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Silver Dollar City - Trip Report and Review

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Published: April 28, 2009 at 11:39 AM

Tuesday Park Visit: [Editor's note: TPI reader James Rao submitted such a great report from his visit to Branson's Silver Dollar City that I'm turning the Tuesday Park Visit report over to him this week. Take it away, James!]

Principals – Me (40-ish), wife (40-ish), kids (54", 50", and 44").

In an effort to support the idea of the "staycation", and to preserve what little savings I currently have, it was decided that all of our family's amusement park trips this year would be local. To that end, we purchased season passes to our local iron ride park, Kansas City's Worlds of Fun, and to our local theme park, Silver Dollar City (SDC), in Branson, Missouri. We made our first trip to SDC on April 23 & 24. The following post is part review and part report from that trip.

SDC is part of the Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation and is located in Branson, Missouri, about 3.5 hours from my house. If you have ever been to Dollywood (also a Herschend park), you have a pretty good idea of what it is like at SDC. The park is meticulously maintained, well-themed, and filled to the brim with "cast members" playing their part in an attempt to provide as immersive of a theme park experience as you can get west of Florida, or east of California.

The park is entirely family-oriented, with a slight contemporary Christian-bias, and is neck deep in country music and country sensibilities. In a way, it is as if the Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom was expanded into a theme park unto itself. SDC's history can be traced all the way back to the 1500s, when Native Americans discovered (what eventually became) the Marvel Cave directly beneath where the park now resides. By the late 1940s, Marvel Cave was drawing over 5,000 visitors a year. In the late 40s, the Herschends bought Marvel Cave and added a custom-designed train to carry folks back to the surface and were further inspired to create an authentic replica of an old time Ozark Mountain community. By the end of 1960, Silver Dollar City was born.

Today, Silver Dollar City is still primarily focused on its craft exhibits, shows, and hour long tours through the landmark Marvel Cave (which was being refurbed during our visit and will have to wait until we return next month), but also has added themed attractions in the form of thrill rides to widen their customer base. Those thrill rides include a few outstanding roller coasters.

ThuNderaTion (TNT), is one of Arrow Dynamics' largest and fastest mine train coasters, with a 3,000-foot-long course and a top speed of almost 50 miles per hour. The coaster makes excellent use of SDC's sloping terrain, and offers unique seating in that some cars face forward while other face backwards. With very low height requirements on the ride, it is very much a family coaster, but still manages to pack quite a thrill for those less jaded riders.

The park's premier coaster, IMHO, is Powderkeg, an S&S Power launched coaster that hits speeds of 50+ mph in 2.8 seconds before catapulting riders on a twisting, hill-laden track that provides a tremendous sense of flying. Again, low height requirements allow this thriller to be experienced by almost all ages, even some little kids who probably would have been better off on ThuNderaTion. Of all the rides we toured, this one generally had the longest waits, as the launch mechanism takes a few seconds to load, then another 10 seconds to fired ("You're too close to that nitro!"). Still, it is well-worth the wait, and would be a excellent ride in any park.

The park's final coaster is Wildfire and it is SDC's most modern coaster offering. Built by Bolliger & Mabillard, Wildfire is the tallest and fastest ride at SDC. It features five inversions including an Immelmann loop, a standard loop, a cobra roll, and a corkscrew. The most striking aspect of the ride is how it just sits on the outskirts of the park on a hill, making all the highs seem higher, and the drops seem steeper. With four-across seating, only the front row of the coaster had much of a wait.

In addition to those coasters, Fire-in-the-Hole is an excellent dark ride that uses a coaster train to propel riders slowly past various scenes of stalwart firemen battling a blaze set by a group of vigilantes known as the Baldknobbers. It is somewhat like Pirates of the Caribbean, although the set pieces are not animatronics and are pretty dated. But overall the experience is quite fun. Plus a few surprise dips and splash down serve to provide some minor, but welcome thrills. We rode this one several times, and I enjoyed it more once I got past the notion that it was a standard indoor coaster, when in fact it is truly a slow moving dark ride, similar to Blazing Fury at Dollywood.

