Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Herschend: From cave tours to spinning coasters

How did Herschend Enterprises go from a single, underground walking tour in the 1950s to the ever-expanding entertainment company it is today?

By Philip Hernandez

ABOVE: The spinning roller coaster Time Traveler opened this year at Silver Dollar City Photo courtesy of Silver Dollar City

Herschend Enterprises was founded as a family business and remains family-owned to this day, and it had a vision and purpose that haven’t wavered. For nearly six decades, the company has operated with the motto: Creating Memories Worth Repeating® and the purpose of bringing families closer together. While upholding this vision, the company has expanded from a single walking tour of a cave in the Ozarks to the multifaceted business it is today.

The Herschend Enterprises (HE) of 2018 comprises 19 properties in seven states in the US, including Dollywood (co-owned by country music superstar Dolly Parton), waterparks, aquariums, a safari, campgrounds, lodging, adventure tours, a showboat, a media business, and an exhibition basketball team, The Harlem Globetrotters. Operating companies of HE include Herschend Family Entertainment (the nation’s largest, family-owned themed attraction corporation), Herschend Studios, Herschend Live and Pink® Adventure Tours.

Vision, tradition, and family
Talking Rocks Cavern Photo courtesy of Talking Rocks Cavern

It was a few years after World War II that Hugo and Mary Herschend visited Marvel Cave, a cavern in the Ozarks that extends 505 feet below sea level. That single trip began the Herschends’ journey into the attractions industry. Hugo negotiated a 99-year lease from the owners to start their first attraction: tours of the underground cavern. Hugo’s and Mary’s sons, Jack and Pete Herschend, helped with the cave tour business, becoming more involved following Hugo’s death. The Herschends soon built a theme park above ground called Silver Dollar City (it opened in 1960), modeling it on a long-gone, 1800s mining town that had once stood near the cave entrance. Over the ensuing decades, the two brothers created what is ranked the most extensive private amusement park and entertainment company in America. They retired in the 1990s and turned over management to non-family members.

In the words of Andrew Wexler, CEO and Director of Herschend Enterprises: “The original vision of the Herschends guides both our daily work and the long-term vision of the company.” Everything in the diverse HE portfolio shares this core purpose, and Herschend companies cultivate deep ties within the communities they serve even as the business continues to innovate and diversify. Stated Wexler, “As Herschend Enterprises expands and grows, we’re focused on leveraging new platforms and expanding the ways that we intersect with families.”

Herschend Live

Harlem Globetrotter President Howard Smith was appointed to lead the Herschend Live division that was rolled out in August 2018. Purchased by Herschend in 2013, the Harlem Globetrotters are the first Herschendowned property under the Live banner. “We’re excited to launch the next phase of our business with the launch of Herschend Live,” stated Wexler in the official announcement. “The success of the Globetrotters touring the world and staging consistently thrilling and profitable live events has served as the inspiration for this initiative, which we are confident we can replicate on various levels for other brands in the live event business. We will look to acquire or manage other live event proprieties under the success of the Globetrotter model on a global level.”

Herschend Studios

Herschend’s media division bolsters the brand’s IP, a tactic that’s been hugely successful in the industry (Disney, Merlin, Studio 100) with the stated goal of the company to “create emotional connections using characters and stories by developing and producing family entertainment for television, film, digital and publishing.” To that end the company is forming a variety of partnerships and creative collaborations for its owned IP, as well as options and acquisitions to expand its character and story-driven portfolio.

An example is the use of “Splash and Bubbles.” This popular, animated TV series, co-produced by The Jim Henson Company and Herschend Studios, and distributed domestically by PBS KIDS and internationally by The Jim Henson Company, encourages children to learn about marine biology and ocean optimism by following the adventures of Splash, a Yellowback Fusilier, and his best friend Bubbles, a Mandarin Dragonet. In November 2017, Herschend Enterprises announced it had partnered with Sally Corporation to develop a family-oriented “Splash and Bubbles” dark ride.

In the world of children’s museums, Herschend Enterprises partnered with The Magic House, a children’s museum in St. Louis MO, to create a new, family-focused, interactive “Splash and Bubbles” experience, packaged as a traveling exhibition. The exhibit, set to premier in February 2019 at The Magic House, will transport visitors into immersive, hands-on learning experiences based on the series’ characters and featuring underwater environments inspired by the show.

Pink® Adventure Tours

In July 2018, Herschend Enterprises announced the acquisition of Pink® Adventure Tours, a full-service, adventure tour company founded in 1960 and featuring a fleet of pink jeeps with operations in Sedona, AZ; Las Vegas, and Grand Canyon National Park. “Their values, structure, and commitment to safety make Pink Adventure Tours a great fit for our family of companies,” stated Wexler. “This acquisition expands our business into the rapidly growing market of adventure travel and gives Herschend another opportunity to intersect with families by offering unique experiences in some of the country’s most unique settings.”

