On every coaster trip, there is always a most anticipated park. Last year, it was a toss-up between Cedar Point (which I'd visited a few times previously, but is one of my favorites) and Kennywood (which was a park I'd wanted to visit for decades). On the Texas trip earlier this year, it was Six Flags Fiesta Texas (which is one of the most interesting Six Flags properties). For this tour, it was Silver Dollar City, the sister park to Dollywood and the only quasi-destination park in Middle America.
Unfortunately, it seems that the most anticipated parks are the ones that have the most issues. Cedar Point was having tons of problems with Steel Vengeance, leading to hour-plus waits even with Fast Lane. Kennywood had terrible operations, running one train on even their signature attraction. Six Flags Fiesta Texas was struck by a crowd over twice the size of what they had staffed for, necessitating a second day just to get all the high priority rides done.
Would our one and only day at Silver Dollar City befall the same fate? Would it break the curse of anticipointment? Well...
Show Me The Coasters
Part 5: Thrills in the Ozarks
Branson is a tourist town in the Ozark hills. Much like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg in Tennessee, this town is full of tourist trap attractions. Along the main strip lie numerous go-kart and mini-golf facilities, show venues, quirky restaurants, and other roadside oddities. However, none of these were our reason for visiting. Much like Pigeon Forge, the reason for traveling all the way to Branson was to check out the local theme park. And much like Dollywood, Silver Dollar City is a Herschend property with a unique selection of attractions and a different sort of character. They also offer the same deal as Dollywood did prior to this year..."In after 3, next day free." It's a great way to get a bonus half-day at the park.
Unfortunately, due to a 7 P.M. closing time, we failed to arrive early enough to take advantage of this offer. With how tight the timing on this tour has been, none of us expected to get that bonus time at the park. With a three-and-a-half hour drive following Six Flags St. Louis, we knew our arrival would be after 8 P.M. Therefore, I arranged an alternate activity. We turned off the main drag through town and headed down a winding backwoods road until we came upon a sign reading Branson Mountain Adventure Park. Here sat a bonus coaster for the tour...the Runaway.
The Runaway is a special class of coaster not commonly seen at theme parks. Dubbed alpine or mountain coasters, these rides are typically built on hillsides and use the natural slope and setting to their advantage. The ride begins with a long cable lift to the top of the slope, often taking 4-5 minutes. After this, riders race down the hill, using a brake as preferred to keep the ride in check. Some don't feel these are true coasters, and I don't personally include them within my credit count. However, they are wild rides that can put many proper coasters to shame.
With a cost of $16 per ride, Rob opted out of the Runaway. The rest of us purchased tickets and joined the 30 minute queue (cars are single seater, so the line crawls). Eventually, we were all onboard one behind the other. At 20 second intervals, we dispatched for the climb into the dark forest. While ascending, a safety recording played on a loop, reminding riders they were in control of the ride and needed to keep sufficient space between themselves and the rider in front. Eventually, the top came into view. After a final thumbs up from the operator up top, I pushed the lever forward and careened into the night.
Runaway is not the only mountain coaster I have ridden, nor is it the best, but it was absolutely a fantastic ride! The downhill run only lasts about 90 seconds, but when you're racing through the woods with only the moon to light your path, a helix taken at 20 mph can make any family coaster seem tame. Most mountain coasters are semi-controlled, but this one went fast enough to toss you around a bit on the sudden dips and sharp turns. You're not going anywhere thanks to a seatbelt, but at moments it certainly felt like I was about to be bucked off. Once the lights come back into view, there's one final helix and a couple turns before reaching the brake zone and the unloading area. It's not cheap, but it was $16 well spent.
The ride complete, we headed off to our hotel. To save money, I had booked us at an independent but highly rated place a short distance from the main part of town. Upon arriving at the rooms, we were all in for a little bit of a shock. Andrew commented that it was the pinkest hotel room he'd ever seen. Rob wondered if I'd accidentally booked a love hotel. I thought it felt like an old lady's house. However, the beds were extremely comfortable and the next morning's breakfast was among the best of the trip.
Speaking of the next morning, as soon as we finished our breakfast we set off for Silver Dollar City. A short ten minute drive led us to the park, where we were in for the first of many surprises this day...free parking! Few major parks allow visitors to reach the front gate without paying a dime, but this one does, and they even offer a shuttle to get you there. We opted to walk, the excitement building with each step.
