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I doubt the good folks at Silver Dollar City get much sleep. How could they when each year they keep announcing bigger and better attractions in so many shapes, sizes and even flavors?

Recognized among America's top five theme parks by USA Today readers, these 61 acres of good times nestled in the Ozark hills outside Branson soon will ring louder than ever with squeals of delight from the more than 2 million annual visitors expected to arrive from every state and many foreign countries. Some 206,000 Arkansans have visited already this season.

Seated in the park's Heritage Hall with several hundred other media and guests the other day, I watched Lisa Rau, director of public relations/publicity, and Silver Dollar City Attractions President Brad Thomas coordinate the "biggest announcement ever made at Silver Dollar City."

Among other additions, Thomas revealed a new month-long Halloween festival called Pumpkin Nights; a soaring, state-of-the-art Christmas tree featuring hundreds of a million lights that will come alive with colorful visions of Christmas; as well as a new section of the park featuring the tallest water drop ride in the Western Hemisphere called Mystic River Falls.

That represents a whopping $30 million in additions in just one year to the award-winning destination 1880s-era theme park already teeming with scores of attractions and adventures.

Next year, the largest dining facility ever created in the park, called the Rivertown Smokehouse with seating for 450, will open. The $4 million eatery overlooking the wide-eyed passing rafters will be in the park's new Rivertown-themed section that envelops the Mystic River Falls ride.

Thomas said a team from the park searched the nation to find the perfect slow-cooked barbecue and sides to serve at the sprawling smokehouse, saying nothing less than the finest anywhere will do. And the chefs at the park are creating new forms of sweet treats made from a form of cookie butter. "Have you ever had cookie butter?" He asked the crowd. "You just wait."

I was impressed with all these additions, some of which will coordinate with Silver Dollar City's 60th anniversary Diamond Jubilee festivities slated to run throughout next season.

Here's a closeup of what visitors can expect to experience.

Pumpkin Nights is actually a two-pronged autumn festival running Sept. 25 to Oct. 26. A daily crafts fair at the "Makers Market" teeming with skilled artisans, pumpkin carvers, and a Cirque Éloize lumberjacks show will run throughout the day, transforming at night to a magical wonderland of thousands of illuminated pumpkins, as well as black-light dance parties, open rides and acres of exquisitely hand-carved, Halloween-oriented masterpieces.

One pumpkin creation will stand about four stories high. As Thomas put it, the evening attractions will be an amazing month for children and their parents with nothing frightening, only impressive fun.

I've always enjoyed the enormous Christmas tree on the park's Town Square. Rau and Thomas assure me I ain't seen nothin' yet. The new tree will tower 80 feet, covered in hundreds of thousands of high-resolution lights. The colorful animated LED lights will have an infinite ability to combine with music in creating remarkable artistry in motion across the tree.

The tree lights will mesh with colors reflected throughout the square totaling another million lights added to the park's existing collection of six million to create the immersive experience called "Joy on Town Square," which opens Nov. 2.

Little wonder USA Today readers also have voted the park's yuletide celebration "Best Theme Park Holiday Event" three times.

Thomas' granddaddy announcement was the unveiling of Mystic River Falls, now under construction. Opening in 2020, this one-of-a-kind $23 million attraction will transport groups of eight in 18 circular rafts along a winding journey of nearly half a mile, propelled by a winding channel surging at 200,000 gallons a minute for a journey lasting almost six minutes.

Sounds sorta like drifting half-awake along a lazy river. But then comes the thrilling part guaranteed to rouse the soundest sleeper. The rafts (into which riders are securely buckled into high-backed seats) then will be lifted while rotating to an elevated channel where they will travel about 60 yards before plunging 4.5 stories at a 45-degree angle through an arch in the Marble Cave Mining Company building and splashing (as in a really big splash) into a pool.

That makes Mystic River Falls the tallest raft drop in the Western Hemisphere. "I can promise you will get wet," Thomas understated. I'm just glad I'm taller than 55 inches, which is required to slide down these mystic falls unless one surpasses 40 inches and rides with a companion at least 16 years old.

My only cheesy question for the apparently sleepless decision-makers for this woodsy wonderland: What mystical additions will be next to fall in line?

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Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 08/18/2019

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