The good, the bad and the tacky: Six things to do in Branson, Missouri

It was mostly curiosity that led me to one of America’s favorite destinations: Branson, Missouri. I had heard the tiny town in the middle of the Ozarks was famous for its over-the-top roadside attractions and had more theater seats than Broadway, but I wanted to see first hand what could possibly bring in over 8 million people per year. So off I went.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out the two main draws: nature and neon. The natural beauty was noticeable as soon as our rental car made it out of the airport parking lot and cut through the limestone, tree-covered hills. But once my boyfriend and I hit town and found ourselves driving down Branson’s version of ‘The Strip,’ we finally understood. Water slides and four-story go-kart tracks hugged the road, while some of the other diversions included a two-story rooster hanging out in front of a big red barn-shaped restaurant, a museum made to look like the RMS Titanic (complete with iceberg), a revamped version of Mount Rushmore that included John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe, and King Kong hanging off a mockup of the Empire State Building. Its no wonder we only saw one car accident while there.

Everything in Branson begs to be noticed. Each attraction razzle dazzles visitors, claiming to be the world’s first, biggest or best. Its a place where the dinosaur museum has to couple with a haunted house to bring people in, and where the Mexican and Chinese restaurants merge together (although, in this town, it seems like steakhouses and buffets rule the roost). But what is there for two twenty-somethings to do in a town known only for good clean fun? We explored Branson and found out.

The Track: As with most things in Branson, go-karts are taken to a whole new level. Four levels, actually. The “Heavy Metal High Rise” at The Track could be mistaken for a parking garage, but its actually an upwards spiraling track for go-karts. Once you reach the top, you zoom down a three-tiered slope back to the ground (I’m pretty sure my go-kart was airborne at least once on the way down). There’s also bumper cars, an arcade, and all the other things you expect at a family fun park. Fittingly, Andy’s Frozen Custard is also nearby.

Silver Dollar City: With thrill rides, kids areas, a bunch of talented demonstrating craftsman, and even a cave to explore, this pioneer village theme park is the most visited attraction in Branson. My favorite stops at Silver Dollar City were the old time ice cream shop and candy store, but whether you like roller coasters or singing and dancing, this is one place that has something for everyone.

Shepherd of the Hills Homestead: Branson’s tourism boom actually began at Shepherd of the Hills, when a book by the same name was penned by Harold Bell Wright in 1907. People began coming to the Ozarks in search of the characters from the book, so an outdoor production of the story took to the stage in 1960. The show still runs today (complete with 90 actors and a log cabin that burns every night), but you can also see the desk where the book was penned, take in a country western dinner show, or even zipline from the top of a sightseeing tower that claims to be the tallest launch point for a zipline in the world.

Branson Belle: At times, Branson gets a little carried away with its folksy, homey advertisements and attractions. Case in point: there really is no reason why Branson needs its own paddlewheeler to glide around the nearby reservoir, Table Rock Lake, except for the fact that the showboat is something different that will draw a crowd. We decided to hop aboard the Branson Belle and were pleasantly surprised by the food, the live band, the views from the deck, and the show, which not only includes a singing boy band but also the world’s only aerial violinist. She’s one of those things you have to see to believe.

The Titanic Museum: I thought the Titanic Museum was going to be a ho-key, outdated trip through a museum that just rode on James Cameron’s coat-tails, but it actually turned out to be a boat load of fun. When you enter, you receive a passenger boarding ticket with the name of an actual Titanic passenger and their personal story. You pass through the museum to find lots of authentic Titanic memorabilia (letters, lifejackets, deck chairs and more) and set-like reproduction of what life was like in each class. After dunking your hand in a bucket of water that is the same freezing temperature of the sink site, you find out whether you survive or perish. It really was chilling.

The Landing: At the end of ‘The Strip’ and just past downtown Branson is a collection of restaurants, bars and shops known as ‘The Landing.’ Much like a boardwalk, this part of town sits adjacent to Lake Tanneycomo, and right in the middle you can see the fantastic $7.5 million waterworks of the ‘Water and Fire’ fountain. This outdoor mall is the place to go if you want to just sit back and have a nice dinner and drinks to get away from the over-the-topness of the rest of Branson.

Legends of Kung Fu: A visit to Branson wouldn’t be complete without a show, but seeing as my boyfriend and I aren’t really the song-and-dance type, we decided to go see Legends of Kung Fu. A martial arts extravaganza with a little Cirque Du Soleil thrown in, this was the main show of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and it did not disappoint. In fact, to ensure I didn’t miss anything I pretty much sat with my eyes wide open the whole time, muttering “wow!” a few dozen times throughout the show.

[Photo by Libby Zay]

Gas stations: then and now

gas stationsOnce upon a time, gas stations gave away all kinds of cool stuff, most of it targeted at kids. As a child of the 70’s, I clearly recall of our Exxon “NFL Helmets” drinking glass collection, and my miniature Noah’s Ark collectible series (What genius ad team decided that was the perfect gas station promo?). The point is, these giveaways worked. My parents would bribe me not to annoy my older brother on road trips by promising me a new plastic animal for my Ark. My brother didn’t have to punch me in retaliation, my parents didn’t have to pull over; everyone was happy.

