by Karen E. Culp
Bob Wehr got into the entertainment business about a year ago when he purchased the former Mutton Hollow park at a foreclosure sale. The veteran Springfield businessman wasn't sure at the time what he would do with the Branson property, but now he's dreaming his way to what he hopes will become one of Branson's foremost attractions for families.
Branson USA will open on the former Mutton Hollow site during Memorial Day weekend, Wehr said. The effort is quite a departure, Wehr said, from the automotive parts remanufacturing business he was in for so many years as the founder of Aaron's Automotive, and also from the real estate development business he now runs with his son and two daughters, Wehr, Wehr, Johnson and Bridgeforth.
But Wehr has never been a "sit around kind of person," he said; he has always looked for some new challenge.
"I suppose I've had some desire all my life to be in this type of business, though it never really came home until I purchased Mutton Hollow. I like to build on something and see it grow and mature into something strong and good," Wehr said.
Wehr remembers playing at Springfield's Doling Park as a child, when it had a Ferris wheel and other amusements. He recalls the fun it was for him and considers that one of his inspirations in creating Branson USA.
He purchased the 112 acres in Branson in the spring of 1998 and began his research to develop about 40 acres of it into the first phase of Branson USA. The remaining acreage will be used for expansion.
"As soon as the parks opened around the country, I started hitting them. I noticed what rides were more popular and looked at some things I liked, and some I didn't," Wehr said.
He started incorporating the ideas he gleaned from amusement parks all over the country into his vision for Branson USA. One of the first things he decided is that the park would be a free admission park, and would charge fees for rides and other attractions.
"I really want it to be a place where families can come and spend the entire day. I knew for that reason that I wanted it to be a free park," Wehr said.
The park will have about 20 rides, five food shops, and 18 retail stores. All of the properties are owned by Wehr; he has hired a food director to manage the food operation, and he and his wife will manage the two largest retail stores at Branson USA.
One of those shops will be a souvenir store, while the other will be called Nature's Trail. The remaining shops will be leased to David Bates and his wife, who run retail stores in Tulsa, Okla. Bob Zacher will be the food director.
The park also has a theater where the Platters performed while Mutton Hollow was open.
Wehr is working to put a show for children and families into the theater, and he has talked with several people in the area about what type of show it will be. The park will also have a laser light show in the evenings for children who aren't interested in accompanying their parents to nighttime Branson shows.
The main emphasis of Branson USA will be the amusement park portion, which will contain, among its other amusements, a roller coaster imported from Belgium. The coaster is now stateside, having landed in Houston, Texas, and will be en route to Branson soon, Wehr said. Wehr bought the 60-foot-high coaster from the park where it was used in Brussels.
The park will also have a smaller, family coaster and a gondola-style Ferris wheel 97 feet high with 5,200 lights.
Wehr located the rides himself and has also overseen the erection of a steel-and-asphalt go-cart track, which he said is the only one of its type in the area. Add to that mix bumper cars, kiddie rides or Hamptons, and a few smaller rides from the Mutton Hollow days, and it is Branson USA. Wehr said he hasn't stopped dreaming about the park's future, though.
The park will also have picnic areas and large pavilions for gatherings. Wehr said he's already had quite a bit of interest from corporations regarding company retreats and other events at the park. Wehr has also paid attention to the landscaping of the park, since the rocky and hilly terrain lent itself to some interesting features such as a waterfall built from rock removed during the leveling of the park.
Many of the buildings that were part of Mutton Hollow are still in the park, but they have been repainted and upgraded, Wehr said. Some new buildings have gone up, and the park also has new walkways and lots of greenery, Wehr said.
Right now Branson USA will be open only during the summer months, but the season may expand to include the Christmas season, Wehr said.The park will have in excess of 100 employees, many of whom have already been hired, and will be open until 1 a.m. each day.
Branson USA is Wehr's first effort in Branson, though he has lived in Springfield all of his life. The park's name, he said, expresses the fundamental idea behind amusement parks.
"It's what America's about kids and fun," Wehr said.
Fishing retail shop Modern Outdoor Tackle moved; Healthy Spot LLC opened; and Springfield law firm Strong, Garner & Bauer PC changed names and moved its office.