In the early 1990s, Branson, Mo., was the place where fading musicians found new life. Glen Campbell, Roy Clark, Mel Tillis, Andy Williams and many others built their own theaters in this Ozark Mountains town of 10,000. When the stars came to Branson, national attention came with them. “60 Minutes” declared Branson the “Live Music Capital of the Universe.” It was known as a family-oriented, affordable version of Las Vegas, and like Vegas, Branson had a “strip” — a row of theaters, restaurants and hotels — along Hwy. 76.
Actually, the big names came late to the party. In the mid-’60s, music theaters opened in Branson, packing in regional country fans. Silver Dollar City, a family-oriented theme park, opened nearby in 1960. Many of the stars now are gone; they’ve retired or died. But that hasn’t stopped the steady stream of visitors. An estimated 8 million people now come to Branson each year, almost 300,000 of them from Minnesota.
Music and more
Theaters still line the strip. The top draws are family shows like the Haygoods (1-417-339-4663; www.thehaygoods.com), the Duttons (1-417-332-2772; www.theduttons.com) and the Presleys (1-800-335-4874; www.presleys.com). These shows, a mix of music and comedy, are reasonably priced — ticket prices for most shows are around $35. But it’s not all about country. Barry Williams (TV’s Greg Brady) is headlining a show called “ ’70s Music Celebration” this year. Other attractions include a troupe of acrobats from Shanghai, gospel shows and the Showboat Branson Belle (1-800-475-9370; www.silverdollarcity.com/showboat-branson). The Titanic Museum (1-800-381-7670; www.titanicbranson.com) contains more than 400 artifacts from the doomed ship.
Away from the strip
Silver Dollar City (1-800-475-9370; www.silverdollarcity.com), about 10 miles from the strip, is not your usual theme park. It started as Marvel Cave, a natural wonder that drew thousands of visitors each year. The 1880s-themed park started as a way to give visitors something to do while they waited to explore the cave. Today, Silver Dollar City covers 100 acres and has rides including the Outlaw Run, the 2015 Guinness World Record holder for steepest wooden roller coaster, with an 81-degree drop.
You’ll get a song with your supper at Mel’s Hard Luck Diner (1-417-332-0150; www.melshardluckdiner.com). Servers must pass an audition to work there; former employees include Matt Kester, a contestant from the fourth season of “American Idol.” Portions are huge — and you’ll need a few friends to help you finish the diner’s famed Climb Every Mountain Ice Cream Avalanche, a sundae with 12 scoops of ice cream and 12 toppings. For a special dinner, try the Branson Hilton’s Level 2 Steakhouse (1-417-243-3433; www.level2steakhouse.com). Chef Jeff Luzius uses locally grown produce, Missouri pork and Midwest beef with some signature touches — don’t miss the egg noodles with cheese sauce or vanilla vinaigrette. Level 2 has a unique frequent diner program; eat there five times and a steak knife is engraved with your name on it. It will be waiting at your table whenever you come back.
Why go now
Summer is Branson’s busiest season. Families flock to the area for Silver Dollar City and boating, fishing and swimming at Table Rock Lake. White Water (1-800-532-7529; www.silverdollarcity.com/white-water) is an island-themed water park with a variety of rides and slides. The area boasts a number of award-winning golf courses. Golf Week magazine has named the Payne Stewart Golf Club (1-417-337-2963; www.paynestewartgolfclub.com) the No. 1 course in Missouri for the past four years.
Six months out
Patriotism is serious business in Branson. Veterans are recognized at almost every show and discounts often are offered to those who have served. But the celebration kicks into high gear the week before Veterans Day in November with Veterans Homecoming Week, featuring a parade and special events. Following that, Branson is decked out for Christmas, with special shows and Silver Dollar City’s Old Time Christmas festival, which draws thousands each year.
Branson is about 650 miles from the Twin Cities. Springfield-Branson Airport is a 45-minute drive from Branson.
Jayne Cannon is a North Carolina-based freelance writer who covers travel for a variety of publications.