David and Kay Scott
The Valdosta Daily Times
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.
The Times, They are a-Changin’
The entertainment scene in Branson is evolving. Theaters drew media attention and initially prospered by featuring nationally known entertainers such as Andy Williams, Roy Clark, Ray Stevens, Bobby Vinton, Wayne Newton, and Elvis Presley — just kidding about Elvis although the town has seen many Elvis impersonators. Entertainment is now mainly provided by local and regional artists. The entertainers have generally grown younger (Andy Williams who died in 2012 was still performing here in his 80s) but are quite talented and present energetic shows.
Branson’s city fathers understand that change is a necessity in order to attract new visitors and to keep current visitors coming back. Additional activities and attractions tempt current visitors to stay longer and at the same time they will attract vacationers who want to do something more than attend two or three theater shows each day. Thus, the area has become home to some activities and attractions that may surprise you, especially if you haven’t visited for a number of years.
Silver Dollar City
This popular 1880s theme park offers entertainment, craftsmen, cave tours, restaurants, shops, and rides including Outlaw Run, a $10 million wood coaster with an initial drop of 16 stories at 81 degrees. The park presents a series of special programs throughout the year that in 2013 included bluegrass music, gospel performances, a salute to cowboys, international entertainers, and a Christmas festival. The park also offers a cooking school.
Downtown Branson experienced a major boost with the development of 95 acres along the lakefront. The $420 million project includes a five-block-long promenade flanked with stores anchored by Belk and Bass Pro. It includes restaurants, an upscale Hilton Hotel, condominiums, parking garages, and marinas. Music and flames accompany periodic water shows from the fountains located next to the lake. The Landing’s dock is home to the Lake Queen, a paddlewheel that offers two-hour sightseeing cruises; and the Landing Princess, an enclosed cabin cruiser that provides two-hour dinner cruises. A river walk begins at the north end of the promenade.
Branson Scenic Railway
A vintage train comprised of restored 1940s and 1950s cars offers 40-mile roundtrip excursions through the Ozark foothills of Southwest Missouri and
Northwest Arkansas. Two-hour trips depart from the historic 1905 station in downtown Branson. Railway employees offer commentary on the history of the train, its cars, and sites along the way. Snacks and drinks are available for purchase aboard the train. The number of daily departures varies depending on season and day of the week. Candlelight dinner excursions operate each Saturday from April through early November. The train becomes the Polar Express for late afternoon and evening runs from mid-November through late December.
Dogwood Canyon Nature Park
Twenty-six miles southwest of Branson, Dogwood Canyon Nature Park offers a variety of outdoor activities on 10,000 acres of some of the most beautiful country in the Ozarks. Visitors can choose to hike, bike, fish, take Segway and Jeep tours, or choose horseback riding and Wildlife Tram Tours. You can even participate in a cattle drive. Guided fishing and fly casting clinics are also offered. The nature park annually welcomes about 50,000 guests, less than 1 percent of the visitors to Branson. The quiet, scenery, and outdoor activities make this a nice change of pace. We found Dogwood Canyon to be one of the highlights of our recent trip to Branson.
College of the Ozarks
Two miles south of Branson, College of the Ozarks is open for public tours and is certainly a worthwhile visit. Appropriately nicknamed “Hard Work U,” students pay no tuition but are required to work 15 hours per week on campus. Student jobs range from custodial and landscaping (usually allocated to freshmen) to working in the dairy, the fruitcake and jelly kitchen, the grain mill, the fire department, producing crafts for the gift shop, or cooking and serving gourmet meals in the restaurant. Students assisted in the construction of many of the campus buildings including the chapel and the beautiful rustic Keeter Center where the restaurant and lodge are located.
Downtown’s small Branson Centennial Museum shows a six-minute video of the town’s history. The Ralph Foster Museum at the College of the Ozarks has two art galleries plus three floors of artifacts related to the history of the Ozarks.
