Branson, Missouri – music capital of the USA

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Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede

Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede

Surrounded by 1,500 other folks in the jam-packed arena, I knew that Dolly Parton’s Dixieland Stampede show featured live animals, and I knew that the entire dinner was served with no utensils (hmmm?), but had no firm grasp of what this wildly popular Branson, Missouri extravaganza would be.

The show sells out five times a day in the high season, and I was very curious.  After two hours of pageantry including raging bison, Texas longhorns, piglets, dancing horses, fireworks and human acrobatics, all expertly designed to evoke United States of America patriotic fervour, I was ready to take those hands out of my tasty fall-off-the-bones Cornish hen and shake my little American flag. THIS is the Branson I expected. I did not expect, and was very happy, to find the myriad of other activities, sights and sounds that I experienced on a recent trip to Branson.

Branson Airport is quite possibly the most charming airport I’ve ever found, and just 15 minutes from town. Bedecked with a log cabin theme (thanks to locally-owned mega-business Bass ProShops) I loved sitting back on the wooden Adirondack chairs, gazing at the meandering stream, wishing pond, water wheel, wood panelling and general store, along with a Famous Dave’s barbecue joint that urged me to “put some South in your mouth!” Much more fun than staring at computerised screens and endless rows of steel and plastic benches!

Branson was nicknamed “Top Live Music Show Capital of the World” some years ago on the respected, Sunday night news programme ’60 Minutes’  as it hosts some 50 theatres and more than 100 shows weekly. In fact, Branson feels rather like a giant theme park itself, with so much going on that I sometimes wondered if anyone at all was indoors working.

Now, just like you may have heard, many of Branson’s shows are family-friendly, with a religious, clean-cut orientation, but don’t dismiss the area as just a ‘goody-goody’ destination. ”Yes, country and bluegrass music is our heritage,” says a town spokesperson, “but less than 40 percent of the music shows in today’s Branson are pure country. Now there’s pop, Broadway, classical, you name it, we’ve got it!”

the Baldnobbers ending a performance

the Baldnobbers ending a performance

You will see a few Dixie (yes, Civil War Dixie) flags hanging in windows or on the back of pickups, you’ll see a plethora of churches and American flags everywhere, and if you have a military veteran among your loved ones, take them to Branson and have them wear their insignia caps– they will be adored and honoured at every turn.  There is even a Branson Veterans Task Force that oversees local veteran commemorative events year round.

Such long-standing, traditional, kitschy acts as the Presleys’ Country Jubilee, the Baldknobbers (fifty+ years in Branson!) and the Dolly Parton’s Dixieland Stampede) are still thriving, playing to sold-out audiences.

In today’s gussied-up Branson, I was pleasantly surprised to find an enormous variety of entertainment options. These range from action-packed adventure sports and attractions, excellent golf courses, cultural and historical venues, scenic beauty and natural surroundings, top-flight cuisine with good wine lists as well as plenty of down-home Southern cooking and sweet tea. There is also a wide range of accommodations and truly unique shopping. What’s NOT in Branson are the honky tonk areas a la Nashville, smokey casinos as in Las Vegas, nor  the rowdy bars and nightclubs like just about everywhere. Branson does pride itself on being a multi-generation vacation spot, and you won’t be disappointed. It’s clean, yes, but not squeakily so, and you’ll find more than your share of excitement and fun here.

the Branson spectacle

the Branson spectacle

So, let’s talk about those shows. A few begin in the morning, over breakfast! For years, Branson’s claim to fame has been country, gospel, corny down-home comedy and rah-rah Americana. Today’s Branson offers such as the still sultry Ann- Margret, crooner Johnny Mathis and the Branson Belle lunch and dinner cruise showboat. The Belle presents the only fiddling aerialist in the world, Janice Martin, who is also a classy world-class violinist, pianist and vocalist. She mesmerised me playing “Stairway to Heaven” while climbing on silks – long, multi-coloured silk ropes twisting down from the ceiling!  My favourite is the ‘Liverpool Legends,’ an exceptional Beatles rock-and-roll tribute band managed by Louise Harrison, (George’s older sister,) which had me and the rest of the crowd swaying and reminiscing as the band deftly tackled our beloved Beatles tunes and brought us back (for a few blessed minutes) to our youth. You’ll also find classical concerts, magic shows and other acts.

Branson’s temperate climate makes it a year-round destination, with average highs in December and January in the teens and average highs in July and August in the ‘30’s. Outdoor recreation abounds, with three area lakes offering water skiing, jet skiing, parasailing, wakeboarding, scuba diving, fly fishing for world-class bass and trout. You can also golf, cycle and hike all over the Ozark mountains.

Just south of town above the Arkansas border, I enjoyed a nice meadow horseback ride inside Dogwood Canyon Nature Park. A lush 2,200-acre Ozark privately-owned wilderness preserve, Dogwood Canyon features hiking, biking, catch-and-release or fly fishing, camping, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, boating, parasailing, horseback riding and other recreational activities.

ziplining and enjoying the Autumn foliage

ziplining and enjoying the Autumn foliage

Open daily from March through until the end of December, the park rents strollers, bicycles, fishing rods and log cabins and offers tram, jeep, segway and  ATV tours. If the mood is right, you can even get married at the park’s wilderness chapel, a replica of an 1800’s era church. Dogwood Canyon’s Outdoor Café is open March through November.

