We planned our first family trip to Branson, Missouri after buying a Branson family vacation package at our elementary school silent auction. We were already regularly vacationers in nearby Arkansas – and Branson was a one hour drive there and back. Plus, it was for the kids. The ticket package included tickets for Silver Dollar City – or what I like to call, “The Disneyland of the South”. It also had tickets to Branson’s local water park, White Water. So we planned to include 2 separate day trips into Branson from our rental cabin in Arkansas and get the boys nice and tired for naps and whatever…because y’all, parents need to vacation, too.
So we packed up, headed out, and explored all things Branson…and realized, real quick like…that this place is awesome. Pretty much a Vegas-meets-Nashville experience with something for everyone and lots of food, fun, and together time that we just don’t get enough of at home.
I purchased the school silent auction vacation package again and again till I ran out of elementary years and cheap ticket opportunities. We’ve visited Branson at different times of the year – a couple of spring break trips, a couple of summers; and maybe one day, a Christmas trip because I think this place would be gorgeous all decorated up for the holidays.
**Insider tip: if you choose a spring break trip – please, for the love of family vacations to Wally World, make sure your desired attractions are open. We learned that many things, amusement parks and such included, are still on the Missouri winter time schedule even as late as our Dallas spring break. And nothing would make me sadder than a 7 hour drive only to find a closed for the season sign.
I actually preferred the summer time there, namely because the water park was open for the kids, but also because Branson, though still a southern kind of hot, has a bit of a cooler nature to it and allows for some really nice evenings and nights to fit in more fun. One of my all-time favorite memories of our trips is our tradition of visiting the go-kart tracks after the heat of the day has gone. Because as much as I hate to say it, once those kiddos aren’t so little anymore, finding opportunities for play time together becomes less and less. But go-karts? We’re all a go on this, and it’s really one of the most family fun times we have each visit. The go-kart tracks here are the world’s best – tall, wood, twisting and spiraling and turning you and your kids into wanna-be Nascar drivers with every ride.
A few thoughts on places to stay in Branson: we mostly do fully furnished and roomy cabins in the mountains. Yes, I say mountains, though my friend that grew up in Branson laughs at that and calls them “hills”. To me any hill higher than Flag Pole Hill is pretty much a mountain and scares the pie out of me to drive on, and I end up yelling at my husband to slow the heck down when he drives. But whatever. We typically choose a VRBO cabin, not the state park kind. Think nicer kitchen than I have at home and a bedroom for each kid. We’ve stayed as far away as small-town Arkansas and as close as the city itself. One time we stayed at one of the upper-end Branson hotels when the boys were 8, 6 and 5. It turned out to be sort of expensive since we found everything had an additional cost, and only high-priced restaurant options – so make sure to plan for those things. We also stayed at the Holiday Inn Express one time and actually liked it better than the fancier place. But for me, private cabin rental wins the prize and there are tons to choose from. There’s a very nice Hilton located at the Branson Landing (which is basically a giant, upscale, outdoor mall with waterfront dining and amusement like areas for kids), and several moderately priced options – all the way down to the old Motel 6 style budget stays and maybe even a RV park or two. Or how about camping at Table Rock State Park?
The shopping: I’m not much for the water park scene so on those days I’ve taken time to hit the stores. Old town Branson has the expected antique and touristy boutique-style shops, while Branson Landing I found to be a lesson in debit card self-control. Stores galore, restaurants with waterside patios and nice views can fill a day, or part of one, anyway. One of our favorite family photos was taken by a nice stranger at the fountain at this center. That’s another things we’ve also found a lot of in Branson…nice strangers. One time we got our car stuck in the mud at the bottom of a giant hill. In the dark. Even the tow truck driver was nice. And that’s saying something about this town.
The shows: I must say that I find myself a bit stressed and borderline sad for some of the local show performers who start the day off with a 10AM matinee and only two cars in the parking lot. But the show must go on for two or 200, and they must be the world’s most professional entertainers because we see the same show marquees each visit, year after year. One time we ate at a singing waiter restaurant but quickly learned not to make eye contact because the waiter will surely serenade the wife/mom/gullible young daughter with a cover of her favorite George Strait love song, then present her with his CD for purchase for the low, low price of $20. The guilt sets in hard and quick on that one and you pretty much just keep saying, put it on my tab, till you can get the heck out of dodge. And y’all, one year I saw an Elvis impersonator walking into the CVS on his lunch break. In short, Branson is a world of fun entertainment options.
Once we saw the Chinese Acrobats show and it was sort of fun in a hot, middle of the afternoon, something to do sort of way. I also hope to one day see the Dolly Parton’s Stampede dinner show, because I sort of love her and her beautiful, yet candid, witty charm. We’ve also seen the occasional pop-up show that could appear out of nowhere while you wait in line for your dinner. But one of the most memorable shows was aboard the Showboat Branson Belle. Think full paddle wheel riverboat, circa 1800’s – esque. It’s a two-hour dinner cruise on the beautiful Table Rock Lake – and just saying, FYI…when they said all aboard at 3:15, they were not even close to kidding when we were quickly seated and asked our choice of beef or chicken, and promptly fed a dinner salad and a roll. Dinner plates in front of us by 3:45pm, a hit on the go button for the music and comedy variety show by 4:00 and out on the deck by 5:00 to enjoy the views of the Ozark mountains as we returned to the dock. I’m not sure we would do it again, but it was fun and filled with audience members of every age. I say every age with a grain of salt – seeing that we ate at the senior hour, I might be a bit wrong on this one.
Y’all, when I was a young girl I remember asking the lounge singer at the Spanish Gallion seafood restaurant for his autograph – because I was obviously crazy, and starstruck by start-up musicians in dark, smoky bars. I did not, however, have this same urge after the Branson Belle showboat show – chalk that up to maturity, discretion, or just quality of the entertainment – there’s really no accounting for taste, but feel free to take or leave my entertainment recommendations for what they are, based on my history.
The attractions: with everything from a giant King Kong atop a touristy replica of the Empire State Building leading you into the local wax museum, to a museum totally devoted to the Titanic, there are so many things to keep kids busy and entertained. At a price. I have to tell you that. But we learned to search out discounts and coupons in local publications and at hotels. But our all time favorite stop each time is Silver Dollar City. My entire family would rather drive the 7 hours to Branson to visit this Hillbilly Holler themed park than spend 10 minutes at our local Six Flags. The staff is polite, the park is clean, the rides are great. Bluegrass music plays in the background as you ride rides, eat home cooked meals – no amusement park hotdogs and fake cheese nachos here – think real food prepared fresh and real tables to sit and eat. Watch skilled craftsmen show their skills at woodworking, iron working, glass blowing and more – then visit with the artists about their craft. Then search out our favorite characters in the park – the resident hillbillies that will pose alongside you with their snaggle toothed smiles, the escaped convicts from the chain gang doing park clean up, and the resident funeral director, the Silver Dollar City undertaker.
We’ve also done some hiking and picnicking and and just some sitting. I like the just sitting part a lot.