Branson is so great, I have to go back
As the nation honors U.S. military veterans this weekend, you may be surprised to know that one of the most moving museums honoring our service heroes is in Branson, Missouri.
But why not? The entire Branson experience is about Family, Faith and Flag, as I discovered a couple of weeks ago on my first visit to the popular vacation destination that is a potpourri of spectacular sights to see, palate-pleasing places to eat, educational places to visit, family-friendly entertainment, and a multitude of fun things to do, all nestled among the beautiful Ozark Mountains.
So, let’s add another “F,” as in Frequently, because I now am determined to return again and again to see and do all there is to see and do.
Here’s how I spent three days in Branson, knowing immediately upon my afternoon arrival that I would have to return.
I prepared for the visit by watching YouTube. Simply type in “Branson, Missouri” and select from scores of self-produced videos on the city, surrounding area, or specific attractions. I started with “A drive through Branson,” a 10-minute trip along Missouri Route 76, the main east-west road known as “76 Country Boulevard” that is the address of most of the attractions and entertainment theaters for which Branson is famous.
Another excellent planning resource is www.explorebranson.com, the outstanding Website orchestrated by the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau, where you can download maps, select accommodations, determine show dates, and make reservations.
YouTube videos of driving in Branson familiarized me with landmarks and advised me in advance with the two-word warning of the only way to enjoy the experience: Slow down!
That’s why pre-planning is important. There’s just too much to see. Route 76, also known as “The Strip,” is simply too congested to get anywhere quickly. And while we’re at it, rest assured that “The Strip” in Branson and the other one in Las Vegas are not only separated by 1,440 miles, they’re also as different as night is from day.
So here we go; Day 1
Driving in from Arkansas to the south, my cell phone GPS easily found my accommodations at Banson Landing, the eclectic collection of shops, attractions and well-manicured trails along Lake Tanneycomo. Soon, it was onto Route 76 and up the steep hill that defines Historic Downtown Branson until we saw the a World War II P-51 Mustang fighter jet on a pole, the “sign” announcing our first stop: the outstanding Veterans Memorial Museum.
Inside this moving tribute are rooms devoted to veterans from wars of the 20th Century. Outside is the world’s largest bronze war memorial sculpture, a 70-foot-long, 15-ton, depiction of 50 life-size World War II GIs — one from each state — storming a beach.
This museum is a must-see.
And let me be clear right from the get-go. Regardless that there appears to be an airplane landing on the road, King Kong scaling a skyscraper, the icons on Mount Rushmore replaced by John Wayne, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Oliver Hardy, and the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! building falling apart, there’s nothing tourist-trappy or tawdry about anything along Route 76.
It’s all family fun and it’s all quality. Trust me.
Leaving the veterans museum, we drove west on 76 to locate Presleys and become familiar with the remainder of the 10-mile-long Route, ate soup and salad at Olive Garden, then headed back to the best place to begin our theater crawl, Presleys’ Country Jubilee, billed as the original show on The Strip and featuring four generations of the family who have been performing since 1967.
Fast-paced and squeaky clean, Presley’s combines country, gospel, and bluegrass around the hilarious comedy of Herkimer and Cecil. This is one to catch again and again.
Afterwards, it was back to Branson Landing for the spectacular $7.5 million water fountains shooting 120-foot geysers accompanied by cannons of fire choreographed to light and music. The show, created by internationally renowned Wet Design, producers of the great water-fountain show at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, is every hour on the hour starting at noon, but, of course, is more awesome at night.
The weather forecast predicted rain tomorrow and sunny skies today, influencing our decision to head for Silver Dollar City. I had no idea.
We’ve all been on thrilling rides at Disneyland or Disney World or even Six Flags Over Texas, but it’s not the 40-plus rides that make SDC’s 100 acres unique. Or the 12 entertainment venues or the 18 award-winning restaurants.
It’s the 100-plus, 1880s-themed resident craftsmen. These amazingly skilled artists and crafters include blacksmiths, candy makers, candle makers, lathe operators, lye soap makers, glass blowers and cutters, pottery makers, leather crafters and wood carvers, each working in his or her own shop and each ready and willing to take the time to explain what they are doing.
I enjoyed a lengthy conversation with a wildlife photographer who visits the same Alaska areas I do to photograph moose. He transfers his outstanding photos to sheets of tin that are resistant to sunlight or weather. Amazing.
Four items about SDC: Arrive early for the patriotic opening that includes the Star Spangled Banner and Pledge of Allegiance; plan to spend the day; grab a free copy of “Pathfinder,” a newspaper that includes map, show times and coupons; and it’s hilly, so wear comfortable walking shoes.
SDC is a world unto itself and it alone is worth the trip. More about that later.
We left SDC in time to catch the afternoon departure of the Branson Scenic Railway from the station across the street from Branson Landing. The train ride is a 40-mile round-trip southbound through the Ozark foothills that includes two very long tunnels and a historic trestle. We ended up alone in a car with four tables and enjoyed a relaxing trip.
