Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation

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Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation

5445 Triangle Parkway, Suite 200
Norcross, Georgia 30029
Telephone: (417) 338-2611
Toll Free: (800) 475-9370
Fax: (417) 336-7111
Web site: http://www.hfecorp.com

Private Company
Employees: 2,000
Sales: $284 million (2004 est.)
NAIC: 713110 Amusement and Theme Parks

Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation (HFE) is one of the nation's leaders in the themed entertainment business. Since its humble beginnings offering tours of Marvel Cave near Branson, Missouri, in 1950, the family business has grown exponentially. Headquartered in Norcross, Georgia, Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation provides wholesome family-oriented entertainment to people of all ages across the country, and is focused primarily in the Missouri Ozarks, the Tennessee Smoky Mountains, and the Atlanta, Georgia, area.

HFE owns, operates, or partners to operate 24 properties in ten states. The company's hometown properties include Silver Dollar City theme park, Celebration City theme park, White Water water park, Showboat Branson Belle showboat, and The Grand Village shops in Branson. As a partner in the Dollywood Company with country music legend Dolly Parton, HFE operates the Dollywood Theme Park and Dollywood's Splash Country water park in Parton's hometown of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and is a shareholder in Parton's Dixie Stampede dinner and show extravaganzas in Pigeon Forge and Branson, as well as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Orlando, Florida. HFE also owns Ride the Ducks International (RTDI), which operates amphibious vehicle tours in five tourist locations: Branson, Baltimore, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Memphis. Affiliated RTDI locations are in Boston and Seattle. HFE operates an additional theme park in partnership with the state of Georgia: Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta. Three Hawaiian Falls water parks in Dallas, Garland, and The Colony, Texas, also fall under the HFE umbrella of properties.

1950s: Building on Marvel Cave's Allure

Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation's modest beginnings started with the fascination that so many Americans have for exploring caves. Back in 1894, mining expert William Henry Lynch purchased Missouri's Marvel Cave and opened it to tours. By the 1920s, thanks to Lynch's efforts to establish travel routes through nearby Branson, the cave was an accessible and well established tourist attraction. In 1946, Hugo and Mary Herschend visited and were fascinated by its size, beauty, and mystery. Four years later the Herschends signed a 99-year lease with Lynch's daughters for access to the cave.

Hugo and Mary left their home in Chicago for the Ozarks and began offering tours of Marvel Cave to tourists. They touted the attraction with signs that read "America's Third-Largest Cavern." That first summer they welcomed 8,000 visitors for tours of their amazing cave. Before long they made improvements to enhance the cave's safety and accessibility. After Hugo died in 1955, Mary was committed to preserving the natural beauty of the surrounding area and keeping the cave open to the public with the help of her sons Jack and Peter. Word of mouth helped increase the cave's popularity, and in 1959, 65,000 people visited Marvel Cave. The business's revenues reached $200,000.

In about 1960, Mary and her sons decided it was time to add to the attraction. They created a small tourist village with an 1880s mining town theme to enhance the allure of Marvel Cave. The historic town included a general store, blacksmith shop, ice cream parlor, authentic log buildings, and a church. It provided a fun and effective way to entertain cave visitors while they were waiting to take a tour. The mining village became known as Silver Dollar City because the Herschends gave visitors silver dollars as change. Because of the novelty of silver dollars, this tradition led to increased word of mouth exposure for the park.

With the energy and ideas of her young sons involved in the business, Mary expanded and added more attractions to Silver Dollar City, including 1880s-style native artists creating and showing traditional Ozarks crafts. The Herschends welcomed 125,000 visitors to Silver Dollar City and the cave in 1960.

1963: Growing into Missouri's Top Tourist Destination

In 1963 the Herschends added to the artistic allure of Silver Dollar City by planning and hosting the first craft festival there. It drew a record 500,000 visitors. Crafters demonstrated woodcarving, shingle splitting, weaving, black-smithing, tie hacking, and soap and candle making. The craft festival event put Silver Dollar City on the map as the state's number one tourist attraction. Not long after, Mary Herschend was named Missouri Small Businessman of the year by the federal Small Business Administration.

