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]