Branson, Mo., is evolving with a lakefront development and new attractions, but its hospitality and scenic beauty remain untouched by time.
On a visit to Silver Dollar City theme park in the 1970s, I vividly recall sitting on the train with my brothers and parents as the locomotive stopped and the conductor got into a spirited conversation with two hapless train robbers, who tried to talk their way out of trouble by telling the conductor my mother was their “ma.”
Much to my surprise and delight, it was the same play that unfolded next to the train on a summer trip last year with my wife and our two sons. That shotgun blast probably burned into their memories their entertaining and exciting vacation experience just as it did mine more than three decades ago.
The southwest Missouri entertainment mecca still has many of the same attractions and homespun appeal that it has had since visitors first started flocking there in the 1960s. But it has also changed tremendously since then, particularly in the last few years. The city now has an impressive new lakefront development, Branson Landing, with an array of stores, restaurants and boutique shops that you could find in Chicago or even New York. Dozens of new shows, many worthy of Broadway or Las Vegas, entertain visitors daily. And the theme parks are continually adding bigger, better and more thrilling rides.
Branson is a study in the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even as the town evolves, at its heart, Branson remains the quintessential American summer family vacation destination. And it’s the place where I hope my two sons take their families some day to create vacation memories that last as long as mine have.
New this year at the park is The Giant Swing, a $6 million ride that launches riders more than seven stories in the air and nearly upside down at roller coaster speeds. The ride bursts through a massive hay barn in the new Great Barn area of the park, which also features interactive activities from cow milking to hand-turned ice cream. There are also silo-themed climbing towers where riders use rope-pulls to propel themselves more than 30 feet in the air.
Summer is a great time for families to visit when the park celebrates National Kids’ Fest. Through Aug. 12, the festival is presenting an all-new show, Circus of the CenturyOn Ice, a circus-themed show with acrobats and clowns. There’s also a new Kid Concoctions creativity center where youngsters can make their own gooey gunk or learn how to make a volcano. In addition, the Southern Gospel Picnic will be held Aug. 30Sept. 9 featuring top names in Southern Gospel and plenty of picnic food.
During our visit, we couldn’t keep our two sons out of the World’s Largest Treehouse at Geyser Gulch, a massive playground on three levels featuring rope crawls, foam blasters, water cannons and more. Splash Harbor, which is connected to Geyser Gulch, is a three-story boat and a four-level dock-side tower, all loaded with water blasters perfect for soaking your siblings or parents.
By introducing new rides, including the high-flying coasters Wildfire and PowderKeg in the last few years, and by maintaining its down-home charm, Silver Dollar City brings families back. Indeed, upwards of 75 percent of the visitors each day are repeat customers, one of the highest levels of repeat business of any theme park in the nation.
“Summertime is about families,” said Brad Thomas, general manager of Silver Dollar City. “We want to create memories worth repeating and bring families closer together.”
While Silver Dollar City is approaching its 50th year of operation, another attraction just marked its first anniversary this year. Branson Landing, a $420 million entertainment and retail development encompassing 95 acres along Lake Taneycomo, debuted last May. Five years in the making, the complex has two anchor tenants, Belk Department Store and Bass Pro Shops, and dozens of other shops such as Ann Taylor Loft, Coldwater Creek and J. Jill. Plus there are several restaurants and snack shops to sustain you while you shop. The development is so long that a free trolley runs along it taking visitors from one end to the other.
Located at the center of Branson Landing is the Hilton Promenade, a boutique hotel with oversized guest rooms and suites overlooking the central plaza of the development where a $7.5 million water display entertains passersby. The fountain is illuminated at night and features bursts of flame during special occasions.
While the Landing is brand new, right across the street is the 1905 depot for the Branson Scenic Railway, which offers nearly two-hour excursions into the rugged Ozarks countryside through tunnels and over trestles. Depending on the freight traffic each day, the train either heads north to Galena, Mo., or south into Arkansas before reversing direction. A good place to take in the scenery is from the 1940s restored dome car with its panoramic views. Snacks are available for purchase during the ride, and dinner excursions are offered on Saturday nights.
