Summer’s almost over, school starts in just a few short weeks – and you suddenly realized you haven’t spent a minute with your precious grandkids in months. But where to go on such short notice that won’t be mobbed, impossible to get to or exorbitantly priced? Where there’s no wrong-side-of-the-tracks lined with boozy taverns, topless discos and adult book shops? Where cellphone service and internet access can be so sketchy in the countryside you’re virtually guaranteed 24/7 access to grandkids who would otherwise be wired, plugged in or flying high on AI?
As a bi-coastal gal who’s spent little time in the flyover states, Branson, Missouri struck me as the perfect place for world-weary six-year-olds and grandparents seeking The Land of No Four Letter Words. So clean it squeaked and so all-American that nearly every theater and restaurant flew the flag, this Bible-Belt town populated by fervent Christian performers was the antithesis of Vegas, offering a bucket-load of wholesome, old-fashioned fun tailor-made for extended-family vacays. You could even get saved by heading behind the stage after a show.
Here are a dozen ways to spend a long weekend with the grandkids/kids in Branson.
You had to see it to believe it: Branson is justly world-famous for its “G”-rated shows. There’s no sex, no skin and no cursing, whether you’re watching Chinese acrobats tumble across the stage in death-defying stunts, magicians/illusionists performing mysterious feats or attending concerts where seeming clones miraculously recapture the sound of rock and roll legends. After a long, hot day in the park, we all welcomed the chance to sink into a plush seat at Dick Clark’s (remember him?) air-conditioned American Bandstand Theater and chill for the 2-hour Legends in Concert show. The fast-paced show opened with Country Western singer George Strait -- I thought he was the real McCoy until someone told me all the performers were impersonators -- continued with The Temptations, dressed to the nines and with all the right moves if occasionally off-key, and concluded with a highly-sanitized Elvis -- not a whole lotta shakin’ going on, although the performer totally nailed his voice. It was an otherworldly experience that recalled the phrase, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Spend a day at Silver Dollar City amusement park. Move over, Disneyland and Magic Mountain. This old-fashioned 1880s amusement park dedicated to preserving all-things-Ozarks was no stick in the mud, delivering a fleet of high-speed coasters where we screamed our lungs out and were grateful we hadn’t yet eaten lunch. Thunderation, the world’s coolest wooden roller coaster (named Best New Ride of 2013 worldwide) traveled at 48 miles per hour while The Giant Barn Swing launched us through a barn door and up seven stories at 45 miles per hour and nearly upside down. WildFire, a high-flying, multi-looping, cobra-rolling coaster approached speeds of 66 miles per hour while PowderKeg took us from 0 to 53 mph in 2.8 seconds and Fire In The Hole, a terrifyingly-fun indoor roller coaster, had unexpected high-speed drops, twists and curves. We caught our breath at Marvel Cave, where 600 steps descended 300 feet below the earth to the dripping cavern Cathedral Room, where limestone formations are still growing. Afterwards, we had lunch at a park eatery, many housed in charming, tumbledown shacks and shanties that peek from the trees, following the smoky aromas to the Wagon Works Grill for chicken wraps and chipotle burgers and to Crossroads Pizza for handcrafted, wood-fired pies. We wiled away the afternoon white-water rafting on the Lost River of the Ozarks, floating through The Flooded Mine and watching demos of age-old crafts like candy-making, checking out Silver Dollar’s 1800s one-room school house and pretty Wilderness Church and watching demos of age-old crafts like candy-making and candle- making.
Sack out: Historic downtown Branson is flanked by two stunning Hilton hotels – we checked into the sleek, high-rise Hilton Branson Convention Center, where swank floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked views of the town, Lake Tayencomo and Branson Landing pedestrian mall, although the family-friendly Hilton Promenade across the street, located a few steps from restaurants, shops and boutiques, looked equally beautiful. Rooms at both hotels include a free hot breakfast at Branson Hilton’s Level 2 Steakhouse, by night an elegant, candlelit farm-to-table restaurant where 28-day aged corn-fed Missouri beef was served with a choice of five very sharp knives along with locally-sourced dishes like Wagyu Steaks, Southern-Fried Chicken and Apple Braised Circle B Ranch Pork Osso Bucco, tantalizing sides like roasted garlic whipped, Sweet Potato Dauphinoise and Herb-and-Bacon Roasted Brussel Sprouts and sinful homemade desserts such as Missouri Butter Cake, Tahitian Vanilla Bean Crème Brulee and Triple Chocolate Mousse Tort.