Titanic Museum, housed in a shrunken version of the ship, displays original artifacts salvaged from the wreck, along with replicas of the ship’s grand staircase, state rooms, and more. Displays, including thousands of pictures, tell the stories of many of the 2,208 passengers. We thought the museum would be hokey, but it is well-done with enthusiastic employees.
Veterans Memorial Museum contains displays, statues, and lists of all names of the men and women killed in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and recent conflicts.
Revisit Howdy Doody, Buffalo Bob, and over a hundred antique toy trains at the World’s Largest Toy Museum. As they say at the museum, “Toys we had and toys we wish we had.”
Arts and Crafts
The area’s settlers made furniture, quilts, baskets, wrought-iron utensils, and other such items because they were needed, not as a hobby. Times have changed but excellent craftsmanship remains a strong force in this region. Branson has several locations where visitors may observe craftsmen at work. Branson Mill Craft Village includes more than 100 shops where artists demonstrate their skills. Silver Dollar City has studios for glass blowers, potters, a wood carver, and a smitty. Additional galleries and craft shops are in the Branson Craft Mall, Apple Tree Mall, and downtown Branson. Some artists practice their craft in individual studios that are open to the public.
The Ozark Mountains serve as an attractive background for a round of golf. Seven 18-hole pubic or semi-private courses are in the vicinity. All have golf club rentals and most offer packages that include lodging. The only course actually in town is Golf Digest 4-Star rated Thousand Hills Golf Resort.
Payne Stewart Golf Club is a newer course designed by Bobby Clampett and named for Stewart who was from nearby Springfield. Among Golf Digest’s “Top 100 in America” is Branson Creek Golf Club where the front nine are played in a valley and the back nine on the ridge. A few courses close December through February but the others are open year-round and most offer discounts during winter months.
The big attraction to anglers are the three nearby lakes. The cold water of Lake Taneycomo, the smallest of the lakes, makes for good fishing for rainbow and brown trout that are annually stocked. Table Rock Lake, just west of town, is considered one of the country’s best for bass fishing. Table Rock is also good for crappie, catfish, and bluegill. Bull Shoals Lake, the largest of the three, is considered best for white, largemouth, and spotted bass. Trout fishing is popular with visitors to Dogwood Canyon Nature Park. Anglers from 16 to 65 years of age are required to have a valid fishing permit. Daily permits are $7 for both residents and nonresidents.
White Water, which covers 13 acres, is a water park that has more than a dozen rides and activities. Zip lining is available at a number of locations. Numerous water-related activities include riding the Ducks (WWII-era amphibious vehicles), jet skiing, and parasailing. The multitude of shows and activities in Branson could fill several weeks without a visitor doing the same thing twice.
IF YOU GO
Getting There: Branson is in southwest Missouri, 830 miles from Valdosta. The Branson airport is serviced by Frontier and Southwest. Springfield, 45 miles north, is the nearest airport served by Delta. Ticket prices from Valdosta to Springfield tend to range between $450 and $600, depending on season and day of the week.
Where to Eat: Restaurants are as plentiful as theaters. In fact, several of the latter including Andy Williams Moon River Theatre, have their own restaurant. In the downtown area, try the Farmhouse and at The Landing, the Black Oak Grill. For an elegant evening, Hilton’s Level 2 Steakhouse is a good choice. Plan for at least one meal at the Keeter Center at College of the Ozarks and save room for homemade ice cream.
Where to Stay: Most hotel chains are represented in the area. Condominium rentals are also widely available. The Hilton has condominiums located at The Landing and a hotel across the street. The Thousand Hills Golf Resort, located off Highway 76, rents both cabins and condos (www.thousandhills.com). The Branson House (www.thebransonhouse.com) in the downtown area is a good choice if you like the personal touch of a bed and breakfast.
Additional Information: For general information on Branson visit www.explorebranson.com or call (800) 296-0463. For information on Silver Dollar City, visit www.silverdollarcity.com or call (800) 475-9370