Lost River of the Ozarks is a decently themed white water raft ride that includes a tour through a misty cave, as well as some nifty and speedy rapids. We rode this once with a completely rain coated cast member, and got pretty wet. I am happy to report that this white water ride bucks the trend a bit and actually tries to get you wet due to the action of the raft in the rapids, not because someone turns on the shower at the end with some cheap waterfall effect.

The Flooded Mine is a Buzz Lightyear-style shooter that is themed to a prisoner uprising in a coal mine that has sprung a watery leak. There was no line for this ride on either day we attended, and in fact we rode it several times in a row without getting out of our boat. We enjoyed the experience quite a bit, and if you take the time to consider the attraction fully, you will find there is a depth of theming at work here that is truly Disney-on-a-budget (intended as a compliment), not just some off-the-shelf effects flown in from Sally Corp.

American Plunge is a log flume ride that traverses a somewhat unique pitch black ride segment before emerging to a lift hill and subsequent dive. The end result offers a fun experience with a steeper drop and more thrills than most rides of this type. While not anywhere up to the level of a Splash Mountain or Ripsaw Falls, this flume ride is a bit better than average.

The Giant Swing is another S&S Power attraction, this one being a Screaming Swing like the Skyhawk at Cedar Point. Set inside a huge red barn that is totally within the theme of the park, this intense midway ride is a whole lotta fun. Granted I wouldn't want to wait in a long line to experience it, but on a less crowded day when you can ride several times in a row with minimal waiting, it is a very fun attraction.

Electro Spin is a Zamperela Disk-O flat ride, similar to the Dizzy Disk at Dollywood. It features a half-pipe of coaster track with a disk that holds up to 40 riders. The disk spins and the ride moves back and forth in the half-pipe making for a fairly intense spinner. Electro Spin is yet another midway ride that is a lot of fun when faced with a short wait, and still fairly unique (not running rampant like an octopus, scrambler, or roundup attraction). We rode this flat ride several times, usually without any wait.

Speaking of the Electro Spin, it is set in a segment of the park exclusively devoted to midway spinners and their ilk. This area, called the Grand Exposition is very well decorated, and styled to remind you of that era when inventions were new, exciting, and very odd looking! As most of you know I am not a huge fan of midway experiences, however SDC does a great job of providing thrills for all tastes in this area. Little kids have their share of lame/tame spinners as well as a baby coaster (same model as the kiddie coaster at Holiday World), thrill seekers have a pendulum ride, tea cups, and the previously mentioned Electro Spin, and there is a breezy and relaxed wave swinger for all ages (it is like the version at Busch Gardens Williamsburg in that it has some double seats so even the shorter kids can participate with their parents).

One other section of the park that should be mentioned is a huge play area in the back of the park called Geyser Gulch/Splash Harbor. Combined, this area provides hours of entertainment for both the young and not-too-old. Geyser Gulch is the drier part of the area, with a huge area to climb and shoot foam balls, as well as an area for shooting clever water targets.

Move on to Splash Harbor, and prepare to get soaked! Basically set up to be a water war zone, participants fire water cannons at each other from competing platforms, drenching everyone who plays. Do not venture into Splash Harbor if you want to stay dry, as those with water guns seem to delight in finding curious folks who wander into the area and blasting them into oblivion. We spent about an hour in this area until we were fully soaked. From here we proceeded on to the water rides and then back to the hotel for a change of clothes.

It was not uncommon to find longer lines at the park's shows than at the roller coasters. During our trip, there were two shows we were interested in watching: Feet of Fire (live Irish music, step dancers, symbolic fire dancing, and some Irish folklore thrown in between musical numbers) and the Zhejiang Acrobats (featuring contortion artists, plate spinning, an aerialist duet, and stick fighting). There were three showtimes for each show and they were all packed, with lines often weaving like snakes from the back of the park to the front. I was amazed by the amount of people waiting hours just to see a 30 minute show. I can't imagine how crowded it must get on the weekends! We did manage to see both shows, but it took some doing, and our seats were not that great. The Feet of Fire show was okay, not as good as the similarly themed show at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Emerald Beat, however, the Zhejiang Acrobats show was amazing. Beautiful to watch and stunning to witness, I wished I had stood in line longer or bought a Show Lover's Pass in order to obtain better seats. Outstanding. There are other shows throughout the park, as, again, this is Branson, and a large population of park goers are not interested in rides at all, just shows, crafts, shopping, and food.