True to the vision
Outlaw Run at Silver Dollar City. Photo courtesy of Silver Dollar City

Jane A Cooper, President and COO of HFE shared a detailed, personal story that exemplifies HFE’s commitment to its mission and values and how this made her feel.

“What makes HFE special is the daily practice of our values. It’s the ordinary moments that employees make extraordinary that become memories worth repeating,” she stated. “One recent experience that exemplifies this is a visit to Newport Aquarium by a family with a daughter with a musculoskeletal condition. An aquarium employee, Natalie, struck up a conversation with the daughter and learned about her condition. A smile and taking time for a conversation would have been enough for a good guest experience, but Natalie chose to go one step further to live out our values of greatly exceeding guests’ expectations and creating emotional connections. She reached out to one of the aquarium’s biologists and arranged a special meet-and-greet with a rare penguin. This penguin also suffered from a musculoskeletal condition. Meeting this penguin and learning its story was such a special experience for the entire family and one they’ll never forget,” said Cooper. “I’m so grateful to work for a company that empowers its employees to treat guests as family and go above and beyond to create emotional connections.”

Herschend Enterprises consults with like-minded companies on how to bring its “Lead with Love” principles into the workplace, and offers the Leading with Love Conference, a professional development event that teaches the fundamentals that guide their corporate culture.

Wexler added his comments about the Herschend vision: “No matter the delivery, our commitment to provide families with opportunities to share meaningful, unique experiences and create memories together remains at the core of every segment of our business.” • • •

Herschend Family Entertainment: Commmunity ties and classic fun

Herschend Family Entertainment (HFE), which manages all the attractions within the brand, is expanding both its portfolio of attractions as well as the activities within its properties. Recent highlights include the introduction of the Time Traveler coaster at Silver Dollar City and Wildwood Grove, a new land at Dollywood. Again, all expansions and re-investments are true to the original vision and strategy of the Herschend family. To illustrate, let’s examine a few of the brand’s attractions, Silver Dollar City, Wild Adventures and Dollywood.

Silver Dollar City

Silver Dollar City in Branson, MO is the original HFE property. Brad Thomas, President of Silver Dollar City Attractions, talked about a 2015 endeavor that demonstrates how the park stays connected to its community. “In 2015, we worked with local and national volunteer firefighter organizations to tell the stories of their struggle to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters. Since the majority of firefighters in the US serve in these volunteer departments, their challenge is real,” noted Brad. “Throughout 2015, we honored firefighters from across the US. Our vision was to bring family members closer to each other through these efforts. We’re also hopeful that, through our storylines and our theming, kids and their parents will aspire to make a positive difference in their communities and the world.”

In March 2018, Time Traveler, billed as the world’s fastest, steepest, and tallest spinning coaster, was launched at Silver Dollar City. Time Traveler also sets a record as the park’s biggest-ever attraction. We think journalist Arthur Levine summed it up nicely in his August 2018 review for USA Today: “Old-timey Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, is sending guests back to an earlier era on its wildly innovative (and just plain wild) Time Traveler. The $26-million attraction uses an ingenious magnetic system to temper the intensity of its free-spinning cars. That allows the coaster to deliver rides that are surprising, unique, and thrilling, but remain controlled and comfortable. Toss in a 100-foot, 90-degree drop right out of the station, two giddy, mid-course launches, and three inversions, and it’s clear that Time Traveler is a ride for the ages.” Time Traveler’s three inversions are a dive loop, a vertical loop, and a zero-G roll. The vertical loop is the only one of its kind and is 95 feet tall. Another unique feature of the ride is the double launch – 0 to 47 mph in three seconds and 30 to 45 mph in 3.5 seconds.

Wild Adventures

Community outreach is part of the culture at Wild Adventures theme park as for other HFE parks. Based in Valdosta, GA, the 166-acre park, acquired by HFE in 2007, features numerous rides and attractions, hundreds of animals and a waterpark. Adam Floyd, Public Relations Manager at Wild Adventures, related a story. “Not long ago we had a visit from an elderly woman living in a nursing home who’d never visited a theme park before. She was afraid that would never happen. We gave this lady the opportunity to feed breakfast to Shirley, our oldest Asian elephant on record. She came face-to-face with Oscar, our two-toed sloth, and, of course, she had up-close encounters with lions and tigers and bears. Oh my! The whole experience reminded me that creating a happy memory for someone is truly a high calling. It’s at the heart of everything we do at Wild Adventures.”

In September, Wild Adventures announced a major expansion to include a new 3-acre kids’ area and immersive wildlife experiences. The new area will debut in March 2019 and will feature six rides and several opportunities to get up close and personal with South Georgia’s most intriguing native species: the American Alligator. Guests will be able to interact and even feed the amazing creatures at Alligator Alley and take brave steps into their world as they trek over the Gator Bridge, a netted rope bridge suspended over the alligators’ habitat.

