Branson, Missouri, remains one of the Midwest’s most popular vacation destinations. Families flock there during the summer months while busloads of seniors inundate the town during the spring and fall. In recent years, the Christmas season has become increasingly popular with travelers who visit to see the decorations and enjoy holiday-themed shows.
Most of the town’s 8 million annual visitors are attracted by 100 live shows that are offered in over three dozen theaters. Branson’s theaters are of relatively modest size and ticket prices are typically in the $30 to $35 range, a bargain compared to most towns known for entertainment. It isn’t unusual for Branson visitors to take in a half-dozen or more shows during a stay of several days.
There is more to Branson than live theater entertainment. The town is nestled in the scenic Ozark Mountains that offer a variety of outdoor activities. In addition, visitors arriving primarily for the entertainment have generated a market for an expanded array of attractions. And, of course, there is Silver Dollar City, the 1880s theme park that opened in 1960 and initially made this area such a popular tourist destination.
The Branson area has attracted tourists for many years. Named by businessman Ruben Branson who penned his family name on an application for a U.S. Post Office branch, this scenic mountain region along the White River had become a popular fishing destination by the late 1800s. Shortly thereafter, tourists began arriving to experience the area’s first attraction, Marvel Cave (initially called Marble Cave) that opened for public tours in 1894. Visitation picked up following the 1907 publication of “The Shepherd of the Hills,” Harold Bell Wright’s novel about the self-reliant folks of this region. Others came to swim, boat, and fish in Lake Taneycomo following construction of the Ozark Beach Dam in 1913. A second dam constructed in 1959 formed Table Rock Lake from which cold water flows into Lake Taneycomo, that became a haven for trout fishermen.
That same year, the Mabe brothers, now known as the Baldknobbers, began performing in Branson, and the initial outdoor production of “The Shepherd of the Hills” was staged. The following year, the Herschends, who were operating Marvel Cave, opened the first attractions of Silver Dollar City, an old-time Ozark village that included shops, craftsmen, music, and a tourist railroad.
The first theater on Highway 76, Branson’s “theater row,” was constructed in the late 1960s. Over the next two decades, a number of well-known entertainers began building theaters and performing in Branson and by 1991 the town boasted 22 entertainment venues. In December of the same year, something happened to launch a tidal wave of growth: Popular television news show “60 Minutes” aired a story that named Branson the “live music capital of the entire universe.” Tourists flowed into the area and the number of theaters soon doubled. Hotels, motels, restaurants, attractions, shopping centers, and golf courses followed.