Ahhh, the food. Would that all theme parks put this much effort into their food stuffs! Not that everything prepared at SDC is perfect, but the overwhelming majority of hearty fare is unique and delicious. The mainstays of the park are the hearty helpings of skillet meals. These satisfying meals are cooked in a large cast iron skillet perfectly matching the overall theme of the park.

We ate at the Lumbercamp Falls skillet and had both the Skillet Sausage Medley (Smoked Sausage Slices, Roasted Redskin Potatoes, Red and Green Peppers, Onions & Sweet Corn) and the Fajita Skillet (Strips of Fajita Chicken, Green Peppers and Onions wrapped in a Tortilla, topped with Shredded Cheese, Salsa and Sour Cream on the side). Both were delicious, with the Fajita Skillet being my favorite as it was not nearly as heavy on a hot spring day. Also at the Lumbercamp two of my kids ate foot long corn dogs which were very good, similar to, but larger than, the corn dogs you can buy at your typical Sonic Drive-in. We also shared a Lumberjack Stack of Chips, which are thinly sliced potato chips fried on site while you watch. A variety of seasonings are available, but I would recommend salt and lots of black pepper. Yum. The seating was covered and outdoors. With a nice waterfall in the background, plenty of shade, and a slight breeze, the outdoor seating was a delight. On a hot summer day, I would probably long for some A/C.

For another meal we ate at the Wagon Works Grill, which also offers covered seating, outdoors – no A/C. But again, on a cool spring day, it was perfect. Here we ordered a couple of Trail Boss Cheeseburgers and some chicken tenders for the kids, along with French fries. The burgers were charred, but not overcooked, and delicious. They did not taste at all like they had been sitting in a warmer for hours on end. The chicken tenders were excellent, with thick, rich tasting breading, and juicy chicken. The fries were fresh and very good.

For our final meal at the park, we ate in the Frisco Barn where an assortment of "Tastes of the World" were being offered to go along with the World Festival theme that was taking place. My kids wanted Chinese food, and it was awful. Not even as good as what you can expect from the Panda Express at the mall – and that's not very good either! My wife and I split the Calzone which was huge and pretty good. The red sauce, sadly, was pure Chef Boyardee, but the breading was excellent, and probably made fresh in the park. However, it is probably best to stick with the meatier, heartier, down-home foods at SDC, as our ethnic experience was a bit disappointing.

We also bought and split a couple breakfast items from Eva & Delilah's Bakery where excellent items are made fresh daily. Here we shared a bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich, as well as a sausage and cheese roll. Both were delicious. On another occasion we shared a huge chocolate chip cookie which was also very good. The bakery will probably be your first and last stop in the park, as it is situated near the park entrance.

Overall, the food was very good, and like Disney, something you include in your park touring plan when traveling to SDC. In the future we are looking forward to trying several other eateries, including the Lucky Silver Mine Buffet (indoors and underground BBQ establishment), Hatfield's Tater Patch (them skillet taters look awesome), and Aunt Polly's Fried Chicken. Not to mention we neglected to get a Funnel Cake, despite the fact that they looked simply amazing. We will rectify that mistake when we revisit in May.

SDC is not perfect. It could use a few more coasters, and themed experiences, as well as longer hours, even in the off-season. However, I would rate the park as outstanding and rank it somewhere between Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Holiday World. If you get a chance, I definitely recommend a visit.

Readers' Opinions

From Ben James on April 28, 2009 at 11:51 AM
James,

Ii haven't been in years and this report makes me remember why I need to go back. Good Job! maybe I'll head out there this summer or fall.

From Derek Potter on April 28, 2009 at 12:13 PM
Good stuff James. I am a huge fan of this park. The whole country music theme wasn't my cup of tea, but I greatly appreciated the fact that they took great care in the detail of the park. Even when they installed all of the flat rides, they used a theme that lends itself well to such attractions. The food is great (mostly), the employees are great, the rides and shows are great, the atmosphere is great, and the park is themed as well as anything. Out of all the several parks across the country I've visited, SDC remains one of my most favorite.

I've lobbied quite a few times to add Silver Dollar City to this website. Make this another one. It's high time that we add it.