Before long, we reached the small village forming the entrance of the park, and after navigating a winding walkway we stepped into a great past.
The first thing I looked at after having my ticket scanned was not the gift shop directly ahead, or any of the immaculate theming surrounding me. Instead, it was the Pathfinder, Silver Dollar City's guide, er...newspaper.
In an era where parks are going to simple printed maps and digital apps, SDC's guide is a full-on twelve page paper with articles showcasing all the wonderful activities to be found inside the park. I think that's the fastest I've had a park win a favorite award from me.
But the park is much more than a guide, so once we passed through the entry shop I put that away and took in all of Main Street. Dollywood has sections that are themed to a mining town, but Silver Dollar City blows them out of the water.
Here, the entire park feels like the Ozark frontier, with every building and scenic element fitting that perfectly. I would go as far as saying this park beats Disney's Frontierland and Knott's Ghost Town for the old western theme (though they do it differently here).
We took in the theme as we walked toward our first ride, Time Traveler. A new coaster that just opened last year, this is the first Xtreme Spinning Coaster built by Mack Rides. Unlike most spinners, this ride starts things off with a ten story vertical drop, then whirls through three inversions and two launches during the two minute ride. It is a ride I've been highly skeptical of since the day it was announced, as spinning on such an intense ride seemed like a dangerous combination, but the coaster has gotten rave reviews since day one. Unfortunately, this was where the first disappointment of the day happened. Despite the capability to operate with three trains, we quickly discovered the ride was operating with...one. As a result, the queue was already 50 minutes and kept growing (it was posting 90 when we got off).
Fortunately, the queue was indoors, but the impatience of standing in a slowly moving themed cattle pen built into aggravation. Finally, we were next to board. Once the train returned and the gates opened, we took our seats in the steampunk-inspired vehicles. A moment later, the restraints lowered automatically, and then we were off.
HOLY (bleep)! Time Traveler was amazing! Though the coaster only has 3,020 ft. of track, that's all it needs. Not a foot is wasted as this ride gracefully navigates a series of elements that take advantage of the spinning aspect without inducing any nausea at all. The ride has a very creative layout with perfect pacing, and every single bit is smooth as glass. I have a Mack spinning coaster at one of my local parks (Sierra Sidewinder at Knott's) and a Mack launch coaster at another (Manta at SeaWorld San Diego), but this coaster blows both away in every respect. Despite the skepticism, this ride exceeded all expectations and landed a top 20-25 spot on my list of over 500. Truly an incredible ride.
Feeling our morning plan was shot due to the lengthy wait, we opted to head next door and jump on Thunderation while it was still a walk-on. An Arrow mine train, this coaster unconventionally starts near the high point of the layout. After pulling out of the station, the ride winds its way down the hillside, racing past trees as it curves and dips. Eventually, there is a lifthill, but this lift doesn't return to the station. Instead, it climbs up a neighboring hill, higher than you started. What follows is the craziest drop I've ever experienced on a mine train, as the coaster plummets 80 feet down the hillside and rushes back up to the station. As far as coasters go, this is a fun one. As far as mine trains go, this one is the official wildest ride in the wilderness.
Andrew was set to hit credit #350 on this day, and he was hoping to make that ride Outlaw Run. At this point, he was at 348, so we decided to grab the nearby Grand Exposition Coaster before the line got excessive (it was clear by this point it would be a packed day). After 20 minutes, it was time to board the park's kiddie coaster. A stock Zamperla, this ride flat out sucked. Rough and uncomfortable, it was the worst of its type I've experienced. However, a credit is a credit, and when you're with others more into counting them than yourself, you join in on the "fun."
With SDC's POS out of the way, we made our way to Outlaw Run. However, it was down. A train was parked on the lift, and we learned it had yet to open for the day. Disappointed, we did a couple flat rides in the area in hopes it would start cycling soon, but when 30 minutes passed with no movement we opted to move on.
Andrew was still holding out hope for Outlaw Run, so upon arrival at Hugo's Hill Street we started with American Plunge, the park's log flume. Andrew and I are both big log flume fans, so we were intrigued by this interesting attraction. Much of the ride feels like a water-based dark ride, with themed indoor and outdoor sections along a gently moving flume.
