After becoming a “real adult” (actually, I’m not sure I ever did that, what does that even mean?) a lot of the traditional summertime activities that I loved as a kid kind of dropped out of my life. I didn’t have summers off and I hate the crowds that weekends bring to so many of those activities. As a kid, both my parents were educators and the summers felt so vastly free. We went to the lake, on float trips, swimming at local pools, and occasionally to theme parks or water parks, but we almost never went on the weekends when the crowds became unbearable. But even when I was working and had vacation time that I could theoretically take for such adventures, gambling against the weather with precious time off felt too risky.
So when my friend Darcy asked me a couple weeks ago, “Hey, do you want to go to Silver Dollar City sometime, like on a Monday or Tuesday?” I jumped at the chance. I hadn’t been to a theme park of any kind since early 2015, and I hadn’t been to Silver Dollar City since I was in high school.
Silver Dollar City sits just outside of Branson and offers a glimpse into the Ozark Mountains in the 1880’s, but with the addition of roller coasters, indoor plumbing, and a mind-boggling amount of souvenir opportunities. The hillbilly aesthetic in the park never appealed to me much, and when I was at the park previously, it seemed like there really weren’t all that many rides, especially compared with Six Flags or Worlds of Fun which were nearly equidistant to where I grew up. The hillbilly feel remains, but it feels a little more civilized these days and the rides have expanded and improved drastically in the last twenty years, making for a spectacular visit.
The first stop upon arriving (after the bathroom, obviously; it was a two hour drive, after all), was the park’s newest roller coaster the Time Traveler. I’m a complete sucker for a thrill ride with a little bit of a story and I love contemplating the almost theatrical design that goes into the more elaborate line areas. The story for the Time Traveler was that a clock maker was experimenting with a time travel machine, so the line area was made up to look like a clock factory with gears and time pieces everywhere, creating a very steampunk and Back to the Future Three kind of vibe. Time Traveler is a steel roller coaster that seats four passengers to a car on a four car train (so sixteen passengers per train, if you needed help with that math), and the cars are designed to look like little time machines. And each car spins.
I’ve written about my inner ear and stomach’s relationship with the ocean, and how my seasickness remains something of a mystery since I’m pretty resistant to all other forms of motion sickness. I have a confession: there is some motion that I just cannot stomach (literally), and one of those is spinning. Teacup rides are evil. So when I first heard about the spinning cars on the Time Traveler I thought, “I don’t know…” but then I learned that the spinning isn’t constant or especially fast. It’s more weight-based, like an old-school Tilt-a-Whirl, the carnival classic that holds a special place in my heart for being one of only two or three rides that I can remember my mom ever saying she liked.
Even though the Time Traveler’s restraints don’t rest on the riders’ shoulders, the very hefty lap bar cinches down mechanically for a snug fit that is very necessary, because the ride features a 90 degree drop and several loops and rolls. And because riders are seated in such an unusual manner, you occasionally get the surreal experience of facing your fellow riders for a moment of shared thrill before you’re spun away again. It’s spectacular. The time travel theme already had me thinking of Doctor Who, but even after giving it a couple days’ thought, the most accurate description of the two-minute ride is still that it felt like being in the show’s title sequence with the TARDIS wildly careening through the time vortex. It wasn’t even much of a stretch to imagine the screams of terrified delight as the iconic “oo-WEE-OOOOOO” theme tune.
Even though this was our first ride of the day and it was pretty soon after park opening, the ride’s proximity to the front gates means that the line gets long pretty quickly, and we waited for about an hour, finally getting to jump in front of about a dozen people at the end when the operators needed a party of two to fill out the train.
When we pulled back in from our inaugural ride, the operators announced that the ride would be temporarily closing. I suspect that someone on the train in front of us may have been sick and they needed to clean it off, though no explanation was ever given, and Darcy and I were massively relieved that we had gotten to ride such an epic roller coaster before it was shut down for an undisclosed amount of time. We had to wait in our seats for probably fifteen minutes before they came and pressed the emergency release to let us off, but it wasn’t too long and the morning sun was only just beginning to bite. Still not quite believing our luck, we headed to our next adventure: Mystic River Falls.
