.......When a nature-loving Chicago family leased a cave in the Ozarks, what they had in mind was a summer cave tour business. What they developed was a theme park attracting over two million people each year and winning the theme park industry's top award of excellence worldwide.
Silver Dollar City,
an 1880s theme park located near Branson, Missouri, presents six world-class festivals from April through December. The 100-acre park has 12 stage venues, 30 rides and attractions, 12 restaurants, 60 shops and 1500 employees, including 100 resident craftsmen. But it began as an accessory to a hole in the ground
The hole, first called Marble Cave because the limestone walls were thought to be marble, was one of the first attractions in what would become Branson. Eons old and hidden beneath the hills, it was first discovered by the Osage Indians in 1500, described by geologists in the 1860s and explored in the 1880s by adventurers who lowered themselves on ropes 200 feet into the main chamber. One of those adventurers was a newspaper publisher who began to write about the cave's beauty and mystery.
A group of Union Civil War veterans formed a mining company to mine resources from the cave, mining tons of nitrogen-rich bat guano from the cave in the 1880s, but finding no marble. Scientific American magazine described the cave in 1885, and word of the natural wonder spread throughout the continent. Canadian mining expert William Henry Lynch read of the cave, purchased it sight unseen, traveled to the Ozarks and, with his two daughters, opened the cave to public tours in 1894.
Cave tours continued into the early 1900s, and minister/writer Harold Bell Wright was one of its visitors. In 1907, after his famous novel "The Shepherd of the Hills" was published, nationwide interest in the Ozarks began, drawing visitors who wanted to see the self-reliant and stoic hill people, the wooded valleys, the mountain "balds," and the incredible cave Wright had described.
As automobile travel took over from horse-and-buggy transportation, the creation of roads became important to attractions seeking visitors. Cave owner William Henry Lynch was dedicated to bringing the road from Branson to his cave, cutting brush and clearing what is now Missouri Highway 76. By the 1920s, the cave was a well-established attraction and tourists could get there by road or by hiking from a nearby train stop.
In 1946, Chicagoans Hugo and Mary Herschend vacationed in the Ozarks and discovered the cave now called Marvel Cave because of its awesome proportions. They loved the cave, which was run by Lynch's daughters. When the Lynch sisters decided to retire, they offered the Herschends a 99-year lease on Marvel Cave. Hugo, a Danish immigrant whose world traveling had separated him from his family in Denmark and whose sales work at times kept him away from home in Chicago, was looking for a family business where he could work together with his wife and sons. In April 1950, Hugo and Mary and their teenage sons, Jack and Pete, took over the management and tours of the cave. That summer, Marvel Cave drew 8,000 visitors.
After making improvements to make cave access easier, the Herschends brainstormed above-ground improvements, such as creating a pleasant area for people waiting to go into the cave. Hugo's vision was to have some of the native craftsmen demonstrating traditional Ozarks crafts. Then in 1954, an 80-plus year-old traveling salesman named Charlie Sullivan came to the cave, telling the Herschends he had been born in the general store of a mining town named "Marmaros" -- which was the Greek word for "marble" -- that had been at the entrance to the cave. There had been 28 residents, a hotel, a school, a pottery shop and a furniture factory, he told them, and after searching through leaves and brush, Sullivan showed them the old building foundations. The idea of recreating the 1880s mining town was born.
Following Hugo's death in 1955, Mary, Jack and Pete began building the 1880s Ozark village. Mary was committed to authenticity and preservation -- there would be no cheap storefronts. She also insisted on preserving the natural beauty of the area, particularly the trees.
In 1960, the Herschends opened the village they called Silver Dollar City, named for the promotional idea of giving visitors silver dollars as change. While little was spent on advertising, publicist Don Richardson's idea of giving silver dollars as change to park visitors led to tremendous word-of-mouth exposure. When vacationers returning home would pay for their gas and other purchases with silver dollars, people would ask where they got the coins, and the vacationers would describe the park and their Silver Dollar City adventure.
The town square had a blacksmith shop, a general store, an ice cream parlor, a doll shop, and two 1800s authentic log structures which had been relocated and restored, the McHaffie homestead and the Wilderness Church. For entertainment, a small troupe of Silver Dollar City "citizens" dressed in 1880s costumes performed street theater, presenting humorous feuds between the Hatfields and the McCoys. The staff, including Herschends, was about 17 people.
The first year, Silver Dollar City drew more than 125,000 people, four times more visitors than the number that toured Marvel Cave. "We discovered we were in the theme park business," Pete Herschend said.
In 1969, Silver Dollar City drew national attention when producer Paul Henning brought the cast and crew of the popular Beverly Hillbillies television show to the park to film five episodes.
Silver Dollar City continued to grow, adding stagecoach rides and a steam train. Ingenuity in handling challenges led to some of the park's long-standing traditions. When the steam train needed a stop to build up enough steam to make the final run up a hill to get back to the station, the rest period was turned into interactive theater. Comedic train robbers would come out of the woods to hold up the passengers while the boilers churned up the necessary steam to complete the ride.
The first craft festival held at the park in 1963 had native craftsmen demonstrating 19 crafts including woodcarving, tie hacking, shingle splitting, blacksmithing, weaving, lye soap making and candlemaking. Visitors were so interested in the demonstrations that more resident craftsmen were added, including a glass blower, a weaver, a potter and a silversmith. That year 500,000 people visited the park and Silver Dollar City became Missouri's number one tourist attraction. By 1998, visitors were topping two million.
