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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Behind the radiant festivities

by Mike Masterson | December 25, 2021 at 2:43 a.m.


Merry Christmas 2021, valued readers. It's always been my favorite time of year. Perhaps yours, too.

Fortunately The closet thing to the enchanting North Pole in the nation lies under our radiant red noses just south of Branson.

That's my feeling anyway. Believe me when I say it's been a while since I was a wide-eyed 8-year-old.

I've written previously about the benefits of living in Harrison just down the highway from what USA Today readers in 2020 voted America's No. 1 theme park.

Silver Dollar City (with more than 40 rides and attractions, a wide variety of delicious cuisine and more than a full day's worth of live shows and entertainment) is nestled in the Ozarks only 40 minutes from my front door.

Lucky me, eh?

The enchanting world amid the forested hills becomes downright vibrant during the festive holiday season that begins in October.

The rambling park sparkles with nearly 7 million colored lights and displays starting with Halloween fall events and continuing seamlessly into the Old Time Christmas season where the park (which is closed today and tomorrow but reopens Monday until shuttering for the season on Dec. 30) is transformed by incredible decorations and daily theme parades doesn't happen on its own.

The colorful Christmas lights attached to what seems like every square inch of the buildings and trees are strung each summer beginning in the swelter of July. Yes, it really takes that long to accomplish such an enormous job.

It also requires at least 1,500 employees manning all form of entertainment, food venues and management to keep the park thriving and growing through each season, beginning early every spring until after Christmas.

The park's day-to-day brain trust is led by Brad Thomas, the personable president and general manager of Silver Dollar City Attractions, and includes food service director Sam Hedrick and merchandise manager Rhonda Ruzzo.

Then there is the park leader I've come to know: the indomitable Lisa Rau, a tireless blonde Energizer Bunny. The Silver Dollar City publicity director is highly regarded for taking care to dot every i and cross all every t of her considerable responsibilities.

A Michigan native, Rau, now 60, said she fell in love with the Ozarks in her early 20s. While enjoying a celebrated TV reporting career in Springfield. "I became familiar with the unique culture and offerings of Silver Dollar City," she said.

One day, the park's owner, Peter Herschend, called to tell her legendary publicist Don Richardson (who named the park Silver Dollar City, after making change for customers with silver dollars as a word-of-mouth promotion) was retiring.

Herschend recognized Rau's abilities and potential. He offered her Richardson's job. She made the switch from reporting to publicist and soon found it a perfect fit.

"I've most enjoyed the creativity involved with all things Silver Dollar City--from the steps in unveiling rides, festivals and attractions, to the wide variety of foods and crafts," she said.

Rau said the occasional "big headlines" and emotional connections she experiences with park guests shared with the "citizens" (employees) of Silver Dollar City and the way they embrace the unique culture are most rewarding for her.

Her marketing team, through their efforts and the many contributions of the park's citizens, has earned truck-loads of national, international and regional awards along the way.

Yet she said every manager never forgets those awards become possible only because of the work of the citizens of Silver Dollar City.

Arkansans matter here. In 2021, nearly 19 percent of the park's customer base came from our state. It's clear our state continues to play a significant role in the Silver Dollar City's remarkable success.

Rau is but one of many occupying the on-site offices who help set the growth and direction for the 100-acre park, which offers 12 stage venues, 18 award-winning restaurants, 60 shops, 40 rides and 100 resident craftsmen. That's a lot to properly manage every day.

For instance, Hedrick said the varieties of 15,000 skillet meals served each season are among the most popular food items. I know the succotash I've enjoyed there is pure comfort food. My simpler tastes often run toward the crunchy foot-long corn dogs slathered in mustard, and the custom-boiled pork rinds.

This season, Hedrick said the newly opened Rivertown, with its eight-story, mega-splash drop into a moving stream and adjacent Rivertown Grill, was continuously packed with hungry visitors. The fried chicken served at Molly's Mill also draws a crowd.

There's far too much here to even begin listing them all. I also enjoy including the gooey cinnamon rolls at Eva and Delilah's Bakery, where it's common to serve 1,000 rolls daily, along with crafted danishes and homemade cinnamon breads.

Although I've yet to meet them, Rau said a staff of paramedics and a safety department watch over the park. Employees and their families also can regularly visit an on-site clinic staffed by physicians for their medical needs.

Atop the day-to-day management pyramid is Thomas, whose gregarious persona can be larger than life. He begins each spring season by climbing onto the park's familiar gazebo surrounded by employees to welcome them while offering a prayer for another safe and successful season. A devotion to and regard for faith clearly provides a deep, appreciative undercurrent flowing throughout Silver Dollar City.

Thomas has spent 31 years holding various positions at Silver Dollar City Attractions, and said he most enjoys managing all the "caring employees and greeting loyal guests." He also stays inspired by how smoothly the 1880s-themed park founded in May 1960 transforms into different wonderlands with each time of year along with the many shows, festivals, variety of rides (from tame to thrills) and changes in seasonal decor.

Hard to believe the park's 40 rides launched in 1962 with the 20-minute steam train called the Frisco Silver Dollar. Thunderation, the first roller coaster of the seven offered today, began its initial assent in 1993 and is still thrilling riders.

Thomas also told me he invests considerable time and energy forming and maintaining relationships with all the employee "citizens" who make up the Silver Dollar City family.

The park's artisans and their handiwork rise to such an unprecedented level that Thomas said that, among its perennial accolades, the U.S. Congress has cited it as "The Home of American Craftsmanship."

In that vein, Ruzzo said park visitors find the blown-glass snowmen, pumpkins, oil bottles, hand-crafted candles and the park's "world famous cinnamon bread" (I've had some; Ruzzo isn't overstating) among the park's best-selling merchandise during the fall and Christmas seasons.

I know this much without question: Having Silver Dollar City so convenient to the front door and to our state as a whole only enriches my holiday seasons and summer days each time we head that way for the day.

As with most things positive in life, it's the people and their efforts who make it all happen, which is one reason the park is always hiring, Rau told me. Some come and don't want to leave, choosing to forge a career there. The park even has its own department devoted solely to creating period costumes for employee citizens.

Anyone who visits or works for this theme park understands there's always something fresh and exciting on the drawing board, Rau said, adding: "Stay tuned because we're only making things better and brighter with more adventure ahead. I might never retire."

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

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.


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