I was surprised by how many of my East Coast friends had never heard of Branson, Missouri, one of the country’s top tourism draws. I described it to them as “G-rated Vegas without the gambling,” but now that I’ve been, I need to amend that add “with a generous scoop of Christianity and patriotism.”
If you like family-friendly variety shows and if you don’t need a drink during said show, and if you are Christian and patriotic, you’ll love Branson. I was there for a travel writers’ conference last weekend and toured around a bit. Truthfully, I felt a bit like a donkey out of water, so to speak. But that’s OK. I appreciated Branson for what it offered its fans, of which there are many. (The fairly remote Ozark Mountains town of just 10,500 hosts more than 7.5 million tourists a year and generates nearly $3 billion in annual tourism revenue. Wow.) And I admired its resilience after a tornado destroyed many buildings just last year, including the Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel, where I stayed. There was nary a sign of distress at the Hilton, one of the nicest I’ve stayed in.
The two-room Branson Airport, serviced by Southwest, is totally cute, with hillbilly décor befitting its locale. Tourists visit two areas – “the strip,” Highway 76, where the show theaters are, and downtown. In town, Main and Commercial streets are home to several “flea market” type shops and the famous Dick’s 5 and 10 (loved the linoleum and the merchandise). A block away on the waterfront is the newish Branson Landing development, an outdoor mall anchored by Bass Pro Shops White River Outpost. A walkway runs along Lake Taneycomo (which connects to Table Rock Lake), and the view is lovely. The main fountain area is a favorite gathering place for visitors. I also recommend Waxy O’Shea’s, where I had a most delicious Mother’s IPA, brewed up the road in Springfield, Mo.
The tourism folks took my group on a few side trips, including to Silver Dollar City, a longtime amusement park now boasting a giant wooden roller coaster called Outlaw Run. Also wild is the Powder Keg coaster, which launches passengers from zero to 53 miles-per-hour in 2.8 seconds. I had no idea that was its “thing,” and when I watched it from standing still to screaming speed, my jaw dropped.
We writers broke up into groups and toured different spots. I checked out Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, developed by the Bass Pro folks. This is nature lite, and quite manufactured at that, but it’s well done and I’m guessing introduces people to the great outdoors who might not otherwise venture out. Visitors can explore the 6-mile paved loop by foot, bike or guided tram, and only the tram will take you to the Elk and Bison pasture. I cycled, and it was quite pleasant. The chapel was particularly nice – I’m sure many people get married there.
Some of my writer friends on that trip went on to the Branson Zipline, which they described as soft adventure, but any zipline is too much for me, so I passed. Others went fishing with the Bass Pro folks. That sounded cool, but, again, not my thing. I wish I’d had time to kayak. Folks at Kayak Branson told me they were considering a kayak station right from Branson Landing, which would be wonderfully convenient. Another writer friend loved her tour of Christian-focused College of the Ozarks, aka “Hard Work U.,” where students work instead of pay tuition. They make their own everything, including clothing, furniture, and butter, and even run a hotel. Interesting! I wish I’d had the chance to see it. All the writers toured the Titanic Museum Attraction, fascinating in that inside the half-scale replica you feel you’re on the Titanic.
After my visit, I’m now very curious to see “We Always Lie to Strangers,” a new documentary billed as “a story of family, community, music and tradition set against the backdrop of Branson.” The film also explores how conservative Branson will change (or not) as the country becomes more socially liberal. Interesting points to ponder about this intriguing place to visit.