From James Rao on April 28, 2009 at 1:07 PM
Thanks Ben & Derek, and thanks Robert for posting my report on the blog flume - my parents/wife/kids will be so proud of me! =)

We had a great time at Silver Dollar City last week, and look forward to another trip in late May before area schools are out for the year. I highly recommend a visit for those who are theme-starved in the Midwest.

One note of caution for those considering a visit: I do not think our SDC trip would have been nearly as much fun during a busy summer day. It just does not seem like a park that will handle huge crowds well. The walkways are narrow, the availability of A/C seems somewhat limited, and many of the subtle nuances of the park will be lost in the masses of humanity. So, if you go, avoid the weekends and holidays, and make sure you have some sort of touring plan to help you manage your time.

From Don Neal on April 28, 2009 at 3:04 PM
Nice review James! Enjoyed the pictures and detailed accounts of everything. Sounds like a nice place.
From Joshua Counsil on April 28, 2009 at 7:48 PM
You've got my mouth watering. Great report.
From Stephen Tuday on April 28, 2009 at 8:05 PM
Great report! I have never been to SDC but being a passholder at a sister HFE park, Wild Adventures in GA, I might have to take advantage of the discount they offer for other HFE parks. The overall absence of waiting lines is alluring and the care taken on cleanliness and theming makes this a must-visit!
From James Rao on April 28, 2009 at 8:30 PM
Thanks for the kind words, Don, Josh, and Stephen.

Stephen, keep in mind that the reason we experienced little or no wait times is because we went during the school week in the off-season. A friend of mine went to SDC this past Saturday and said the lines were out of control.

SDC packs in 2 - 3 million visitors a year, and most of them will visit the park on weekends in May, September, and December, and during the June/July/August summer season. Time it right, and your visit will be excellent, time it wrong, and I think you'll be miserable.

Having said all that, you might look into visiting Dollywood instead which is a bit closer to your home park (I think) and offers the same 50% discount on admission. Either way, good luck, and have a great time!

From Anthony Murphy on April 28, 2009 at 8:26 PM
The skillet made the report for me! Simple and its own show!

Great job! I always like your reviews~

From James Rao on April 28, 2009 at 8:30 PM
Thanks, Anthony. The skillets we tried were excellent. I am not sure why Disney does not have something similar in Frontierland or over at the Fort Wilderness Resort. Seems like the perfect fit. I would love to see what the Chefs at WDW would concoct given the freedom of fresh ingredients and a huge cast iron skillet!
From W McDougal on April 28, 2009 at 9:33 PM
Great review, if I were ever in the area I would certainly visit this park. I wish it were added to this site for others to add on reviews; it has a nice unified theme unlike Six Flags parks.
From 69.19.14.42 on April 29, 2009 at 9:02 AM
Great report son! You were right, Mom and I are proud of you! I always knew you would be a great writer. Your report was so good it almost made me want to go! Alas, being old and decrepit the only thing there I could really enjoy would be the food and shows. In fact your description of the food made me hungry so I am off to make myself some breakfast. Really enjoyed your report. Keep up the good work. Dad
From James Rao on April 29, 2009 at 12:19 PM
Wow... told you my parents would be proud! Thanks, Dad!

And by the way, you are certainly not OLD! ;)

From Jeff Carroll on April 29, 2009 at 6:05 PM
James, I loved your excellent review. I could not agree more with your positive view of this gem of a park. Every time I set foot in SDC I feel like I have been transported to another world. I think it is second only to Disney in providing a totally immersive experience. I also think that the customer service and the quality of the staff is near Disney. The family atmosphere is enhanced by the exceptionally friendly staff, many of whom I encounter year after year.

I also agree that SDC is one degree below a Busch Gardens, but not in overall quality. I think the difference can probably be explained by their comparative budgets. You also have to consider that SDC will give you a season pass for the price of a Busch Gardens ticket.

One suggestion for anyone considering a visit to Branson. We like to stay at the Horizons by Marriott Vacation Club resort. The quality of this resort is exceptional and the price is reasonable. We usually can get a two bedroom suite with a full kitchen and living room (w/ pull out couch) for about $200 a night. If you collect Marriott points and enjoy more than a little elbow room after a full day at the park, this is a bargain. The pools and facilities are fantastic.

