Not long ago, the phrase “vacation in Waco” sounded like a punch line. But in 2016, the laugh was on the doubters.
By all measures, it was an extraordinary year for tourism in Waco. Major attractions in Waco, led by Magnolia Market at the Silos, reported 1.9 million visits as of the end of November, tripling the 660,000 reported in all of 2015. Several of those attractions reported record years, and hotel revenues grew 19 percent, the strongest growth in Texas.
Numbers aside, it’s not hard to find walking, talking evidence that people are coming to Waco for vacation.
Take Rob and Cindy Pocock, who were shopping Thursday at Harp Design Studio, a woodworking shop on North 15th Street that has been featured on the hit cable show “Fixer Upper.”
The Pococks flew here from Holland, Michigan, to visit the town they see every week on TV. They spent a night in the downtown Hilton, had Tex-Mex at Chuy’s, had coffee at Common Grounds, shopped at the silos and were heading to the artisan community of Homestead Heritage.
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“ ‘Fixer Upper’ brought us here,” Rob Pocock said. “Every other year when we don’t have kids over for Christmas, we take a trip. We decided to come to Texas this year. We’re doing Waco, San Antonio and Austin. But the only reason we came to Waco was ‘Fixer Upper.’ ”
They spent more than $550 in 24 hours here and came away with a positive impression of the town.
“Waco has been much more than I expected,” Cindy Pocock said. “I’ve been incredibly pleased. Everyone has been incredibly kind and helpful in sharing information.”
Downtown and tourism officials have had to scramble this year to accommodate the tourism boom, adding a new “Silo District Trolley” for downtown and accelerating the schedule for building sidewalks. Meanwhile, new tour businesses have opened, and retailers, especially in home décor, have seen a spillover from Magnolia shoppers, said Susan Morton, tourism manager for the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“This is a whole new world now,” Morton said. “I don’t think it’s peaked yet. I’m sure it will go back down at some point, but I don’t think it will ever go back to the way it was.”
Morton said the success of “Fixer Upper” and Magnolia silos is the biggest factor in the 2016 tourism boom but not the only one.
Magnolia’s downtown complex at 601 Webster Ave. drew an estimated 1.2 million visitors by the end of November, making it undoubtedly the biggest tourist attraction in Waco history.
The second-biggest attraction was Cameron Park Zoo, which drew a record 288,957 visitors through November. That is up nearly 29,000, or 11 percent, compared to all of 2015.
Zoo director Jim Fleshman said attendance for this fall has been about 40 percent above normal, largely because of spillover tourism from Magnolia. The zoo also has been featured on “Fixer Upper.”
Fleshman said the zoo’s board soon will discuss whether to build new attractions to keep up the excitement.
“I think there’s a possibility we could hit 300,000 visitors, but we’d have to bring in another expansion,” he said.
Other attractions also are looking at accelerating their plans for expansion because of increased visitation.
Among those is the Waco Mammoth National Monument, which has seen its attendance double to an estimated 66,000 by the end of this year.
Site manager Raegan King said most of that growth is because of the site’s designation in fall 2015 as a national monument. That has meant more publicity, better signage from Interstate 35 and an expansion of hours. Since Oct. 1, the site has been open seven days a week.
King said the site’s nonprofit foundation board is reorganizing, but she expects it will consider a fundraising campaign in 2017 for a second phase, including a mammoth-themed playground, a new parking lot and a new welcome center.
The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum this year also has seen its attendance recover after several down years because of renovation of Knox Center and several years of Interstate 35 frontage road construction.
Attendance was up to 72,340 by the end of November, making 2016 the first year to exceed 70,000 visitors since 2008. The museum hit bottom at 54,166 visitors in 2013 and recovered to about 69,000 in 2015.
“Magnolia has certainly helped, as well as better I-35 access and the attitude of the city and community to really open up,” museum director Byron Johnson said.
He said the improved numbers put the museum board in a better position to start a possible fundraising campaign in 2017 for a major expansion that could cost $20 million to $30 million.
Johnson said Waco has a good mix of museums and other attractions, and he expects tourism to continue growing regardless of whether the Magnolia boom continues.
“We hope Magnolia will be here a long time, but we have to have a mix of things,” he said.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of the 2016 boom has been the Dr Pepper Museum, 300 S. Fifth St., which is just three blocks from Magnolia Market at the Silos.
Executive director Jack McKinney said the museum already has received more than 105,000 visitors in 2016, up from 65,211 last year.
“I would say 75 percent of that (growth) is from Magnolia,” McKinney said.
He said the museum was fortunate to have completed an expansion by Memorial Day.
McKinney said the empire of Chip and Joanna Gaines might not always attract this many people to Waco, but he’s not worried.
“I see their brand as being very strong for several years,” he said. “I see their personalities branching out into other things. I could see her being on the ‘Today’ show. I think there’s every opportunity to expand their brand.”
Magnolia spokesman Brock Murphy said the firm plans to continue to develop the downtown property in 2017, including the addition of more retail space in the silos themselves.
“We’re always doing something on the property to make it a little different,” Murphy said. “Also, 2017 will have a lot more local events.”
David Ridley, co-owner of Waco Tours, is betting on the boom continuing. Ridley recently quit his other job to focus full time on the van tours. The tours start in downtown and go to Cameron Park, the silo district, North 15th Street, Bosque Boulevard, Castle Heights and various historic homes.
Since the business opened in June, the firm has given tours to 1,000 people, including many who were here to visit the silos.
“People are drawn to Waco because of a TV show, and they come to Waco thinking it’s a small town,” he said. “The fun thing is when they do our tour, they see it’s bigger and has a lot more to offer, that it’s a great place to live and raise a family.”
Baylor University English lecturer Mona Choucair was taking a group of nieces on the tour Thursday so they could get a better view of Waco.
One of her nieces, Sydney Choucair, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, said she knows classmates who have driven up to visit Waco.
“If not for the silos, no one would come up to visit Waco to spend a day, so that’s a huge thing,” Sydney Choucair said. “It’s cool, because we’ve been coming a long time because of (Mona Choucair), and now everyone else is coming.”