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Buzzsaw Falls

Yo, "Highballers!" Climb Outta That "Muzzle Loader," Shimmy Into Some "Tin Pants" And Get Ready To Ride!

[Note: This attraction is now closed, having made way for the park's Powder Keg, an S&S Thrust Air coaster.]

Branson, Missouri, nestled into the heart of the "Show Me" state's Ozark Mountain territory, is one unusual place. The area's scenic splendor, both above and below ground, is reason enough to visit: grand forests of oak and dogwood trees, the glistening waters of the Taneycomo and Table Rock Lakes, subterranean caverns filled with resplendent mineral formations. Most tourists, however, are drawn not by the natural beauty but by the cornucopia of man-made entertainments lining the stretch of Highway 76 that runs through "new" Branson. Innumerable show theaters, wax museums, amusement attractions and shopping villages bracket this asphalt ribbon for several miles. Wayne Newton, Mickey Gilley, Jim Stafford, Moe Bandy, Bobby Vinton, Andy Williams and The Osmonds are just a small sampling of the name-brand performers that have built permanent venues at Branson and made it a mecca for country music fans worldwide.

Some Ride Warriors will find these foot-stomping hoe-downs a fine way to spend an evening, but none of us should make a stop in Branson without galloping over to one of the country's most beautiful theme parks, the Ozark's own Silver Dollar City, located just outside of town.

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Silver Dollar City's heritage can be traced all the way back to the 1500's, when Osage Native Americans discovered one of the region's stunning underground caves directly beneath where the park now stands. It wasn't until 1894, though, that William Henry Lynch, an amateur archeologist from Canada, first purchased and began converting what is now called Marvel Cave into a real tourist attraction. By the late 1940's, after Lynch had laid down the beginnings of Highway 76 (sparing visitors a rump-thumping mule ride to the cavern's entrance), Marvel Cave was drawing over 5,000 visitors a year. In 1949, Hugo and Mary Herschend bought Marvel Cave from Lynch's surviving daughters and continued to promote it as a diversionary lure, hosting square dances in the voluminous Cathedral Room and adding a custom-designed train to carry neophyte spelunkers back to the surface. Poor Hugo died of a heart attack in 1954, but Mary Herschend and her sons Jack and Pete carried on, pondering new ways to increase tourist traffic to the Cave. Thanks to an 87-year-old traveling salesman named Charlie Sullivan, the seeds of Silver Dollar City were planted.

Stopping by the site in 1958, Mr. Sullivan spoke with the Herschends, claiming to have been born in a town that once stood over Marvel Cave. To corroborate his tale, Sullivan took Jack Herschend out near the cave's entrance and unearthed the foundations of the forgotten village's old hotel. His vivid recollections inspired Mary Herschend to create an authentic replica of an 1880's Ozark Mountain municipality, complete with restorations of a 110-year-old log church, a blacksmith shop, a general store, an ice cream parlor and a stage coach ride. And by 1960, Silver Dollar City was open for business. (By the way, the park's name sprung from a keen promotional idea: after making a purchase at the City, guests were given change in silver dollars, so that when they went back home and spent the unusual coins, folks would be prompted to ask where they came from. The cost-free scheme worked; Silver Dollar City drew over 125,000 visitors its first season.)

In the years that followed, the Herschends added more genuine craftspeople, like woodcarvers, silversmiths and glassblowers, and attractions like the Frisco-Silver Dollar City Line steam-engine locomotive, in tune with Mary Herschend's desire that the park be an accurate reproduction and preservation of Ozark culture. Better still, most of the leafy flora was left standing, maintaining as much of the glorious landscape as possible. All this attention to detail has paid off; Silver Dollar City's annual attendance rate has risen above two million and in 1999, the park received the amusement industry's coveted Applause Award, an honor of excellence bestowed upon just a handful of the world's funzones. Today, Silver Dollar City is still primarily focused on its craft exhibits and Marvel Cave remains a featured highlight. But this is, after all, a theme park and Silver Dollar City comes complete with something every theme park should boast: an enticing collection of thrill rides.

Though small in number, SDC's scream machines are almost all noteworthy. Thunderation, the City's signature coaster, is one of Arrow Dynamics' largest and fastest mine train installations, with a 3,022-foot-long course and a top speed of 48 miles per hour. Making excellent use of SDC's sloping terrain, trains hustle right out of the station and thunder over several drops, through tunnels and around neck-straining spirals long before climbing the sole lift hill. The park's Lost River of the Ozarks is a choice whitewater raft excursion (courtesy of Barr Engineering) that includes a jaunt through a misty cave. And dark ride buffs universally adore Fire-In-The-Hole, a nifty enclosed mini-coaster that takes riders past animated scenes of a burning town, catching them off-guard with a couple of hidden, punchy dips.

But the newest addition to this remote outpost is its most remarkable: BuzzSaw Falls, a $7 million flume ride/rollercoaster prototype from Premier Rides. This two-in-one, double-yer-pleasure "Liquid Coaster" is a little bit Country and a little bit Rock and Roll.

