “And they're just trying to get their money's worth out of it, so I can't really fault them for that.”

The 31-acre site is up for sale, priced at $2.9 million. The real estate listing calls the property "a former water park ... with improvements on site." The listing also says it would be an "ideal site for a business park, industrial, commercial, and major retail."

“I just hate to see it go,” Arrigo said.

Decades after her first visit to the park, the former employee and mom of six reflected on the many laughs, the screams and the life-changing experiences. 

Her fond memories were met with a sense of grief as she thinks about the future generations that will miss out on Wild River Country.

“I can't imagine how many thousands of kids got their start working here, how many families this was their place,” Arrigo said. “I think others like me are just heartbroken to see the state of it before it was sold because there was really no need for that, and to see it go it breaks a lot of hearts I would imagine – and not just mine.”