This popular spot in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains has added glitz and glam over the years yet remains a great place for old-fashioned fun.
My friends think I’m crazy.
That’s because I have found the most unlikely of vacation spots: Branson, Mo. A town of 6,000 inhabitants nestled in the rolling Ozark Mountains, Branson has grown into one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Hard to believe, though, for people who like myself journeyed to this hamlet back in the 1970s to visit Silver Dollar City, then an old-time amusement park that peddled corn husk dolls and homemade candles made while you watched.
In the early 1990s, Branson gained worldwide attention after a 60 Minutes special featured the town as the new Nashville. Country stars along with crooner Andy Williams, the Osmond Brothers and Japanese fiddler great Shoji Tabushi built theaters fit for entertainment kings. Still, Branson retained a hokey feel that still remains a perception today, especially among people who can’t shake visions of corn cob pipes, outlet malls and twangy country tunes.
Branson first became known as a tourist destination in 1907, when Shepherd of the Hills debuted. People traveled from all over the country to see the play about the stoic Missouri hill people that minister Harold Bell Wright met in the early 1900s. The play celebrated its 100th birthday in 2007.
These days, Branson offers non-stop fun—more than 100 live shows in 52 theaters that rival those found in Las Vegas, amusement parks, 12 championship golf courses, museums, high-end shopping and restaurants—while still maintaining its original quaintness.
It’s become my favorite playground. I’m not alone. In 2006, Branson was named a Top 10 Worldwide Destination by travel expert Pauline Frommer. To keep up with the latest offerings, be sure to use the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and CVB (www.explorebranson.com) when planning your visit.
Along with Silver Dollar City, Branson’s town square was a main tourist destination in the 1970s. It still resembles a movie set for an Andy Griffith Show remake with the Fudge Shop, local diners and The Five and Dime General Store, an authentic five-and-dime where shoppers can still buy souvenir thimbles and spoons, holiday decorations and even underwear.
But walk just a few blocks toward Lake Taneycomo and Branson becomes 21st century glitz. Branson Landing, a $400 million project, offers shops, restaurants and condos along a 1.5-mile scenic boardwalk.
We enjoyed drinks on the patio at Waxy O’Shea’s, a quaint Irish pub, and watched the landing’s main attraction—a $7.5 million water extravaganza, created by the team that designed Las Vegas’ Bellagio fountain. It’s the country’s only water, fire, light and music display where fountains shoot 120-foot dancing geysers choreographed with light, fire and music.
Dinner at the 1940s swanky Sullivan’s Steak House—order the filet and a bottle of wine from its mammoth collection—offers such a close view of the fountain that mist falls on the restaurant’s deck.
The Landing is within easy walking distance to the new 200,000-square-foot convention center and the 12-story Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel.
In the last decade, the city of Branson and Taney County have invested more than $40 million in road improvements to build or rebuild 18 miles of roads to help with traffic flow. Traffic congestion is still a problem on Highway 76, also known as the “Strip.” It’s wise to have a cup of coffee in Clockers, a cozy downtown diner with hearty country breakfasts and peach cobblers for dessert, and study the color-coded alternative routes before beginning the day.
If the kids say, “We’re bored,” in Branson, the trip is terribly amiss.
There’s no sleeping late in Branson because there are too many activities and shows. (Read about Branson's family friendly shows.) A day in Branson can start right after breakfast and go until midnight when the town basically shuts down.
Many shows offer morning and matinee performances especially on weekends—a good way to see acts like The Twelve Irish Tenors, Spirit of the Dance and Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff. Tickets are available throughout the city at various ticket outlets and at the performers’ theaters.
In June, Sights and Sound Theatres opened Branson’s largest building with its stage phenomenon Noah—The Musical. According to a source with the production, at least 40 professional actors, along with 75 live and 200 animatronic animals, perform on a 300-foot wraparound stage in a 339,000-square-foot complex.
While the play is long and little mystery shrouds the plot, the sets are some of the most amazing in theater today. Prior to intermission, the cast marches down the theater’s center aisle with an array of animals—geese, donkeys, llamas, even a zebra. It’s hard not to be wowed by the production’s enormity. After intermission, the curtains rise on a four-story tiered stage and the audience sits inside the ark with live and animatronic animals.
It’s not just about song and dance in Branson. The town has several museums including:
More than 8 million people visited Branson in 2007, 5 percent of which came via motor coach. That works out to about 1,100 people per day. When driving on the town’s narrow streets, beware of these buses. The opening of the new Branson Regional Airport planned for spring 2009 probably will not have much of an impact on the number of tour buses heading to Branson.
Veterans are also a target demographic. Each November, Branson hosts the country’s largest veteran’s celebration with a free concert by Tony Orlando.
“I love this town,” Orlando says. “It has an energy. Friends of mine come here from Los Angeles and they don’t want to leave.”
Unlike some destination spots, the energy isn’t manufactured.
And while the average tourist age is 59, nearly 30 percent of visitors are families. No wonder the city is overrun with funky miniature golf courses, go-cart tracks, bumper boats and Splash Country, a 40,000 square-foot indoor and outdoor water park.
If nature beckons, Branson has that covered, too, with more than 200 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails. The area is surrounded by three lakes: Table Rock Lake, Lake Taneycomo and Bull Shoals Lake.
All lakes offer camping and picnicking, and commercial docks along the lakes offer fuel, supplies and boat rentals along with ski, pontoon and bass boats as well as wave runners. A houseboat rental is a different way to spend time on the water. The boats sleep up to 12 people with fully-equipped kitchens, televisions and barbecue grills.
Bass fishermen from all over the country fish at Table Rock Lake because of the huge numbers of largemouth, smallmouth, white bass and Kentucky spotted bass in the lake. Catfish are also prevalent in the lake.
