I imagined this would be a day to siphon every last ounce from my reservoir of patience and good will. I’d even sought the wisdom of Lisa Rau, who manages communications for Silver Dollar City, to ask what we could expect.
She’d quickly warned that the day after Thanksgiving is the busiest of the year at the nationally celebrated theme park near Branson, especially with a record 6.5 million colored yuletide lights and 1,000 Christmas trees.
“If you still decide you’re coming on that day,” she’s said, “please don’t hate me.”
Sure enough, Ms. Rau knew of what she cautioned about the crowd size on Black Friday.
Driving up U.S. 65 from Harrison, 30 miles south, the line to enter Silver Dollar City at 2 p.m. became bumper-to-bumper, beginning a mile before the left turn at the traffic light with Missouri 76. From there the procession snail-crawled another mile or so up the highway to the second light marking a left turn toward the park. The third mile took us to the park at the top of the hill where, as far as we could see were gleaming tops of parked vehicles bathed in the afternoon sunshine.
Appropriately enough, a Johnny Cash hit from 1958 began playing: “Don’t take your guns to town, son, leave your guns at home, Bill. Don’t take your guns to town.” Despite Rau’s admonition, we’d come to the little Ozarks town of fun and fantasy bearing tickets rather than guns [not allowed].
Since every parking lot between the theme park and, oh, perhaps Kansas City, appeared full, I let the men in yellow vests point us in the right direction. Soon we were steered into a spot to begin what I affectionately call adventures among the lines. The first one was the wait to board the bus. Then it was up the hill to disembark and wait our turn to push through the turnstiles. Finally, we stepped into wonderland about 4. By now, my tolerance for waiting and brushing elbows with excited strangers had somewhat stabilized.
I found myself anticipating the experience, having visited previously and knowing how much there is to see and do other than the many rides that hurl, twirl and swirl. Today, I’m content with caramel corn, the variety of entertaining shows, all the shops, and finding an ideal spot to plop down and people-watch.
As the sun set against God’s sky of flaming pink and gold, Christmas melodies floated on the cool evening air and what soon became the most transcendent display of Christmas lights I’d ever seen began magically appearing in the branches of tall trees, across the facades of each building, and outlining the amusement rides.
The wondrous glow felt as though Herschend Family Entertainment (which owns this magical village opened in 1960) had proclaimed, “let there be Christmas” and lo, it had come to pass. The park’s claim of at least 6.5 million lights clearly was no exaggeration, and the difference in the sparkling reds, greens, blues, golds and purples created brilliant contrasts.
We’ve enjoyed lots of Christmas lights and displays over the decades. Yet we sat in mutual shock and awe at this glowing, moving spectacle. And we wondered how long it took to choreograph and attach them all.
Then suddenly we were up and off past the clattering kiddie roller coaster and giant circular swing into the surging throngs to try and absorb it all. First stop: the funnel cake line, followed by swirly curly potatoes on a stick, the line for ice cream and, shortly before the nightly parade, the pizza line. Forgot the hot chocolate! Did I mention this place has food, my favorite attraction of all?
The evening’s two stage shows had filled earlier in the day. That didn’t matter. We staggered our way (literally) through gravity-defying Grandfather’s Mansion. then ogled the triple-inversion Time Traveler coaster that sat silently waiting in darkness for its maiden voyage next spring.
From the candle-making store to the Christmas shop and the woman painting a little girl’s face to look like Wonder Woman, the excitement in this most wonderful time of the year permeated everything here. And suddenly I felt thankful to be alive and at peace, even amid the melee.
In the area known as Midtown, it took a minute for my eyes to absorb so much colorful wonder that stretched for blocks. On a hillside above us an enormous globe of the earth illuminated in blues and greens slowly revolved as if floating in midair. Before we knew it, the crowd had shifted to layers along the edges of Main Street to await the oncoming parade of angels, wise men, marching toy soldiers and Christmas fairies.
It was obvious from the Christian images and references throughout the parade and theme park that those in charge had their priorities straight for this holy season.
With the parade filed past and children removed from parents’ shoulders, it was only fitting that on our way out to the line to the bus that returned us to our car we (and perhaps 700,000 others) chose a final line inside the park to take along a fresh-baked, plate-sized cinnamon roll from a store that some bright marketeer felt was best offered near the entrance/exit.
Ever faced the overwhelming temptation from warm cinnamon rolls baking 20 yards from your nose? They were like eating Christmas.
And so it went on this visit I initially expected to be filled with frustrations only to discover Black Friday had, in fact, become a Bright Friday filled with memories and just what ol’ grandpa needed to rekindle his Christmas spirit.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.