Upon returning, we soaked up the late-afternoon sun with a walk up the steep incline on which sits Historic Downtown Branson, an area that includes one-of-a-kind restaurants and shops, of which the most unusual and popular is “Dicks 5 & 10,” a collection of more than 175,000 gift and novelty items. You gotta stop in.
After walking up and down downtown, we headed for the Clay Cooper Theatre and the Haygoods, the Boerne, Texas, family that moved to Branson in 1993 and today, with five brothers and one sister still in the act, is one of the most popular shows in town.
With rain falling and water everywhere, we headed for, you guessed it, the Titanic Museum Attraction, with a sort of “what-else-is-there-to-do” attitude. Boy, were we surprised.
Owned by John Joslyn, who in 1987 co-led a $6 million expedition to the site of the sinking and who dove to the legendary shipwreck 32 times to explore the wreckage, retrieve artifacts and film the broken remains, the museum houses more than 400 genuine Titanic artifacts, the largest number anywhere, and valued above $4 million.
Visitors are handed a boarding pass with the name of an actual passenger, whose fate we learned at the end of the visit. My passenger was Dr. Alfred Pain, 23, who died along with 1,502 others on the night of April 15, 1912.
We touched a real iceberg, walked replicas of the Grand Staircase and third class hallways, reached into 28-degree water, attempted to stand on sloping decks, and thoroughly enjoyed this self-guided tour that has many fascinating interactive experiences.
A hand-held digital audio player describes each display that includes entire rooms dedicated to the ship’s musicians, women on the ship and so much more.
Plan to spend two hours here, maybe three.
We had heard so much about “Jonah,” and “Noah,” we decided to see “Samson,” the current production of the Sight & Sound Theaters, a venue built especially for those major productions located on its own beautiful campus a little north of town.
We drove there during the afternoon to get familiar with the routing and purchase tickets.
The sales clerk suggested we sit in the lower balcony, on the right facing the stage. So should you. Everything that happens on the periphery occurs on the right.
I don’t mean this to be self-serving, only to present perspective. I’ve seen “Annie” on Broadway, “Cats” in San Francisco, “Elvis” twice in Las Vegas, “The Promise” in Glen Rose, and 110 of the Plaza Theatre Company’s 123 productions.
While they all have their moments of time and place, when it’s all said and sung, there’s nothing like “Samson.” Nothing!
It is absolutely the most moving and spectacular live show I’ve ever seen.
If you go to Branson and don’t see it, then don’t go to Branson.
Getting there and getting home
American Airlines offers nonstop flights from D/FW International Airport to Springfield, Missouri, only 45 miles north on four-lane U.S. 65. Delta Airlines also serves Springfield from D/FW, but you change planes in Atlanta. There is limited service into Branson’s new airport, but it is seasonal.
I’d rather drive.
I left Burleson at 5:30 a.m. and was in Branson by 3 p.m. even after a detour to Gentry, Arkansas, for lunch at the Wooden Spoon, one of our favorites. I took I-35 to Oklahoma City, I-44 to Tulsa, and U.S. 412 east to U.S. 65 north, right into Branson. I enjoy I-35 through the Arbuckle Mountains in Oklahoma, love the Will Rogers Turnpike (I-44) between OKC and Tulsa, where the unposted minimum speed is 85 mph, and really like the beautiful Cherokee Turnpike (U.S. 412) through eastern Oklahoma and into Arkansas. There are about $6 of toll fees, but it’s worth it.
Only one problem: U.S. 412 transitions from a four-lane highway into two-lanes for most of the drive east of Springdale, Arkansas, making it slow and dangerous. Lawmakers and highway officials have been meeting to discuss widening the highway, but cost estimates are in the $300-500 million range.
With an absolute downpour making driving a little tenuous, we decided not to return on U.S. 412. Instead, we headed north to Springfield and I-44. This allowed me to stop in Joplin to see if my grandmother’s house was still standing (it is), and to take a small detour on the original U.S. 66 at Galena, Kansas, to visit my parent’s grave site.
I recommend staying on the Interstates rather than U.S. 75 and U.S. 69 through Dallas, Bartlesville and connecting with U.S. 412 north of Wagner, Okla. It looks quicker on the map, but you go through every small town and U.S. 69 through Eufaula is in bad shape. I’ve done it and won’t do it again. The interstate and turnpike systems are safer and in much better condition.
The next couple of months in Branson will be interesting.
Ozark Mountain Christmas is an area-wide theme of shows, drive-thru light displays, and an Old Time Christmas at Silver Dollar City that features 6.5 million lights and a five-story Christmas tree. And “Samson” plays through Dec. 29.
There’s so much to see and do for which I didn’t have time.
I am going back as soon as I can.