BRANSON, Missouri - George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge have been part of my Christmas tradition for as long as I can remember. When the holidays roll around, I always look for a television showing of It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol.
When I heard that both of the popular stories are now being presented live at Silver Dollar City in Branson, I knew I had to head that way. What I expected to find were pleasing productions, sort of down-home simple presentations. That is not what I found at all.
The original Silver Dollar City productions are top-notch with lavish sets and costumes, talented performers, special effects, flying spirits and much more. Staged in the comfortable Opera House, A Dickens’ Christmas Carol is a 60-minute Broadway-style show with a cast of 15 actors accompanied by a live band.
At first, I wasn’t sure how an hour-long musical could do justice to one of my favorite stories. I shouldn’t have worried. All the important parts are there and the result is entertaining to both children and adults.
“My daughter wanted to see it,” Eleanor Matthews says, nodding to 7-year-old Caroline, holding her mother’s hand and skipping out after the program. “I didn’t know if she would want to sit still that long, especially with all the rides going on outside. But she loved it.”
In fact, the Chicago girl has decided the whole family should come again next year. Her favorite part? “That ghost that kept making funny faces,” the girl answers, referring to the Ghost of Christmas Present. “And Tiny Tim. I was really glad that he didn’t die, that Scrooge helped him.”
That is one thing I always appreciate about Silver Dollar City and Branson in general. Entertainment here is family oriented and emphasizes God, country and family. Almost every show I attended had a special patriotic part where past and present military members were asked to stand and be recognized. A significant section of the audience from many age groups stood.
For the It’s a Wonderful Life production, the bridge scene with George Bailey and Clarence the angel is spectacular. Easy to see why the old Frank Capra movie was voted the No. 1 “Inspirational Film of all Time” by the American Film Institute.
AN OLD TIME CHRISTMAS
However, these two musicals are just part of the huge annual festival known as An Old Time Christmas. Running from Nov. 2 to Dec. 30, An Old Time Christmas transforms the 1880s-style park into a winter wonderland. A five-story special effects Christmas tree is the park centerpiece, a towering visual icon that comes to life at dusk each evening when the Christmas on Main Street shows begin.
During the shows, the massive tree blazes in synchronization to the musical movements of Christmas songs – up to 100 light changes per second – while lights on buildings, in hanging canopies over Main Street and on Christmas trees around the square flash along with it.
Silver Dollar City also has 1,000 decorated Christmas trees, over 5 million lights (that’s 350 miles of lights) and a Holiday Light Parade each evening featuring eight lighted, musical floats and 18 costumed characters.
Other holiday shows at Silver Dollar City include the interactive musical show Frosty where kids help bring the legendary snowman to life, the Living Nativity presenting the story of the birth of Christ through the eyes of the Angel Gabriel, and the comedy Frontier Fa-la-la Follies in the Silver Dollar Saloon.
All of that and then there’s the food, rides and shopping. Silver Dollar City food has always been far better than many theme parks. During the holidays, you can choose from delicious meals such as the prime rib buffet or the traditional turkey and dressing feast.
Silver Dollar City has long been know for its skilled craftsmen, more than 100 of them demonstrating one-of-a-kind handmade holiday items such as glass blown ornaments, angles and snowmen, pottery dessert platters, wooden boxes and scented candles.
For rides, join in singing Christmas carols as you board the Silver Dollar Steam Train. For nighttime thrills, most of the rides and the park’s six roller coasters are open after dark with great views of the lights from above.
The Showboat Branson Belle is another wonderful way to get in the holiday spirit. The boat is decked out with Christmas lights and offers a three-course meal served in the three-story atrium dining room as the boat cruises Table Rock Lake.
After dinner comes an entertaining musical program, including the world’s only violin-playing aerialist., Janice Martin. When I first saw that listed, I wondered how in the world this woman could possibly play the violin while doing aerial acrobatics. She sure does. One or the other is difficult enough but she combines the two for an unusual performance of The Nutcracker Suite and other songs. She also sings.
Whenever I go to Branson, I always visit Shepherd of the Hills, the place where it all started. For the holidays, Shepherd of the Hills offers its popular Trail of Lights, a drive-through animation display winding through the historic 160-acre Shepherd of the Hills Homestead. You drive down the famous “Trail that Nobody Knows How Old” into a holiday fantasy complete with a variety of themes and life-size characters and millions of multi-colored Christmas lights. A grand finale to the lights journey includes a trip to Inspiration Tower where you can ride glass elevators up 230 feet for a Santa’s eye view of the lights above.
I have read “Shepherd of the Hills” several times and always find something new to enjoy. It is a simple story written by a man, Harold Bell Wright, who traveled far from civilization into the Ozark Mountains more than a century ago. Wright was seeking to regain his health and rid himself of despondency.
Soothed by his peaceful surroundings, nurtured by nature and sustained by mountain folk, the ailing minister not only found strength — he found inspiration. What Wright created from that bountiful time changed his life and the lives of those he met and the Ozarks he came to love.
The book became a success almost immediately when it was published in 1907. At the Harold Bell Wright Museum, visitors can see the original handwritten book manuscript. The book opened the gates for a whole new source of income — known as tourism — for the Ozarks.
People started coming to the area to see where the book was written and the places and people it was written about. It’s a shame but the long-running outdoor play based on the book will not be presented after this season. Officials cite a drop in attendance, increasing costs and health insurance changes as reasons for the cancellation.
Of course, Branson has so many live shows that on my visit I went to three in one day. Another woman told me that she had done four. Check the Branson schedule because many of the shows close in mid December so entertainers can be with their families. I understand perfectly. No place like home for the holidays.
For more information:
Contact the Branson Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800) 296-0463, www.explorebranson.com
Silver Dollar City at (800) 475-9370, www.silverdollarcity.com
Showboat Branson Belle at (800) 775-2628, www.showboatbransonbelle.com
Shepherd of the Hills at (800) 653-6288, wwwoldmatt.com