Many people wonder how a tiny town in a quiet corner of the Midwest became a major center of entertainment and tourism. If you pay a visit to the Branson, Missouri, area, it starts to make more sense. The mountains and lakes of southwest Missouri are a beautiful place to visit. In fact, a fair number of people have been vacationing there since the early 1900s. Entertainers recognized these visitors as a steady audience for their performances and realized that Branson would be a pleasant place to spend part of the year. Put big-name entertainment into a friendly locale—with good fishing and breathtaking scenery—and it's not so surprising that the small town of Branson does big business.
But Branson is a small town. It has a residential population of about 10,500, although its daily population averages about 30,000. It offers more than 100 shows at 53 venues, more than 260 restaurants and eateries, three theme parks, three lakes, 13 golf courses, shopping from outlet to upscale, one-of-a-kind museums and a vast array of other attractions and sights.
And although it may not be entirely attributable to the town's size, visitors will find a conservative sensibility in the majority of Branson's shows. Overall, Branson targets its offerings to its core audience of families and empty-nesters and will most appeal to those seeking a wholesome atmosphere and middle-of-the-road entertainment.
Branson is located about 11 mi/18 km north of the Arkansas line in the rugged, scenic Ozark Mountains, which reach from southwest Missouri to northwest Arkansas and into northeast Oklahoma.
Two intersecting highways form the center point of Branson: Highway 65 is the main north-south road through town; Highway 76 runs east-west. Of these, Highway 76 is the center of the action: It's also known as 76 Country Boulevard or, more often, "the Strip." This 7-mi/11-km stretch of three-lane road carries the bulk of traffic to the many theaters, hotels, restaurants, retail businesses and attractions, which stretch to the west of Highway 65. Several relief roads, with color-coded signs for easy navigation, run parallel to 76 Country Boulevard: blue-colored Roark Valley Road/Gretna Road and red-colored Shepherd of the Hills Expressway on the north; and yellow-colored Green Mountain Drive/Fall Creek Drive on the south. Traffic generally moves much faster on these streets than it does on the Strip, and there are a number of side streets that connect all three thoroughfares.
On the east side of Highway 65 is downtown Branson, the site where the community was originally founded. It sits a block off Lake Taneycomo. On Taneycomo's shore sits the Branson Landing, a US$420 million development offering dozens of stores, eateries, entertainment, two Hilton hotels and a convention center.
The town of Hollister lies just across the Lake Taneycomo Bridge from downtown Branson. Table Rock Lake lies southwest of Branson. Both it and the riverlike Lake Taneycomo that runs along the south and east sides of Branson are formed by dams on the White River.
Once the domain of the Osage people, the Ozarks were visited by European fur traders beginning in the late 1600s. No large-scale settlement took place until the 1800s, however—after the territory passed to the U.S. in the Louisiana Purchase.
The Civil War's effect on the Ozarks was profound. The Battle of Wilson's Creek took place in nearby Springfield in 1861, but violence on a less formal scale raged throughout the area during the war and in the decades following. A number of attacks took place in and around the fledgling community of Branson by both Confederate and Union sympathizers. This spurred the formation of the law-and-order league known as Bald Knobbers. Their unscrupulous tactics eventually forced Missouri Gov. John S. Marmaduke to disband them in 1886.
The tourism industry in Branson was initially created by traveling minister Harold Bell Wright, whose 1907 novel The Shepherd of the Hills described life in the Ozarks, as did a 1941 movie version starring John Wayne. The book sparked the interest of readers across the country, and many traveled by train to see the area firsthand. Three years after opening in 1960 atop Marvel Cave, Silver Dollar City was Missouri's top tourist attraction. Also in the 1960s, family variety shows were being presented for summer visitors to the region. This set the stage for Branson's big-name entertainment acts, the first being country singer and songwriter Roy Clark, who headlined a theater in 1983.
The town's popularity grew steadily over the next decade and boomed in the first half of the 1990s, when construction of most of the current theaters, hotels, restaurants and other attractions took place. In 2006, Branson Landing, a 95-acre/38.5-hectare shopping, dining and convention destination, opened on the Lake Taneycomo waterfront, dramatically changing the dynamics of what had been a somewhat sleepy, but quaint, downtown.
In Branson, many of the noteworthy sights and attractions combine elements of Ozarks history and culture with modern technology. Silver Dollar City, for example, preserves the culture of the Ozarks through musical presentations, crafts demonstrations, storytelling and conservation efforts. The region's past is also the focus of the Shepherd of the Hills Homestead and Outdoor Theatre, a theme park and dramatic production based on Harold Bell Wright's novel set in the Ozarks at the turn of the 20th century.
The signature film at Branson's IMAX Entertainment Complex, Ozarks Legacy and Legend, likewise has a historical component, telling the story of a fictional Ozarks family during the period 1824-1950. And the Ralph Foster Museum at College of the Ozarks contains a wide variety of items representing the Ozarks' heritage.
In scheduling your time, you'll probably want to spend a full day at Silver Dollar City and a half-day at Shepherd of the Hills, especially if you have children. Most of the other sightseeing attractions take an hour or two each, depending on your level of interest. If you plan on riding the Branson Scenic Railway or taking in the IMAX film, we recommend making reservations because of limited seating capacity. Remember that some attractions in the Branson area close in winter, but those that remain open are often less crowded then.
Theaters and other indoor entertainment generally close only for two to three months in the winter (January-March) or, in some cases, stay open year-round. Outdoor theme parks and shows tend to stay open through part of December to participate in the Ozark Mountain Christmas festivities, then closing in mid-December and reopening in the spring.
Nightlife options in Branson—meaning bars and nightclubs—are rather limited, as most visitors prefer to take in an evening show at one of the live theaters. The fact that Branson is a small, family-oriented community also results in a limited number of establishments that serve alcohol. And since state law requires bars to stop serving alcohol at 1 am, most places close about then.
There are a few possibilities for those who want to get out on the town, however. Several restaurants have full bars and live weekend entertainment. In addition, many hotels have lounges, and there are a few small bars with pool tables.
If you do seek out some live entertainment in the bars and clubs in Branson, you may be pleased by what you find. Many of the performers are backup musicians for the big stars in the music theaters. It's nice to watch them break out of their supporting roles and show off their full range of talents. Check out Charlie's or the lounge at Rocky's for these types of performers.
Branson's restaurant offerings now boast more than 260 eateries. Although most dining establishments are casual and inexpensive and serve traditional American fare, there are several eclectic or upscale restaurants as well. All-you-can-eat buffets are plentiful, catering to big groups who need to eat on a schedule. Most offer four entrees, an assortment of cooked vegetables, a salad bar, breads, desserts and beverages. You'll also find a mix of mom-and-pop diners, steak houses, fast-food joints and national chains.
If you make dining part of your vacation experience, try Candlestick Inn for tasty eclectic gourmet dishes. To sample authentic Ozarks food, order the fried green tomatoes or the fried sweet potatoes at McFarlain's. McFarlain's also has its signature Branson traffic jam pie, available whole (to take with you) or by the slice.
Because the primary tourist season lasts March-December, some restaurants close in January and February, or at least scale back their hours. Reservations are not required or accepted for the majority of restaurants in town, so plan on a 20- to 45-minute wait for dinner. Meal "rush" times tend to be 7-9 am for breakfast, 11:30 am-1:30 pm for lunch and 5:30-7:30 pm for dinner; plan accordingly.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$20-$30; $$$$ = more than US$30.
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