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 may find themselves abandoning what is real for, at times, the surreal.
Consider this fact alone: Bigfoot is alive and well in Branson. More about that later.
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 usually hate. And we left loving it!
Let me add that we left Branson liking 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, a skydiving adventure and a four-story-high go-kart track that hurls passengers on a twisting, turning and spiralling ride.
For those not enthralled by such stomach-churning experiences, plenty of choices are available for those who prefer life in the slow lane. A wax museum provides introductions to famous movie stars. An auto and farm museum combines an inventory of more than 200 “cool cars” with almost as many tractors and steam engines.
Passengers on the Branson Scenic Railway experience the luxury travel of times past during a leisurely 40-mile ride through the Ozark foothills. Humans strolling through the Butterfly Palace delight at the Technicolor show put on by the flighty little creatures flitting about, who at times alight on visitors for a close-up and personal introduction.
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 cowboys and cowgirls, trained dogs plus some surprise participants in a rodeo-like setting.
In contrast with the fast rides and frenzied activity that greet visitors to Branson today, the area first began to attract folks seeking a quiet fishing 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 current primary draw for many is Silver Dollar City, and that complex alone would be well worth a visit. It’s history traces back to the 1890s, when a Canadian miner bought a complex of underground caverns and opened it as an attraction named Marvel Cave. Several years later it became the building block of what would become, and still is, the most extensive amusement, entertainment and theme park in Branson.
The initial goal of the attraction, named Silver Dollar City, was to give guests something to do while they waited for a cave tour. It wasn’t long before more people came for attractions than the cave, and that set the stage for the mega-park that greets visitors today.
The setting recreates the atmosphere of the Ozarks in the late 19th century. A hint of that is conveyed by a welcome sign which reads, “You have a great past ahead of you.”
That Old Time theme is constantly repeated. For starters, many things that are used in Silver Dollar City have been 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, potters and other artists – for that’s what they are – create items that are used throughout the park and offered for sale in shops.
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 the bakery becomes a step back in time, with demonstrations of making taffy and other treats, followed by tastings.
At Sullivan’s Mill, an old-fashioned waterwheel powers a stone wheel that grinds corn meal which is used to bake sourdough, cinnamon and seven-grain Indian bread.
In addition to the usual amusement and theme park rides and entertainment, a number of them also carry out the Ozarkian theme. For example, the Giant Barn Swing is based upon ropes that were attached to the rafters of sheds long ago to provide a basic, but enjoyable, experience. The wood roller coaster is a throwback to the thrill rides of decades past.
I promised you an introduction to Bigfoot and can report that our Exploratory Expedition to search for a large hairy beast was successful. That is, if you count a resident herd of Scottish Highland cows that we encountered, their bodies and faces sporting a blanket of long fur and hair.
As it turned out, we did spot large 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. If you go there with an open mind you’re likely, as Fyllis and I did, to find a number of things to your liking. You might also agree that even when it comes to appeals and attractions which have little interest for you, Branson does them well.
For more information, call (417)334-4084 or log onto explorebranson.com.