In a city with dozens of attractions, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”
By Greg Weekes
Branson had a thriving grassroots tourism industry long before it became nationally known as one of the top places to see live entertainment. One of the early success stories was Silver Dollar City , a AAA GEM attraction that still manages to retain a sense of time and place. Tucked into the White River hills, it's a delightfully shady park where antique wheelbarrows serve as planters for mounds of colorful flowers. There are roller coasters, a steam train and the Grand Exposition, an area with rides reminiscent of a turn-of-the-20th-century world's fair. What you'll probably remember most, though, are the lovely heirloom keepsakes created by the park's resident crafters and the aroma of chicken, ribs and calico potatoes wafting through the air as they sizzle on big outdoor grills.
Silver Dollar City grew up around the entrance to Marvel Cave , another AAA GEM that first opened to the public in 1894. The Osage Indians called it the Devil's Den, a reference to the strange howling noises emanating from its depths. The most impressive features of this wet limestone cavern are the phantasmagorical shapes in the Cathedral Room, reached by a daunting series of stairs and ramps. (The tour is not recommended for those with heart or lung conditions, bad backs or weak knees.) A cable train hauls you 1,070 feet back to the surface.
Cave enthusiasts also should check out Talking Rocks Cavern . Created over eons by dripping water, these massive crystal draperies have an otherworldly, alien look. A brief sound-and-light presentation illuminates different sections of the cavern. You'll experience a few seconds of total darkness just after the spotlights are turned off and the colored lights are turned on—a creepy realization that utter blackness is the natural environment 150 feet underground. Note: The cave is cool, damp and claustrophobic, and footing can be slippery; watch your step. Also heed the guide's advice to use restroom facilities if necessary before the tour begins.
You can't miss the half-scale re-creation of Titanic—World's Largest Museum Attraction , complete with smokestacks, looming above the Strip. Mournful theme music from the movie plays as you enter the building—through a faux iceberg. From actual artifacts (a menu from the dining room) to exacting replicas (an 18-foot model ship) to interactive areas for kids, this AAA GEM attraction is a museum that fully engages you in its subject. Did you know, for example, that 23 women worked onboard the Titanic, and that crewmen shoveled 650 tons of coal in a day?
Going back further in time is one of Branson's oldest attractions. The AAA GEM Shepherd of the Hills Homestead brings to life the people and events chronicled in Harold Bell Wright's inspirational novel. You can walk around the homestead visiting various sites associated with the book, observe crafters at work or take a ride in a canopied jitney pulled by Clydesdale horses. Inspiration Point is where Wright once pitched a tent and gathered, well, inspiration for his story; there are great views from the top of the tower that stands on the hill.
The Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Theatre , another AAA GEM, presents a re-enactment of “The Shepherd of the Hills” under the stars in a large oval amphitheater. The story of hero and heroine Young Matt and Samantha “Sammy” Lane, villain Wash Gibbs and the mysterious figure who arrives in the Ozark town of Mutton Hollow combines drama, romance, music and action scenes, including a horse stampede and a cabin fire. The outdoor setting is a big plus, lending an appropriate natural backdrop as twilight deepens to darkness, lightning bugs appear and the sound of chirping crickets fills the air.
Relive the days of riverboat travel aboard the Showboat Branson Belle , a paddlewheeler docked at Table Rock Lake. Explore the decks of this meticulously restored vessel or simply sit back and enjoy the lake's blue waters, set against a backdrop of lush green hills. It wouldn't be Branson without a show, of course, and the Belle offers a range of entertaining options from southern gospel music to “Celebrate,” a magic, dance, comedy and musical extravaganza.
For a more extensive tour that gets you out of Branson proper, hop on the Branson Scenic Railway . The depot is conveniently located downtown at the foot of Main Street. The shiny red and silver train rolls through delightfully scenic Ozark foothills country—across valleys, through thick woodland and over elevated trestles bridging deep ravines—all viewed from the comfort of a domed observation car. For a special treat have an elegant four-course, candlelit dinner aboard the train, just as well-to-do rail passengers did in the early 20th century.
