‘Tis the season: Silver Dollar City masters the festival business
Five million lights. One thousand decorated trees. Candy canes that tower like basketball hoops. A 14-foot moose.
Come down from your roof, Clark Griswold. The fun, old-fashioned family Christmas you seek is here in Missouri, at Silver Dollar City.
In recent years, the long-operating Branson park has invested heavily in its Christmas celebration. Visitors tonight will witness a five-story-tall tree decked with 350,000 lights that flash along with holiday tunes. A light parade, added in 2014 at a cost of $1 million, features characters from the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer television special.
The ever-growing spectacle has drawn rave reviews and national media attention. Fair-weather Saturdays in December draw the park’s biggest crowds of the year.
“People just descend on Silver Dollar City like crazy,” said Brad Thomas, president of Silver Dollar City Attractions.
It’s all by design. The annual Christmas festival is one highly successful component of the park’s work to attract crowds nearly year-round.
In 2017, Silver Dollar City will be open 220 days. Most Midwestern parks can’t manage that. If schools are open, amusement parks are typically closed.
But over the decades, Silver Dollar City has cultivated an atypical theme park audience, using themed festivals during the traditional offseason to bring adult couples – including many senior citizens – to the ticket counters.
An older audience flocked to the park during a recent Wednesday in mid-October. At the time, Silver Dollar City was hosting a festival featuring 125 artists and craft vendors.
All day, the few teens and families in attendance had full access to all the park’s roller coasters and other rides – there were no lines.
However, a cooking demonstration drew a standing-room-only crowd. The seats were filled at musical performances. Business was good at the shops and restaurants.
Park co-founder Jack Herschend was walking the Silver Dollar City grounds that day. He’s 83 years old. He could see that a healthy portion of his park’s guests were his contemporaries. When asked whether Silver Dollar City needed to do more to attract a younger audience, he dismissed the idea.
“These customers are a huge advantage. Go to Six Flags or Worlds of Fun today. They’re closed,” he said. “We, through a special event, have appealed to an older audience – and a very profitable audience. To say that we need to change our mix, that’s just not true.”
Jack Herschend and his younger brother, Peter, have been working to bring crowds to this park since they were teenagers. At the time, their family held a lease on Marvel Cave and operated it as a Branson tourist attraction. The brothers worked as cave guides.
Even in those early days, the family continually experimented with ways to attract more people to the cave and expand their business.
In the late 1950s, the Herschend brothers built on the property a frontier village intended to resemble an 1880s Ozark homestead. They found local craftspeople to inhabit these buildings and sell their wares to people waiting to tour Marvel Cave. Adding to the novelty, the frontier village workers gave change in silver dollars.
Silver Dollar City opened in 1960, and attendance immediately surged from 80,000 people annually to 120,000.
“All of a sudden we had way more people coming,” said Peter Herschend.
The tiny theme park grew through the 1960s before hitting a roadblock in 1973 – an oil embargo – that exposed a major challenge in its business model.
Most amusement parks are built near major metropolitan areas. However, a visit to Silver Dollar City requires spending hours in the car. As gas prices spiked because of the oil embargo, the future of Silver Dollar City looked grim.
“That was a death knell to a business as remote as Silver Dollar City,” said Jack Herschend. “So we decided we had to figure out how we can be close to population centers.”
That led the company to expand beyond Branson. It developed water parks in Oklahoma City, Dallas, Atlanta and elsewhere. It created a second Silver Dollar City in Tennessee, later renamed Dollywood.
Today the Herschend family also owns aquariums, resorts and dinner shows. It’s become a diverse, national entertainment business. It’s the largest family-owned company of its kind.
Of all the Herschends’ moves, their recent acquisition of the Harlem Globetrotters has stirred the most conversation. People outside the company often have a difficult time connecting how the zany basketball franchise fits into a theme park business.
“Are you guys out of your mind?” is what Peter Herschend remembers being asked in 2013 when the Harlem Globetrotters acquisition was announced.
But the brothers argue the Globetrotters are a perfect fit. They provide family-friendly entertainment, often with an undercurrent of Christian values.
Their research also showed that past Globetrotters audiences had positive memories of the performance, an attribute that connected with their company’s overarching mission of “creating memories worth repeating.”
“It was a joy to see how well they fit,” said Jack Herschend. “They are great people. They care about their guests. They care about kids. It has just been great.”
After all, the Globetrotters are skilled, creative craftsmen in the trade of basketball tricks. In a way, they’re not all that different from the blacksmith or basket weaver on Silver Dollar City’s Main Street.
In late October, Silver Dollar City threw a fiddle jam birthday party for Violet Hensley. She was turning 100 years old.
Hensley has been performing music and hand-carving fiddles at the park since 1967. She learned her craft from her father while growing up on a farm in Montgomery County, Arkansas.
Throughout its history, the park has sought out homespun craftspeople like Hensley to bring life and authenticity to its fictional city.
But these days, skills like carving violins, blacksmithing and glassblowing have largely faded away.
“You don’t just go out on the marketplace and say we’re hunting for a glassblower. They don’t exist,” Jack Herschend said.
To preserve these skills, the park has training programs to cull the next generation of craft workers.
“Continuing to have craftsmen working on the grounds is very important,” Jack Herschend said.
Thomas agrees. He also argues that the craftspeople are important for another reason – they’re trendy.
“Maker fairs are storming the country,” he said. “Silver Dollar City was a maker fair before there were maker fairs. We have live artisans creating beautiful pieces of art, and they’ve been doing it for generations.”
He sees the park’s water-powered mill in a similar light – it’s been churning out organic cornmeal since long before “organic” was a trendy term.
This thinking is part of the park’s work to use consumer research to help market itself to potential customers. This involves studying consumers who love Silver Dollar City and trying to understand their habits outside the park.
Understanding what types of people enjoy Silver Dollar City enables the park to target marketing at similar people who are likely to have a great time once they arrive.
Conversly, Silver Dollar City’s consumer research also helps direct changes to the park.
One of the most visible recent changes happened in 2013 with the opening of a new roller coaster, Outlaw Run. It was a daring move.
When it debuted, Outlaw Run had the steepest drop of any wooden rollercoaster in the world. At 68 miles per hour, it’s the second-fastest wooden roller coaster. It’s also the only wooden roller coaster to feature three upside-down twists.
While a segment of Silver Dollar City’s audience has always come for the park’s diverse selection of rides, Outlaw Run put the park on the international map for roller coaster enthusiasts and thrill seekers.
The ride dazzled reviewers in the roller coaster community. Online videos of the ride have been watched millions of times.
Thomas said the park is listening to the hype surrounding Outlaw Run. It is also investing to keep the trend going.
“In August of 2017 we will be announcing something very big that we’ll be opening in the spring of 2018,” he hinted. “It went under construction about three months ago and will be a reason for people around the globe to visit Silver Dollar City just like Outlaw Run was.”
But even as the park invests in headline-grabbing attractions, Thomas said, leaders remain keenly focused on the traditional facets of Silver Dollar City – everything from the craftspeople to the over-the-top Christmas party – that have drawn visitors for decades.
“People don’t use Silver Dollar City like they use an amusement park. They want that wider variety of an experience,” he said. “We won’t be a park that will only build rides. We will add shows, events and festivals because that’s our sweet niche.”