By Nov. 1, the city of Branson transformed into a Christmas wonderland.
Colorful lights and decorations adorned businesses along the Highway 76 strip, and Silver Dollar City held its first public lighting of the new $1.5 million Christmas tree and light show.
In a city with more than 17,000 Christmas trees on display, it begs the question: Which season rules Branson tourism?
The answer is summer, but business owners say the months of November and December are quickly catching up.
Since 2014, the number of visitors during the Christmas season has grown by 20% while summer has grown by 7.8%, according to research conducted by the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Lynn Berry, director of communications for the Branson CVB, said the 2018 summer months brought in about 2.8 million visitors, while the winter holidays drew in about 1.7 million visitors.
“Christmas has of course been growing,” Berry said. “Each year, we have a few more shows to offer our visitors. We are adding new things, and that is an attractor to Branson.”
Silver Dollar City, The Showboat Branson Belle, Dolly Parton’s Stampede and The Shepherd of the Hills are among the Christmas-themed experiences in November and December. Not to mention the theater productions, from country music to Broadway-style shows, that line the main strip.
Silver Dollar City’s Christmas theme, dubbed An Old Time Christmas, is a four-time winner in the USA Today 10 Best Readers’ Choice poll for the nation’s best theme park holiday event. It’s currently ranked No. 1 out of 20 for the 2019 list at 10Best.com; voting continues through the end of November.
The theme park hosts the productions, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Dickens’ Christmas Carol,” and the park’s Christmas in Midtown is decorated with 1.5 million LED lights.
This year, the park also unveiled a new 8-story tall Christmas tree and light show, which cost roughly $1.5 million, said Brad Thomas, president of Silver Dollar City Attractions.
Thomas said he anticipates the new feature will help top last year’s record for November and December, which officials say was 518,000 visitors.
“Memorial Day to Labor Day is still our biggest time of the year, but Christmas is quickly encroaching on that number,” Thomas said.
The theme park registers roughly 2.1 million visitors annually, with 42% of total attendance stemming from the three-month summer season and 24% generating in November and December, according to park officials.
Lisa Rau, director of public relations and publicity for Silver Dollar City owner Herschend Family Entertainment Corp., said July reigns as the park’s busiest month with a 2018 count of approximately 315,000 visitors. But December is close behind with 305,000.
The Shepherd of the Hills amusement park is seeing the Christmas effect, too.
This year marks the 30th year of the park’s drive-through experience, Trail of Lights. The park also opened a new feature last year called The Shepherd’s North Pole Adventure. It’s a walk-through experience that includes Inspiration Tower, Santa’s Workshop, hot chocolate stands and thousands of lights, according to Shepherd of the Hills website.
“We believe wholeheartedly in it,” co-owner Jeff Johnson said of the year-old feature. “The Trail of Lights wasn’t a long experience before, so we’re trying to lengthen their stay on our property.”
Now, November is the amusement park’s second busiest month, following July, Johnson said, declining to disclose visitor or revenue numbers.
“Christmas is phenomenal,” Johnson said. “We continue to grow at Christmas and see more and more people coming through.”
Last year, the city recorded an all-time high of $13.57 million collected in tourism taxes, of which roughly $2.4 million was recorded in November and December, according to city records. Taxes collected each month primarily reflect business sales made the prior month, Berry said.
“Christmas just gets more and more significant from a tourism perspective, and not just for Silver Dollar City, but for Branson,” Thomas said, pointing to the shopping centers and Christmas shows. “It’s a reason that people from Dallas to Chicago would pass all the things they have to do between here and there to come to Branson.”
According to 2018 CVB data, more than 340,000 visitors traveled to Branson from Dallas and Oklahoma City. Over 160,000 visitors traveled from Chicago; Minneapolis; Des Moines, Iowa; and Paducah, Kentucky – in addition to the hundreds of thousands of visitors from St. Louis; Kansas City; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
At the Kringles Christmas Shore, it’s Christmas year-round. Mel Bilbo, owner of the holiday decor store, said he’s seen more of a citywide emphasis on Christmas since he bought the store in 2005. He cited the shows and Silver Dollar City as key examples.
On any given day, Bilbo said he counts at least a dozen out-of-state license plates in the shopping center parking lot. According to customer surveys, Bilbo said half of the store’s customers are from a city outside a 300-mile distance of Branson. He recalled a recent customer who traveled from Boston.
“Overall, it’s just a special place to be,” Bilbo said. “As long as we keep it up to date … the whole family stays interested in coming to Branson.”
Nathan Wood, director of sales and marketing for the Chateau on the Lake Resort, Spa & Convention Center, said he remembers when the hotel would experience a lull during the winter season over five years ago.
Now, Wood said the Chateau sells out on the weekends during the Christmas months.
“Branson used to drop off in October – it’s not doing that anymore,” he said. “Everybody in the community has just rallied behind Christmas.”
The Chateau has been nominated through USA Today 10 Best Readers’ Choice poll as the best hotel during the holiday season. Wood said the Chateau is the only Midwest hotel nominated. Voting for 2019 is underway, and the Chateau was ranked sixth out of 20, as of press time.
“When you’re competing against the Plaza Hotel in New York City, that’s amazing,” he said.
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