Park 360 — Fall 2023


When it comes to entertainment, Branson, Mo., could probably borrow the famous line from “New York, New York”—if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

Inarguably one of the entertainment capitals of the country, Branson is a city aswarm with activities to keep roughly 10 million annual visitors entertained—live shows, museums, golf courses, countless recreational outlets and amusements, and on and on. There is a lot going on. One website lists the top 145 things to do in Branson—the top 145, presumably implying that there are at least a few more.

It would seem, then, that the competition for the entertainment dollar must be fierce. So, when Jeff Johnson and his partner Steve Faria, owners of the Shepherd of the Hills entertainment complex, decided in 2017, shortly after purchasing it, to add to the city’s enormous menu of attractions by sinking what would become more than $10 million into adventure-park features, their sanity might reasonably have been questioned.


For the family audience they hoped to attract, the Branson area was already chock-full, with a water park, jet boating, amusement parks, go-karting, a re-created frontier town at Silver Dollar City, and much more. There was even another adventure park. And there were plenty of other things to keep visitors entertained already at Shepherd of the Hills itself—live shows, a dinner theater, a petting farm, guided tours, miniature golf, tubing.

Shepherd of the Hills has something for everyone, helping it to thrive in the activity-rich tourist mecca of Branson, Mo.

History. But Johnson and Faria figured they had a few things going for them. For starters, Shepherd of the Hills was a well-established entertainment brand in Branson. The property had entered the national consciousness more than a century earlier, in 1907, when Harold Bell Wright, a Christian pastor who lived briefly in the area, wrote a novel, “The Shepherd of the Hills,” depicting rural life in the Ozarks. After the novel became a bestseller—later to be made into a movie starring John Wayne—Shepherd of the Hills, the site of the novel, became a well-known entity on the national tourism map.

Visitor attractions began to appear on the property: A wooden tower was built in the 1940s to provide visitors with sweeping views of the hilly surroundings; in 1960, a theater was opened to stage reenactments of scenes from the novel. It can be claimed that Shepherd of the Hills was what jumpstarted a Branson tourism boom that really hit its stride in the 1980s.

Attractions added. With the passing years, other attractions were added to the Shepherd of the Hills mix: historical reenactments; a farm; special events. In the late 1980s, Inspiration Tower, a commanding structure on the site of the original tower, was built, and in 2010, says Johnson, a ZipRider extending 400 vertical feet from the top of the tower and more than 150 feet above the ground became a featured activity at the resort. It would be a precursor to the adventure park activities that Johnson and Faria would introduce in 2018.


That Shepherd of the Hills already had a strong track record as an entertainment success was important not only in attracting potential adventure park customers but also in attracting support from banks, who came on board with little prodding, Johnson says, to provide loans to finance the new adventure park.

A natural setting. In addition to brand strength, Johnson believed that Shepherd of the Hills was blessed with a particularly advantageous location at a high point overlooking the Branson area. “It’s the highest elevation around,” he says, “and the scenery is everywhere.”

While Johnson, who spent 20 years as a banker before the purchase, admits “I didn’t even know what an adventure park was” (the idea was mainly Faria’s), he appreciated the basic premise— adventure in a natural setting.

Right: A ZipRider from the top of Inspiration Tower draws about 100,000 riders a year; Looking calm on the Vigilante Extreme. Left:The Little Tykes ropes course caters to those 48” and under.

Favorable demographics. Finally, Johnson and Faria could count on favorable visitor demographics. A 2021 survey commissioned by the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau showed that roughly 85 percent of guests spend at least one night in the area, often several more. With a healthy amount of time on their hands, visitors could fit a considerable number of activities into their schedule, even if there was a giant menu to choose from. In addition, 82 percent were return visitors, suggesting that in follow-up visits, they would likely be seeking new activities to try. Overlay those numbers atop the total annual visitation numbers, and a new adventure park had a good chance of success.


