BRANSON, Mo. -- It all started in a cave 60 years ago. Today, "Herschend Family Entertainment" is a multi-million dollar theme park operation in several states.
The amusement parks have changed over the years, but what hasn't budged is the company's core Christian principles.
On an Ozark mountain vacation in Missouri, Chicagoans Hugo and Mary Herschend, and their sons Jack and Pete, encountered a culture deeply rooted in Christian values.
They also discovered a huge cave. The Herschends had wanted a business where they could work together as a family. When running the tours of Marvel Cave near Branson seemed to be the perfect fit, Herschend Family Entertainment was born.
"We really thought we were in the cave business," Herschend Family Entertainment co-founder Jack Herschend told CBN News. "We leased a cave in 1950."
Thousands of people lined up for a trip underground. The Herschends then decided to provide entertainment for the patrons waiting in the long lines and family members who were unable to take the tour.
That's when they say they discovered their true calling.
"There had been an old town here at the entrance of the cave, so we all thought it would be great to rebuild this old town," Jack Herschend explained.
Recreating an 1880s mining town became their next project, complete with a town square and street performers. "Silver Dollar City" opened May 1, 1960.
A publicist suggested giving silver dollars in change to park visitors. The Herschends hoped vacationers would pay for items at home with their memorable coins, and word would get out about the park.
The plan worked, helping to bring in around 125,000 visitors the first season.
"Four times more people went to Silver Dollar City than ever came to Marvel Cave," Jack Herschend said with a grin. "I'd like you to think that our family is really, really smart. We scratched our heads and said, 'We must be in the theme park business.'"
Principle Over Profit
Fifty years later, the park is still going strong. An estimated 2 million guests vacation at Silver Dollar City each year, greeted by dozens of craftsmen and women, musicians, award-winning shows, and all kinds of rides and attractions.
The Herschends own, operate or partner in 24 properties in nine states. Their parks reach across generational lines by preserving the past and staying on the cutting edge with exciting thrill rides.
The company has grown into the nation's largest family-owned theme park corporation, hosting more than 12 million guests annually.
However, for the Herschends, success is more about principle than profit.
"We want to see Christ at the center of what we do," Pete Herschend, co-founder of Herschend Family Entertainment, said.
They have followed Biblical principles over the years, including tithing or giving at least 10 percent of their income to God, limiting the amount of money they borrow for the business, and placing a premium on humility.
"Our leadership goes through a great class on servant leadership. And those who graduate get a beautiful statue of Christ washing the feet of His disciples," said Jack Herschend.
"You have to decide what's important," Pete Herschend said. "In our case, we decided - Jack and I, Mary, Mom decided - years ago that we wanted to find the way that we could serve the Lord in a way that was fun -- that we would create a memory worth repeating."
Christian Values in Theme Park
Throughout Silver Dollar City, you'll see and hear references to Christianity, including sing-alongs at the centrally located Wilderness Church -- the authentic 1800s log chapel that the family considers the heart of the park.
"When you come in, don't be offended if you hear about Jesus because this place does stand for the Lord," Tom Johnson, an entertainer at Silver Dollar City, said. "We don't make them believe. We don't preach at them, but we let our lights shine so that Jesus can be exalted and that God can be glorified."
You don't have to be a Christian to work for the Herschends, but you do need to abide by their company's core values. They include greatly exceeding the expectations of their guests, serving others, constantly improving, and doing all of this in a manner that's consistent with Christian values and ethics.
Master woodcarver Pam Gresham has worked at Silver Dollar City for 26 years.
"I don't know where else you could work in a company that's about bringing people joy in any way possible, and that's the basis of everything we do here," Gresham said. "It's a wonderful life."
The Friendliest Theme Park
Visitors selected Silver Dollar City as the friendliest park in the theme park industry last year. But bringing people joy is not confined to the parks. The Herschends give back to communities and schools through programs like the Silver Dollar City Foundation.
"We made a commitment to the schools for five years that we would spend half a million dollars in 14 school districts, specifically to help meet the physical needs of kids," explained John Baltes, president of the Silver Dollar City Foundation.
However, not everything has gone smoothly in the last 60 years. Both Jack and Pete admit they've made costly and painful mistakes in business. But through the tough times and the successes, they've stayed true to their mission.
"You don't deviate from your core just because it's inconvenient," Pete Herschend said.
Following that principle has really paid off -- financially, and more importantly, spiritually. Special events have led to hundreds of guests accepting Christ, and millions of people have experienced a peaceful break in the midst of a fast-paced world.
--Originally published Dec. 6, 2010.