Throughout November and December, An Old Time Christmas at Silver Dollar City lights up the Ozarks.
“Overall, (Silver Dollar) City puts 6.5 million lights on virtually every board of every building throughout the entire park,” said SDC President Brad Thomas, who added that in the park’s town square, the eight-story tree alone has almost 400,000 lights on it.
The effort to illuminate the park begins in the heat of summer, Thomas said, with the first lights hung July 1.
“It takes four months to get ready, but we believe in Christmas,” he said. “For folks to visit us, they drive past a whole lot of entertainment options – zoos, aquariums, concerts, all kinds of options that they pass to come visit us. We have to give them the very best experience that we possibly can.”
Thomas said roughly half a million people come through the park in November and December. The attraction is one of the originators of An Ozark Mountain Christmas, an initiative that began in 1998 when leaders of Branson entertainment venues partnered to extend the visitation season through the holidays.
Christmas Tree City
Ann McDowell continues the work as executive director of the Branson Christmas Coalition. She said Christmas is an economic driver for the Branson area.
“Those last two months of the year, visitation is important to us,” she said. “To be able to finish a fiscal year with a strong season makes a whole lot of difference to a lot of businesses.”
A season that was once the city’s idle time now brings in big numbers, she added.
“We see right at 2 million visitors for the November and December Christmas season,” she said, adding that the real peak of visitation happens in the four-week period between mid-November to mid-December.
McDowell said she remembers the late 1980s when there wasn’t a Christmas tourism season in Branson.
“I was working at Silver Dollar City at the time, and I remember the huge step we felt like we were taking, opening up the park in November,” she said. “It was really a test on a couple of weekends to see if anybody would be interested in coming and seeing Christmas lights on the town square.”
The idea proved to be successful, inside the park and beyond, she said.
“The city of Branson was doing something similar – a few music shows were staying open into November and early December, and that grew quickly,” she said.
The Branson Christmas Coalition formed in 2015, she said.
“We said, ‘What else can we do to poke up Christmas?’” she said.
Every year, Christmas gets a significant poke, as it turns out.
“What our research shows is that starting in 2016, we got a really nice bump in November and December,” she said.
Not surprisingly, the effort lost some ground in 2020, when COVID-19 came to town. But holiday tourism came back with a vengeance.
McDowell said the coalition began by putting an emphasis on Christmas trees.
“That’s something the whole community could participate in and Branson could be famous for, with all of the creativity and natural beauty in this area,” she said.
Businesses participate with lavish decorations – Chik-fil-A on the Highway 76 strip chief among them. As a result of the public displays, visitors to the city can benefit free of charge from the coalition’s effort to brand Branson as the America’s Christmas Tree City – a name the coalition devised, but one that is gaining traction, according to McDowell.
Surveys by the coalition show that many holiday visitors are familiar with the branding, McDowell said.
“We asked folks: Did you come because you heard about the Christmas trees and America’s Christmas Tree City? And 47% said the Christmas Tree City branding was very or extremely important to their decision to visit,” she said. “More than 80% surveyed said they really thought we delivered on that.”
Holiday show time
One of the main drivers of holiday visitation in and around Branson is live music. Cindy Merry, who works as a marketing consultant with the Hughes Brothers Theatre, is on the board of both the Branson Show League and the Branson/Lakes Area Tourism Community Enhancement District. Merry said the Ozark Mountain Christmas period was built by asking music shows to commit to Christmas holiday productions to join Silver Dollar City and Shepherd of the Hills in their efforts to create year-round tourism. Businesses putting up lavish decorations solidified the effort.
“It really built into a fabulous time period for us,” she said. “The Hughes Brothers Theatre in the last couple of weeks has just been phenomenal as far as visitors and attendance.”
Merry declined to disclose the theater’s attendance figures but noted it just added another performance on Christmas Day to accommodate demand.
She said November has come to be Branson’s second or third busiest month most years.
“Just looking at it for the entire community, the benefit has been immense,” she said.
Numbers back up Merry’s assessment. The city of Branson tracks tax receipts in various categories, including amusements, theaters, hotels and motels, campgrounds, nightly rentals, and restaurants and concessions.
In 2022, December yielded the highest theater tax receipts of the year at $473,000. The second-biggest month for theaters last year was November with $471,000, followed by July, with $410,000.
Merry said the holiday shows are a natural draw, since winter weather can make some of the outdoor amusements less appealing to some tourists. In July, Branson’s biggest tourism month across all categories, amusements yielded $714,000 in taxes.
Merry said a lot contributes to the successful holiday season, among these Veterans Homecoming Week in early November and a faith-based Adoration Parade held on the first Sunday in December, now in its 75th year. The Adoration Parade culminates in the lighting of a giant nativity scene atop Mount Branson, and it is visible from the city below.
She noted that by rule, the Adoration Parade is not commercial, and all floats and bands must be geared toward the holidays.
“There’s been parades that they’ve estimated have had tens of thousands of visitors. It’s a pretty big deal,” she said.
Thomas said the initial effort by SDC and local businesses to extend the tourism season after Oct. 31 was an immediate success in 1988.
“The numbers were modest, but people were showing up,” he said. “In the early 1980s, we had zero visitors in November and December, and now we have half a million people [at SDC]. It’s a significant part of all businesses around Table Rock Lake and inside of Branson.”
For SDC, drawing tourists at the end of the year means changing craft and concession items, updating cast member costumes and rotating shows to embrace a seasonal theme.
Thomas said the months of October through December have seen significant growth from 2019 to this year. That’s also true for SDC’s sister attraction, the Showboat Branson Belle, which has a holiday show.
“We started seeing that people would travel if we gave them a reason,” he said. “We’ve made this a holiday town and a holiday experience, and folks show up year after year after year.”
The Aetos brings arts, education and training to Nixa.