Silver Dollar City: An old-fashioned theme park
Silver Dollar City, the theme park in Branson, Mo., made history this year by launching their Time Traveler coaster, the world’s fastest, steepest, and tallest complete-circuit spinning roller coaster. With its gut-wrenching vertical drop immediately out of the station, unique spinning cars (which rotate very gently), twin magnetic launches, and other elements, it is a hoot of a ride.
But the park itself is historic. And the theme that drives Silver Dollar City — an idealized 1880s mining village — is based in reality and helps give it a sense of authenticity.
Most theme parks arrive fully formed. A few however, including Silver Dollar City, take a more circuitous route. The park officially opened in the mid-1900s, but can trace its roots as an attraction back to the late 1800s.
First welcoming visitors in 1894, Marvel Cave grew in popularity as a tourist destination. Its owners, the Herschend family, launched Silver Dollar City in 1960 and developed a few modest features as a way to entertain guests waiting to explore the underground caverns.
Visitors can still venture 500 feet down into the cave to take a guided tour of its magnificent Cathedral Room, narrow passageways, and other sights. They can learn about the Osage Indians who first discovered the cave and its history as a mining operation. They can also still see some of the park’s earliest offerings, including the General Store and the Wilderness Church.
Soon after they opened, the aboveground activities began generating lots of attention, says Brad Thomas, Silver Dollar City’s president. The Herschends quickly recognized that the park was drawing higher attendance than the cave. “That’s when they realized they were in the theme park business,” he says. The park slowly expanded with the addition of rides, shows, restaurants and more. But the owners were adamant that Silver Dollar City not become a generic amusement park. “They wanted the 1880s theme and storylines to be reflected throughout everything here,” Thomas adds. The commitment to storytelling remains intact today.
For example, Time Traveler isn’t just a great roller coaster. It is, according to the elaborate backstory that the park has developed, a time machine invented by a 19th-century tinkerer. To get to the loading station, passengers make their way through the inventor’s steampunk-influenced workshop.
Likewise, the park's first coaster, Fire in the Hole, is set indoors and includes scenes that depict a town burning to the ground, based on an actual, ill-fated Ozarks village. (Lucky passengers may catch a glimpse of the real Dalmatian that sometimes stands guard in the fire chief's office at the start of the ride.)
One of the park’s lands, The Grand Exposition, evokes a turn-of-the-century world's fair. Its rides, including spinning teacups and high-flying swings, have lovely Victorian design elements.
In addition to Time Traveler, Silver Dollar City boasts other acclaimed thrill machines, including WildFire, a steel coaster that drops 155 feet, hits 66 mph and includes five inversions; and Powder Keg, a compressed air launch coaster that blasts from zero to 53 mph in 2.8 seconds. Outlaw Run, which opened in 2013, is the first wooden coaster of its kind to include a double barrel roll. It drops 162 feet at 81 degrees and hits a potent 68 mph.
“The food is as important as the rides,” declares Sam Hedrick, the park’s director of food and beverage. Intoxicating smells of barbequed meats, freshly baked cinnamon bread, and other treats waft along the midways. “We want our food to be unique,” he adds.
Among the distinctive items beckoning guests are the park’s skillet dishes that are offered at multiple locations. It is impossible to ignore the spectacle as cooks armed with oversized paddles stir and prepare colorful meals in five-foot-wide skillets. One of the signature dishes is a succotash made with sautéed chicken, corn, yellow squash, onions, peppers, and okra. The crisp, charred ingredients (including the okra, which generally has an unfortunate reputation of being slimy) are deliciously seasoned. Hedrick says that Silver Dollar City is one of the country’s largest purchasers of okra.
The enormous iron skillets are custom made in the park’s blacksmith shop, and that's just one of the many crafts featured throughout the park. Glass blowers, furniture makers, potters, and others demonstrate the skills, some of them dying arts, which are a hallmark of the mountain region.
Brown’s Candy Factory bridges both food and crafts. Candy makers in period garb hold court over large copper bowls to make confections such as fudge, peanut brittle, and hand-dipped strawberries. Presiding over the shop is June Ward, who is celebrating her 50th year at the park. The sweet and slightly sassy woman enjoys greeting visitors to her shop as much as she enjoys making candy.
While craftsmen are in permanent residence all season at Silver Dollar City, many more join them to showcase their work during the park’s National Crafts and Cowboy Festival held each fall. This year’s event will be held September 12 to October 27. The park also holds other special events, including a Bluegrass and BBQ festival from May 3 to 28 and An Old Time Christmas festival from November 3 to December 30.