Mystic River Falls is technically the newest ride at Silver Dollar City from what I can find, but is basically an update and improvement of the older Lost River of the Ozarks. This whitewater rapids ride is an update of the classic “round boat splashy ride” that has been a theme park staple longer than I’ve been alive, I’m sure (and the other type of ride my mom always liked). Wikipedia tells me that when the revamped ride opened in 2020, it held the record for the highest raft slide drop in the western hemisphere at 45 feet. It also has a fancy specialty rotating lift to get the rafts to the top of the slide drop that made me go, “Ooh, that’s cool engineering,” as it lifted and gently spun us into position.
It was a sunny 90 degree day when we were there, so the splash of cold water (still remarkably clear for a ride of this type), was refreshing, and we had dressed in preparation for this ride. In fact, in choosing my attire for the day, I planned specifically for this ride. When I visited Silver Dollar City in middle school, I made the mistake of wearing denim shorts which, when soaked on this ride, proceeded to chafe the inside of my thighs nearly to the point of bleeding. I cannot recommend quick drying athletic shorts enough. (I also packed a change of socks, but my shoes never really dried out enough for me to feel justified in changing socks, but I was thrilled to change into sandals for the drive home.) I did see blow dryers that were available for a fee that felt like it should have been collected old-timey stage coach robbers, but in peak theme park season, the sun will dry you out for free in almost the same amount of time.
According to my parents’ experience of this ride from the early nineties, this ride was also a hit with nuns, dressed in full habit. I have no personal memory of this, but the idea of it delights me and I was moderately disappointed not to have seen any nuns on the ride this time.
After a quick bite of lunch from one of the park’s many food vendors (we opted for a skillet dish, a Silver Dollar City classic), we tested our stomachs’ resolves on Wildfire. I’m fairly sure I must have ridden Wildfire on a past visit to the park, as it opened in 2001, but I don’t have any definite memory of doing so. I’m pleased to say that we both kept our lunch inside our stomachs and thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful steel roller coaster that is very much the classic steel coaster experience. My first real roller coaster (ever!) was Six Flags St. Louis’ Batman, which will always hold a very special place in my heart, even as I ride newer, more complex and more daring coasters. Although Wildfire isn’t a suspended roller coaster, it reminded me of the Batman in a very good way. (Also, my legs are short, so it still sort of felt like a suspended coaster for me. Less so for Darcy, whose legs are longer than mine.) It also features over-the-shoulder restraints that ratchet down and buckle (just like the Batman). Wildfire is smooth and fast with big loops, twisting corkscrews, and a 155-foot drop, and even though it doesn’t have any features that make it stand out as particularly unique to me (perhaps why I don’t remember riding it almost 20 years ago), it is undeniably a good roller coaster and I’d be happy to ride it again any time.
While we were wandering the park trying to decide which ride to visit next, we came across FireFall, which is a drop tower, launching riders straight up into the air and pneumatically slowing them after a brief free fall. It wasn’t an especially tall version of this kind of ride, but the wait line was short, less than ten minutes, and any free fall is a good thrill. FireFall opened in Silver Dollar City in 2015 after being relocated from Branson’s Celebration City which closed in 2008. I’ve never felt particularly in danger on this kind of ride (except, obviously, for that in-the-moment free fall, instinctive danger, aka thrill), but my anxiety did remind me that just last year, a young man slipped out of the restraint on this type of ride and tragically died. At only eight stories tall, FireFall is considerably shorter than the ride in that accident, and felt much safer. I was also glad to see a lap seatbelt in addition to the shoulder harness for extra security.
Fire in the Hole is a Silver Dollar City classic, the park’s first and oldest roller coaster which opened in 1972, and which will be closing permanently at the end of the 2023 season. It is an indoor roller coaster (although I feel like it only barely qualifies as a roller coaster at all) and goes through multiple scenes depicting the burning of a small Ozark mining town by a gang called the Baldknobbers, a shootout, and though I can’t find any confirmation online, I swear I saw a gallows and a guy about to be hanged. The ride is pretty slow, and physically pretty tame for something classified as a roller coaster; most of the thrill comes from the creepiness of the animatronics in the dark. It’s a classic, but I can understand why it’s being retired.