Silver Dollar City's popularity grew, drawing more tourists to the Branson area each year. In 1966, 450,000 people visited Silver Dollar City, resulting in revenue of $3 million. The Herschend's business received national exposure in 1969 when the popular television show Beverly Hillbillies filmed five episodes at Silver Dollar City. The company could not have paid for better advertising. Soon stagecoach rides and a steam train were added to the park's attractions.

During those early years, the Herschend brothers developed an effective partnership for running their business: Jack handled operations and development, and Peter handled more of the public relations. Mary became a state and community leader for tourist and civic groups. According to HFE's business history, Mary received the Missouri Tourism Award presented at the first Annual Governor's conference on Tourism in 1972. Two years later, the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce established its highest honor, the Mary Award, named for Mary Herschend and Mary Trimble, who developed the Shepherd of the Hills Farm and Outdoor Theater. Finally, in 1977, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce honored Mary as the "Leading Lady of Missouri Tourism."

1976: Company Expansion to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

The Herschends' company undertook its first expansion out of state in 1976, acquiring Gold Rush Junction Park, a run-down theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. After investing about $1 million in upgrades to the park, the facility reopened as Silver Dollar City, Tennessee. Within three years attendance at the park quadrupled to 500,000. Soon after, the Herschends formally established Silver Dollar City Corporation and set up a four-person board of directors.

The early 1980s was a period of continued expansion for Silver Dollar City Corporation. The company opened White Water water park in Branson in 1980. It also built four other water parks, located in the Oklahoma City and Atlanta areas. Three of the parks were not successful and were later sold by the company. Sadly, Mary Herschend passed away in 1983, but her sons were committed to continuing to evolve and grow the family business that their parents had created.

In 1986, Jack and Peter Herschend entered into their first corporate partnership when they initiated a working relationship with country music star Dolly Parton. They renamed their Tennessee theme park Dollywood, as it was in her hometown, and gave it a Dolly Parton theme throughout.

The Herschends were also committed to keeping the Bran-son tourism business strong, and worked with other local leaders to extend the tourism calendar in 1988. Silver Dollar City and several other Branson attractions and accommodations stayed open about three weeks into November for the first Ozark Mountain Christmas. Eventually the tourism season was extended through December, a move that would become the single most successful economic development project of the Branson community, according to HFE's business history.

1990s: New Facilities, Special Events, and Festivals

Through the early 1990s Branson tourism saw tremendous growth, catering to families and retirees. The Herschends added to the entertainment allure of the Branson area by erecting a 4,000-seat theater, the area's largest, called the Grand Palace. Many of the biggest names in country and pop music have entertained at the Grand Palace over the years. The following year they opened Grand Village, a themed shopping complex adjacent to the theater. In 1991, Silver Dollar City took in approximately $90 million in revenues from its properties (including Dollywood in Tennessee).

By 1992, the company's revenues were expected to exceed $110 million. That year the corporation began what would be a long-term involvement in special events by partnering with Radio City Entertainment to produce and host the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in the Grand Palace. Adding variety to the mix of tourist attractions and choices in Branson, the Herschends had a 750-seat paddlewheel boat built in 1995, which it launched on nearby Table Rock Lake and christened the Showboat Branson Belle. The boat offered lunch and dinner cruises including entertainment. Silver Dollar City attendance reached 1.7 million people in 1995.

The Herschends formed another partnership in 1998. They entered into a long-term lease with the State of Georgia to manage the state's historical theme park, Stone Mountain Park, near Atlanta. The company intended to spend $75 million redeveloping the theme park over a ten-year period to tell the story of the South. With a theme of Southern history, heritage, and spirit, the plan included an indoor roller coaster, theaters, shops, an old-time depot town, large children's play area, a four-dimensional theater, and a main street from reconstruction-era Atlanta.

