Trouble in Paradise? How “Ozark” Shaped Tourism in the Real-life Ozarks

Holding steady in the top 15 most-streamed Netflix shows of all time, “Ozark” has reached viewers around the globe. The real Lake of the Ozarks, located in small-town Missouri, might be reaping the benefits. Cover graphic by Annalise Peterson for Midstory.

“This place right here has more shoreline than the whole coast of California,” Marty Byrde, the series protagonist of “Ozark, says in its 2017 pilot episode. “And apparently, every summer the population of this place explodes. Tons of tourists. Midwesterners from all over the place.”

In hindsight, Byrde’s comment couldn’t have been more on the nose. The hit Netflix thriller wrapped in April 2022, but has left a potentially lasting impact on its namesake, Lake of the Ozarks, the largest state park in Missouri.

Over the course ofOzark’sfour-season run, tourism to the Ozarks swelled. According to former Lake Ozark Mayor Gerry Murawski, the lake area used to see an average of 5.4 million tourists annually. In 2020, that number skyrocketed to over 10 million. While COVID-19 was likely in part responsible for this jump — Americans visited nature sites in droves during the pandemic — Executive Director Heather Brown of the Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitors Bureau saidOzarkbrought new international attention to the region and made it a “go-to” destination. 

“What the series “Ozark did for us was it put us on the map,” she said. “People were calling from New York and Dallas and Denver and some of these other places that may not have heard about us and they were like, ‘Oh wait, that’s a real place.’”

The show tells the story of Byrde’s desperate move from Chicago to a summer resort community in the Ozarks, as part of a money laundering scheme to appease a drug boss. Its dark, violent nature sharply contrasts the region’s picturesque reality, which has been a family tourist destination for decades — picture casual shopping along the Bagnell Dam Strip or renting a boat to explore the shores of Osage Beach.

Osage Beach on the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. Image courtesy of WorldAtlas.

Formerly the Osage River Valley, the Lake of the Ozarks was formed by the hydroelectric Bagnell Dam in 1931. At the time, it became the largest manmade lake in the United States at 54,000 acres. And, like Byrde described, the lake’s winding arms create more shore length than the state of California.

Today, the Lake of the Ozarks is just part of “the Ozarks,” a larger region spread across four states (Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas) that originally drew settlers in the early eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because of its abundance of natural resources. While the area is primarily home to a variety of small towns built around historical industries like farming, lumber milling and mining, attractions like the Lake of the Ozarks and up-and-coming vacation destination Branson have transformed the region’s economy.

According to a 2019 report, overall economic impact from tourism in the Ozarks grew from $12.9 billion dollars in 2009 to $17.7 billion dollars in 2019, and over 300,000 jobs were created in the industry in 2019 alone. Compared to other Midwestern states, Missouri is the leader in tourism revenue with Illinois ranking a distant second.

Lake of the Ozarks is also currently hosting the development of a $300 million family resort and entertainment district, which is slated to open in 2024. It is estimated to bring in 500 jobs and 500,000 visitors annually to the region.

Postcard of Overhanging Bluffs on Lake Norfork in the Beautiful Ozarks. Image courtesy of Boston Public Library.

Even with all the state’s visual attractions, “Ozark was not actually filmed in Missouri. Instead, the series was mostly shot in Georgia for better film tax credits. Nonetheless, the show was inextricably shaped by its namesake. 

The show’s writer Bill Dubuque grew up spending his summers in the Ozarks himself. He worked as a dock hand at Alhonna Resort & Marina, which is thought to have inspired the show’s fictional Blue Cat Lodge. General Manager Sheryl Elia’s family bought the resort back in 1980, and her siblings worked closely with Dubuque. 

“There’s a feeling about [the show resort] that we still retain here,” she said. “But the actual physical structure is more like what we were in the ‘80s when Bill worked here. The shots inside of the bar area were very similar to how our bar looked when he worked here.” 

“Randomly, I’ll have people come up to me and tell me stories,” Alhonna’s current owner Aaron McArdle said. “One guy came up and said, ‘Hey, the trucking company where everybody got killed in that first episode – I never remember meeting Bill but that’s the name of my family’s trucking company.”

Even a bartender on the show who always walks around with a towel on his shoulder may have been inspired by a bartender with the same habit at Alhonna, McArdle said.

According to Elia, the show didn’t spark popularity right away. But after the release of seasons two and three, the connection began to form. 

“The word got out … and all of a sudden our name started becoming associated with the show. Now, it’s daily,” she said. 

“Every day somebody here is taking a picture in front of the sign,” said McArdle, referring to a Blue Cat Lodge sign in front of the resort, an original prop sold off by producers.

Michael and Elia McArdle next to the Blue Cat Lodge sign at Alhonna Resort & Marina. Image courtesy of Alhonna Resort & Marina via Facebook.

Other businesses in the area play off the show, too, Brown said, like Marty Byrde’s Bar and Grill — whose name is a nod to the main character — on the Bagnell Dam strip. 

Beyond “Ozark, small town Missouri holds a rich history of film influence, Brown added. 

“A lot of people don’t realize that this is not the first time we’ve hit the main screen,” said Brown. “We have a lot of other situations that have popped up.” 

The classic western “Jesse James”, filmed in Pineville in 1938, triggered the now famous “No Animals Were Harmed Program” by American Humane when a horse was driven over a cliff. The widely-popular 1960s sitcom “Petticoat Junction was inspired by a family that owned a hotel in Eldon, Missouri. But the now faded legacies of these films begs the question: will “Ozark sustain interest in the lake? 

For McArdle, the answer is yes. 

“I’ve had several people say to me, ‘I’m so glad we decided to start watching it again,’” he said. “And so, I think as long as we continue to promote that reason to come here, and we make sure we have a good product for people when they come, I think it’s just going to be a bit of momentum that we need.”

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