I’m not exactly sure when the freebies stopped, but that’s not the only thing that’s changed in American gas station culture over the years. Prior to the opening of the world’s first dedicated gas (or “filling”) station in St. Louis in 1905, hardware stores and mercantiles had gas pumps. The price of gas when the first “drive-in” filling station opened in 1913? Twenty-seven cents a gallon.

As I write this, I’m in Oregon, on the final leg of a 10-day road trip from my home in Seattle to San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. The cost of gas in Truckee, California, where my brother lives is $4.09 a gallon. I paid $3.59 in Mt. Shasta today, and thought myself lucky. Oregon also reminds me of another way gas stations have changed between then and now.

[Photo credit: Flickr user iboy_daniel]gas stationThere were still full-service station attendants when I was a kid: clean, smiling, uniformed pumpers of gas who cleaned the windshield and checked the oil for free. Today, however, Oregon is one of the few states that prohibits the pumping of gas by motorists. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been yelled at in this state for absentmindedly getting out of my car and touching the pump. I actually enjoy pumping gas, but I’m not going to fight about it. I just think southern Oregon might want to look into hiring gas jockeys who look as though they haven’t spent time in a federal prison or crawled out of a meth lab, especially when they don’t even bother to wipe down my windshield. “Here, take my debit card, please.”

I think the trend toward enclosing urban attendants in bullet-proof booths is something that’s fairly recent. That makes me kind of sad. No one should really have to risk their life working the graveyard shift for close to minimum wage, but being a gas station attendant is definitely a high-risk occupation in a lot of places. If nothing else, the temptation to snack on the plethora of chemically-enhanced food and beverages in the workplace creates a hazardous environment.

Although a dying breed, I’ve seen some pretty sweet, old-school gas stations in the rural Southwest, South, and California’s Central Coast that sell regional bbq, Indian fry bread, or biscuits and country ham. I once visited a gas station in Tasmania that sold artisan bread, local cheese, butter, and milk (in bottles, no less), and local wine, jam, and honey. I really wish gas stations/local food markets would catch on the States…it would make getting gas less painful, even if it further depleted my bank account.
gas station
Gas station design has changed drastically over the years. Many rural stations in the fifties and sixties sported kitschy themes, such as dinosaurs or teepees, and were roadside attractions in their own right. Today, we have mega-stations like the Sheetz chain, which is wildly popular in the northeast for made-to-order food, all of it annoyingly spelled with “z’s” (If you need coffeez to go with your wrapz and cheezburgerz, you should check it out). There is something to be said for one-stop mega-station road shopping, however. It’s incredibly convienient when you’re short on time or in the middle of nowhere, and in need a random item.

I love dilapidated old filling stations, but I’m also lazy, so it throws me when I can’t use my debit card at the pump. It’s kind of a moot point, because I possess a bladder the size of a walnut. The cleanliness of gas station restrooms, while still an advertising hook, used to be a point of pride. These days, I feel like I should be wearing a hazmat suit when I use most small chain station toilets. Seriously, if you’re not going to going to clean or restock your bathroom, ever, please don’t post a sign telling me to report to the management if it needs “servicing.”

As for those fun giveaways disguised as advertising? I think that maybe the Happy Meal is what killed it for gas stations. Once fast food outlets started giving kids toys, the ad execs had to come up with a new plan. Which I suppose is why most gas companies target grown-ups now, even if they still use cartoon graphics. Does the sight of anthropomorphized cars dancing atop the pump actually sell gas and credit cards? I’d rather have a set of drinking glasses.

[Photo credits: Magnolia, Flickr user jimbowen0306; DX, Flickr user Chuck “Caveman” Coker;

Heading to West Virginia? Hit Hillbilly Hotdogs – Road trip tip

Traveling through West Virginia? Why not check out the finest “redneck diner” you’ll ever encounter? Just don’t take the Homewrecker Challenge on a full stomach.

If your travels take you through West Virginia, and you happen to be in the vicinity of Huntington, check out Hillbilly Hotdogs. It’s a small diner decorated in what the owners affectionately call “redneck chic.”

The dining area consists of two school buses, homemade barstools, and a picnic area adorned with hundreds of license plates from across the US. Patrons are invited to sign the walls (or any available surface) to commemorate their trip, and the staff will put on a great show if you ring the bell above the cash register.

Gadlinks for Monday 9.14.09

In keeping with the Weird America theme today on Gadling, here are some weird travel reads for you, this glorious fall (it is fall, right?) Monday.

‘Til tomorrow, have a great evening!

More Gadlinks HERE.

Photo of the day 8.03.09

You’ve perhaps noticed that all day long today, we’ve featured posts on the subject of roadside attractions and undiscovered spots — so it seems only fitting to share this image taken by jrodmanjr, appropriately entitled “Roadside Attraction.” What a great reminder that sometimes, you just have to pull off the road and make your own scenic fun.

If you’ve got some great travel shots you’d love to share, be sure to upload them to the Gadling pool on Flickr. We might just pick one as our Photo of the Day.