Zip around Branson: With more than eight local zip line companies, you could spend the entire day flying over Branson like Wendy and Peter Pan at speeds up to 50 miles per hour. Adventure Zipline of Branson, located just a few blocks from downtown Branson, was a thrilling, guided 2-hour tour that began atop a 70-foot tower overlooking awesome views of the Ozarks, with rides on seven individual ziplines ranging in length from 200 feet to 2,000 feet. We soared across meadows, between trees and to the foot of three rope bridges and were disappointed to learn their “Zip at Night” tours, where you fly through the dark night sky from one lit tower to another, were completely booked.
Ride the ducks: Modeled after the military’s World War II DUKWs, these amphibians were used to transport troops and supplies over water to land and back again. On our guided, narrated tour, our pilot navigated us to the top of Baird Mountain and back down, past Table Rock Dam, Branson’s entertainment district and the Branson Belle showboat and on to Table Rock Lake for Splashdown, where our duck just kept on swimming! Plus every kid on board got a chance to drive.
Have lunch at Mel’s Hard Luck Diner, a 1950s-era eatery in downtown Branson where all the servers turned out to be singers, songwriters and musicians, many currently in Branson production and two of whom appeared on American Idol. Then we checked out Dick’s Old-Time 5 & 10, open half a century and crammed from the floor to the rafters with 1,110 kinds of old-time “penny candy” as well as toys, games, housewares and more.
Wooo-woo! All aboard the Branson Scenic Railway! Headquartered in a quaint 1905 railroad station located a few steps from both Hiltons, the Ozark Zephyr vintage passenger train lumbered through the foothills of the Ozark Mountains on a nearly 2-hour journey through the Ozark wilds. We plunged through tunnels, clickety-clacked across trestles past the ruins of long-ago communities that today exist only on railroad maps and enjoyed panoramic views in the three dome cars.
BBQ and a show: That night, we followed the tantalizing smells to Getting Basted, the original little-restaurant-that-could located inside the Starlite Theater that’s won many national BBQ awards for its home-style chicken, ribs, pulled pork, brisket and potato salad. The kids were thrilled their meals came on a souvenir Frisbee they could take home. After dinner, we went into the theater to see Larry’s Country Diner, a live stage show that retained the country wackiness and 100-percent-unscripted nature of the popular TV hit series.
We rose early for a home-style breakfast at The Farmhouse Restaurant, a Branson landmarked located in the historic downtown, and split three ways The Farmhouse Special, a heaping platter anchored by a huge slab of ham, two eggs, country potatoes, dollar pancakes, grits and biscuits with gravy.
Afterwards, we hiked through Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, a 10,000-acre preserve just south of Branson with crystal-clear trout streams; dozens of cascading waterfalls; ancient burial caves; natural and hand-built stone bridges; bottomless, blue-green pools; jagged ravines and grassy pastures where we watched the long-horned cattle, elk, American bison, whitetail deer and Texas longhorns play before hopping on Segways for -- whee! -- an exhilarating guided tour of the park.
“Have lunch at Hard Work U:” Even if your grandkids aren’t the least bit spoiled, it’s never too early to remind them of the value of hard work. At The College of the Ozarks, located on the grounds of a century-old farm, students working their way through college staffed the mill, greenhouses, dairy farm, bakery/espresso bar, ice cream shop and served as the culinary staff at Dobyns Dining Room, where we sat down to a killer farm-to-table lunch of fried green tomatoes and Pulled Pork Barbeque Cornbread Sandwich, both made with ingredients grown on campus.
Relive the Titanic’s final, fateful hours at the Titanic Museum: At this fascinating museum, the words and stories of the passengers and crew told the horrific tale, some of it as it was unfolding, while more than 400 personal and private artifacts filled in the heartbreaking gaps: We felt their spirit presence and made haunting emotional connections with them we never got from the Hollywood movie.
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