It’s Not Your Grandparents’ Branson

by Laurie Millman and Martin Rubin

Over the last few years, Branson, Missouri, has transformed itself from a country-western music destination for adults to a multi-generational hotspot that doesn’t roll up the sidewalks in the evening. Venues crisscross more than 50 years of musical genres. Over 100 shows are available to choose from on a weekly basis from March through December. With more theatre seats than Broadway, Las Vegas, or Nashville, it is no wonder that Branson is known as the “live music show capital of the world.” But Branson is more than just a music stop, with its attractions, venues, and outdoor activities that will keep your entire family entertained from early in the morning until late at night.

Today’s Branson has an amazingly wide range of musical entertainment to choose from:

• Living musical legends: Bill Medley from the Righteous’ Brothers; Paul Revere & The Raiders; Johnny Mathis; the Platters; the Twelve Irish Tenors; Bill Haley’s Original Comets; Andy Williams; Tony Orlando & the Lennon Sisters.
• Tribute shows for many current and past bands: Eagles, Neil Diamond, Elvis Presley, John Denver, and Beatles. The American Songbook Dinner Theatre at the “Shake It Up Show Club” combines dinner with tribute shows, such as: “Our Sinatra – a Musical Celebration,” and “Hunk Hunka Burnin’ Love – An Elvis Presley Musical Tribute.”
• Shows focused on specific musical periods or genres: “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay”; “Top 10 Rock and Roll Revue “; “Motown Downtown”; “Sunday Gospel Jubilee” ; “Swingin Cajun Style.”
• Musical families: The Osmonds, The Brett Family Singers, The Haygoods (eight family members from teens to young adults); The Shoji Tabuchi Family; The Knudsen Brothers (they are also known as, “SIX”).
• Broadway-quality plays: from Cathy Rigby as “Peter Pan” to “Noah’s Ark – the Musical.” Since 1959, Branson’s longest running outdoor play, “Shepherd of the Hills,” tells the story of love, loss, power, and hardship in the Ozark mountains of Missouri and Arkansas. The play was adapted from Harold Bell Wright’s book written in 1907. John Wayne starred in the 1941 movie adaptation of the story. Families living in Branson have been playing characters in this play for generations.
• Comedy variety shows: Jim Stafford; Yakov Smirnov, and Yakov’s Moscow Circus; the Red Skelton Tribute.
• The New Shanghai Circus with 40 acrobats and the Amazing Pets show are just a few of the other notable family entertainment venues.

Ozarks hillbilly humor and country-western entertainment remains steadfast in Branson, with Debby Boone, the Country Tonite variety show, Dixie Stampede, and the Gatlin Brothers. The uniquely Ozarks variety comedy show, “Baldknobbers Jamboree Show,” was the first Branson variety show beginning in 1959. Although the comedy has evolved and the routines have changed, the hillbilly humor in “Baldknobbers” still draws audiences after 50 years and three generations later.

The international award-winning husband and wife magic team of Kirby and Bambi VanBurch is another draw to Branson. The additional backstage tour ticket allows guests to visit the large, exotic animals that were used in the magic show, including white tigers, leopards, and lions.

More Than Music

Branson isn’t just about music and shows — the region offers many opportunities to play golf, fish, camp, ride horses, race go-carts, explore caves, tour museums, or spend a day at an amusement park. We went horseback riding one afternoon on the Shepherd of the Hills property and along the same trails which the vigilante Baldknobbers rode.

Butterfly Palace and Rainforest Adventure (photo courtesy of Branson CVB).

One of our favorite attractions was The Butterfly Palace and Rainforest Adventure. This interactive, educational, and entertaining attraction is found in a large two-story, whitewashed building on one of the many hills in town. The Adventure starts with a 20-minute, 3-D movie about the life of a butterfly. The exit from the small theater leads visitors into the Rainforest room, which is filled with tropical plants, a small waterfall structure, exotic birds, and over 1,000 live, free-flying butterflies. Live turtles, frogs, and other amphibians are on display in the Rainforest Critters Center. Butterflies are maintained in the Rainforest room throughout the entire year.