Outlaw Express is a wooden roller coaster that opened in Silver Dollar City in 2013, which I realize makes it ten years old, but I’m apparently old enough now that ten years old still feels new to me. It far surpassed my expectations of what a wooden coaster could be. While waiting for our turn, it seemed to me that the riders were returning especially quickly, and for curiosity’s sake, I actually timed this ride on my watch and was surprised to find that it took a whole minute and a half. But what surprised me even more was how intense this wooden coaster was. It was bewilderingly fast (up to 68 miles per hour, making it one of the fastest wooden coasters in the world, although the wikipedia article giving me this information contradicts itself on what place it holds, either fifth or sixth) and had two inversions. I have lived 35 years thinking that wooden roller coasters could not go upside down. This one did, and it was truly, literally breathtaking. (It apparently was the first wooden coaster to feature an inversion, and while no longer the only, it is still the only wooden coaster to feature more than one inversion, so it is pretty special.)
Typically, wooden roller coasters are a much rougher ride than their steel counterparts. I was in middle school when The Boss opened at Six Flags St. Louis, and upon visiting, I saw the man who was going for some world record in riding this record-holding wooden coaster. He had foam cushions tucked all around him and he looked miserable from being jostled nonstop for hours every day. After a single ride I understood completely why he would need those cushions to complete his record, and I was still a spry 14 year old, virtually immune to aches, cricks, and stiffness, so it must have been bad. Outlaw Run’s cars featured not only heavily padded and molded lap bars but padded supports that fit snug around the riders’ shins as well, further smoothing the ride.
As our day wound down, we went for one last ride on the Time Traveler, this time with a vastly shorter line, and then right next door to Thunderation. I was impressed with how riding in the front versus the back really made Time Traveler feel like two different rides, and our heads were still spinning a little as we boarded Thunderation with virtually no wait at all, which actually may have been to our disadvantage.
Thunderation (or ThuNderaTion as the sign puts it, to emphasize its runaway mine train theme, presumably as the result of mishandled explosives) is one of the parks oldest rides, and its second oldest coaster, having been in operation for 30 years. It was one of the few that I definitely remembered riding and enjoying when I was younger, but I let time, the ride’s age, and the comparatively puny safety restraints trick me into underestimating this SDC staple. It’s not exactly a smooth ride, and its speed and height statistics aren’t going to impress most coaster goers. It doesn’t even go upside down. It does feature an impressive helix and a tunnel, though, that make it sure to stick in your memory, alongside middle school memories of learning that a light sprinkling of rain is surprisingly uncomfortable at 48 miles per hour.
Maybe it was the heat finally getting to us, or the phenomenally indulgent cinnamon bread we had shared, or the physical exhaustion of walking 16,000 steps that day, or the mere handful of minutes we had had to recover between Time Traveler and Thunderation (probably mostly this last one), but we felt pretty woozy at that point and knew that it was time to call it a day. We had ridden almost every roller coaster that Silver Dollar City had to offer, missing out only on PowderKeg (there’s suspicious amount of fire and explosive themed rides), which was closed for the majority of the day. I guess we’ll have to catch it next time.
I also had a bit of a personal transformation through the day. Of course, almost everyone at a theme park ends the day looking more than a little wind blown. The various rides, wet and dry, had conspired with my sunglasses to tease my hair, overdue for a trim, into a very special style, and unbeknownst to me, I had spent a considerable portion of the day bearing an uncanny resemblance to an axolotl. So that was great for the self-esteem.
Embarrassing hairstyle aside, we had a fantastic time at the park and I was so impressed with how much the rides had expanded and improved since my last visit. And even though it got up to 90 degrees that day, it felt relatively mild in the park thanks to the abundant trees throughout and all around the park. Even if the thrill rides aren’t your thing, Silver Dollar City still has plenty of entertainment for the day with a full schedule of performances and almost every shop features live demonstrations of the goods being made from glass blowing to candy making, and it’s clear why the park has endured and remains a favorite of many.