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Part of Silver Dollar City's considerable appeal is its low-key personality. Without the few road signs to point you in the right direction or the tell-tale parking lot out front, you'd never know it was there; the entire property is completely sheltered from view behind a dense thicket of trees. Even after you've passed through the main turnstiles, you'll be lost without a map. There are no vast, open promenades here, just trails cut through the timberland. Gorgeous in both form and function, the leafy green canopy overhead guarantees you'll never want for shade anywhere, a tremendous plus on a sweltering summer day. But if it is indeed sweltering, head directly towards the City's northwest perimeter and get Buzzed.

Hiking up a small hill takes us to BuzzSaw Falls' lagoon where we can watch the funky, rectangular hulled "john-boats" rise into the sky, make a turn and drop out of a wooden shack at the top of the climactic plunge. The boats race down steel rails, dive beneath a jumbled pile of logs and skim across the lagoon's surface, sending sheets of water blasting in all directions. Gimme, gimme, gimme!

To help pass the time waiting in the queue, we can bone up on logger jargon by reading several instructional placards. Fer instance, did you know that a "highballer" was a practiced lumberjack whose work pace sped up a logging operation? Or that "tin pants" were what loggers called their water-proofed, heavy canvas legwear? Or that a "muzzle loader" described a bunkhouse packed so tight that weary woodsmen had to clamber into their bunks from the foot of the bed rather than the side? Ya learn something new every day.

The last leg of the wait affords a view of the john-boats sloshing through the serpentine troughs and climbing up a conveyor belt beneath a giant, whirling buzz saw. And once they pass through the "saw mill," they drop out of sight.

You'll also have no doubt noticed by this point that the ten-person craft are outfitted on either side with clear plastic vertical shields. "Hey, what's that all about? I'm here to get wet." Fear not, my friends.

As the boats glide through the loading dock, operators flip up those shields so's we can board. You want serious wet? See if you can grab a seat in the last row. Luck had it that the first time I rode, I found myself in the stern and just before we left, a ride operator leaned over and gleefully warned me, "You're gonna get soaked."

We make an immediate little drop right down into the water, and I mean into the water, folks. H2O trickles over the port and starboard sides, getting us damp before we've even gone ten feet. And in the very back? Yikes! That ride op wasn't pulling my leg; a wave splashes down from behind, drenching you all the way down yer back.

We shudder around the first turn and start to pick up speed. Splish-splash, we lurch from side to side, floating towards another tiny dip. Moving faster still, up to about 16 feet per second, the john-boat makes another U-turn and aims for the saw mill. We tuck up onto the conveyor belt and that saw-toothed circular blade slides by overhead. I'd sorta hoped it would come a little closer to threatening decapitation, but it's a quaint distraction from the fact that our amphibious craft is threading onto coaster rails. With the BuzzSaw behind us, it's time to hit the Falls.

We start to hasten down. But rather than make one straight, uninterrupted fall, the metal rails curl over the contours of the undulating hillside. We hop down over a dip and level off. And then drop again and level off. And then drop again. And by the time we've completed this nine-story, triple-dipping descent, we're gettin' blow-dried at nearly 51 miles per hour, wailing around a banked turn through the Ozark wilderness. Ain't no standard flume ride on earth that hauls tail like this puppy. Woof!

Rising up, our boat scrambles onto a chain lift. At first, we climb at a shallow angle, but then the incline becomes steeper, tilting us back 35 degrees, and we start inching over the treetops. Take a look to your right: the entire Table Rock Lake valley is spread out below, and it feels like we're several hundred feet off the ground (see picture above right). Wow... We ease over the top and start accelerating, with just a couple of seconds more to enjoy the vista. The rails twist to the left and we zip around to enter the little hutch. Wrapping it all up, this Liquid Coaster is about to get very Liquid once more.

The bow tips over the edge of a 65-foot-tall, 50-degree hill and we plummet down. Dashing beneath the log pile, our boat rams into the lagoon and - FLOOOOSH! - walls of water explode upwards. As the rails slope deeper beneath the surface and we continue to submerge, more water erupts in front of us. For a second or two, we're completely enveloped by the churning mist. Woo-Hoo!

Eventually, the water's drag slows us to a gentle glide and we cruise back beneath the exit bridge to the station, grinnin' all the way. So fine!

All I could think after we disembarked was what a sodden mess we'd be without those shields...

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Even as the weather cools down, there will still be plenty of reasons to visit this exceptional park. Running through August 22nd is Silver Dollar City's National Children's Festival, with shows like the performing pigs of Uncle Grumpy's Pork Chop Revue, LEGO play areas and dozens of hands-on activities for the young 'uns. From September 8th through October 30th, SDC will present its National Celebration of American Craftsmanship, featuring demonstrations of treenware carving, barrel making, quilting and much more. Finally, more than two million lights will be strung through the trees for the park's winter festival, An Old Time Christmas, running from November 6th to December 30th.

This one is a rare gem, my friends. Make a trip off the beaten path and you'll be grandly rewarded.

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Buzzsaw Falls

  • TRACK LENGTH: 2,263 feet
  • TOP SPEED: 51 Miles Per Hour
  • MAX. DROP: 65 feet
  • RIDE DURATION: 3 minutes
  • CARS: 5-row, 10-person boats
  • MANUFACTURER: Premier Rides, Millersville, Maryland
  • THEME CONCEPT: Silver Dollar City Corporate Design and Development

 

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© Robert Coker.
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