The recently announced Wildwood Grove addition for Dollywood Image courtesy of The Dollywood Company

Tim Berry, VP of Human Resources at Dollywood, told this story: “In late November 2016, the Smoky Mountain region experienced an outbreak of wildfires that destroyed a number of homes and businesses throughout the area. Within 12 hours of the fires starting, our team had a plan in place to provide care and support for all of our employees – especially those who’d experienced major losses. Within 24 hours, our leaders ensured they had personally contacted each of the 2,000 hosts we had on staff at the time to confirm they were OK and assess any needs they may have as a result of the tragedy,” Tim explained.

“In addition, out of respect to our friends and neighbors, we closed the park for a few days following the fires. During the time we were closed, we paid the wages of all employees who were scheduled to work those days. The commitment of Herschend Family Entertainment never wavered during this time, and the support we provided was invaluable. While this was an extreme example, it’s not at all uncommon to see our company’s values regularly lived out in a personal way.”

In August 2018, Dolly Parton announced Dollywood’s “largest capital investment ever” – Wildwood Grove, which is set to open in 2019. This is the first new area of the park since 2008 and will feature 11 experiences for guests of all ages. It will also have a dining option that will offer “Southern-inspired, Southwest-fresh items.” Some of the touted features:

• A 453-meter suspended roller coaster, The Dragonflier, that will “let guests soar with a dragonfly as it dips and darts along the gushing geysers and lush landscape.”

• The Black Bear Trail ride, in which riders can hop on “friendly bears for a spirited trek through their natural habitat.”

• The Sycamore Swing, a leaf boat ride that “swings back and forth just like a leaf falling from a giant sycamore tree.”

• The Treetop Tower, which provides guests with views at 40 feet as they ride inside giant acorns and spin around the top of a tall oak tree before being delivered gently down to the grove floor.

• Hidden Hollow, a 4,000-square-foot indoor, climate-controlled climb structure with an oasis called Wildwood Creek that features pop jets, splashing pools, and other wet and dry activities, including musical instruments for guests. •

Herschend Family Entertainment Properties

Theme parks

• Dollywood, Pigeon Forge, TN

• Silver Dollar City, Branson, MO

• Wild Adventures, Valdosta, GA


• Stone Mountain Park, Stone Mountain, GA


• Silver Dollar City’s White Water, Branson, MO

• Dollywood’s Splash Country, Pigeon Forge, TN


• Adventure Aquarium, Camden, NJ (Philadelphia area)

• Newport Aquarium, Newport, KY (Cincinnati area)

Dinner shows

• Dolly Parton’s Stampede, Branson, MO and Pigeon Forge, TN

• Showboat Branson Belle, Branson, MO

• Celebration! Dinner Show, Pigeon Forge, TN

• Pirates Voyage, Myrtle Beach, SC


• Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort, Pigeon Forge, TN

• Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Cabins, Great Smoky Mountains, TN

• Atlanta Evergreen Marriott Conference Resort, Stone Mountain, GA

• Stone Mountain Inn, Stone Mountain, GA

• Stone Mountain Park Campground, Stone Mountain, GA

• Silver Dollar City’s The Wilderness log cabins, RVs, and camping, Branson, MO

Who’s in Charge?

Herschend Enterprises Management

Andrew Wexler, CEO and Director (above left)

Peter Herschend, Co-founder

Jack R. Herschend, Co-founder Ryan Connolly, CFO

Herschend Family Entertainment Management

Jane A. Cooper, President and COO (above right)

For more information about Herschend Enterprises, Herschend Family Entertainment, the company’s properties and subsidiaries, visit herschendenterprises. com.

Philip Hernandez is CEO at Gantom Lighting, Editor-in-Chief of Seasonal Entertainment Source magazine, and Founder of the Leadership Symposium for Seasonal Attractions. Contact Philip at: [email protected]

Joe Kleiman
Joe Kleiman
Raised in San Diego on theme parks, zoos, and IMAX films, InPark's Senior Correspondent Joe Kleiman would expand his childhood loves into two decades as a projectionist and theater director within the giant screen industry. In addition to his work in commercial and museum operations, Joe has volunteered his time to animal husbandry at leading facilities in California and Texas and has played a leading management role for a number of performing arts companies. Joe previously served as News Editor and has remained a contributing author to InPark Magazine since 2011. HIs writing has also appeared in Sound & Communications, LF Examiner, Jim Hill Media, The Planetarian, Behind the Thrills, and MiceChat His blog, takes an unconventional look at the attractions industry. Follow on twitter @ThemesRenewed Joe lives in Sacramento, California with his wife, dog, and a ghost.

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