Silver Dollar City: Missouri

IF YOU’VE HEARD OF BRANSON, MISSOURI, the country-music boom town sometimes called “Little
Nashville,” then you probably know about Silver Dollar City — the place that started it
all. Called an Ozark Disneyland by one writer, it’s a perfect place to bring motorhomes
full of kids or grandkids, as shown by the ranks of rigs in its spacious parking lots. This
year marks Silver Dollar City’s 40th anniversary, and it’s pulling out all the stops. The
Herschend family leased local Marvel Cave in 1950. So deep that Frenchman Don Piccard flew
a hot-air balloon in it (you can see the photos that prove it), the cave still attracts
thousands of visitors a year, even though the city has grown up around it. Brothers Pete
and Jack Herschend were so instrumental in spurring the Branson tourism boom during the
1980s that they were featured in an issue of Forbes magazine, not to mention dozens of
others. “We saw the potential around us,” says co-owner Pete Herschend. “We have Table Rock
and Bull Shoals lakes, plus rivers and creeks and some of the prettiest Ozark Mountain
scenery anyone could want. And we had country music already here in the form of The
Baldknobbers and The Presleys.” In fact, The Baldknobbers headlined the very first show. It
took awhile to awaken the businessmen of Branson, which was a sleepy little town best known
as home to a roving preacher named Harold Bell Wright, who wrote a novel called The
Shepherd of the Hills. (The book has sold more than 100 million copies and was made into a
1950s movie, starring John Wayne. It is also the basis of an outdoor drama performed
annually in Branson, April through October.) But soon, old businesses were expanding and
new ones were being added at an amazing rate. Silver Dollar City, built on the site of an
1880s mining town, was designed as a pleasant diversion for folks waiting to explore the
cave. For entertainment, a small troupe in 1880s costumes humorously reenacted the feuds
waged by the Hatfields and McCoys. “But very soon we moved way past the cave-tour concept,
partly because the park drew 125,000 visitors our first year,” says publicity director Lisa
Rau. “Eventually we had Donna Douglas (who played Elly May Clampett) and other characters
from The Beverly Hillbillies and various other rustic stars. And over time, it grew to what
it is today: a wonderful coupling of entertainment and education.” Now a full-fledged theme
park, Silver Dollar City began featuring Ozark woodcarvers and fiddle makers. A blacksmith
(who has been one of the historical craftsmen/performers since 1960) still pounds out
melodious tunes on his anvil, and people by the hundreds have been married in a Wilderness
Church built of logs. The Old Mine Restaurant, a popular dining place (ask for the “special
table” for your friends), was soon a fixture, with fine vittles prepared by veteran chef R.
Douglas “Moose” Zader. Dozens of snack bars and rides were added, including a flooded mine
and a water slide, but the heart of the park was — and is — its lavish festivals and
entertainment productions, featuring craftsmen and performers from around the globe. To
house the performers and craft shows, the Herschends set out on a construction program that
more than doubled the park’s available buildings between 1980 and 1995. Most recent is Red
Gold Heritage Hall, a 25,000-square-foot, 1,800-seat structure that hosts shows and events
throughout the April-through-December season. It was completed early this year for the
park’s 40th anniversary. All buildings are historically themed and decorated, and Red Gold
Hall celebrates turn-of-the-century Ozark farming, when tomatoes — “red gold” — were a
major crop, along with strawberries. This year, the Festival of America is being held
September 7 through October 28 (Tuesdays through Sundays). The festival celebrates artwork,
music, dances and specialty foods from around the nation. It also features America’s most
unique crafts, from Nantucket basket making to Amish woodworking and Dakota prairie art,
with 75 visiting artisans demonstrating fine craftsmanship. “Portraits of America” features
Saturday Evening Post covers and prints by Norman Rockwell and a pictorial presentation of
musical-instrument makers from the Smithsonian Institution. Heritage Hall features “Tastes
of America,” with regional culinary favorites, including blue-ribbon pies from all 50
states. Cooking instructors take center stage to prepare specialty dishes from around the
country. American entertainment, from cowboy poetry to pioneer storytelling, Native
American dancing to square dancing, also fills the park. Additional special showcases
include “Quilts of Liberty,” presenting the states’ prize-winning Liberty Quilts crafted
for the American Bicentennial celebration, and “Pottery of America,” an exhibit of styles
and techniques of artisans from around the country. In a park famous for creating new
attractions, one of Silver Dollar City’s earlier ones, Geyser Gulch, still packs folks in
with its wild architechture, entertaining shows and water eruptions. So popular has Silver
Dollar City become that many people buy season passes and return again and again. In
addition, no paddlewheel is left unturned as the festive showboat Branson Belle plies Table
Rock Lake, bringing the 1890s to life. Sunset dinner cruises this year feature the
hilarious act of nationally known Todd Oliver and his talking dog. It’s impossible not to
laugh at this perfect ventriloquism act. And for sheer beauty, don’t miss the Russian
adagio-dance team of Elena and Vadim Serykh, who will astonish you with their talent and
acrobatic grace. Silver Dollar City takes enormous pride in being a family park, and as
trucker Ron Farris, who delivers supplies there from Springfield, said, “It’s an incredible
place, with so much to do, you hardly know where to start. I can bring my family and never
worry about drunks because there aren’t any. In Branson, just up the highway, I can enjoy
The Strip with all its country-music theaters, and see major country entertainers.” Besides
the nationally famous stars, there are shows like The Presleys, every bit as good, and they
were here first. “It’s better than Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry!” says one happy vacationer.
Motorhomers should be aware that, although recent expansion and new roads have relieved
much of the traffic, no one is going to break any speed records in Branson. But in Silver
Dollar City, there’s plenty of parking. In addition to the Silver Dollar City Campground,
which has 185 shaded sites and a free shuttle to the theme park, the Branson area has ample
RV parks. Check out the Trailer Life Directory for complete campground information. “It’s
just a roller coaster of activity here!” says a cheerful Lisa Rau. “Speaking of which –”
She points toward the roller coaster rising above the trees. For More Info
Silver Dollar City, (800) 475-9370; www.silverdollarcity.com Silver Dollar City Campground
(open April 1 through October 30), (800) 477-5164. For Show-Me State travel information,
call (800) 877-1234; www.missouritourism.org

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