Sadly, most of the theming was static, but it was still nice to look at. The ride then ascends a single lift and plunges down a drop, soaking everyone onboard. It's a very average ride as far as flumes go, but still enjoyable enough if the wait is short (we waited about 15 minutes).
Sadly, Outlaw Run was still down, so Andrew was forced to make a concession. We turned back up the path toward Wildfire, SDC's big B&M looper. I am a big fan of B&M, so I was quite looking forward to this interesting creation. Designed as a floorless but with regular sit-down trains for added mass, the ride features a bit of an unconventional layout with a straight drop and five rapid-fire inversions.
It was a fun ride that started strong, but got progressively less intense throughout the course. I really wanted to give it a second ride in a different seat (we had rode in the middle to accommodate Rob), but one train operations meant there was a little bit of a line.
We instead moved over to Powder Keg: A Blast in the Wilderness. If you want an example of a quirky coaster, this is a ride to look at. Originally a water coaster, S&S came in and extended the coaster portion of that ride to a fairly intense family coaster.
The ride starts with a bizarre inclined switch track to move trains from the station to a pneumatic launch, then rockets through a series of hills and curves with airtime when you least expect it and a bit of roughness at points. After this, the ride transitions to the water coaster track for a long sweeping turn, traditional chain lift, and final drop and helix.
It's a fun ride, though not an amazing one, and definitely tops the list of bizarre coasters that I've ridden.
Hill Street has one additional attraction: a roller coaster/dark ride hybrid dubbed Fire in the Hole. This one starts out as a dark ride through a burning town as residents flee from the Baldknobbers. Slowly, the track begins to rise, gaining about twenty feet of elevation. There then follows three quick dips with short dark ride segments in between, the last of which features a water splash effect. The ride is very reminiscent of a similar ride at Dollywood known as Blazing Fury, but this one primarily relies on static scenes with minimal motion. It's a very unique attraction, and quite popular with one of the longer lines in the park...we waited almost 30 minutes.
By this point everyone was starting to feel hungry, so we headed over to the Riverside Rib House to grab some food. Unlike a typical theme park restaurant, this was a collection of booths serving various BBQ offerings with all the fixings'. I opted to queue up for the sandwich booth, while others got sausages or loaded nachos at other booths. The food was quite good, and while I'm not sure I'd call it excellent, it was far better than most theme park fare. Plus, the prices were reasonable...about 70% of what you'd pay at a typical Six Flags or Cedar Fair property.
As we left lunch, we looked across the way and saw that Outlaw Run was now operating. As quickly as possible, we made our way to the ride. One train operations meant a wait of around 20 minutes, but for the first custom RMC that was more than acceptable. This is another coaster I've been skeptical of since it was announced, yet most who have ridden it say it is among the company's best work. With no choice of seats, I climbed aboard a middle car, got myself secured, and then we were off.
Like Time Traveler, Outlaw Run exceeded my expectations. While it is a super short ride, the coaster packs a ton into that length, and many of the elements are quite unique even compared to other RMC coasters. Unfortunately, I found the ride to be a tad uncomfortable, likely due to a couple moments where strong negative and lateral forces are experienced together.
This coaster doesn't feel quite as refined as RMC's later projects like Lightning Rod, and it does feel like it runs a tad rougher than them as well. However, it still provides a very thrilling ride. Was it the best RMC? No, I wouldn't say that. Was it the best coaster at SDC? Maybe...I lean that direction, but I really needed another ride on this and Time Traveler to decide for sure. Is it in my top fifteen? Absolutely!
Now that we'd finished all the coasters, it was time for Silver Dollar City's other signature attraction: Marvel Cave. While it started as a mining operation, exploration revealed the cave was lower in mineral content than believed, so it was transformed into a tourist attraction. Operating since approximately 1900, the cave was purchase by Hugo Herschend in the 1950s, who built an 1800s Ozark village adjacent to it. Over time, this blossomed into Silver Dollar City. Today, Marvel Cave is run as a 90 minute guided tour included with park admission. Due to capacity limitations, tours are offered at scheduled times throughout the day and have a strict limit on how many guests can join. We fortunately arrived in time to make the cut for the next tour, and were taken to the briefing area.
