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In some ways, Branson, population under 5,000, is a tiny Midwestern town gone tourism crazy. The Ozarks community proudly calls itself "The Live Entertainment Capital." And that's not wishful thinking. Branson has bona fide stars, glitz, and neon -- all the stuff you'd expect from a place with that title.
But Branson is also a down-home kind of vacation spot. Pop culture meets old-fashioned family values here, and star-studded spectacles are just down the street from Mother Nature in all her glory.
Visitors can also behold rarities like Dan Britton of the group Pierce Arrow, who is the world's lowest bass singer (he's listed as such in the Guinness Book of World Records). You can also see the "world's largest ball of nylon string" at Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, and a huge banjo (yep, the world's largest, too) at Grand Country market.
Those looking for local lore can go to downtown Branson, home of 20 historic sites (pick up a self-guided tour map at the Downtown Branson Mainstreet Association), and shops like Dick's 5 and 10 (where you can find toys and practically every doohickey imaginable).
Or you can see where this funky town began with a visit to Shepherd of the Hills Homestead, a historic site based on the novel Shepherd of the Hills by Harold Bell Wright. Published in 1907, this tale of Ozark Mountain families is credited with putting Branson on the map.
Without a doubt, most people come here for the shows. Tiny Branson is home to more than 40 performance halls featuring some 80 live acts -- music, comedy, dance, magic, ice skating, even acrobatics. Headliners include Vegas-type entertainers like Andy Williams, Tony Orlando, Mel Tillis, Bobby Vinton, the Osmond Brothers, violinist Shoji Tabuchi, and even Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff.
Most shows are located on Branson's "Strip." But not to worry. Unlike Vegas, nothing is X-rated. Presley's Country Jubilee is a family favorite. The show, which has been running since the 1960s, features four generations of this Ozarks family performing country favorites, southern gospel, and comedy routines. Also, The Jim Stafford Show, a mix of comedy and guitar music, has a part that asks the audience to don 3-D glasses.
And there's always a chance to rub shoulders with the stars; performers often chat with the audience during breaks, sign autographs, and pose for photo ops. You can typically count on at least two performances a day, some even at breakfast time.
Tickets can be purchased directly from theater box offices. But if you're planning a visit during peak season (fall and Christmas), reserve in advance; these shows sell out fast. A listing of theaters is located on the Branson, Missouri Visitors Bureau Web site.
Silver Dollar City, just outside town, is an award-winning amusement park, based on an Ozark town in the 1880s, and an absolute family must-do. The park combines attributes of a living museum, such as blacksmiths, craftsmen offering demonstrations (in glass-blowing and pottery-making), with thrilling state-of-the-art roller coaster rides (and rides for little kids, too), stage shows, and food (try the succotash made in giant skillets). The park is also home to Marvel Cave, a fascinating natural wonder.
Trivia fact: On the old TV show, The Beverly Hillbillies, the suddenly rich Clampett family lived a posh life in Beverly Hills. But when the clan got homesick, they headed to the Ozarks, and specifically Silver Dollar City, where some scenes for the show were actually shot. Series creator Paul Henning, whose other shows included Green Acres and Petticoat Junction, grew up in Missouri. His is also the name behind nearby Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area forest.
Dixie Stampede Dinner and a show featuring 32 horses, comedy, special effects, and an electric light parade.
White Water A 12-acre water park with wet rides including Paradise Plunge, a 207-foot drop into a giant slide pool. Younger kids can head to Splash Island with its just-ride slides and wading pools.
Branson USA New theme park with rides and games, go-carts, miniature golf. Admission to the park is free but you must pay per ride. This is a great feature for little kids who don't have the attention span for more than one attraction.
Showboat Branson Belle This two-hour paddleboat cruise around picturesque Table Rock Lake offers dining and entertainment.
The Branson area offers several beautiful lakes, all within a half-hour from The Strip:
There are many established nature trails near Branson. Some of the best for families are:
Type of trip: Live entertainment, theme parks, outdoor adventure, resort
Best ages: 6 and up
Ideal trip length: Long weekend to one week
Distance: Kansas City (212 miles); Tulsa, OK (227 miles); St. Louis (252 miles)
Best time to go: Summer, when you can enjoy the water and all attractions are open.
Weather: Average temps: January, 31 degrees F; April, 56; August, 77; October, 58
The Golden Coral Buffet Shepherd of the Hills Expressway Phone: 417-336-6297 Expect: A very inexpensive, all-you-can-eat buffet
Best souvenir: Ozark country baskets, pottery, hand-carved wooden spoons, glass, quilts.
Traffic alert: The downside of Branson's newfound fame? Lots of traffic, especially on Hwy 76. A new multi-route road system relieves some congestion, but watch for major construction on Hwy 65 between Branson and Springfield and periodic roadwork on Hwy 7. For local traffic and weather, check with the Missouri Department of Transportation.
Downtown Branson Mainstreet Association 120 South Business 650 Phone: 417-334-1548
Lakeside Forest Wilderness Fall Creek Road off the Strip on Hwy 76 Phone: 417-337-8510
Henning Conservation Area Forest W. Hwy 76, right after the Strip Phone: 417-334-3324
Dogwood Canyon 45 minutes southwest of Branson in Lampe Phone: 417-779-5983 Note: Reservations are recommended for tram tours.
Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce Phone: 800-214-3661
Give your feet a time out. Fantastic Caverns, America's only ride-through Cave, offers 50-minute tours via Jeep-drawn trams. You'll pass colorful stalactites and stalagmites and get a science lesson too. Since there's no walking, it's perfect for families with small children and handicapped travelers. Fantastic Caverns 40 miles north of Branson on Hwy 13 Phone: 417-833-2010
Reviewed May 2004.