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

Once 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]There 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 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;

Road trip: The best roadside attractions on the east and west coasts

Road trips are meant to be fun, meaningful, and inspire some reflection as you set out for the great open roads. When the driving gets a little dull, though, there’s plenty to see on the side of the road.

The eastern portion of the United States is home to many world-recognized sites, but many of these grandiose tourist destinations overshadow the lesser-known, roadside attractions that are just as worthy of your time. Here’s a round up of some of the best off-the-beaten path attractions along the east and west coasts that are worthy of a break on your next road trip:

East Coast

Museum of Bad Art – Dedham, Massachusetts

The Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) in Massachusetts boasts a collection of art so bad, it’s good. Visitors to this museum can peruse the various galleries, which contains an impressive (or is it non-impressive?) 400 pieces as part of its permanent collection. Popular pieces include their “Mana Lisa” — a painting that looks like the he-version of da Vinci’s famous smiling woman, among others.

Lucy the Elephant – Margate, New Jersey
At over 120 years old, New Jersey’s Lucy the Elephant boasts the title of America’s oldest roadside attraction. She’s constructed of entirely wood and tin, stands 65 feet tall and weighs in at a whopping 90 tons. For $4 a person ($2 kids), visitors can walk inside Lucy’s belly.

The Shoe House – York, Pennsylvania
Ever heard of the old lady who lived in a shoe? Turns out, that old tale may have actually been true. Located off the Hellam exit on U.S. 30 stands an actual, livable house in the shape of a shoe. It was constructed in 1948 by Colonel Mahlon N. Haines as part of an advertising gimmick.

Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard – South Burlington, Vermont
Every time a flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream gets the boot, it makes a final resting place in their Waterbury cemetery. Each flavor gets a proper headstone so that visitors can walk by and pay their respects (free of cost). May Hunka Burnin’ Fudge and Economic Crunch rest in piece.

World’s Largest Ax – (Nackawic) New Brunswick, New Jersey
If there’s one thing Nackawic, New Brunswick in New Jersey is known for, it’s the gigantic ax that rests along the banks of the Saint John River. The ax represents the small town’s major impact in the world of forestry.

Miles the Monster – Dover, Delaware

Towering above the Dover International Speedway in Delaware you can find Miles the Monster, the mascot with menacing red eyes who watches over the NASCAR track. With a race car clutched in one had and a giant, muscular figure made of stone, Miles can be quite intimidating.

Yankee Siege Trebuchet – Greenfield, New Hampshire
You don’t have to know a lot about medieval warfare to appreciate the Yankee Siege Trebuchet in Greenfield, New Hampshire. This giant, 25,000 pound trebuchet (a chucking device) is most famous for its ability to hurl pumpkins incredibly long distances. In fact, in 2009 it set a world record by throwing a pumpkin 2,034 feet.

Secret Caverns – Cobleskill, New York
The secret caverns just outside Albany, New York were discovered in the late 1920s when a few cows had an unfortunate fall into an 85 foot deep hole. Explorers decided to check out what was down the hole and happened upon a magnificent 100 foot waterfall. To check out this natural phenomenon yourself, Take I-88 to exit 22 and follow the hand-painted road signs.

West Coast

The Thing – Tuscon, Arizona
Located off exit 322 on Interstate 10 exists something that travelers refer to as, “The Thing.” So what is this thing, exactly? Supposedly, it’s a mummified mother with her dear child. If that weren’t enough, the museum also features a car rumored to be owned by Hitler himself and a stuffed Armadillo clutching a beer.

Trinity Site – Whites Sands Missile Range, New Mexico
On July 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated in New Mexico, an area now referred to as the Trinity Site. Tourists are able to visit the site twice a year — the first Saturday in April and October, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. There, you can view the 12-foot obelisk that marks the explosions hypocenter and walk around the huge crater, which is still littered with green, glassy pieces formed by the explosion.

Cadillac Ranch – Amarillo, Texas
This free roadside attraction is one of Texas’ most famous. It’s located in Amarillo along old Route 66 (Interstate 40) and was created in 1974 by artists who referred to themselves as Ant Farm. The art consists of 10 Cadillac cars halfway buried into the ground and covered in paint. Visitors can add to the artwork by painting their names or a picture.

World’s Tallest Thermometer – Death Valley, California
This 134-foot working thermometer is easily the world’s largest. It’s home is in Death Valley, California at 72155 Baker Blvd. Passers by can stop for pictures or simply determine what the current outside temperature is.

Giant Cabazan DinosaursCabazon, California
Nestled between Los Angeles and Palm Springs, California, tourists and locals alike can walk –or drive– amongst the world’s largest dinosaur statues. These life-sized dinos are part of a museum that’s open year round (excluding holidays) to adults and children. Visit this Western roadside attraction and you may feel like you’re living in prehistoric times.

Metaphor: Tree of Utah – Wendover, Utah

If you’re already in Utah to visit the state’s famous salt flats, you may as well take a gander at this quirky tourist attraction. It’s nicknamed the “Tree of Utah,” and is a tree-like statue created in the early ’80s by Karl Momen, a Swedish artist. It’s located on the north side of I-80 approximately 95 miles west of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Antler Arches – Jackson, Wyoming

The Antler Arches of Jackson, Wyoming are precisely what they sound like: arches that is constructed out of dozens of antlers. The arches themselves are pretty massive and rest at each of the four corners of Jackon’s town square.

Shoe Tree – Shaniko, Oregon
If you have an old pair of shoes to spare, you may as well chuck them onto the famous shoe tree in Alfafa, Oregon. After all, the tree houses hundreds of random shoes, tied together and swung over branches. You can find this quirky tree on Highway 26, east of Mitchell, Oregon near mile marker 89.

TV Simpsons’ House Replica – Las Vegas, Nevada

Even if you’re not an avid fan of television’s The Simpson family, chances are you’re at least familiar with the long-running series. In 1997, a house was constructed to look exactly like the Simpsons’ humble abode in Las Vegas, Nevada right off exit 64 on Interstate 515. The house is 2,200 square feet and part of a new subdivision appropriately titled, “Springfield.”

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.