Improbably, it all started with flowers.
Mary Herschend and her second husband, Hugo, loved wildflowers. Though they lived in Chicago, where Hugo was a vacuum cleaner salesman, they would make a trip to the Ozarks every spring to see the wildflowers in bloom. While there, they made friends with two older ladies, the Lynch sisters, who owned a literal hole in the ground called Marvel Cave.
Marvel Cave was a tourist attraction and a natural wonder, full of stalactites and stalagmite, flowstone and helictites. Mary and Hugo took out a 99-year lease on the place.
When Hugo died a few years into the lease, Mary, aided by her sons, Jack and Peter, worked on improving the cave, adding among other things a cable train that ran deep into the cave.
“After we put in the cable train, business jumped up 40 percent,” said Jack Herschend, who, with his brother, Peter, spent decades running Herschend Family Entertainment, the company that grew out of Marvel Cave.
With business up, the Herschends decided to build Silver Dollar City, a recreation of an 1880s mining town.
“We had a lot of people waiting around to get into the cave,” said Jack. “We wanted to build something to entertain families with babies or people with heart conditions who had to wait for the rest of the family to come back out. ... I’d like to tell you it was a stroke of genius, but we just kind of backed into it.”
In 1976, they partnered with Dolly Parton to create their second theme park, Dollywood.
“We had heard that Dolly wanted to be in the theme park business, and that she was very difficult,” said Jack. “We went to her concert in Denver with fear and trembling, but we couldn’t have been more wrong.”
After the success of Dollywood, Jack and Peter looked for other opportunities to expand HFE.
“We wanted to offer something closer to where people live, something in their backyard,” said Jack.
HFE branched out into water parks, aquariums, and other theme parks, including the purchase of Wild Adventures in 2007.
“I really admired the builder of Wild Adventures,” said Jack. “He had done a great job of combining an amusement park, a water park and an animal park. And when I first visited Valdosta in March, all of your flowers were blooming like I had never seen.”
When HFE bought Wild Adventures, Jack came down to lend a hand, helping to plant 525 trees in the park to add more shade and soften the place up.
“My stepfather infected Pete and I with a love of trees and flowers,” said Jack.
In recent years, Jack and Peter have stepped back from the company, appointing Joel Manby as the company’s CEO.
“We couldn’t be happier with Joel,” said Jack. “We don't wear our faith on our sleeves, but we think it’s important to operate within Christian principles. Joel took that unspoken company culture and crystallized it on paper.”
Manby wrote the book, “Love Works,” which takes 1 Corinthians 13 and presents it as a business philosophy.
Now 80, Jack runs a tree farm and has a goal to plant 1,000,000 before he dies. He’s currently at 500,000.
“I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make it,” chuckled Jack. “But it’s always good to have a big, hairy, audacious goal out there.”
It does sound audacious, but Molly Deese, Wild Adventures general manager, thinks he just may do it.
“Jack has more energy than the rest of us put together,” said Deese, as she oversaw the final construction on one of Wild Adventures’ new rides, Tailspin, this past week. Tailspin is a flat disc on wheels, with the chairs located around the edge of the disc. As the disc travels up and down a horseshoe-shaped track, it spins in place.
Along with the other new ride, Wacky Wheels, Wild Adventures has added a few new things for its upcoming season.
“We’ve added on four more concerts this year, starting with 38 Special on March 16, our first open weekend,” said Public Relations Manager Micha Hogan. “We’ve also added several new shows throughout the park. We had a lot of guests ask us about our Wild West Show, so we’re bringing it back, as well as adding an illusionist, an acrobat show, and a couple of animal shows like K9s in Flight and a comedy pet show.”
“We’re also bringing in more than a dozen new species and exhibits, as well as new activities with our petting zoo,” said Deese.
Opening weekends on March 16, Wild Adventures won’t shift into daily operation until May 23, though they will be open for Spring Break, March 27 through April 7.
For more information, including a list of upcoming concerts, check out wildadventures.com