John Baltes is 76, and he remembers the very first Christmas celebration at Silver Dollar City. He helped create it.
Baltes came to the Branson theme park in 1981 as general manager. He says he had no idea what he was getting in to — in the very best of ways. Having learned the ropes at Sea World in San Diego and its sister property in Aurora, Ohio, he found the culture of Silver Dollar City “deeper and richer and very appealing — and it wasn’t just in the park but throughout the area.”
It was in the early 1990s that park co-owner Jack Herschend “wanted to do some type of Christmas festival but wondered whether people would come,” Baltes remembers. “Would it be too cold? Would people bundle up their kids and come out?
“We did some surveys, and everybody said they loved the idea, but no, they wouldn’t come. I joke that Jack gave me $100,000 to create something magical but said don’t spend it all. And $99,900 later, the rest is history!”
That first Christmas, the only thing Silver Dollar City added to celebrate was lights on the square.
“That’s all the money was able to do,” Baltes says. “There wasn’t enough, but it was an amazing success. People loved what they saw.”
The next year, the lights spread down Hill Street, then into Center City. Now the 1880s-style town boasts 6.5 million LED lights lining nearly every board of every building and an eight-story Christmas tree that’s the centerpiece of Joy On Town Square.
And that’s just the beginning. Just steps beyond Joy On Town Square is Christmas in Midtown, Silver Dollar City’s most concentrated light display, filling 70,000 square feet with 145 miles of lights, running from Sullivan’s Mill to the American Plunge, says park spokesman Dalton Fischer. That’s 1.5 million lights in total, he says, if you want to do the math, plus new for 2023, the sky canopy in Valley Road is filled with a towering bell display, gleaming bright red and gold.
The fan-favorite Broadway-style “A Dickens Christmas Carol” continues this season with performances multiple times a day — complete with vanishing ghosts, revolving scenery and pyrotechnic special effects, Fischer points out — and “Coming Home for Christmas” offers a live band, singers and dancers to share favorite holiday traditions.
There’s also Rudolph’s Holly Jolly Christmas Light Parade with Bumble the Abominable Snow Monster; a 50-year anniversary celebration of Frontier Fa-La-La Follies in the Silver Dollar Saloon; the kids’ show Tinker Junior’s Toy Shop with a 12-foot talking tree; the musical Living Nativity; and a chance to meet Kris Kringle himself in Santa Claus Lane.
Plus food, of course, including a traditional turkey with dressing dinner. And the last chances for fans to ride the iconic Fire in the Hole roller coaster before it closes at the end of the year.
Baltes still loves all those things about Silver Dollar City, but 25 years ago, he stepped away from the park to manage the Silver Dollar City Foundation. He jokes that he made money during the first part of his career and gave it away during the second part, founding in 1996 an organization that has raised more than $2.3 million for children in need in Branson and surrounding communities.
This month, Baltes is leaving the foundation to volunteer as director of Ozark Mountain Legacy, a group dedicated to championing the values that he says make Branson unique.
“There is something about this community that draws people here,” he says. “People don’t come back here for the rides or shows. They come back for the people, the hospitality. We don’t treat people like they are important; we believe in our hearts they are important. That is a different level of hospitality; that’s love. That gives people hope.”
And don’t sell him short. Baltes thinks he has another 25 years left in him to celebrate.
An Old Time Christmas
WHEN — Through Dec. 30
WHERE — Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo.
COST — $89 for ages 12-64
INFO — silverdollarcity.com