In a town that operates year-round as a tourist destination, Branson always has a restaurant, ride, show or attraction opening or soon to debut. I made the 280-mile drive to southern Missouri for the first time in about three years in September and brought back intel on several of the latest developments.
Here are some of the highlights to explore yet this year or keep in mind as you start thinking about spring break and summer vacation destinations next year.
Special exhibits at Titanic Museum Attraction
I’ll admit, I was one of the skeptics who had previously noticed the massive replica of the RMS Titanic, built half-scale, in Branson and figured the Titanic Museum Attraction would be cheesy. Now that I’ve gone inside, I know it’s a living theater with more than 400 artifacts valued at more than $4.5 million and tells amazing stories of those on board.
The items in the collection were not recovered from the bottom of the ocean but discovered and verified to have been carried off the vessel by passengers and crew members before or after the tragedy: a rare letter written aboard the ship and mailed at the last port, dishware and life jackets, to name a few.
This is one of two permanent Titanic museums in the U.S. that are owned by Mary Kellogg-Joslyn and John Joslyn, who in 1987 led the dive to explore the famous ship’s wreckage, retrieve artifacts and film its remains. They opened it in 2006 and followed with a location in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., in 2010.
The permanent collection rotates frequently and also hosts temporary exhibits. Through Dec. 31, you can see clothing and accessories worn by the cast of “Downton Abbey.” The first episode of the TV series used the sinking to establish a timeframe for the audience to follow and played a role in the show’s entire plot. The family’s male heirs went down with the ship, leaving the future of the Crawley dynasty in jeopardy as they had three daughters who could not inherit the family’s fortune.
From Feb. 8 through June 15, the Branson museum will show the violin of Titanic bandleader Wallace Hartley for the first time since 2016. It is privately owned and considered one of the ship’s rarest artifacts. The violin was found strapped to the floating body of Hartley, famous for continuing to play throughout the chaos of the ship’s sinking.
Tickets are $14 for ages 5 to 12 and $27 for adults if purchased in advance online, though check https://titanicbranson.com/ for combo deals with other attractions and discounts. Past and present military get in free in November.
Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen
Fans of butter are lining up to try down home cooking at the new Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen on the northern end of Branson Landing. Think chicken and dumplings, Georgia fried catfish and hand-breaded southern fried chicken with about a dozen options for sides, most of them creamed and buttered.
The celebrity chef’s menu of classic comfort foods based on family recipes is meant to conjure memories of your own family meals. Mains and sides are served family-style with unlimited refills. Choose two main dishes and four sides for the table for $17.99 per person at lunch or $21.99 at dinner. Ages 5-10 are $9.99 at lunch, a dollar more at dinner.
Even though you won’t have room for it, everyone chooses their own single-serving dessert to finish the meal: a square of ooey gooey butter cake, banana pudding or cobbler.
The restaurant opened Sept. 2 alongside a large retail space selling branded cookbooks, mixes, clothing and items for the home and kitchen. There are five other locations: Pigeon Forge, Tenn.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Foley, Ala.; Panama City Beach, Fla.; and Destin, Fla.
Also new in the past year at Branson Landing, a 1.5-mile outdoor shopping and dining development on Lake Taneycomo, are Jimmy Buffet’s LandShark Bar and Grill and Andy B’s Bowl Social, a restaurant and bar inside an entertainment complex featuring bowling and other games.
Aerodium Outdoor Flying Adventure at Fritz’s Adventure
Fritz’s Adventure is an 80,000-square-foot indoor adventure park for all ages that opened right after my last visit. Think playground mixed with American Ninja Warrior all set on a construction site, which is inspired by the main business of the local family who opened Fritz’s.
You can climb utility poles or a fireman’s ladder on the side of a building, make your way through a ropes course, zip line, run up warped walls, climb through all sorts of containers, tunnels, treehouses and even an airplane.
