ONCE DUBBED THE HOPE DIAMOND OF MISSOURI TOURISM, SILVER DOLLAR CITY HAS COME A LONG WAY SINCE IT FIRST SPRUNG OUT OF THE OZARKS MOUNTAINSIDE IN 1960.
There’s something unique about Silver Dollar City. It’s not just the award winning rides or the craft village or the magical Christmas displays. There’s something about the charm, the excitement, the hustle and the culture that wraps Silver Dollar City in a shroud of nostalgia mixed with modernism.
It’s part of why this 1880s-themed amusement park has stood the test of time. It’s why it’s garnered national attention and why in 1963, the City edged out attractions in larger cities like Kansas City and St. Louis to become Missouri’s No. 1 tourist attraction. The secret to Silver Dollar City’s success? A careful balance of family fun, modern thrills and Ozarks charm.
Today, more than 2 million guests flood Silver Dollar City each year, and among the rides, the crafts and the shows, some of them walk right past the very attraction that first put The City on the map: Marvel Cave. More than 200 feet below the earth’s surface, the cave is home to a dizzying underworld that first captured the attention of adventurers and dreamers in the 1860s when its limestone chambers were first discovered. By 1894, the cave was opened for public tours, which eventually drew in the cave’s future owners Hugo and Mary Herschend. In 1946, the Chicago natives were vacationing in the Ozarks when they visited and fell in love with Marvel Cave. By 1950, the family, including the couple’s sons Jack and Pete, took over management of the cave.
Even in the ’50s, before Silver Dollar City rose out of the rocky hillside, the cave’s mystery and allure drew crowds by the thousands. In the summer of 1950, with the Herschend family newly at the helm, Marvel Cave attracted 8,000 visitors. With one popular attraction already in place, the Herschends started brainstorming above-ground entertainment. When the family heard about an old mining town that once stood sentry at the mouth of the cave, they had an idea.
By this time, much of the country’s imagination had been swept up by the curious lifestyle and undeniable beauty of the Ozarks. Thanks to Harold Wright’s best-selling novel Shepherd of the Hills published in 1907, the sleepy Ozark Mountains were part of public lore. With much of the country already hooked on the nostalgia presented by life in the Ozarks, the Herschends decided to revive the long forgotten mining town. The 1880s-themed village opened as Silver Dollar City in 1960, and in its first year, the park welcomed more than 125,000 visitors.
Even in the early years, Silver Dollar City focused on providing a balance of entertainment and thrills. “Our strategy is to create a unique experience that visitors from around the country will want to enjoy,” says Brad Thomas, president of Silver Dollar City Attractions. “That’s not a new strategy. It’s a continuation.” The first ride at The City was unveiled in 1962 and featured authentic 1880s stagecoaches pulled by teams of horses. In 1963, the park launched its first craft festival with 19 crafts on display including blacksmithing, candle-making, soap-making and woodcarving. When Fire in the Hole opened in 1972, it was the park’s very first roller coaster. Today, Silver Dollar City is dotted with more than 40 rides and attractions. Every few years, the park unveils a new thrill, and in 2013, it captured the attention of the country with the completion of Outlaw Run.
Priced at $10 million, the scream-inducing roller coaster made headlines as the first wooden coaster to send riders on a stomach churning double barrel roll. That thrill alone is worth headlines, but throw in a 162-foot drop at 81 degrees and top speeds of 68 mph, and Outlaw Run found itself named the Best New Ride of 2013 worldwide. It wasn’t just the Ozarks applauding the newest addition to Silver Dollar City. The park landed coverage from the LA Times, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Fox News, Travel Channel, USA Today and NBC News. It even made it into Guinness World Records in 2015 as the steepest wooden roller coaster. It was also the world’s first and only double-barrel roll on a wooden coaster. But Silver Dollar City one-upped itself yet again when the park announced an even steeper thriller, and this time the budget shot up to $26 million.
“This is the largest investment in a single ride or attraction in park history,” Thomas says. Opened in spring 2018, Time Traveler—a nod to the park’s 1880s roots—leaves Outlaw Run in the dust. With top speeds of 50.3 mph, three inversions, a vertical loop that tops out at 95 feet, a 10-story, 90-degree drop and the steepest point of the coaster reaching 100 feet in the air, Time Traveler is being called the world’s fastest, steepest and tallest complete-circuit spinning roller coaster.
“We wanted a significant ride experience,” Thomas says. “We worked with incredible engineers from Germany who created the concept of this unique spinning ride. And they came up with a design that would work in our terrain.” Unlike Disney’s spinning teacups, Time Traveler’s rotation is calculated. “This is not meant to spin uncontrollably,” Thomas says. The spin adds a different experience, but it’s still attractive to the whole family. “We have dozens of rides,” Thomas says. “Some are family rides, some are for small children, but there will always be experiences the whole family can share. It’s about balance. What sets us apart from other theme parks is that we strive to offer a balanced experience.” At The City, that balance means combining entertainment, shows, festivals and crafts.
