Surrounded by rugged woodlands, limestone bluffs and country air as clean as the wholesome country folk who live and entertain there is Branson, Mo. A change of scenery and less restrictive COVID regulations are just a mask-wearing flight or two and bucolic hour-long drive away.
The gateway to this oasis in the Ozarks is Springfield-Branson National Airport (SGF), and American, Delta, United and Allegiant airlines all fly there from Southern California. It’s no accident that the skies between here and southern Missouri are a tad busier as the coronavirus pandemic drags on, no thanks to the delta and omicron variants.
“Variants? What variants?” was Joe Modglin’s response when asked how ticket sales are going for the long-running Haygoods family show, of which he’s director of sales and marketing. “We’re selling more tickets than even before the pandemic, and a lot of them are being bought by Californians escaping the mandates to enjoy life and be free.”
Family-friendly shows are a Branson mainstay, and if you’re looking for one that doesn’t throw in the great-grandparents or their great-grandchildren just to fill the stage with kin, the Haygoods (thehaygoods.com) is a solid choice. The oldest first-generational show in town is the whole package. Six multi-talented siblings ranging in age from 30 to 44 grace Clay Cooper Theatre with two thoroughly entertaining hours of genre-crossing music, impressive special effects and genuine family fun. Best of all, it’s zero percent lame. Even this travel writer’s snarky millennial son loved the show, which resumes Feb. 4 after going dark for a month.
The Baldknobbers Jamboree (baldknobbers.com), named after local vigilantes from the late-1800s, is considered the town’s original family show, and after 60 years the Mabe clan is still going strong at the Branson Famous Theatre — that is, after a well-deserved winter’s break. Over at the Hughes Brothers Theatre, the self-proclaimed “world’s largest performing family” will also be back right before spring with a show that features 50 singers, dancers and musicians (hughesentertainmentinc.com). Presleys’ Country Jubilee (presleys.com) stars more gifted relatives who return in March at their eye-catching 1,500-seat theater.
These and other big-production hootenannies are what give Branson the nickname, “The Live Country Music Capital of the Universe,” coined by a TV news magazine 30 years ago. The highly watched profile on “60 Minutes” did for Branson in 1991 what “The Ed Sullivan Show” did for the Beatles in 1964. A frenzy followed with Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, Tony Orlando, Lawrence Welk and the Osmond Brothers all hoping to strike it rich in Branson with their own theaters, just as the trailblazing Roy Clark did in 1983.
Before the CBS-spawned gold rush, Branson had 22 theaters in operation, less than half what there is today. Highway 76 is so dotted with entertainment venues, it’s called “The Strip.”
Country and folk music are the town’s main draw on and off The Strip, but Branson still has room for other types of family-friendly entertainment. “Escape Reality” (carsonentertainment.com), starring magician Garry Carson, is a terrific dinner show at the Hughes Brothers Theatre. When Carson and his long-time assistant aren’t disappearing and reappearing, the flawlessly synchronized duo put themselves in seemingly dangerous situations and often at the lady’s expense. Good thing Janine is happily married to the man who slices and dices her like Velveeta cheese.
Also popular is a dinner cruise aboard the Showboat Branson Belle (silverdollarcity.com). While perusing serene Table Rock Lake, guests enjoy supper with superb service followed by an upbeat stage show that features comedy and a song-and-dance mix of ‘70s and ‘80s music — just like on an ocean cruise.
Another top attraction is the Titanic Museum (titanicbranson.com). Besides seeing more than 400 artifacts, including the supposed only surviving first-class dinner menu, visitors can experience the slope of the sinking ship at various stages of panic and feel how cold water at 28 degrees is. They say the replica of the Grand Staircase cost $1 million, and it’s too stunning for that not to be believed. The museum (open daily) is a literal can’t-miss on The Strip; the façade is a 100-foot-high half-scale replica of the ill-fated ship.
For a region with probably more possum than people, having a world-class theme park as a top attraction is impressive. The 1880s-themed, roller coaster-rich Silver Dollar City (silverdollarcity.com) is a cross between Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain. A couple of days is required to take in all the live entertainment, shopping, food choices — Rivertown Smokehouse is a must — and, of course, the rides.
Two are engineering marvels: Time Traveler, one of the fastest, steepest and tallest spinning coasters on the planet; and Mystic River Falls, a 12-minute raft ride that opened in summer 2020 and features the hemisphere’s tallest drop in the category — complements of an 8-story elevator that interrupts a wet and wild whitewater run for an unforgettable lift and descent. Even this native Southern Californian must admit that Mystic River Falls blows away the raft rides at Disney’s California Adventure, Magic Mountain and Knott’s.
Just outside Branson is the Ralph Foster Museum (rfostermuseum.com), affectionately named “Smithsonian of the Ozarks.” Located on the College of the Ozarks campus, the expansive showcase features the very vehicle Jethro Clampett drove in the opening credits of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the classic TV sitcom that ran from 1962 to 1971. Ask kindly and you might be able to actually sit inside this hallowed heap.
Lodging-wise, Chateau on the Lake (chateauonthelake.com) is deservedly the town’s only AAA four-diamond resort. The Ozark’s equivalent of Quebec’s Chateau Frontenac is perched on a hill above Table Rock Lake. There’s not a bad view from any of the 301 units and the indoor entertainment Branson is known for is only 10 minutes away. If you’ve got a hankering for outdoor recreation, the adjacent lake has boats, kayaks and WaveRunners for rent in pleasant weather.
And when is that? Branson’s highs are generally in the 70s and 80s from April through October, and top out in the 40s and 50s the rest of the year. July is the hottest month, as expected, but if you’re looking for a different kind of warmth, nothing beats the holiday spirit permeating throughout the town in November and December. The extent to which Branson decks the halls for Christmas is as legendary as Santa Claus himself.
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