As our car crested the last hill overlooking the town ahead, I rubbed my eyes to make sure they weren’t deceiving me. The first thing I spotted was a giant King Kong perched menacingly on the roof of a building.
Another roof was topped by a helicopter which appeared to have just landed or was about to take off. Among other hard-to believe visions that came into view were a huge chicken, an equally oversized fork piercing a large meatball and a half-size replica of the Titanic nestled against the iceberg that it had struck.
Welcome to the town of Branson, which is set in the rolling Ozark Mountains of Missouri. In contrast with the rather pastoral area that surrounds it, Branson is an island of fun and frivolity, exciting thrill rides and a long and varied list of entertainment options – along with a choice of more educational and even erudite alternatives.
They combine to create a destination that is somewhat, shall I say, different. Here’s a place where kitsch becomes catchy, the offbeat seems normal, and visitors at times may find themselves abandoning what is real for the surreal.
Consider this fact: Bigfoot is alive and well in Branson. More about that later.
Thrills, Toys and Kitsch at Branson, Missouri
Among other claims to fame, Branson hosts the world’s largest toy museum; the fastest, tallest and steepest spinning roller coaster, and the biggest rooster weather vane, a boast which made me wonder how many other rooster vanes there are.
My wife Fyllis and I went to Branson with some trepidation. From what we had heard, it’s the kind of place that, to be blunt, we often find unappealing in ways. Several days later, we left loving it!
Let me add that we became enamored with the town for what it is. Some of what goes on there may be corny and cliched, but it’s done very well.
In addition, there’s plenty to see and do that’s downright educational and exhilarating in a more serious way. But first, let’s have some fun.
If you’re a thrill ride aficionado, Branson may well be the place for you. Just a few examples from a lengthy list of heart-racing alternatives include a windmill-shaped ride that propels passengers at speeds up to 60 miles an hour, the second fastest wooden roller coaster in the world and a four-story-high go-kart track that hurls passengers on a twisting, turning and spiraling ride.
For those not enthralled by such stomach-churning experiences, there also are plenty of choices available for life in the slow lane.
From Museums to Marilyn Monroe, Branson, Missouri Has it All
A wax museum provides introductions to famous movie stars. A collection of auto and farm equipment includes more than 200 “cool cars” and almost as many tractors and steam engines. Passengers on the Branson Scenic Railway experience the luxury travel of times past during a 40-mile ride through the Ozark foothills.
Then there’s the lengthy list of entertainment options. They range from country and rock music to comedy and acrobatic performances.
Legends in Concert includes tributes to the likes of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and the Blues Brothers. Dolly Parton’s Stampede offers a four-course meal along with exhibitions by trained dogs, racing pigs, horses and human entertainers in a rodeo-like setting.
Branson, Missouri Rose from Fishing to Fast Rides
In contrast with the thrill rides and frenzied activity that greet visitors to Branson today, it’s somewhat ironic that the area initially became known as a favorite destination for fishermen seeking a quiet outing. Its rivers and warm water Table Rock Lake continue to serve as magnets for anglers in search of large mouth bass and other freshwater fighters.
The primary draw for many folks today is Silver Dollar City, and that multifaceted fun park alone would be well worth a visit. Its history traces back to the 1890s, when a system of underground caverns named Marvel Cave was opened to the public.
As crowds began to gather, rides and other attractions were built to give guests something to do while they waited for a cave tour. It wasn’t long before more people began coming for the recreation than the cave, and that set the stage for the mega-park which greets visitors today.
History Is Alive at Silver Dollar City
The setting recreates the atmosphere of the Ozarks in the late 19th century. That theme is carried out in a number of ways.
For starters, almost everything that is made, used and even eaten in Silver Dollar City is made by some 100 resident craftspeople who keep alive an American heritage. At the same time that they demonstrate their skills, leather crafters, candle makers, glass blowers and other artisans create items that are sold in shops and also used throughout the park.
Even the food becomes part of experiencing the lore of the Ozarks. Veggie-filled succotash is cooked in a six-foot skillet that was made by the blacksmith, using the family recipe of a park employee. A stop at Eva and Delilah’s Bakery becomes a step back in time with demonstrations of making taffy and other treats, followed by mouth-watering tastings.
At Sullivan’s Mill, an old-fashioned waterwheel powers a stone wheel that grinds yellow and white corn meal which is used to bake sourdough, cinnamon and seven-grain Indian bread.
In addition to the usual theme park rides and entertainment, there are some that carry out the Ozarkian theme. For example, the Giant Barn Swing is based upon ropes that were attached to the rafters of barns long ago to provide a basic, but enjoyable, experience. The wooden roller coaster is a throwback to the thrill rides of decades past.
Signs of Bigfoot in Branson, Missouri
Earlier I promised you an introduction to Bigfoot and I can report that our Exploratory Expedition to search for a large hairy beast achieved some success. Fyllis and I spotted oversize muddy footprints, heard ear-shattering screams and were subjected to musty beast-like smells. However, a vow of silence imposed upon Bigfoot searchers keeps me from divulging more.
On the other hand, little else about Branson is a secret. You’re almost certain to find a number of things to your liking. Even when it comes to appeals and attractions that you think may have little interest, you may end up agreeing that at least Branson does them well.
For more information, call (417) 334-4084 or log onto www.explorebranson.com
Authors: Fyllis Hockman and Victor Block are a husband-wife team of experienced travel journalists who have gallivanted throughout the United States, and to nearly 80 countries around the world, and written about what they have seen, done and learned. Their articles have appeared in newspapers across the country and on websites across the Internet, and they each have won numerous writing awards. They love to explore new destinations and cultures and uncover off-the-beaten-path attractions. Read more of their work at The Rambling Writers