Company Perspectives:

Herschend Family Entertainment is a company dedicated to creating memories worth repeating! We immerse our guests in unique, highly themed environments that bring to life the adventure, entertainment and wonder of another century. We're located in the heart of the Ozark Mountain Country, minutes from the famed Branson, Missouri.

2000: National Industry Recognition for Excellence

Silver Dollar City added a new water roller coaster called Buzz Saw Falls in 1999. By then the Branson theme park boasted more than two million visitors annually. In 2000 Silver Dollar City gained worldwide recognition when it earned the annual Applause Award. The Applause Award honor was "the theme park industry's top award of excellence based on management, operations, creativity and ingenuity." The next year Silver Dollar City was awarded the Thea Award for excellence and outstanding achievement in themed entertainment from the Themed Entertainment Association.

Company expansion continued in 2001. The Herschends opened another water park, this time in partnership with Dolly Parton; it was Dolly's Splash Country water park in Pigeon Forge, near Dollywood. That year the Herschends began involvement with Ride the Ducks, an established Branson tourist activity that involved taking visitors on exciting and entertaining land and water tours using World War II amphibious vehicles. Silver Dollar City Corporation used its resources to expand the Ride the Ducks concept to Baltimore in 2002, Philadelphia in 2003, and Memphis in 2005.

The company purchased assets and property of an amusement park near Silver Dollar City, called Branson USA, planning to rebuild and reopen the park with a new name in a few years. In the spring of 2003, Celebration City debuted. The renovated complex was now a $40 million theme park which highlighted key periods in the 20th century. It was the largest new theme park development in the country, and featured one section reflecting traditional amusement parks at the turn of the 20th century, and another section reflecting the period from the 1940s through 1960s, "the Route 66 period."

The Herschends intended to market the new theme park as an afternoon and evening venue for entertainment so it would not compete head-to-head with Silver Dollar City. One of its advertising slogans said, "After a day at Silver Dollar City, Celebration City is the Night Thing to Do." Silver Dollar City closed at 7 p.m., and Celebration City was scheduled to be opened from 3 p.m. until 10 or 11 p.m., with an evening special effects show featuring music, lasers, a huge water screen, and fireworks show at closing time. Attractions included a Victorian style main street, the Ozark WildCat wooden roller coaster, and some 29 additional rides.

2003: Name Change Reflecting Diverse Properties and Family Roots

In 2003, the Herschends officially changed the company name to the Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation (HFE) because this name more accurately reflected the company's diverse holdings, which at the time numbered 19 properties in six states. The name change, however, did not affect the names of any of the Herschends' individual parks. That year the company also helped Dolly Parton open and operate her four Dixie Stampede Dinner Shows in Pigeon Forge, Branson, Myrtle Beach, and Orlando.

The opening of Celebration City appeared to negatively impact attendance at Silver Dollar City. By mid-August, attendance at the 40+ year-old theme park was down 125,000 from the previous year. The overall attendance at the Branson attractions was up slightly, however. To counter revenue problems, HFE did some restructuring in late 2003, including minor job reductions. But according to Amusement Business magazine, the reductions were no more than 2 percent at any HFE site.

What also hurt the company at the time was declining attendance at Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta. HFE requested, and was granted, a reduction in rent by the state of Georgia, saving $2.2 million that year. In the previous five years, the Herschends had invested $80 million in Stone Mountain Park improvements.

After a successful three-year partnership with Ride the Ducks International, HFE purchased the company in 2004. At the time RTDI had attractions in Branson, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Memphis. HFE also purchased Hawaiian Falls water parks in Texas. In November of that year Peter and Jack Herschend were inducted into the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA). IAAPA affirmed the brothers for their experience, commitment to family values, sound business development, originality, and strategic vision.