After the ride, my next stop was to the Branson Zip-Line & Canopy Tour at Wolfe Creek Preserve, where I was again surprised. I’d zip-lined in various places, but never expected that my most gut-churning adventure would be in Branson, rather than Costa Rica or Mexico. In fact, the area offers several zip-lines, even right in town but Wolfe Creek Preserve is exceptionally designed and expertly operated.  Branson Zip-line and Canopy Tour has over a full mile of zip-lines and walkways through dense Ozark wilderness. Seven miles from downtown, you can zip-line on the Xplorer Canopy Tour for a full 2 ½ hours, including seven zip-lines and ten sky-bridges, or if you are short on time like I was, try the Flying Prospector (1 ½ – 2 hours) with four zip-lines and seven skybridges.  Next time, I’ll try the night time tour and check out from above what the local fauna does in the dark. If unlike me, you are truly a dare-devil, try the Blue Streak Free Fall, the longest freefall express in the country, at a chilling 100 feet sheer drip! Amazingly, folks from ages 6-92 have tried the canopy tours, but if some in your group are just not into being zip liners, they can partake of a guided photo safari, try some Blue Gemstone Mining, or simply visit the gift shop – hefty selection and surprisingly reasonable prices.  Be sure to wear closed toe shoes and reserve in advance if possible.

Titanic in this landlocked city!

Titanic in this landlocked city!

A rather unique find in the landlocked state of Missouri, smack in the middle of Branson’s entertainment area, you’ll find the Titanic Museum Attraction, opened in 2006. As one of the very few people out there who had somehow never seen the James Cameron film (just too faithful to the 1958 version,) I was not optimistic at first. Yet, I found myself slowly intrigued and so moved by the 90-miniute self-guided tour that afterwards, I went straight to my mail order DVD account to order the film. The 20,000 square-foot ship-shaped museum building is painted to look like the black and white ship herself and the tour is designed to take its visitors straight into the experience. Guests are given a “boarding pass” with the name of an actual Titanic passenger, and throughout the tour, they track their whereabouts and doings. At the fateful end of the voyage/exhibit, I learned that my passenger lived, which was no surprise since she was a wealthy female.

Even though, I was relieved. With a $1 million recreation of the Grand Staircase, first class cabins, a treasure trove of some 400 memorabilia and even a small iceberg to touch, you’ll be shown around by period-dressed crew with good-enough British and Irish accents. Open daily, 9-5 p.m., reservations recommended.

Silver Dollar City - typical Branson family offering

Silver Dollar City – typical Branson family offering

Old-timers to Branson, new timers, kids, oldsters, people like me who are ride-phobic – ANYone will find something to like at Silver Dollar City. Open since 1960, this theme park extraordinaire attracts some two million visitors annually to its thirty rides Vistors can also take in the recreation of an Ozark log cabin, water adventure area (check out the ‘Nightwater’ nights!,) “Half Dollar Holler” children’s play area, traditional craftsmen and artisan demonstrations (Pam Gresham’s wood carvings are incredible,) gardens, restaurants, festivals and live big name entertainment (such as the Flying Wallendas!) But the real ‘don’t miss’ here is unfortunately missed by many – the Marvel Cave, where Silver Dollar City began, back in the 1950’s.

This enormous, exquisite limestone cave’s Cathedral Room is one of the largest cave entrance rooms in the nation (measuring 204 feet high, 225 feet wide, and 411 feet long,) and it takes 600 stairs to descend – take heed! If you can do it, do, it’s well worth it. I was thrilled by its size and beautiful, mystical formations, and the guide (a musician in his night job) was not only very knowledgeable, but still enthused about his daily work.

continuing the family theme...

continuing the family theme…

Since 2006, Marvel Cave has offered its Lantern Light Tour, during which the electric lights are turned off in the cave and lanterns are given to each member of the tour. Unlike the regular tours which are free, this tour has an additional charge, and is limited to 20 people. The tour lasts about an hour and a half.

The guide focuses on the history and folklore of the cave and is able to explain more information about the cave than the daytime tours.

Shopping in Branson used to consist mostly of the rather tacky downtown shops, most notably the famous Dick’s 5 & 10, which is so jam-packed with everything imaginable that it’s a wonder shoppers can fit in the aisles. But now, trendy national chains populate the Branson Landing, a 95-acre development along the Taneycomo lakefront, a charming area filled with strollers all day and night.  In town, visit the rather funky bead shop across from the Hilton, where very helpful staffers will assist you in making jewellery or simply buy a readymade piece.

...and more music to end my visit.

…and more music to end my visit.

Typical of Branson, there are flea markets, old timey photo booths and memorabilia shops galore, but you will also find some 80 high-end clothing boutiques and shoe, cosmetics and jewellery stores. Hop on the free little red trolley and take a drive through the shops and Branson’s century old and well preserved community, or visit the Downtown Branson Main Street Association at 119 Pacific Street and pick up a free map of the area’s 19 historic sites.

So what is there NOT to do in Branson? You just might miss out on some relaxing, with so much to do – but then again, there’s plenty of time to be bored back home

 

Getting there: Branson Airport is just 8 miles south of the city. It has flights to Denver (which has direct flights to the UK) and Houston Hobby and Chicago Midway. Be aware that these are NOT the airports into which flights from the UK fly into so you will have to allow time to move between those two airports in the these cities. For example if you fly into Chicago O’Hare and you have to switch to Midway it will take at least one hour. The next nearest airport is called Springfield-Branson Airport which is about 50 miles away. There are flights to airports served directly from the UK  – Atlanta, Chicago O’ Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth and Denver.

 

For more information abut Branson, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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