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Spreading like Wildfire: Silver Dollar City sees accolades, growth in 2023-24 season

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After a roller-coaster high of recently being named the No. 1 U.S. theme park in both a 2023 USA Today reader poll and Tripadvisor’s 2023 Travelers’ Choice Best of the Best Things to Do Award, plus expansion plans and an 800-acre land acquisition, Silver Dollar City is preparing for what’s next.

“We’re always looking 10 years into the future,” SDC President Brad Thomas said.

With an estimated 2.1 million visitors from across the country expected for the 2023-24 season, up from 2 million visitors last season, Thomas said Silver Dollar City remains true to its mission and values when mapping out the park’s growth plans.

“Our mission statement has been similar for 30 years: We create memories worth repeating,” said Thomas, adding the park adheres to a variety of values that have also remained constant, including adapting to guests’ changing expectations.

“We know we’ve got to have an amazing guest experience in this place,” he said. “We know we have to have unique shows, rides and festivals, so folks in Dallas will pass other entertainment venues to come to visit Silver Dollar City.”

Thomas said that means constantly improving parking and food lines, and looking at new rides and restaurants. In October 2022, the park announced plans to invest $30 million into these improvements.

Visitors this season may notice major construction underway around the park as part of the investment. Thomas said one of the key factors to accommodate the park’s growth is looking at the traffic flow and patterns. Park officials worked with Springfield-based Great River Engineering to help maximize peak attendance days, “so that there’s a rhythm to the cars entering, and we can expedite folks coming and out,” Thomas said.

Also, Thomas said the park is working with the Missouri Department of Transportation to consider adding a left turn lane from Highway 76 onto the Indian Point peninsula to enter the park.

“This will allow us to bring two times more traffic in every rotation of the stoplight pattern,” he said of the improvements that would be part of the state’s cost-share program.

Another construction project in the works is the 300-bed student-housing residence hall, scheduled to open by late summer adjacent to the park.

“The hall will provide a dorm-style living for student workers visiting us for a semester or for eight to nine months,” Thomas said of the project by Wisconsin-based Holtz Builders Inc.

Each season, Silver Dollar City employs college interns through two dozen programs, totaling approximately 300 students at a time. Thomas said the intern programs benefit the students and the park.

“They fill actual positions in the park, but they are also getting valuable work experience, so when they get their degree, wherever they choose to work, they’ll be able to apply those skills in their future career.”

And while Thomas is excited to talk about the investments and improvements, there are a few projects that visitors will have to wait patiently for, including the rumor of a new ride to replace the iconic Fire in the Hole, closing this season after over 50 years of operation and more than 25 million rides.

“The five-story mysterious building behind Fireman’s Landing will be a tightly held secret for just a little while longer,” he said.

Another tight-lipped investment is the former Indian Ridge property purchased by Silver Dollar City.

“Over the course of the past several years, we’ve purchased several parcels of land to our west, and last year we purchased 800 acres,” Thomas said.

To put the acquisition into perspective, Thomas said the entire theme park and its parking lots encompass 120 acres.

“Putting all that land together means SDC has many announcements in the decades to come,” Thomas said.

Accommodating for this level of growth reflects not just SDC but also the Branson area as a whole, which Thomas said is a communitywide effort.

“All of us as a business community, we look how we can join hands together and bring more people to our market,” he said.

Branson has seen an uptick in visitors, welcoming 10.2 million visitors in 2022, a 12% increase from 2019, according to officials with the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau. This is due in large part to a $600,000 targeted marketing campaign launched in 2022. The campaign, “Your Vacation Needs Branson,” reached 41% of travelers nationwide and generated 441,000 incremental trips and 2 million room nights, said Jonas Arjes, interim president and CEO of Branson chamber and CVB and the Taney County Partnership.

Lynn Berry, the chamber’s communications director, said chamber and CVB staff members were “walking around for a couple of days with our mouth agape” when the data arrived in early June. Breaking the data down, she said for every dollar spent on advertising, the return on investment was $105.

“To compare, other tourism destinations, like Orlando, tend to average about an $80 ROI,” Berry says, adding that 12.8% of people who saw the ad campaign “were moved to make the decision to visit Branson.”

The marketing approach, created in partnership with Austin, Texas-based Proof Advertising, first targeted the leisure traveler, then meeting and convention planners, and finally group and sports travel planners, according to Arjes. The campaign utilized a consistent presence of video, digital, audio and print media, “with pulses of high-impact channels, such as paid search and paid social,” he said via email. And because vacations aren’t just for the summer, he added, “We created seasonal assets that highlighted the beauty and unique attractions of Branson specific to spring, fall and Christmas.”

For SDC’s marketing efforts, 32-year SDC employee Thomas said the key is deciding which story to tell and when.

“We have so many incredible stories to tell,” he said, citing the roots of the park, which started with visitors to Marvel Cave in 1894, to the skilled craftspeople, employees and adventure rides of today. “Our challenge is which of those stories do we tell next?”

He credits the Herschend family, who arrived in the area in 1950, for committing to the Ozarks as a tourism destination.

“Silver Dollar City is 100% family-owned since day one,” Thomas said, noting the Herschends are multigenerational owners, including Jack and Peter, plus their children and grandchildren. Their guidance and input, he said, help instill the mission and values for the park’s operations. “The Herschend family believes in tourism in the Ozarks, the power of Branson and the surrounding area.”

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