I

From James Rao on April 29, 2009 at 6:55 PM
Thanks, Jeff, for the kind words, and your eloquent post. You are spot on about SDC and Busch Gardens Williamsburg, and when I rated SDC slightly below BGW it was only to point out just how well Herschend has done with their park on a far more limited budget. The fact that it is even comparable in quality to a park backed by a huge multi-billion dollar corporation is a testament to the fact that Silver Dollar City is doing a lot of things right.

I realize from your post that I neglected to mention anything about where I stayed while in Branson. I did some research on the Horizons by Marriott resort you mentioned and it looks absolutely beautiful. However, this past trip we stayed in a one room (6 person) suite at the Comfort Inn and Suites on Gretna Blvd. The hotel is about 10 minutes from SDC, and nestled away from the downtown Branson traffic. The room was beautiful, the staff exceedingly nice, and the pool was indoor, decently sized, and well maintained. The complimentary breakfast was very good, with a mixture of cereals, breads, and fruit. With my 15% SDC season pass holder discount the room came to $100 total including tax. If you are looking for a one or two night hotel, I am not sure the Comfort Inn and Suites on Gretna can be beat.

I do look forward to staying at Horizons by Marriott on a future visit. Since I don't have a Marriott Rewards card, Jeff, maybe I can give you the points for my stay! ;)

From Robyn A. on April 30, 2009 at 8:28 PM
James - lovely review! I'm a former SDC "CM", transplanted to the KC area 4 years ago. (I enjoy WoF, but my only "daredevil" is still too small to ride the coasters with me!) I'm thrilled to know folks are enjoying the many changes the Herschends have made to SDC to appeal to the family demographic. We trekked down there on Easter weekend to visit my sisters and many friends that still work in the park (most people who stay more than one summer are in it for life!) - loved Powder Keg, still love the Giant Swing, and I'm glad you recognized the atmosphere they were going for with the Exposition area near Red Gold. If you missed Buzzsaw Falls a few years ago, SDC made a very smart move by taking it out to bring in Powder Keg. (I'm wondering if Buzzsaw landed at Dollywood....)
Yes - SDC puts far more effort into their food than most parks do. So much is made from scratch in the giant kitchens behind the Mill/Mine restaurants. (Mosey back by First Aid - the delicious scents coming from the main kitchen there always smelled just like my grandma's kitchen on Sunday afternoons.) Unfortunately, SDC never has done all that great with their attempts at ethnic foods for WorldFest. We weren't so impressed with the chinese food either, but the greek food was pretty tasty. If you get back down there next month, I can promise you'll love the BBQ during the Blues/BBQ Festival (for those not aware, SDC's season is one long series of various themed festivals, beginning with WorldFest and ending with the amazingly magnificent Old Time Christmas - not to be missed!).
One more comment - you are correct that SDC is not laid out well for capacity crowds on hot days. 15,000 on park will have many guests parking at Notch (let your imagination run wild with that), 2 hour waits for
the "good" rides, and yes, any place with A/C will be standing room only. The beautiful Ozark Mountains are a blessing and a curse - how many theme parks have a "heart attack hill"? Not so bad on a nice Spring day; killer in the summer. Early April is the best time to visit - sounds like you must've hit the bus tour crowd (which would explain the long lines for shows on weekdays). Late April, early May, and Sep/Oct are big bus tour months.(Translation: lots of people with blue hair and walkers.)Most Mondays & Tuesdays in the summer aren't terribly crowded either.
Thanks for sharing your experience - so good it made me homesick! Maybe we'll see you around some time ;)
From James Rao on May 1, 2009 at 6:24 AM
Hi Robyn - thanks for the feedback and all the inside info. Your perspective is very intriguing to me, especially since you confirmed many of my suspicions!

We are going to try and head back to SDC for two days in late May to catch the Waterworks Waterboggan (opens Memorial Day), the refurbed Marvel Mine, and to sample some more of those amazing skillets (and the BBQ you mentioned). In talking with the folks at our hotel, the Branson school year has been extended to the beginning of June because of excess snow days, so I am hoping the last week of May won't be too busy.

We're also looking to head back in mid-September (sounds like we'll be hitting the bus tours again!), and early December for the Christmas Festival. I really enjoyed my visit to SDC and look forward to returning soon.

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