It was here that the classic theme park cliché of "something goes terribly wrong" occurred. Just as we were about to set off, our guide informed us that all tours had been put on hold. A storm was moving into the area, and for safety reasons the cave was being evacuated. As one of the attractions I was most looking forward to, this was a huge disappointment.
Exiting back into the park, we were greeted with an ominous cloud that had darkened the entire sky. Rides were beginning to close due to lightning in the area, so we quickly made our way to the Flooded Mine, the next highest attraction on the priority list.
The world's first shooting dark ride, Flooded Mine is themed to a prison breakout. Attendants dressed in classic black-and-white prison uniforms load guests into unstable wooden boats and send them through the attraction, which contains lots of basic practical effects and difficult to hit targets. Of the two dark rides at Silver Dollar City, I'd say this is the better one, and it's a lot of fun to ride something with old-school charm not often seen at today's regional parks.
By the time we exited, all outdoor rides had ceased operation. With no rides to do, we ventured over to Sullivan's Mill to pick up a couple loafs of the park's famous cinnamon bread. A staple at both Dollywood and Silver Dollar City, this ranks near the top of the list when it comes to theme park desserts. While preparation is slightly different at both parks, the taste is the same, and if it weren't for budgetary restrictions we likely would have indulged far more than anyone should.
Instead, we finished off our loaves and headed over to Grandfather's Mansion, a walkthrough attraction reminiscent of a crooked house. Using clever illusions, this house seems to defy the laws of physics, with a standard assortment of gravity-defying tricks and a couple more unique ones. It was an interesting diversion, and is so well hidden that those who don't know it's there are liable to walk straight past.
With the rides still down, it was time to see a show. We headed over to the Opera House to catch Silver Dollar City's newest large-scale production: Reuben's Swashbuckling Adventure. Going in, we were expecting something along the lines of Treasure Planet, but the show proved to be more of a musical comedy that a serious pirate adventure. The basic story is that Reuben, a young boy living in the Ozark wilderness, falls asleep while reading an adventure novel and enters that world in his dreams. Here, he meets Captain Long John Silver, who agrees to escort him on a quest to find his destiny. Interesting characters, engaging musical numbers, and several shots at Disney follow, leading to the expected conclusion (and the twist that Reuben's last name is Branson). While not the best I've seen in theme park entertainment, it was still a very good show and well worth the time spent.
Upon exiting the theater an hour later, everything was still down. We checked the time...it was 5 P.M., and Silver Dollar City was scheduled to close at 7 P.M. We checked the radar...the storm wasn't moving. We checked distance...it was a 3.5 hour drive to our hotel in Kansas City that night. The decision was unanimous...cut our losses and get a head start on the drive. We took a brief run through a couple of the gift shops, then exited our past and made our way back to the car.
Despite less than ideal conditions, I really enjoyed Silver Dollar City. Of the parks on this trip, it was my favorite.
The atmosphere is excellent, the rides are all a ton of fun, the food is quite good, and the entertainment is above average. The park offers lots of unique attractions, as well as one of the most balanced ride collections I've seen anywhere. If you're looking for a non-Disney, non-Universal, non-IP park that can best provide an enjoyable family experience, this is one to look at.
That said, I was not blown away by Silver Dollar City. The park was described to me as a less corporate Dollywood, and I could feel that. In some ways, it improved the experience, but in others it was lacking. One-train operations on several coasters, especially on a busy day, was certainly a disappointment. Upkeep also seemed to fall slightly short of what I expected given Herschend's quality, though it was still better than most regional parks. Lastly, our day was cut short by events outside the park's control, and while I can't hold that against them it did put a serious damper on our day.
In short, Silver Dollar City lived up to my high expectations, but didn't quite exceed them. I didn't like it as much as Dollywood and it doesn't make my list of top parks, but it was still one of the best I've visited. I do feel like I need another visit to give this park a completely fair evaluation and I don't know when that will happen, but the next time a theme park tour takes me through Missouri you can be sure a stop here will absolutely be included.
Silver Dollar City Coaster Ranking:
1. Outlaw Run
2. Time Traveler
3. Powder Keg: A Blast in the Wilderness
6. Fire in the Hole
Never Again Tier:
7. Grand Exposition Coaster
The most anticipated park of the trip complete, it can only go downhill from here, right? Not quite...there are still a couple surprises in store.
Some photos courtesy of Andrew and Evan.Tweet