But it’s not just about bass. On Lake Taneycomo, which looks like more like a river than a lake, the cool water is perfect for trout. Just 10 years ago, a world record 25-pound, 23.5-inch brown trout was caught in the lake using a two-pound line.
Branson also has a dozen golf courses—many among the finest in the Midwest—and will open the new Payne Stewart Golf Course this fall. For the kids and adults who aren’t quite pros yet, Branson has several challenging miniature golf courses with large fiberglass dinosaurs and waterfalls.
Branson offers several bike trails to satisfy everyone from novice riders to would-be pros. In fact, one of the fastest growing outdoor attractions in Missouri is the Tour of Missouri, a 600-mile cycling event that attracts teams from around the world including many participants in the Tour de France. The Branson leg of the tour focuses on individual time trials and is 18 miles over steep uphill terrain.
To fully enjoy the Branson outdoors, stay at Chateau on the Lake, a posh resort, spa and convention center, which resembles a castle. The hotel’s marina offers a wealth of water sports, from boating to scuba diving. Room rates start at $109 per night for a standard room. Rooms with a view of the lake begin at $224 per night.
The Thousand Hills Resort and Golf Club sits in the middle of Branson, but feels as if it’s nestled in faraway hills. It offers plush comfy condos and cabins starting at $85 and climbing to $450 for rental and an 18-hole golf course. But book early if you want to play. The Tee Time Policy recommends up to 60 days in advance.
Branson can be tricky to drive in, but staying downtown at the 294-room Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel can eliminate the headache. The hotel sits across from Branson Landing and within a couple of blocks of the historic part of downtown.
If large spacious hotels aren’t appealing, the Hilton has a small boutique hotel that sits a few feet diagonally from its convention center property. The Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing is cozy and some balcony suites overlook the landing’s fountain and light show. Room rates at both Hiltons begin at $129 per night. Its Liberty Tavern Restaurant offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, but perhaps most appealing is the dessert menu. The restaurant is the perfect place for a nightcap sharing chocolate fondue that comes with pound cake cubes, fresh strawberries and sliced bananas for dipping.
Reservations are strongly suggested for any of the city’s 208 lodging facilities. Church groups and bus tours book a year in advance for some of the more popular weekends including Veteran’s Day weekend and those leading up to Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Silver Dollar City has come a long way since the days of its focus on crafts. The amusement park mixes its roots with 21st century bang. Children can still step back into the 1880s and see 100 craftsmen but also zoom in PowderKeg, an explosive-launch roller coaster that has been named the top family thrill coaster on the planet.
The park also hosts six festivals each year:
Rides are a part of Celebration City, but it’s the Ignite the Night show that leaves audiences awe-struck. Presented after sundown, the high-tech dramatic presentation highlights five-story video projections on a mountainside, 3-D visuals, lasers, a massive water screen, water cannon and pyrotechnics celebrating the American spirit.
Whether you eat at a chain or local restaurant, the wait is never long for a meal. Servers know they have to move customers in and out quickly in order for them to make the shows—one of the main reasons people visit Branson. Who wants to be late to see Charo or Chinese acrobats especially when the average adult ticket runs $30 to $40?
Many theaters offer lunch and dinner in either buffet or sit-down style. At Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Grill, I ordered a hearty bowl of baked potato soup and a large salad but was more taken with watching vintage clips of Duran Duran and Prince on American Bandstand.
Andy Williams lives in Branson and was one of the first stars to open a theater there in 1992. Next to his Moon River Theater, Williams opened Moon River Grill in early 2007, a restaurant more expected in New York or Chicago than Branson. The airy restaurant highlights his mother’s recipes –a fantastic chicken pot pie—along with his modern art collection, including a Warhol, and an expansive wine selection.
Some of Branson’s best restaurants enjoyed by locals are tucked away from the touristy hustle and bustle:
Branson doesn’t rely on the same shows to lure visitors year after year. Each season shows, exhibits and events change. I visited Branson in September and attended a leg of the first annual Tour of Missouri, an elite professional cycling race that drew thousands of spectators and some of the best cyclists in the world. The city’s challenging hills and slopes are becoming a favorite among die-hard cyclists.
I returned in early November and the holiday season was already in full swing with stage shows featuring Christmas songs and lights twinkling throughout the town.
Through the winter months, many of the shows go dark, but there is still plenty to do including renting a cabin and relaxing. On Valentine’ Day, the Titanic Museum hosts actors portraying Jack and Rose who recreate scenes from the movie.
Andy Williams revolves talented legends at his theater. Country legend Glen Campbell and Las Vegas star Charo performed last year. In 2008, Ann-Margaret sings and dances across the Moon River Stage.
Some of my friends still think I am bonkers for loving Branson, but a few are coming around. Their only request: If they go, I go with them. Their fear? They will get sucked into buying a corn cob pipe. But such souvenirs are quickly becoming a relic of the past.
This article was originally published in January 2008 as part of the TravelMuse alpha release. It has been recently updated.
Themes: Family Travel
New Branson Airport The Branson Airport announced that AirTran Airways will be the first national network carrier for the new airport when it opens next spring. The carrier will offer service to/from Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport as of May 11, 2009.
Hmm...Branson?? Gotta admit that I'm skeptical after a bad time as a kid, but maybe I should check it out now. Sounds way different than the old Branson.
Not JUST Your Grandfather's Branson, Indeed! It was great to see this article pop up when I've just finished scheduling a trip to Branson coming up in a couple of weeks! I've been there before and this has given me a list of even more things and places to explore. Branson really does have something (or lots of things) for just about everyone - young, old, retro, country, kitsch and hip!