Branson’s theme park, Silver Dollar City, transports you back to an 1880s Ozark mountain town, complete with working artisans and park staff dressed up in period clothing.. The park has Ozarks themed rides for all ages and risk levels, and lots of live entertainment, including nationally recognized acts. While visiting the very clean, well-shaded park, we attended the illusion show of acclaimed magician, Peter Gossamer. The indoor and outdoor food venues offer authentic Ozark and country cooking, such as succotash, which is made fresh right in front of you in huge, 5-foot skillets. We stopped at Buckshot Annie’s Skillet Cookery, where we shared a serving of the Family Feud Succotash which consisted of sautéed corn, yellow squash, okra, peppers, onions and chicken — it tasted as good as it smelled, which is what drew us to the outdoor stand. Elsewhere in the park, other country food choices ran the gamut from homemade pies, corn-on-the-cob, fried chicken, pulled barbecue pork, pork rinds, funnel cakes, turkey legs, blasted onions, corn dogs, and even deep fried Twinkies and Oreos. A hot, “mountain” breakfast buffet is served in the park at Molly’s Mill Restaurant one hour before the park opens until 11 a.m. (through October 31).

Pastry preparation at Silver Dollar City (photo courtesy of Branson CVB).

The Branson area boasts two large caves. The entrance to Marvel Caveis through a sink hole in the Silver Dollar City theme park. Marvel Cave is known for being one of the largest caves in Missouri, and for having one of the largest cave entry rooms of any cave in North America. Five hot-air balloons were once flown inside the entry room; however, the immensity of this space is difficult to comprehend until you walk down 100 feet to the floor of the cave and look up. The cave is also one of the longest running tourist attractions in the Ozarks, since the late 1800s. The traditional cave tour is free, and takes one hour. There is an additional cost for the lantern tour, where the only illumination during the entire one and a half-hour tour is from the lantern each person carries.

The second cavern is only a few miles away from Silver Dollar City. The guided tour in Talking Rocks Cavern is one hour long. On the surface, the cave property has a mini-golf course, a 150-ft long crawl maze, a 40-ft high treetop tower, and a sluice to find emeralds, garnets, and quartz.

Branson has built up three main areas of shopping for visitors: an outlet center; the quaint, family-owned shops downtown; and Branson Landing, which is built along Lake Taneycomo on the White River. A brick pedestrian street winds for 1.5 miles between Branson Landing’s bars, restaurants, and nationally branded upscale, retail shops. The Landing Cruises ships are docked at Branson Landing. Landing Cruises offers year-round breakfast, lunch, dinner, and pizza cruises with captain-guided tours on a 100-ft luxury yacht or on the 100-ft paddle wheeler.

The Branson Landing Fountains, the $7.5 million spectacular water attraction located at the heart of Branson Landing, was created by the same company that produces water shows for Downtown Disney marketplace in Orlando, Universal City Walk in California, and the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. We ate a delicious Mexican dinner one evening on the patio of the Landing’s Cantina Laredo Restaurant, where we overlooked both Lake Taneycomo and the Fountains. We had perfect seats to watch the “show”: fountains and cannons were synchronized to lights and music to shoot out fire and up to 120-foot high water geysers. The Branson Landing Fountains show starts daily on the hour, beginning at noon.

The Branson Landing Fountains, a $7.5 million spectacular water attraction, are a spectacular scene at night (© 2009 Laurie Millman)

From Nov. 1 through Dec. 31, the entire town of Branson is transformed into a winter wonderland with millions of lights and decorations. Over 130 special shows are planned for this holiday season, including Tony Orlando & the Lennon Sisters, Broadway’s “Spirit of Christmas” show, and the recurring Andy Williams Christmas show. Holiday music will range from traditional carols to cowboy Christmas songs. Silver Dollar City will also be decked out with over eight million lights and other holiday decorations. The theme park will have special shows, strolling carolers in period costumes, hot cider and holiday fare, an interactive 17-foot talking Christmas Tree, and a 7-story Christmas Tree with lights synchronized to music.

The Butterfly Palace and Rainforest Adventure will celebrate the holiday season with “White Flight” from Nov. 1 through Jan. 15. The rainforest room will be filled with holiday music, white butterflies, thousands of lights, red and white poinsettias, and living angel statues.

For current show schedules, ticket prices, and to order tickets or to see which entertainers are available to meet after their shows (which is a uniquely Branson tradition), visit www.bransontourismcenter.com, or call 1-800-785-1550, 7 days a week from 8:00 am – 9:00 pm (CST).

Most venues also have their own web sites, where you can also find show times, hours and days of operation, event information, purchase tickets, print discount coupons. Contact information for some of the attractions described in the article are:

Shepherd of the Hills (800-653-6288) – www.oldmatt.com
The Butterfly Palace and Rainforest Adventure (417-332-2231) – www.thebutterflypalace.com
Silver Dollar City (800-225-0222) – www.silverdollarcity.com
Talking Rocks Cavern (417-272-3366) – www.talkingrockscavern.com
Branson Landing – www.bransonlanding.com
Landing Cruises (877-382-6287) – www.bransonlandingcruises.com

Friday, 30 October, 2009

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© 2009 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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