Surveying the Strip
No trip to Branson would be complete without experiencing the Strip, which is what Highway 76 is called through the heart of town. Many of the city’s theaters and attractions are located along it, as well as numerous go-cart tracks, miniature golf courses, arcades, outlet malls, souvenir shops, restaurants, a water park and more. Maps are available at most hotels and from the convention and visitors bureau that show alternate routes to help you get around as quickly as possible. Visit www.AAA.com/traveler to see a copy of the map accompanying the Branson story in the July/August issue.
The first place we stopped along the Strip was at a museum that stands out from all the flashing lights and blinking signsthe Titanic Museum. Officially called the World’s Largest Titanic Museum Attraction, the museum was built half scale in the shape of the famous ship, the front of which sits in a pool with a replica iceberg. Spray shoots back from the bow as if it were moving.
Inside, the museum features 20 galleries filled with 400 artifacts, exhibits, room re-creations, historic photos and models, including James Cameron’s 26-foot re-creation of Titanic’s deteriorating bow section as seen in his 1997 movie. Dramatic lighting and ambient sound give visitors the sensation of being on the original Titanic. One of the highlights is a replica of the famous Grand Staircase, which visitors can ascend. And interactive elements include sections of deck set at steep angles to show how difficult it would have been to walk as the ship rose out of the water and began sinking.
Another attraction we had to visit was Ripley’s Believe it or Not!® museum. Set in a building that appears as if it were nearly destroyed by an earthquake, our boys were intrigued by the sight and by the prospect of witnessing firsthand outlandish things they had seen in Ripley’s books. A model of an aircraft carrier made out of matchsticks and a two-headed calf were among the oddities they discovered.
The fun doesn’t stop at night, either. One evening, we returned to the west end of the Strip seeking thrills at Celebration City, located off the Shepherd of the Hills Expressway. The theme park, open from 310 p.m. daily in the summer, features rides, games, shops and restaurants set in a 1950s theme. Each night, the park presents Ignite the Night, a laser, music and fireworks extravaganza with water illusions.
On another night, we took in Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, located near the east end of the Strip just off Highway 76. The dinner show is an experience with 32 horses, a stampede of buffalos, singers, dancers and seating for 1,000 in a giant arena. Plus, the audience is divided into two sides for a friendly North/South competition, which my sons enjoyed by cheering on the trick riders competing for our side.
Among the dozens of other shows to choose from, one not to be missed is the Kirby VanBurch magic show, the biggest magic production show ever to be presented in Branson. With mind reading, dynamic theatrics, dancing, large-scale illusions and comedy, the show amazed us and our sons. We’re still scratching our heads to figure out how he made a white Bengal tiger and a motorcycle appear out of nowhere and how he made a full-size helicopter pop on stage as if by, well, magic.
Another good choice is the Hamner Barber Variety Show. In the magic portion of the show, Dave and Denise Hamner wow audiences as exotic birds appear amid flying cards and flaming swords and soar around the audience. And Jim Barber, who has appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, uses a unique and hilarious collection of ventriloquist dummies to entertain the audience, including one where he takes on the role of the dummy.
Lodging and lakes
While you’re in the heart of the Strip, it is easy to forget that Branson is in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, which cover much of the southern half of Missouri. But within five minutes of the bright lights of Branson, you can be enjoying hardwood forests, grasslands, streams and inspiring mountain vistas. Also, the area features three lakes: Table Rock, Taneycomo and Bull Shoals.
When choosing accommodations, visitors have a range of options and price ranges. You can choose lodging along the Strip near the theaters and attractions, or a little farther from the hustle and bustle. By staying at a condominium at Indian Point Resorts on Table Rock Lake a few minutes to the west of town, we found a peaceful getaway with lovely views from a private deck.
There was a pool to cool off in, and we fished from one of several docks in the complex. We even reserved a speed boat and enjoyed an afternoon of swimming and sightseeing on Table Rock Lake. Plus, the resort is just two miles from Silver Dollar City, which made getting to and from the park convenient for our boys, who aren’t known for their patience.
My sons may not have much patience, but they slowed their pace a little during our relaxing trip and enjoyed some activities and saw some sights they don’t usually get to experience in their everyday lives. And I’m sure they’ll remember them for the rest of their lives. Isn’t that what vacations are for anyway?
Dennis R. Heinze is regional editor for the AAA Midwest Traveler.
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