The partners could see how popular the original ZipRider from Inspiration Tower (called the “Vigilante Extreme ZipRider”) was—Johnson estimates that about 100,000 people a year currently take a ride on it. And in 2017, when they began to look for adventure park activities to add, they adopted a fun-for-all-ages approach, prioritizing activities in which almost anyone in the family could participate.

Something for everyone. An eight-zip line canopy tour, with segments ranging from 80 to 1,250 feet, was conceived for a wide audience—anyone three years old and up (children ride on their own or tandem with guides). In addition to the zip tour, a Sky Trek Challenge ropes course, suspended on its own framework next to Inspiration Tower, was added, offering both a regular course ($16) and a Little Tykes Course for anyone under 48 inches tall ($10).

In 2021, a more substantial investment—the 3,350-foot-long Copperhead Mountain Coaster that spirals downward from the high point next to Inspiration Tower summit—was added to the mix. And, for one more component of the adventure package, a tree-top canopy walk will be finished this October. The idea, says Johnson, was to add something “more contemplative” for those not drawn to the thrill of zip lining or the physical challenge of a ropes course.


Johnson credits a 2019 article in Adventure Park Insider with “helping get us recognized.” Shepherd of the Hills was named by USA Today readers as the top aerial adventure park in the country in three of the four years between 2019 and 2022. It now attracts more than 300,000 visitors a year, and although Johnson says adventure-park attendance is not separated from the overall numbers, the popularity of the Vigilante ZipRider suggests annual ­adventure-­park visitation numbers in six figures.

The resort’s marketing strategy is fairly streamlined, with little outreach beyond the Branson area. The job of regional or national marketing is left to what Johnson calls a “strong chamber of commerce driving traffic to all of us [Branson attractions].” Shepherd of the Hills homes-in on the millions of visitors already in the area, trying to reach them with a few billboards but mostly with digital come-ons “to get them while they’re here,” says Johnson. The high volume of return visitors also helps to expand the audience through word of mouth.


Success hasn’t come without challenges, some familiar to other adventure park operators.

Staff retention can be particularly difficult, even for an operation that is open year-round (though on a limited basis in January and February). Shepherd of the Hills employs 150 workers in all, with about 30 to 40 dedicated to adventure park operations. Johnson points out that “the adventure park business is a young person’s game,” and young people tend to be less inclined to make a long-term commitment, for school obligations or other reasons that preclude them from staying on.

One strategy the company enacts to retain employees is to vary assignments on a regular basis to keep things interesting. “No matter what the job is, it’s going to become repetitive,” says Johnson. So employees are rotated, sometimes within the same day, from one activity to another—from, say, the mountain coaster to the zip tour to Inspiration Tower.

Johnson says that affordable housing for employees is another “constant struggle.” He says that neither Shepherd of the Hills nor the city of Branson has yet taken any significant measures to address affordable housing issues.

The 3,350-foot Copperhead Mountain Coaster joined Shepherd’s roster of attractions in 2021. The coaster is open until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, as well as year-round.

Pricing. The operation has also found it challenging to come up with a sensible pricing plan. With such a disparate variety of activities, each potentially attracting a different audience, a single, all-inclusive price doesn’t make sense. Instead, visitors pay $15 at the gate, after which pricing is “a la carte,” says Johnson.

There are a few packages, including a Play All Day Pass ($40 per person), which covers, among other things, unlimited use of the mountain coaster. But because the zip tour ($90 for adults; $80 for children 3-12) can accommodate only 12 people at a time, reservations for specific times are required, making inclusion of the zip tour in the all-day pass difficult.


Given the volume of tourist attractions in Branson as well as the volume of attractions at Shepherd of the Hills itself, adding several adventure-park activities, at considerable cost, might have seemed akin to trying to sell sand at the beach. But in rounding out its something-for-everyone approach, Shepherd of the Hills made the most of strong fundamentals—established brand, good location, favorable demographics—to enable the adventure-park additions to be smoothly integrated. And if, as Johnson says, much of their business comes from return visitors, offering a wide variety of activities, to assure that subsequent visits aren’t just carbon copies of previous visits, makes considerable good sense.


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