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Attraction of the week: Silver Dollar City's Marvel Cave

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Published: October 1, 2012 at 2:33 PM

Looking for an unusual theme park attraction? How about a visit deep inside the Earth, into a cave?

Not a fake, plaster-over-chicken-wire job, but a real limestone cave, which lies underneath the park? That's what you'll find when you visit the Marvel Cave Tour at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri. This cave tour and the Marvel Cave itself (which sits directly beneath part of the park) are so important that, without them, SDC would not exist today.

Marvel Cave sign

Paraphrased from the Silver Dollar City website:

Around 1500 AD, the Osage Indians were the first to discover Marvel Cave. Hearing strange noises rising from deep within the entrance, the Indians feared the cave and named it The Devil's Den.

In 1869, a group of explorers descended into the cave looking for priceless mineral deposits. The explorers failed to discover the ore they sought, but were convinced that marble could be found inside the cave. Their report sparked the interest of locals who decided to rename the cave, Marble Cave. However, the only thing ever mined from the cave was bat guano (used for fertilizer and gunpowder, among other things).

Another Marvel Cave sign

In 1894, William Henry Lynch and his two daughters, Miriam and Genevieve, opened the cave as an Ozarks tourist attraction. After Mr. Lynch's death in 1927, the cave's name was changed to its present moniker.

By the late 1940s, Marvel Cave was drawing over 5,000 visitors a year. In 1950, Hugo Herschend, his wife Mary and sons Jack and Peter, leased the cave for 99 years. They eventually 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.

Cave tours depart approximately every 40 minutes and last about an hour (depending on the size of the group and the number of questions folks have), with most of that time spent traversing nearly 600 stairs into and out of the depths of the Earth.

Marvel Cave map

A trained cave guide hosts the journey and provides visitors with anecdotes of historical or geological importance. The tour guide has a somewhat scripted spiel, but it varies widely depending on how extensively people participate in the adventure. If there are a lot of questions or comments, these superlative tour guides know enough stories and facts to make every tour a somewhat unique experience. I have taken this tour countless times over the past few years, and each time I have learned something new.

(Please note: all those who wish to experience a Marvel Cave tour should be in decent health, with no phobias about cramped places, heights, the dark, or bats! Also, one should never eat a full meal or drink a gallon of water just before embarking as there is nowhere along the tour to relieve yourself!)

Bat in Marvel Cave

When the tour finally begins (after many lawyerly required warnings and cautions) you head down a long, long flight of stairs into the Cathedral Room, one of the largest cave entrance rooms in the United States.

Entering the cave

Cathedral Room

It is so large that it can house the Statue of Liberty with room to spare! And, if you visit during the Christmas Festival this spacious room is fully decked out with Christmas lights that form a gigantic Christmas tree when viewed from the floor of the chamber. It is a breathtaking illumination to say the least.

Once the tour is at the base of the Cathedral Room, a photo is taken of your family, which can be purchased at the end of the tour if you so desire. If I remember correctly, the cost is about $20 for a nice portrait, although the price is sometimes discounted (especially during Lantern Tours – more later).

The journey continues as you wind your way through various passages and rooms in 60 degree coolness (during the summer) and 60 degree warmth (during the winter).

Inside the cave

Cave features

Overall, the cave is breathtakingly beautiful, meticulously maintained, and simply awe inspiring.

Cave waterfall

Enjoy the adventure… and watch your head!

When the tour finally emerges back into the light of day, a cable train takes cave visitors back to the surface.

Cable train to surface

However, if the train breaks down you do get an added bonus as you are required to reverse direction and hike the same 600 stairs back to the tour entrance! Sadly, I have never been lucky enough to have the cable train break down!

For an extra charge ($10.00 for adults and $5.00 for kids ages 8-11), Silver Dollar City offers a Lantern Light Tour where up to 20 visitors can experience the Marvel Cave the old fashioned way, without electricity. During this tour, all the normal recessed lighting in the cave is turned off, and the only light is provided by dimly lit, battery powered lanterns. The tour takes an extended route through the cave, winding through seldom visited areas, and providing additional time for the tour guide to provide details, offer insights, and even relate ghost stories that often scare the you-know-what out of several participants.

The Marvel Cave Tour is an outstanding attraction, well worth an hour of your time. It is a unique experience at a theme park, and something that should not be missed when you visit Silver Dollar City.

Readers' Opinions

From Tim Chatlos on October 2, 2012 at 8:38 AM
The Marvel Cave takes the already exemplary Silver Dollar City experience to another level. And it's hard to convey just how spectacular the Cathedral Room is to see in person. I have yet to find a picture that does it justice. The entire space is like one of the most amazing movie sets you can imagine except all the better because it is real.
From James Rao on October 1, 2012 at 6:36 PM
Agreed, Tim. Also, one thing I did not mention is that the whole Cathedral Room is wired for sound. So, if you go on the Lantern Tour make sure to ask your tour guide to play the music. It is hauntingly beautiful.
From Tim Chatlos on October 1, 2012 at 10:11 PM
The music is a great touch. I couldn't stop smiling when we found out about it.
From Derek Potter on October 2, 2012 at 6:22 AM
The Cathedral room is indeed quite a sight, and sound. It's not for the claustrophobic or the out of shape, but it is definitely a noteworthy attraction at SDC. Very highly recommended.
From TH Creative on October 2, 2012 at 6:27 AM
(Standing and applauding) Well done J. Rao!
From AJ Hummel on October 2, 2012 at 9:55 AM
This looks a lot more like something you would expect to see at a national park than at a theme park. Definitely one of the most unique attractions out there and anyone who skips it on their visit to Silver Dollar City is really missing something special.
From Mark Fairleigh on October 2, 2012 at 10:36 AM
This is so cool...Thanks, J Rao! I can see a trip to Branson down the road for sure! :)
From Mike Gallagher on October 2, 2012 at 11:27 AM
"ghost stories that often scare the you-know-what out of several participants"

What? Don't leave us hanging, Rao!

From 170.40.160.26 on October 2, 2012 at 12:06 PM
James, Masterful job in describing this must see attraction. We sometimes forget that without Marvel Cave there would be no SDC! I did not realize that they put lights up during Christmas season. Looks like a winter SDC trip is in order this year. Thanks for continuing to spread the word about this gem of a theme park! Marvel Cave is just one more reason that SDC is so near and dear to many hearts.
From Russell Meyer on October 2, 2012 at 12:25 PM
As a geologist, I'm not a huge fan of "commercial" caves. I've always been partial to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, which has an aptly named "Big Room," which can hold 14 Houston Astrodomes. Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is also a sight to behold, especially if you know some of the off-the-beaten path entraces that allow for some serious spelunking.

The photographer in me likes the artifical light conditions in commercial caves that allow for hand-held timed exposures, but the geologist in me cringes when I see naieve tourists snapping flash pictures of highly light-sensitive formations.

I haven't been to any midwest caves yet, so maybe in a few years, I'll check this place out.

From James Rao on October 2, 2012 at 1:48 PM
@Mike, Is "bat guano" a family friendly term? If so, that works I guess! =)

@Russel, if you need another excuse to visit the Marvel Cave, remember, Outlaw Run opens next Spring!

And thanks to the rest of y'all for your kind words. I look forward to your "Attraction of the Week" articles in the future!

From Tim Hillman on October 3, 2012 at 7:57 AM
Excellent article, James! For once we get an article about a Bat Cave and guano, and there's not one mention of a Six Flags park in it. ;>)

I'll have to check out SDC sometime on one of my many roads trips across the country.

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