2005 and Beyond

In 2005 the company moved to new headquarters in Georgia, which included expanded creative studios intended to monitor and ensure strict adherence to theming and presentation at all HFE properties. The Herschends' baby, Silver Dollar City, had grown to 50 acres and hosted five festivals each year, including World Fest, American Music Fest, and Children's Fest. Approximately 100 resident crafters regularly demonstrated woodcarving, glassblowing, pottery, basket weaving leather crafts, and candle making. Silver Dollar City attracted more than two million visitors a year and employed 1,500 people. Its offerings included 12 performance stages, 11 rides, 12 restaurants, and 60 shops.

Key Dates:

Herschends open tours to Marvel Cave in the Ozarks.
Herschends open a small theme park around Marvel Cave called Silver Dollar City.
Silver Dollar City is Missouri's top tourist attraction.
Silver Dollar City is featured on episodes of the television show Beverly Hillbillies.
Company purchases theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
Company opens its first water park property in Branson.
Herschends become partners with Dolly Parton to create Dollywood.
Herschends lease and revamp Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta.
Silver Dollar City Corporation earns the Applause Award.
Silver Dollar City Corporation earns the Thea Award; company partners with Ride the Ducks International.
Name is changed to Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation (HFE); HFE opens Celebration City amusement park in Branson.
HFE acquires Hawaiian Falls Water Parks in Texas.

Herschend Family Entertainment was poised for growth and continuing improvements at its many properties. In a 2005 news release, HFE CEO and President Joel Manby stated: "Ever since Herschend Family Entertainment was but one single property almost five decade ago, Silver Dollar City in Branson, leadership has kept a keen eye on bringing to life the colorful history of geographic regions. Our focus remains on our corporate hallmark to capture the imaginations of today's families while immersing them in multi-layered experiences." One colleague in the theme park business commented online (on Thrillnetwork.com) about the Herschend family enterprise: "They are quietly one of the best amusement park chains in existence." Most likely that reputation would carry the company well into a successful and profitable future.

Principal Divisions

Dollywood Corporation; Ride the Ducks International; Silver Dollar City; Hawaiian Falls Water Parks.

Principal Competitors

Busch Entertainment Corporation; Cedar Fair, L.P. (FUN); Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Company.

Further Reading

Chesnut, Mark, "Celebration City Rolls out Good Times in Branson," Travel Weekly, May 26, 2003, p. 23.

Gubernick, Lisa, "A curb on the ego," Forbes, September 14, 1992, p. 418.

"Herschend Family Entertainment Enters 2005 Season with Expansion Plans," http://www.thrillride.com, April 12, 2005.

"Herschends Join IAAPA Hall of Fame," http://www.mobile.thrillnetwork.com, November 19, 2004.

Medina, Kari, "All-American Celebration: Branson Welcomes the Herschend Family's Second Area Theme Park," Travel Agent, April 28, 2003, p. 78.

O'Brien, Tim, "Celebration' Pays Off of Mo.'s White Water," Amusement Business, July 21, 2003, p. 5.

, "$40 M Celebration Brewing in Branson: New Part Set for Spring Debut," Amusement Business, January 13, 2003, p. 1.

, "Herschend President Positions Co. for Future," Amusement Business, August 18, 2003, p. 3.

, "Parent Firm Changes Name," Amusement Business, December 16, 2002, p. 8.

, "Silver Dollar City Expands Holdings in Branson, Mo; Purchases Themer," Amusement Business, December 10, 2001, p. 8.

Payton, Crystal, "The Story of Branson's Silver Dollar City," Spring-field, Mo.: A Lens & Pen Production, 1997.

Powell, Tim, "Silver Dollar City Flips for Festivals; Park Eyeing Record Attendance," Amusement Business, June 17, 1996, p. 31.

Sengupta, Somini, "Georgia Park Is to Hail Southern Spirit," New York Times, October 8, 2000, p. 18.

Smith, Ben, "Board Approves Missouri Firm's Proposal to Redevelop Stone Mountain, Ga., Park," Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, September 19, 2000.

Mary Heer-Forsberg

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