I’m not sure what I expected to find in Branson, MO. I knew about its strong faith-based focus, its patriotism, its hordes of Midwesterners.
And not much else.
What I didn’t expect was foot stomping fun, quality shows, and downright sweetness.
When you realize Branson, MO, has 42 theaters, 112 shows a day during high season with a population of only 10,000 (and eight million visitors a year) you get an idea of the town’s specialty.
The shows are really good … not a place where washed up has-beens crawl off to, but a town many performers come to as their prime choice. You can find just about any type you wish … country & western, bluegrass, magicians, impersonators, a showboat and not one but two theaters with Chinese acrobats.
First for me was the “Six Brothers” who really are brothers (with four more non-singing bros in the family), and are billed as “an orchestra of human voices.” Their performance ranged from impersonations of Elvis and the Beach Boys to vocalizations (think drums only they’re doing it with their vocal chords). Kevin, the one with the spiked hair, leads the group.
“Clay Cooper’s Country Music Express” was down home, foot stompin’ music, along with a guy twirling six shooters and Clay and his preteen son doing tandem lasso tricks.
But I was even more impressed with the way so many shows reached out to the audience. Every set or so, the performer of the moment would hop off the stage, wade into the audience and single out several of the inevitable couples celebrating their 50th anniversaries. One of the shows I attended even had cameras sweeping the audience so folks could wave.
And of course, EVERYONE sells CDs of their performance.
I loved the Showboat Branson Belle, which served up dinner along with magicians, dancers and (yes more) impersonators. Honestly, the real Beatles never sounded that good. But the show stopper for me was the “Jonah and the Whale” production in the Sight and Sound Theater. The place looks like a castle, but is new enough (2008) to have the latest sound systems and specializes in faith-based shows (“Noah the Musical,” “Joseph” and more). They announced before the show started that “some liberties” had been taken with the original story. I don’t think a skunk figured into the Bible version and I’m fairly certain Jesus didn’t time travel to comfort Jonah. But the production was jaw dropping. The Jonah show had enough animals to fill an ark, a 300-foot, wrap-around stage and a ship bigger than the Santa Maria that moves back and forth, rotates and opens. Between the animals, the animatronics, the pyrotechnics and 3D video imaging, it WAS impressive.
At the end of the show, the cast invited the audience to come down front and join them in a prayer session. And that is part of what Branson is, along with fierce patriotism.
Before I went, a friend told me that at noon the town gets to its feet to pledge allegiance to the flag.
Not exactly. But in four shows, there was the one prayer session, a pledge to the flag and a medley of patriotic tunes. Not a single show failed to ask present and former soldiers to stand for a round of applause. Plus the water, fire and light show at Branson Landing in the center of town ended with the national anthem.
When I told a local how impressed I was with the acoustics in various theaters, she said it’s because they’re fairly new (think early 2000’s) and have state-of-the-art sound systems. I could understand every high pitched, squeaky word spoken by a child actor in the Jonah show, which is more than I can say for our top theater where I live in Seattle.
Branson has long been well known down the center of the country but what put it on the map was a “60 Minutes” feature in the ‘90s. Things really started taking off in the early 2000’s. Today, Branson can claim the moniker of “live music capital of America.”
More than Music
There’s a lot more to Branson than the shows… a quaint Main Street with, among other things, an old time dime store that will gobble up more of your time than you expect; cafes with singing servers that, seriously, can carry a tune; a nature park with buffalo, deer, longhorn cattle, neat history and soothing waterfalls.
And, of course, Silver Dollar City, Branson’s answer to Disney.
Perhaps not well known outside the area is the beauty of the landscape. It’s dense hardwood forests, rolling hills and highways that cut deep clefts into artfully layered sandstone rock.
“Many people don’t think of Missouri as a fall color destination, but it’s gorgeous here come late October,” Lynn Berry of the Branson CVB explained.
Plus fall is shoulder season, which means less choking traffic. In summer there are color coded road detours (yellow, blue, red) so people can avoid the main clogged drag, Hwy. 76.
Summer is family time with kids … LOTS of kids. Shoulder seasons (spring and fall) are when the retirees come by the car and busload. The performers know it. The retirees know it. And it’s all good fun.
