I recently returned to Branson, Mo., for the first time since a family vacation there decades ago and came away with three main observations: The traffic is remarkably better than it was in the early 1990s, there’s much more to Branson than what’s on the strip – a stretch of Highway 76 crowded with go-kart tracks, miniature golf courses and theaters – and the literal changing of this tourist town’s skyline is a signal of pent-up investments coming to life.
After an incredible decade of development (and, thankfully, $40 million in road improvements) in the 1990s, Branson tourism officials saw a significant decrease in investments in new and existing attractions during the downturn in the economy. The floodgates have opened in recent years, said Lynn Berry, director of communications for the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau, and this year is no exception.
The skyline on the strip is now defined by a 150-foot Ferris wheel that opened in June at a cost of $4 million. This summer also brought the opening of the first phase of an $11 million Ballparks of America development that turned an old mall into a stay-and-play destination with 16 baseball fields replicating iconic major-league parks. In August, the $5 million Branson Mountain Adventure Park debuted the Ozarks’ first mountain coaster. The $10 million Fritz’s Adventure, a three-story indoor family recreation park, is scheduled to open this fall.
If you’re a regular of Branson or a newbie, this fall is a great time to visit and see something new. A record 8.4 million people visited Branson in 2015, and officials say they are on pace for another increase this year. Fall is a favorite time for visitors to see the Ozarks’ foliage, and November is historically the area’s second-busiest month for two reasons: Oct. 31 “is Christmas Eve in Branson,” Berry quipped. “And in early November, we host a Veterans Week that regularly attracts 40,000.”
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These attractions should be on your itinerary if you plan to visit Branson this fall.
Branson Mountain Adventure Park
Developers finally figured out how to use this forested property with 400 feet of elevation change: They built The Runaway, a mile-long mountain roller coaster that embraces the lay of the land. The coaster’s carts are pulled to the top like a traditional coaster, then the ride down is all gravity. Its low-profile track is designed around natural features to take riders darting through oaks and hickories. Riders can control their speed using brakes if they want a more leisurely ride. The website (bransonalpinemountaincoaster.com) says the ride will be open daily throughout the year except in extreme weather.
Branson Ferris wheel
It took 26 semitrailer trucks to move this Ferris wheel to Branson from Chicago’s Navy Pier, which installed a bigger wheel. It began rotating at one of the Track Family Fun Parks in June on a former miniature golf course next to Andy’s Frozen Custard. There are 40 gondolas, and the structure stands 150 feet tall, offering expansive views during the seven-minute revolution. It lights up at night with 16,000 LED lights, and there’s a choreographed music and light show nightly at 6, 7 and 8 p.m. My favorite time was at dusk, when I could catch an Ozarks sunset.
Silver Dollar City
The nation’s largest festival of craftsmen and their demonstrations is the National Harvest and Cowboy Festival at Silver Dollar City, Branson’s 1880s-style theme park that sees 2 million visitors a year. About 125 artists from around the country will join the park’s 100 resident craftsmen from Sept. 14 to Oct. 29 to display, sell and demonstrate their work. Cowboy music and poetry, chuck wagon cooking, Wild West shows, wild mustangs and barn dances are also part of the festival.
Before you get sticker shock from the entry fee ($61 for adults, $20 ages 4-11 through Oct. 29), consider that you can easily make a full day of your visit to Silver Dollar City. In addition to craftsman exhibits, tickets includes 40 rides and attractions, a 70-minute variety show in the amphitheater, other live performances throughout the day (don’t miss the vaudeville-style show in the saloon) and a guided tour of Marvel Cave.
With so much to do above ground, it’s easy to forget about what’s below ground. Silver Dollar City began with a few buildings re-creating a mining town, opening in 1960 to keep visitors entertained while they waited in line to see Marvel Cave. Just after you enter the park, you’ll come across the entrance to the cave. Tours depart every 30 minutes most days, with a lantern light tour once a day.
The tours take you 500 feet below ground into the deepest commercially operated cave in Missouri. During the hourlong tour, you’ll follow a trail of stairs and ramps, climbing 300 stairs down and 200 back up to a cable train that delivers you to the surface.
Tips: If you’re going to Silver Dollar City mainly for the rides, download the park’s free app that provides real-time wait times. Also, you can purchase a trailblazer pass that allows you to skip the line on most rides. If you’re looking for a quiet spot to eat lunch or enjoy a 35-cent cookie from the park’s Sullivan’s Mill, head for the waterfall behind the Lumbercamp Falls Skillets kiosk.
Top of the Rock attractions
Eight miles south of Branson is Big Cedar Lodge, a family destination resort opened in 1988 by Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops. In recent years, Morris has developed Top of the Rock – the highest point in the area, overlooking the Ozarks and the 43,000-acre Table Rock Lake – into a recreational and dining destination open to the public. There’s a golf course, three restaurants, a wine cellar, Chapel of the Ozarks, Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum and Top of the Rock Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail.
Parking on the bluff is limited to a large area next to the starting point for the nature trail. The 2.5-mile trail is accessible only via a self-guided electric cart ride or a guided walk that is offered once daily. It takes about an hour to drive the cart past scenic overlooks, rock formations and waterfalls, across bridges and through the Lost Canyon Cave, where you can stop for a beverage in the Bat Bar.
From the parking lot, take a shuttle ride to see the rest of Top of the Rock, including the castle-like clubhouse where you can get out and explore the grounds. Take in the views on the west side, including the “End of the Trail” bronze statue sitting in a reflecting pool with Table Rock Lake as the backdrop. On the bottom floor of the clubhouse is the museum, exhibiting artifacts, art and dioramas that take you through the development of the Ozarks.
About 16 miles east of Big Cedar is another Morris development: Dogwood Canyon, a 10,000-acre nonprofit nature preserve. The 3.2-mile trail here can be explored on foot, by bicycles for rent, guided horse or Segway tours and jeep or tram rides that take you deeper into the property, where you can see herds of American bison, elk, whitetail deer and Texas longhorn.
College of the Ozarks
TripAdvisor’s top-rated restaurant in Branson is Dobyns Dining Room on the campus of College of the Ozarks. Two tips on eating here: Make a reservation, and allow time to see the rest of the campus.
This is a four-year liberal arts college that charges no tuition, instead requiring its 1,500 students to work 15 hours each week at one of 100 campus workstations. Students can work full time during the summer to cover the cost of next year’s room and board.
Dobyns Dining Room is one of the workstations; you’ll be waited on by students and eat from a menu that includes many ingredients grown on campus. Meals start with rolls and biscuits made from the school’s grist mill with apple butter prepared by the student-run Fruit Cake and Jelly Kitchen using ingredients from the on-campus orchard and dairy.
The restaurant serves lunch, dinner and a Sunday brunch inside the lodge-style Keeter Center, which also houses a 15-suite boutique inn open to the public.