Both food and thrills are dished up at Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction . Kids will love all the animal action, which includes ostrich racing, stunt riding and a thunderous buffalo stampede. Audience participation is encouraged, as you'll be rooting for either the North or the South. You also can stroll through the open-air stables for an up-close look at the show's equine stars.
When it comes to Branson's many music theaters, no one has the time to see every show in town; most folks pick and choose based on their own personal preferences. If you're a newcomer to the show scene, following are a few general (and by no means inclusive) guidelines.
“All-around family entertainment” describes many shows in town: a little dancing, a helping of comedy and plenty of music and singing, all rolled up into one fun variety package that appeals to young and old alike. You can't go wrong with the family shows at the Branson Famous Theatre, the Dutton Family Theater, the Hughes Brothers Theatre or the Presleys' Country Jubilee.
Some shows put the music front and center. Musical headliners entertain at the Andy Williams Moon River Theatre, the Mansion Theatre, the Clay Cooper Theatre and the Welk Resort Theatre. The celebrity impersonator revue “Legends in Concert” plays at Dick Clark's American Bandstand Theater.
The Acrobats of China perform at Yakov's Theatre, and they put on a mind-blowing display of athletic skill. The Amazing Acrobats of Shanghai stage a similarly thrilling spectacle at the Grand Shanghai Theatre. For virtuoso musicianship and really cool special effects, the razzle-dazzle show at the Shoji Tabuchi Theatre delivers—and it's also the plushest theater in town.
See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.
In-person hotel evaluations are unscheduled to ensure the inspector has an experience similar to that of members. All hotels must meet the same basic requirements for cleanliness, comfort and hospitality to be AAA Approved. A rating of one to five AAA Diamonds tells members what type of experience to expect, from no-frills to highly personalized.
The Branson/Lakes area levies general retail sales, tourism sales and food and beverage sales taxes based on three different jurisdictions: Branson Landing/downtown, citywide and Branson Hills. General retail sales taxes range from 8.6 to 9.6 percent; sales that include a tourism sales tax range from 11.6 to 12.6 percent; food and beverage sales taxes range from 8.975 to 9.975 percent.
Time and Temperature
Skaggs Regional Medical Center, (417) 335-7000; CoxHealth Cox North (Springfield, Mo.), (417) 269-3000; CoxHealth Cox South (Springfield, Mo.), (417) 269-6000; Mercy Hospital (Springfield, Mo.), (417) 820-2000.
269 SR 248 Branson, MO 65615. Phone:(417)334-4084 or (800)214-3661
(BKG), 1 mile south of the Hollister exit off US 65, east on Branson Creek Boulevard, then following signs to 4000 Branson Airport Blvd., is served by Buzz Airways and Frontier and handles commercial and general aviation; phone (417) 334-7813.
Hertz, which only operates out of Springfield-Branson National Airport, offers discounts to AAA members; phone (417) 597-5313, (800) 654-3131 or (800) 654-3080. Rental cars are available at Branson Airport.
Gray Line Branson
Cab companies include Jerry’s Shuttle, (417) 348-1419; and Checker Cab, City Cabs and Yellow Cab, all of which can be reached at (417) 332-2227 (Branson Cab Service).
Unless you're part of a motor coach tour, getting around Branson is much easier if you have your own vehicle. One convenient alternative to driving is a free ride aboard the Downtown Trolley. The red-and-gold, hop-on and hop-off trolley makes 12 stops in the historic downtown area, including two stops at Branson Landing. It operates daily 9-6, Mar.-Dec.; closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Trolley maps are available at downtown retail locations and at the Downtown Branson Betterment Association, 112 W. College St.; phone (417) 334-1548 or (866) 523-1190.