Southwest Missouri is often called a hidden gem.
But with new attractions boosting the area’s popularity, representatives in the local tourism industry hope to drop the hidden part.
Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium and Silver Dollar City’s Time Traveler coaster top the list of attractions drawing in visitors this summer, according to those in the industry.
One is 10 years in the making, and the other could take 10 years off one’s life.
The long-awaited Wonders of Wildlife opened in September and didn’t waste any time getting noticed.
Last month, USA Today readers voted it the nation’s best aquarium – and that was on the heels of being named USA Today’s best new attraction in January.
“Attendance has been very strong, and we’re expecting that to continue this summer,” said Jack Wlezien, the communications director for Bass Pro Group. “Traditionally, summer is when museums and aquariums experience a significant percentage of their attendance. We’re definitely looking to maximize that.”
Wlezien declined to release visitor numbers for WOW.
The museum and aquarium’s parent company and neighbor, Bass Pro Shops, has remained the state’s top tourist attraction, boasting 4 million visitors a year, with people coming from all 50 states nearly every month, Wlezien said.
“The really surprising piece? WOW is attracting entirely new Bass Pro customers,” he said.
The museum and aquarium holds 35,000 fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds, and 1.5 million gallons of freshwater and saltwater aquariums. Soon, those brave enough will be able to swim with the sharks in caged dives.
“We’re bringing the ocean to the Ozarks,” Wlezien said. “It’s going to be very unique.”
Wonders of Wildlife’s presence already is showing an effect on visitors to the area, with an even bigger increase expected this summer.
“The Wonders of Wildlife opening had a huge impact on overnight travel in Springfield. We’ve been up considerably,” said Tracy Kimberlin, director of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Kimberlin said room demand is the best way to track visitors.
For the summer, Kimberlin said room sales and room demand each is expected to rise 5 percent June through August, as compared to last year, putting citywide hotel revenue at an estimated 10 percent increase for the same period.
CVB officials previously reported room demand at Springfield hotels had increased by an average of 8.2 percent since WOW’s opening.
Kimberlin said 2018 will mark the fifth year of record growth for leisure travel and room demand after the economy recovered from the Great Recession that gave the tourism industry a substantial blow.
NerdWallet Inc. reports 81 percent of families with children plan to take a vacation this summer, spending an average of $2,256.
Aside from leisure travel, meetings and conventions are expected to draw over 54,000 visitors to Springfield, occupying 15,677 rooms between June and August, according to data from the Springfield CVB.
More than a third of those visitors are expected in August through the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival.
The summertime groups and conventions have a projected economic impact of at least $6.9 million, although Kimberlin added there isn’t data to run reports on impact for all groups.
Although tourism data for leisure vacations are up, conventions and meetings are flat.
“We have not had a lot of meeting space,” Kimberlin said. “Part of that issue is that we don’t have a convention center, and other [cities] do.”
Time will tell
South of town, visitors to Branson are expected to rise 2 percent this year to nearly 9 million, said Lynn Berry, communications director for the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“More than half of our visitation is from outside of 600 miles,” she said. “With the flights that have been added at BKG (Branson National Airport), we do anticipate seeing a growing pattern there.”
Branson last year recorded a 2.5 percent decrease in annual visitors, but Berry said a new coaster will help this year’s numbers.
“What’s the fastest, steepest and tallest spinning roller coaster around here?” she asked with a laugh. “Time Traveler has been a huge draw.”
Silver Dollar City has helped drive tourism since its opening nearly 60 years ago.
Janet Oller, vice president of marketing at Silver Dollar City, expects SDC visitors to increase by 7 percent compared to last summer, with about 900,000 people anticipated at the theme park June through August.
“Branson is an affordable summer destination,” Oller said. “And Time Traveler definitely gives us that leg up.”
Time Traveler sparked interest across the country, providing an uncommon level of publicity for Branson and Silver Dollar City, she said. The coaster was notably featured on “The Today Show,” USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and Travel and Leisure.
Oller said most SDC visitors come from within 300 miles of Branson, but Time Traveler helped expand its tourism markets. Springfield remains its top market, followed by northwest Arkansas.
“The economy is doing well. Folks are feeling good about the dollars they have in their pocketbook,” Oller said.
It’s not just the big attractions that are driving tourism increases.
Berry said live shows continue to be the steady and largest draw of visitors to the area. This year, there are over 150 options.
“Seventy-four percent of our visitors go to see a live show,” she said. “It’s really the difference maker.”
She said Sight & Sound Theatres’ “Samson” production will likely draw the biggest crowd this summer. And, she said, the natural beauty of the Ozarks’ lakes, rivers and hills will keep people coming back.
Back in Springfield, Sean Dixon, the CVB’s director of marketing, said the outdoors are certainly a draw, and following WOW and SDC is the Springfield Cardinals, the Ozark Empire Fair and the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival.
“It’s going to be a very fun summer for events,” Dixon said. “We’ve never experienced the growth that we’re experiencing.”
Wlezien said Bass Pro’s Fun Mountain at Big Cedar Lodge is expanding its offerings this summer at the resort on Table Rock Lake to include a four-story rope climbing course and a go-kart track.
“Amenities like this help round out the resort experience,” he said. “The collection of all of these are helping position the region, as well as the attractions here, as a national draw.”
A $12 hourly rate would be reached by 2023, if Prop B passes in November.
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