If the rides and roller coasters are synonymous with Silver Dollar City, so are the crafts. There are 1,500 employees who work at The City, and 100 of those are resident craftsmen. Jeff Walker is a master craftsman who heads the park’s pottery studio. He’s been with Silver Dollar City for seven years as a full-time potter, but he started out as a visiting artist during the National Crafts Festival hosted at the park each fall.
“I came to the festival for 20 years,” Walker says. “I would come to Branson for eight weeks a year and did another 26 to 30 art shows across the U.S.” One year as Walker was setting up his booth before the festival, one of the park’s owners asked him why he didn’t work at The City full time. A few days later, Walker had a job offer. Like most of the craftsmen at The City, Walker spends 40 hours a week in the studio. During the park’s off season between January and mid-March, Walker and his team of potters have the daunting task of filling the shop’s stock of pottery.
“We’ll run the 80-foot gas kiln once every week,” he says. “We get about 300 pots per load.” If Walker’s math is correct, that means the team produces some 3,000 pots in less than three months. And that’s just the pottery available for sale in the studio. Once the park opens for the season, Walker and the rest of the pottery team spend their time demonstrating to park visitors. And they do it in character.
In a lot of ways, Silver Dollar City is the Midwest’s Disney. Employees are in character as soon as they enter the park and are expected to project the skills and lifestyle of the
1880s mining town. There’s even a costume shop that creates period-authentic garb for the craftsmen and employees to wear. But unlike Disney, where Cinderella already has a personality and backstory, Walker and the rest of the craftsmen at Silver Dollar City can largely be themselves. “It’s not hard for us to hold character,” Walker says. “This is who we are, and Silver Dollar City lets us pass on information about our craft to the public.”
It’s the craftsmen’s knowledge and skill that’s really on display. The character and historical period are just the groundwork. In fact, not all of The City’s craftsmen come in knowing a specific trade. Finding a skilled blacksmith is probably a little harder today than it was in 1880, so a lot of the team is trained on a specific skill. What’s really important is an employee’s ability to interact with park guests.
“Most interns or new artists are pretty nervous for the first three or four weeks,” Walker says. “They don’t want to mess up when demonstrating.” But even Walker messes up sometimes, and he’s trained as a production potter. Mess up a pot or a coffee mug, and Walker just tosses the misshapen clay aside. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, and he loves the job. “Potters never stop working,” he says. “We’re always playing in the mud.”
Walker isn’t alone in his love of Silver Dollar City. Jon Williams is another longtime employee. He’s worked at The City for 18 years and now serves as the director of maintenance and construction. When he first joined the park, he was just a teenager looking for a summer job and worked at White Water as a lifeguard. “I just loved the company and what it stood for,” Williams says. “You can’t talk enough about the culture of the company. You take care of each other, and it’s really easy to fall in love with that.”
As director of maintenance and construction, Williams handles all the day-to-day operations and ride and facility maintenance. His busiest time of year is the few weeks in the winter when the park is closed for the season. “This is when we tear apart all the rides and put them back together,” he says. As the park’s season inches its way toward becoming year-round, Williams’ two-month maintenance window is getting shorter. Christmas is now one of The City’s busiest times of year. “Forty years ago, summer was the biggest season for us,” Thomas says. “But those shoulder seasons like spring and fall are certainly important, and Christmas keeps getting bigger.” In 2017, The City’s Christmas festival, which kicks off in early November, brought in more than 500,000 visitors. And that beat last year’s attendance, which broke the record at the time.
Thanks to new thrill rides, speedy coasters and endless festivals, Silver Dollar City has thrived, and it’s exciting growth for both park staff and visitors. “We always look at what is trending and what’s new out there,” Williams says. “But we always have an eye on what fits our culture and our clientele. We are geared toward families, but we have college kids come here and empty nesters and school groups. We want the latest and greatest, but at the same time you have to be mindful that it has to be wrapped in an 1880s theme.”
It’s all about the balance between historical roots and modern attractions. It’s a business model that worked in 1960 and one that continues to work today. With 12 restaurants, 60 shops, more than 40 rides and attractions, 12 stage venues, 1,500 employees, more than five decades of success and more than 71 million guests since first opening, it’s clear the Herschends were onto something. In fact, when it’s all said and done, the diamond of Missouri tourism has contributed more than $100 million to the state’s economy. That’s not too bad for a project that started as a hole in the ground.