Silver Dollar City now encompasses more than 100 acres, showcasing America's heritage crafts with a demonstrating colony of 100 resident craftsmen - woodcarvers, glassblowers, potters, basket makers, leather crafters, candle makers, knife makers and more. Rides include the explosive launch roller coaster PowderKeg, named the Best Family Thrill Coaster on the Planet by Thrillride.com; the multi-looping roller coaster WildFire; the super-soaking water raft ride Tom & Huck's RiverBlast; and the Giant Swing that launches riders more than seven stories in the air and nearly upside down at roller-coaster speeds. The Grand Exposition area of the park has 10 family rides that recreate the era of the World's Fairs and Expositions of the late 1800s. Attractions such as Half Dollar Holler and The World's Largest Treehouse at Geyser Gulch provide interactive play areas for kids and families, and entertainment is showcased in on-park theaters ranging in size from 150 seats to 4,000 seats.
Seven festivals and events offer a variety of entertainment and activities throughout the year. The season opens with international performers from countries around the globe for World-Fest in April and May. Bluegrass & BBQ brings together some of the top performers in American bluegrass music and the aromas and flavors of a huge all-American barbecue, running mid-May through early June. America's largest kids' festival, National KidsFest, brings in shows and activities, June through July, and Moonlight Madness offers extended ride times for nighttime thrills in late July and early August. Southern Gospel Picnic is the largest gathering of Southern Gospel artists, late August through early September. The National Harvest Festival, September through October, presents visiting craftsmen, harvest-style foods and special exhibitions and entertainment. An Old Time Christmas® in November and December, nationally recognized by media from the Travel Channel to Good Morning America as one of the best holiday light shows in America, dazzles with the acclaimed 5-story, special effects Christmas tree and an all-encompassing sound and light show on the Square. Plus, the festival features a Holiday Light Parade, holiday shows and more than four million lights.
Along with Silver Dollar City's growth and the addition of high-quality production shows and high-tech rides -- themed to keep an old-fashioned look -- "high-touch" elements remain. Visitors join the activities of an 1800s homestead at the McHaffie Cabin. Kids are deputized by the town marshal. Gospel singing beckons from the door of the 155-year-old Wilderness Church. One can smell the aromas of succotash cooking on an outdoor skillet and feel the waxy bars of freshly made cakes of lye soap. The ringing of the blacksmith's hammer on the anvil invites visitors to watch his work at an open-air forge. The craftsmen show their techniques, share the history and answer questions, such as why hewing the logs for a cabin make it strong enough to stand for centuries. The Culinary & Craft School offers guests behind-the-scenes experiences with classes on legendary Silver Dollar City home-style cooking.
The vision of the Herschends nearly five decades ago to showcase the natural beauty of the Ozarks and to bring to life the colorful history and heritage of the area led to the development of a theme park which is today an industry leader. Silver Dollar City won worldwide recognition with the 1999-2000 Applause Award, the theme park industry's top award of excellence based on management, operations, creativity and ingenuity. The park was also the 2001 recipient of the prestigious Thea Classic Award for theming from the Themed Entertainment Association, and the Golden Ticket Award for "Friendliest Park" in the theme park industry.
In 2010, Silver Dollar City celebrated its 50th Birthday with a weekend event that drew 40,000 guests and launched a year-long celebration. The park has seen 65 million guests since it opened on May 1, 1960, contributed $100 million to the state economy, and has employed 35,000 people over the years, including the nearly 2,000 Herschend Family Entertainment employees who work in the Branson area. A Congressional Proclamation recognized the 1880s Theme Park as "The Home of American Craftsmanship," and Governor Jay Nixon described the park as "the Hope Diamond of Missouri tourism."
From natural wonder to international attraction, it all started with a hole in the ground.
Widely recognized as the premier privately held theme park operator in the U.S., Herschend Family Entertainment (HFE) owns, operates or partners in 26 entertainment, tourism and hospitality properties in 10 states. HFE's original park is Branson, Missouri’s Silver Dollar City theme park, which opened in 1960. In Branson, the company also owns and operates Showboat Branson Belle lake attraction, White Water water park and The Wilderness at Silver Dollar City campground.
HFE is an operating partner with Dolly Parton in the Dollywood Company, which owns the Dollywood theme park and Dollywood’s Splash Country water park, both in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The Dollywood Company is also the largest shareholder in the Dixie Stampede dinner attractions located in Branson, Pigeon Forge and Myrtle Beach. In Georgia, HFE operates Atlanta’s Stone Mountain Park in conjunction with the State of Georgia, and owns Wild Adventures Theme Park in Valdosta. HFE also owns Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey and the Newport Aquarium in Newport, Kentucky, as well as Ride The Ducks amphibious tours in Branson, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Ride The Ducks also operates at Newport Aquarium and Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta. HFE manages Darien Lake Theme Park Resort in Buffalo, N.Y., and Elitch Gardens in Denver.
Since the company was founded in the early 1960s, the many properties have been internationally awarded numerous times for excellence in theme, presentation and operations, including the worldwide Applause Award for excellence and the THEA Award (Themed Entertainment Assoc.). The properties employ 10,000 people and entertain 10 million guests annually.