Hard to believe the express train to Christmas has departed the station and is chugging steadily toward the last Wednesday in December. Wasn't it 90 sweltering degrees and early August just yesterday?
In an effort to get out front in my hurried journey into Yuletide revelry, we joined a group of about 20 media members and families invited to tour the reason Branson is now proclaimed "America's Christmas Tree Capital."
We'd also come to witness the debut of Silver Dollar City's new state-of-the-art, 80-foot Christmas tree billed as the only one of its kind.
This tree is even more than I expected as the eight-story anchor for the park's $1.5 million Joy on Town Square experience. Brad Thomas, the park's personable president of attractions, says the tree features hundreds of thousands of dancing high-resolution lights with near infinite ability to combine color, music, light and animated imagery.
The tree's output, along with the radiance enveloping the Town Square, equal more than one-million LED lights--the brightest and most advanced ever used to celebrate the park's Old Time Christmas.
"We engaged a team of the world's most-celebrated lighting geniuses to create this just for Silver Dollar City guests," said Thomas. Joy on Town Square includes illumination of the square's buildings, trees and landscape, which immersed everyone watching the experience, cell phones at the ready.
The designers explained how the density of color, sound, light and movement mesh to create the experience. "Joy on Town Square takes guests on a physical and emotional journey of mind and soul," said Jared Everline of Atlanta's S4 Lights, adding, "This tree is like no other tree on Earth."
Well, by golly and holly jolly, while taking it all in I did actually feel the seasonal spirit of Christmas seeping steadily (imagine the warmth from a wood stove) into the tiny space behind my eyes.
I said I could have been happy had I just purchased hot apple cider from a nearby vendor, found a bench to plop down on, and simply watched the mountainous tree endlessly transform from one mesmerizing visual effect (set to music) to another, then another. It's also entertaining to watch visitors' expressions as they come face-to-face with what I hereby christen the world's "Evergreen Mountain of Christmas Festivities."
There's abundant evidence justifying why an annual USA Today Readers Poll has named Silver Dollar City's Old Time Christmas the nation's "Best Theme Park Holiday Event" not once, twice or thrice, but four times.
This holiday season, the 1880s-styled park is adorned with nearly 7 million lights, 1,000 decorated Christmas trees, 600 wreaths, over 3 miles of garland, and 15,000 yards of ribbon.
It's all waiting in "Ozark-ian" Christmas tradition with holiday entertainment, nightly light parades, foods, shopping, over 40 rides, and other various attractions. It was all in nonstop Christmas mode on our visit.
As part of our visit we journalists attended two of the park's major stage productions created exclusively for An Old Time Christmas, each an adaptation of the classics: A Dickens' Christmas Carol and It's A Wonderful Life.
We each left with a steaming cup of wassail and fat ginger cookie in hand, agreeing the shows had been as well-choreographed and performed as anything comparable on Broadway. And I should add, valued readers, I'm not as easily impressed as I was in years past. Go see for yourself.
I am, however, always captivated by the remarkable display of sights, sounds and sensory overload this park offers during the holiday season, including the month-long inaugural Pumpkin Nights festival that ended last week. I never fathomed it was physically possible to hang and display 680 miles of Christmas lighting within a 60-acre space.
The following evening, we hopped aboard a bus that deposited us at the Showboat Branson Belle on nearby Table Rock Lake. It was an evening of dining on tender roast beef and chicken followed by a musical Christmas kickoff stage performance that rivaled the shows at the 1880s theme park on the night before.
The longtime comedian/magician/emcee for the Belle's shows, Christopher James, never missed a beat for two-plus hours. The timing and nature of his routines had our group and the hundreds of others onboard laughing constantly.
Lisa Rau, director of publicity and public relations for Silver Dollar City, and senior publicist Dalton Fischer had gone to great lengths as November dawned to make sure members of the press from three states got the best possible look at what Branson has to offer this season.
The only problem was that just a sampling of the enormity of entertainment options is the best anyone can possibly do in a weekend.
For instance, I encountered an intriguing downtown Branson museum I never knew existed, visited the amazing Dick's 5 and 10 store downtown, passed by two new interactive attractions opening on the busy U.S. 76 strip, Dolly Parton's Stampede, the Mountain Coaster, and the one-of-a-kind Sight and Sound Theater with its Miracle of Christmas show running through December.
I even managed to squeeze in a performance by illusionist Rick Thomas. He's a world-class magician whose performance the Los Angeles Times once deemed "stunning." I know why.
In his onstage home called the "Mansion of Dreams" within the ornate Andy Williams Theater, Thomas (who spent years in Las Vegas and entertained in over 50 countries) never fails to astound with what he pulls off. Just how does one make a helicopter suddenly appear on stage, then disappear minutes later before an attentive audience seated 10 yards away?
Afterwards, I approached the affable Thomas, who could pass for a brother to the late Johnny Cash, and proudly demonstrated my own disappearing lighted thumb. He watched politely and smiled slightly (like a person might approve of his retriever rolling over). And no, he didn't even suggest whether I'd even consider opening for his future performances.
The hundreds of thousands of Arkansans who join the millions drawn to the city and its attractions each year already know how much there is to see and do in this community with a year-round population unbelievably listed as slightly smaller than my hometown of Harrison 30 miles south.
But the entertainment months are a far different story as Branson virtually explodes for months with visitors (including many thousands of veterans cherished here) all in search of escape, entertainment and just plain fun.
Living in Harrison means our holiday seasons are enriched by all there is to see and do in the fantasy-filled Ozarks community just across the border.
It also presents an ideal way to drive a relatively short distance and walk through the front door of the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons to be greeted in festive ways that makes everyone feel that once again the "hap-happiest" time of year has rolled around yet again.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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