Don’t typecast Branson, Mo. Though its Ozark mountain beauty, down-home attitude, entertainment galore, and unabashed love for God and country have been the town’s calling card for six decades, I learned on a trip in October that Branson, which hosts nearly 8 million visitors each year, holds many surprises.
Since the early 20th century, Branson has attracted visitors who are lured by natural beauty and outdoor recreational activities. The traveling public was first drawn to Branson following the 1907 publication of Harold Bell Wright’s novel, “The Shepherd of the Hills.” Readers flocked to the Ozarks to learn about the lifestyle of the novel’s characters. Four movie versions of the book were filmed, and Branson promoters say it is the fourth most widely read book in publishing history.
At 417 miles from Evansville, Branson is a six-hour drive. Visitors may also fly to the Springfield-Branson National Airport in Springfield, Mo. (a 45-minute drive to Branson), or Branson Airport, the first privately developed and operated commercial service airport in the United States, serviced by Southwest Airlines/AirTran Airways and Frontier Airlines.
With more than 100,000 hotel rooms, there are plenty of accommodations from which to choose in Branson, though properties remain consistently busy and frequently sell out. Mayor Raeanne Presley says on a daily basis, the town with a population of 10,250 “operates more like a city of 60,000 to 70,000 people.”
I stayed at the Baldknobbers Inn, owned by the family that started the first show in Branson in 1959, Baldknobbers Jamboree. The tradition continues today in the theater next door with second and third generation family members. Baldknobbers Inn was economical, clean, and conveniently located on Highway 76, Branson’s famously congested strip.
On my next visit to Branson, I’ll likely stay in one the HCW LLC properties at Branson Landing, the Hilton-Branson Convention Center Hotel, or the Hilton Promenade. HCW LLC is the company developing Evansville’s new Downtown convention center hotel and apartments. (Read an interview with the CEO of HCW LLC, Richard Huffman, in the Evansville Business December/January 2014 issue.)
You’ll need more than a day or two to experience Branson. Though there were many attractions and shows that interested me, I’ll share my top picks.
Dick’s 5 & 10 in historic downtown Branson opened nearly 50 years ago and has evolved into a nationally known destination. With more than 50,000 different items in stock, there’s plenty of shopping entertainment.
The Branson “Ozark Zephyr” Scenic Railway features vintage passenger cars that travel through the foothills of the Ozark Mountains on a one-hour and 45-minute trip through tunnels and over trestles.
Branson’s newest large-scale addition, the 95-acre Branson Landing, includes waterfront dining, entertainment, and more than 100 stores. Board the Lake Queen paddle wheeler and cruise Lake Taneycomo as you learn about Branson history. As the boat returns to the Landing, you’re treated to the $7.5 million spectacular water attraction, merging water, fire, and music.
Ride an amphibious vehicle based on the famous WWII DUKW design. You’ll drive through town, encouraged by the funny driver to blow your duck call at unsuspecting pedestrians, ascend the foothills to the famous table rock formation, then splash down onto the lake.
Branson is the location of one of two Titanic Museums owned by John Joslyn who headed a 1987 expedition to the ship’s final resting place (the other museum is in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.). Guests relive the last hours of the fateful voyage, emotionally connecting to passengers and crew through their words, stories, and more than 400 personal and private artifacts.
Described in 1973 by the Wall Street Journal as “Hard Work U,” the College of the Ozarks charges no tuition for full-time students, due to its student work program and donations. The name has stuck as the school motto and the school has trademarked it. The school offers a public lodge and dining room in its beautiful Keeter Center, where the culinary students prepare meals from dairy products, meats, grains, vegetables, and herbs sourced at the university.
Silver Dollar City is one of the most successful theme parks in the U.S., combining an 1880s-theme experience with Ozark artisans, wooden roller coasters that rival in awards the coasters of Holiday World in Santa Claus, Ind., and one of the Ozark’s oldest attractions, Marvel Cave.
The No. 1 vocal group in the history of America’s Got Talent, the Texas Tenors, perform regularly at the Starlite Theatre. The easy-on-the-eyes affable trio blend country, classical, gospel, and Broadway with plenty of country humor and charm.
Board the Showboat Branson Belle on Table Rock Lake for a two-hour dinner cruise. The 700-seat theater presents Made in the USA, starring the world’s only violin-playing aerialist, Janice Martin, a quadruple-threat of talent who also wows audiences with her voice, piano, and guitar. The show also features the male vocal group, The ShowMen, and comedian and magician Christopher James as emcee.
The Shoji Tabuchi Show, performed in his own lavish theater (even the restrooms awe visitors!), is a must-see on most Branson lists. The master violinist was a college sophomore when he learned Roy Acuff was coming to Osaka, Japan. He met the country star after the concert and Acuff encouraged him to look him up if he ever visited Nashville, Tenn. Shoji came to the U.S. with his violin and $500 and eventually made it to Nashville to meet Acuff. After playing with numerous country stars, Shoji began playing in Branson in 1980 and built his theater in 1990.
At The Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Theatre, Harold Bell Wright’s epic story of love, loss, power, hardship, and the meaning of life has been brought to life nightly with a drama featuring more than 80 actors and actresses, 40 horses, a flock of sheep, several guns and rifles, an actual burning log cabin, and a vintage 1908 DeWitt automobile. Sadly, the show ended Oct. 19 after 54 seasons — I saw one of the final performances — with the owners citing as reasons for its closing rising insurance and production costs, declining crowds, and costs associated with the new federal health care law. Branson officials are hopeful a buyer will be found; if the show reopens, be sure to go.
Shopping and Dining
Branson is home to one of Tanger Outlet Center’s 43 locations coast to coast and in Canada. Shopping is consistently high on every traveler’s to-do list, and Branson’s Tanger includes 65 brand name stores, including Coach, Nike, and Ann Taylor.
For authentic local and chef created Italian specialties, Florentina’s Italian Ristorante (behind the Grand Village Shopping Center) offers homemade sauces, signature creations made fresh daily, and brick oven pizzas.
The servers will sing for your supper at Mel’s Hard Luck Diner, located in the Grand Village Shopping Center. The 1950s-themed diner is famous for its half-pound hamburgers and its Great Balls of Ice Cream.
Bust the Branson stereotypes and see for yourself. You’ll find it’s worth the drive.