Witness the MC at the showboat:
“Um, we know some of our audience is on the elderly side so we’re careful to make sure the stage lights aren’t too bright. (Pause for effect.) They tend to want to walk towards the light.”
The place roared with laughter.
Here are some things beyond the shows you shouldn’t miss:
* Dick’s 5 & 10. Located along Main Street, this place has (by count of Steve Hartley, one of the family owners) some 50,000 individual items. There are model cars, more Hello Kitty purses than you ever knew existed, Elvis Presley drink glasses, joke undies, souvenir baby T-shirts of the “My Daddy Drives A Tractor” variety, toys from the “olden” days and, of course, bacon soda pop, which comes plain or with maple flavor.
“People come in and spend seven or eight hours going from aisle to aisle,” Hartley added.
* Mel’s Hardluck Diner. Located in Grand Village, a kind of southern Antebellum style shopping center, Mel’s decor is 1950s. Its claim to fame (along with gargantuan ice cream sundaes) is root beer milk shakes, huge hamburgers and singing servers, who have to audition for the job and they are really good.
A side note about singing talent in Branson: It seems like everyone, even our bus driver sings, belting out a hearty (and on tune) bass as we boarded our bus one day. “Some of our singers have done really well on “American Idol”,” I was told.
* The Titanic Museum. On the outside the museum is the front half of the ship and inside are recreations of everything from staterooms and menus (third class dinner was biscuits and gruel) to heartbreaking individual stories, staff in period costumes and fascinating artifacts. Of the survivors, 97 percent of first class women made it while only 25 percent of all third class passengers survived … it pays to be rich.
* Ziplining. There are a dozen ziplines in the Branson area, perhaps more ziplines in one area than anyplace else in the U.S. We did Branson Zipline Canopy Tours at Wolfe Creek Preserve, which has great scenery, neat history and one of the kindest, gentlest ziplines I’ve ever experienced.
* Dogwood Canyon Nature Park. 10,000 acres of waterfalls, caves, hand built bridges, a replica of an 1800s church that hosts weddings and, at the end, a wildlife preserve that you visit via tram with deer, buffalo and longhorn cattle.
* Silver Dollar City. Branson’s Disney-like park set to an 1880’s theme. It started in the 1950s as a cave tour (the cave tour is still there, but quickly evolved into a period theme park when the owners realized more people were visiting their mock western town than the cave. Today there are 100 crafts people, a dozen-plus shows, 30 rides and seven festivals, making it one of the top amusement parks in the U.S.
The adrenalin junkies will love Outlaw Run, the world’s only double-barrel roll wooden coaster (thanks to steel topping the rails), the Giant Barn Swing and (urp) Wildfire, a 12-story steel coaster with a top speed of 66 miles per hour and five loops, rolls and corkscrews.
Crafts people include a blacksmith, candy making, pottery making, a working grist mill and much more. Shows range from Bluegrass and country & western to folk music, vaudeville and, on occasion, even opera.
In the end, I was happily exhausted by my visit to Branson, Missouri—and way overfed with comfort food. Yeah, I would go back. In a second. — Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor
If You Go
o Branson is a year-round destination with the busiest months in July and November. Spring and fall are shoulder seasons, when more retirees come and the crowds are far lighter. Summer is prime family vacation time. Fall colors here (late October – early November) can be spectacular.
o This place is a bargain. Just about every shop, hotel and restaurant gives out coupons for free stuff and show discounts. Failing that, the town map offers 115 coupons. The “Jonah” show’s priciest ticket is $50. In Vegas, it would easily run three times that. And Silver Dollar city has a three-day, two-park ticket for $100. Other than an optional $10 extra fee to jump the show lines, the only extras you’ll face there are for food, gifts and souvenirs.
o Though there is a small airport in Branson, most flights go into Springfield, about an hour’s drive away. Then you need to use airport shuttle service or rent a car.
Branson – www.explorebranson.com
Silver Dollar City – www.silverdollarcity.com
Dogwood Canyon Nature Park – www.dogwoodcanyon.org
Dick’s 5 & 10 – www.dicksoldtime5and10.com
Mel’s Hardluck Diner – melshardluckdiner.com
Branson Zipline Canopy Tours –www.bransonzipline.com
Titanic Museum – www.titanicbranson.com