Wichitans should look up when they walk in to notice a retired 1960 Beechcraft Model G18S hanging from the rafters. The twin-engine airplane isn’t there for decoration, though, it’s part of the playground with tunnels leading to its cabin and cockpit.
Tickets are good for a full day, and prices vary from $12 to $30 based on age and how active you want to be. Some elements have additional costs, some require you be taller than 42 inches and there are discounts available, too, so it’s best to look at options at https://fritzsadventure.com.
In the past year, they’ve added several fun outdoor experiences, too, though you’ll have to wait for next season because they’ve closed for the year. I tried the Aerodium (air-oh-dee-um), which uses an open-air vertical wind tunnel to let you experience free flight. Some call it reverse skydiving, with wind gusts of up to 140 mph lifting you off the ground and an accompanying instructor helping guide you up higher in the wind stream.
Aerodium opens up again in May. Prices start at $50 per person and although the experience is only two minutes, your arms and legs are ready for a break by then.
Skyscraper thrill ride
Riders say five minutes on this new thrill ride makes you feel like a fighter jet pilot or like Superman swooping down over the Strip, what many call Branson’s 5-mile Entertainment District corridor.
Skyscraper opened in May and stands out on the Branson skyline when its windmill-style arms — illuminated at night — extend more than 170 feet in the air. Two riders are seated at the end of each of the propeller arms, which are attached to an 80-foot-tall base tower. Each pair of seats rotate while the arms spin up to 60 miles per hour, producing a G-force effect.
Riders get a chance to take in the aerial views of the Ozarks when the ride pauses to let the other set of riders on or off.
Cost is $29.95 for one person or $49.95 for two. Skyscraper is operated by The Track Family Fun Park, which has three locations along 2 miles of the Strip that include go karts, arcades and rides. They also operate the Branson Ferris Wheel and Skycoaster. The company says fall and winter hours will depend on weather and crowd levels, so check https://bransontracks.com or social media for the latest.
Billy Yates’ Choices Concert Hall
In September, Billy Yates opened a dining, dancing and live show venue at a longtime dancehall site. He’s named it after the Grammy-winning song “Choices” that he wrote and country legend George Jones recorded.
A favorite singer-songwriter in the area, Yates moved a show he started in Branson last year to Choices. “Hit Songwriters in the Round” features two different Nashville hit songwriters each week joining Yates to tell the stories behind the songs they’ve written for stars and then performing the songs. The shows are at 2 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday.
He also launched a new show, “Nashville Nights,” running through mid-December at 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. It features Yates and seven other country music stars performing their own hits, plus a few of their favorites.
The venue also will host national acts, with Tim Rushlow, former lead singer of Little Texas, scheduled for Nov. 16 and Ricochet, the Oklahoma band that first found success in the 1990s, on Nov. 23.
You can find information at https://choicesconcerthall.com/ but you have to call 417-320-5151 for tickets. All shows currently on the schedule are $38 per person, though if you plan to see more than one in the same week there is a half-off discount for your second show.
New golf courses
Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris has been developing a series of nature-based golf courses around his Big Cedar Lodge just south of Branson and by spring the number of courses will reach five. That will give the Branson area 10 courses, including three of the top rated in Missouri according to Golfweek (No. 1 Buffalo Ridge Springs, No. 2 Branson Hills, and No. 3 Ledgestone).
Ozarks National, an 18-hole course designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, was open for its first full season this year. The next course to open, Payne’s Valley, has nine holes complete with the rest in various stages of construction.
Ozarks National and Payne’s Valley will share a clubhouse in the vicinity of Morris’ Top of the Rock, a recreation area with dramatic views atop the highest bluff in the area. The 19-hole Payne’s Valley is the first public golf course design in the U.S. for Tiger Woods and his TGR Design. It’s named to honor Payne Stewart, an Ozarks native and a friend of Morris and Woods who won 11 PGA Tour events, including three major championships, before he died in 1999 at age 42.
Watch for at least a soft opening in the spring.