Just outside the hotel balcony was a lifestyle shopping plaza, a whiskey bar open until 1 p.m. and a loudspeaker playing a song from “Mamma Mia!” ABBA in Branson?
For decades I’ve made the drive to the Ozark destination that mixes country entertainment with bass fishing.
It’s possible to get a whole different Branson experience these days, even as the area retains its Ozarks country persona.
The entertainment mecca now offers everything from Chinese acrobats to an ABBA tribute band. TripAdvisor.com named Branson No. 19 among top U.S. destinations for travelers.
A tornado damaged one of the Hilton hotels at Branson Landing two years ago, but both are now fully functional. I stayed in the Hilton Promenade, with a room looking out on Lake Taneycomo, a $7.5 million fountain and a shopping plaza.
Branson Landing has become a favorite destination even for locals. Anchored by Bass Pro Shops and Belk, the chain stores are many, but they cater to a relatively upscale crowd.
The Branson area hasn’t been known for exquisite dining, but travelers could do much worse than sit out on a deck overlooking the lake at a place like White River Fish House or Black Oak Grill. White River, owned by Bass Pro, juts out into Lake Taneycomo and has a lovely ambiance, with large windows and comfortable booths.
Among the many other restaurant choices are Cantina Laredo, Texas Land & Cattle Steak House and Waxy O’Shea’s Irish pub. I stopped in the beer and whiskey pub late one night in early April and was surprised that almost every seat was taken.
Cruise boats like the Landing Princess take off from here, and families can rent kayaks or stroll the boardwalk.
Most Branson visitors will leave the landing to venture up U.S. 65 to Missouri 76, the busy strip that contains most of the area’s musical theaters and other attractions.
New this year at the Andy Williams Moon River Theatre is illusionist Rick Thomas. Thomas performed for 15 years in Las Vegas, and he brings a sexy show-girl assistant to the place that formerly held dancers wearing conservative plaid skirts. Nonetheless, Thomas, who looks like a cross between Johnny Cash and comedian Brad Garrett, is known as a family act, and he charmed the crowd.
Another new show is Sight and Sound Theatres’ “Jonah.” Created by “the nation’s largest professional Christian theatrical company,” the musical doesn’t quite manage an actual whale. But its 300-foot stage holds enormous sets, including an impressive 50-foot ship. Donkeys, llamas, goats and bunnies make cameos in the Bible story.
Tradition also reigns down the road. Silver Dollar City says its theme this year is Celebrate America, leading one to wonder how that differs from most years.
The park has more rides now than it did when it opened more than 50 years ago. Last year, it added the huge wooden roller coaster Outlaw Run. But it still has its crafters who demonstrate blacksmith, woodworking and glass-blowing skills.
The company that runs SDC also owns White Water, and there is a new ride there this year: You can now take a “near-vertical 70-degree plunge” down the enclosed tunnels of KaPau Plummet. The drop-floor thrill ride looks like two enclosed hamster tunnels and cost $1.7 million.
The park also has lazy rivers, slides, a wave pool and more on 13 acres. If you’re not in a lake, it’s a good place to be on a scorching summer day.
IF YOU GO
Branson Landing, bransonlanding.com
Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing: Rooms start at $129; 3.hilton.com
Rick Thomas: $34.95; kids 12 and under are free; andywilliamstheatre.com
Silver Dollar City & White Water: $59 for Silver Dollar City, $43 for White Water; silverdollarcity.com
“Jonah”: $43; sight-sound.com