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Business Spotlight: Horsing Around

Equestrian stunts and meal are highlights of Dolly Parton’s Stampede

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The 2024 season marks the 30th year for Dolly Parton’s Stampede Dinner Attraction in Branson.

The show is a mainstay of the music city, offering equestrian stunts as well as acrobatic feats, comedy, magic and a four-course dinner to boot.

Audience members are divided between two sides of a roughly 1,000-seat arena with steep tiered seating that offers an unobstructed view of the arena floor. The show takes the form of a light-hearted competition between the north, whose riders wear red costumes, and the south, clad in blue. Red or blue flags are sold and can be seen waving in the arena to help audience members root for their team.

While the show unfolds, some of the speediest servers in the city work their way down the long rows, pouring sweet tea and lemonade and depositing bowls of soup, whole roasted chickens, ears of sweet corn and more – most of it handheld fare, no fork necessary. As they serve, they also act as cheerleaders, pausing to urge on their side’s team. They frequently pump a fist in the air to give support or shake a vigorous thumbs-down signal when the other team is mentioned.

It’s a rollicking contest, and the stakes are boosted by audience participation, including children who compete to coax their team’s chickens across a finish line or grown-ups who toss toilet seats toward pegs as giant horseshoes. There’s even a piglet race that is surprising in its intensity as the animals, wearing red or blue neckerchiefs, tear around the ring.

Stampede shows are offered in both Branson and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, a city closely associated with the show’s namesake, country music star and multi-business entrepreneur Dolly Parton. Parton also has another dinner show attraction, Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Established in Branson in 1995 as Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, Parton dropped the “Dixie” – a reference to the Civil War South – in 2018. At the time, she said the change reflected a change in attitudes.

“It will remove any confusion or concerns about our shows and will help our efforts to expand into new cities,” she said in a news release from World Choice Investments LLC, which owns the Stampede.

Stampede officials said Parton is not expected to visit the Branson attraction this year to mark the local attraction’s anniversary.

An unusual workplace
The attraction employs 250-300 workers, according to company officials. Abby Ingram is one of them.

A performer, Ingram specializes in trick riding, and she also dances and occasionally serves as host, she says.

“I do a little bit of everything,” she says.

Ingram describes herself as a crazy horse girl as a child growing up in the area of Portland, Oregon.

“I absolutely loved horses – loved riding,” she says. “I also loved being on stage.”

Ingram learned about the Stampede when she was in college, and she put in an application.

“I got a call to come down and audition, and the rest is pretty much history,” she says, noting she joined the Stampede in June 2021.

Ingram says working for the Stampede is very fun – and very different.

“There are not any other jobs I can think of like it,” she says. “It can be physically demanding, but it’s so much fun to say I ride horses for a living.”

Ingram says performers do a lot of things to pull the crowd in and get them excited.

“It’s so much fun to watch audiences get excited and get into the action, especially kids. They love it when they get to come down and do the chicken chase,” she says.

Observing the kids is her favorite part about being a performer, she says.

Although Ingram gets to wear the spangled costumes under the spotlights, the job is not all glamour, she says.

“If I’m not performing, I’m moving things around backstage or grabbing horses for another act,” she says.

She notes performers are high-level athletes, and the work can be exhausting.

“I’m very used to it,” she says. “As long as the audience can’t tell, we know we’re doing our job right.”

During the holiday season, performers may work up to five shows a day for a 13-hour workday, she says, but some days have just one show for a four-hour shift.

“The longer you’re at the Stampede, you learn how to pace yourself and give the audience a show they want to come see,” she says.

Natalie Modglin is the marketing manager for the Stampede, and it’s a role she’s been in for a little over a month. Modglin says she likes what she sees at the show.

“I’ve seen a lot of fun – a lot of memories being made,” she says. “From the minute they walk in the front door to pick up their tickets, there’s a smile on their face, and when they’re leaving, they still have a smile on their face,” she says. “What I love most is seeing families together, taking pictures, laughing, standing up and cheering. These guys do a great job of getting the audience involved.”

Who’s visiting
The Stampede is a privately held company, and by policy it does not disclose attendance or revenue figures, but some information can be gleaned from the travel profile dashboard maintained and updated constantly by the city of Branson.

The dashboard shows the average visitor took in 2.7 shows on the most recent visit to the city, and 48% of those were dinner show productions like the Stampede. Live shows are the fifth most popular activity for visitors, after shopping, experiencing downtown, dining at restaurants and going to Silver Dollar City.

Some 40% of visitors to Branson said they participated in live shows, and a quarter cited them as having an influence on their choice to visit Branson. Among respondents, 83% associate Branson with live shows or entertainment, and 81% see it as a wholesome family destination – and piglet races seem to fit that description.

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