Christmas in Branson: Theme parks, nostalgic shows light up with holiday cheer

“The Shepherd of the Hills,” a well-read book with religious overtones, is set in Branson, Missouri, and helped put the lovely Ozark Mountains city on the map. So you might think Christmas would be a big deal in the popular vacation destination. But Branson was mostly a three-season getaway until 1988. That was the year theme park Silver Dollar City first extended its season with a Christmas festival.

“Everybody told me, ‘It’s winter, people won’t come,’ ” says Pete Herschend, co-founder of the park and its parent company, Herschend Family Entertainment. “I said, ‘Yes they will.’ Either I carried the day, or they gave up arguing.”

Visitors did, indeed, make the offseason trek to the park. And they’ve continued to come in ever-increasing numbers. Plenty of other seasonal theme parks in less-than-ideal climates now have holiday events, but Silver Dollar City was among the first to pioneer the concept.

According to Tony Orlando, one of the many entertainers who call Branson home and regularly perform there, he helped get the city’s famous celebrity theaters into the Christmas spirit. Known for “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” the pop song that became an anthem for returning military members, Orlando organized a Christmas show on Veterans Day in 1993 to benefit veterans’ organizations.

“Pete Herschend made a bet with me and said that he’d bring in the Radio City Rockettes the following year if I could pull off the event,” Orlando says. The show was a big success. “Pete came over to me afterwards and said, ‘I just bought the Rockettes.’ That really got Christmas in Branson going.”

Today, Silver Dollar City, which is themed to the late 19th century, welcomes about a quarter of its annual attendance during the holiday season. Virtually every Branson theater and attraction remains open throughout November and December. There is even a Christmas Coalition that is marketing the Ozarks spot as “America’s Christmas Tree City” and has encouraged area businesses and organizations to erect more than 1,000 decked-out trees.

Christmas is, indeed, a huge deal in Branson.

Travel back in time at Silver Dollar City

“There are plenty of things for our guests to do, but there are two main reasons people visit us for An Old Time Christmas,” says Brad Thomas, Silver Dollar City’s president. “Lights and shows.”

In 1988, Thomas estimates the park strung about 6,500 lights for its first Christmas event. Today, it boasts 6.5 million and has one of the most high-wattage, bulb-tastic displays anywhere. For the Christmas in Midtown Light Spectacular, now in its second year, the park has plastered nearly every square inch of the land with 1.5 million bulbs. It has even built faux second stories on many of Midtown’s buildings to give it more surface area to bathe in light. With its flying angels, leaping reindeer and blinking bulbs, the area is a frenetic, kinetic kaleidoscope of color.

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