Planning a road trip through the Midwest USA had been like trying to solve a long, time consuming puzzle, trying to workout what we wanted to see and how we were going to fit it in to a 3-week time frame putting us back in Chicago in time for one of us to catch a flight back to the UK.
While we had always intended on visiting the state of Missouri – and more specifically, the city of St Louis – spending 2 nights in Branson, Missouri first was a late, and rather hastily inserted, addition to our ever changing itinerary.
It was spotting a replica of the Titanic on the Roadside America website that first brought the city of Branson to our attention and when further investigation revealed that this was actually a Titanic Museum housed inside the replica of the doomed liner along with various other tacky attractions nestled along its main strip, it seemed like a no brainer not to visit on a trip we had fashioned around random roadside attractions.
So after 11 days on the road travelling from Chicago through Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, we were driving back north towards Chicago again heading towards Branson, Missouri (our second visit to the state of Missouri this trip after we spent a night in Kansas City en route to Kansas state) for a 2-night stay.
From our research, it had seemed that Branson was split into 2 main touristy areas: Downtown Branson and Branson Strip. We had opted to stay in a motel just off the strip, walkable to the Titanic Museum and other touristy attractions but were aiming to head to Downtown Branson to visit Branson Landing, a huge shopping, dining and entertainment complex on a lakeside setting, before checking in.
Here, we had pre-booked a ride on Parakeet Pete’s Waterfront Zipline, a seated zipline experience over the White River which we had read offered great views over Branson, Lake Taneycomo and the surrounding Ozark Mountains.
Unfortunately, we arrived in Branson to torrential rain and after killing some time browsing in some of the many shops to shelter, we realised the weather wasn’t changing anytime soon and we’d have to just suck it up and ride the zipline anyway!
It was still a fun, if rather tame and child-friendly, experience although our views were rather obscured by the heavy cloud and rain and we exited soaked to the skin!
Branson Landing is also home to a dancing fountains show said to rival the one at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. As it would have been a shame to leave the are without seeing it, we put up with the rain to watch one of the hourly shows, the jets of water dancing along to the beats of King Fu Fighting. As with all fountain shows, I’d imagine it would have been a lot more impressive at nighttime, all lit up and that possibly applies to Branson Landing as a whole – we should probably have aimed for a later visit than mid-afternoon.
Still damp, we decided to grab tea and cake from a Starbucks to warm up. Despite the coffee shop not looking particularly busier than any other Starbucks at a popular shopping mall, it took us over 30 minutes to reach the counter. Only to find that the most of the items we wanted were out of stock!
Unimpressed with Branson so far and mainly empty-handed, we decided to escape the miserable weather and downtown and head to motel to check in.
Despite it being just a 4-mile journey to our motel, it took us over an hour to make it down Branson Strip as we sat in heavy traffic and hit a red light at every set of traffic lights.
By the time we checked in – and were handed a map outlining alternative routes to avoid traffic on the Strip, something we could have done with an hour or so earlier -we were pretty fed up and regretting our decision to include Branson on our itinerary!
Once we’d calmed down and changed out of our still-damp clothes, we set out for our first walk along Branson Strip, our first glimpse of the reconstruction of the Titanic (or half of it, at least!) looming into view across the main road along with a different take on Mount Rushmore outside the Hollywood Wax Museum and a giant fork and meatball outside the Italian restaurant we eventually decided to have dinner at. Maybe our stay would be fun afterall…
We began the next day with a visit to the Titanic Museum. Here, visitors are – in slightly bad taste?! – handed a card with a passengers name on as they enter and track the fate of this passenger as they move around the museum, eventually finding out if they survived the disaster or not!
The museum, claiming to be the “World’s Largest Titanic Museum Attraction” housed plenty of artifacts from the doomed liner and staff were dressed in period costume talking to visitors in character as passengers on board the ship. There was plenty to look at and it was an interesting way to spend a few hours.
It was lunchtime by now so we decided to visit Mel’s Hard Luck Diner, a singing waitstaff restaurant but after being seated in a busy section of the diner, we were ignored for over 20 minutes, the menus and table waters we were promised never emerging. Eventually we gave up and slipped, probably unnoticed, out of the diner opting for the quicker and much cheaper Dairy Queen just up the Strip instead.
At this point, we were at a bit of a loss for what to do next. The one thing we had quickly come to realise about Branson, Missouri was that its many attractions all cost money and none of them were cheap. A lot of the attractions we had looked at doing while researching the town looked fun on paper but now we were here seemed tacky, over-priced, out-dated and not at all worth it.
Rather than completely wasting the afternoon talking about what to do, we settled on a visit to the Branson Celebrity Car Museum. I’m not into cars at all but I am a big movie fan and like popular culture museums so went along with the idea to look around and handed over my money at the entrance gate.
The museum had plenty of recognisable cars on display from TV shows and movies such as Jurassic Park and the Fast and the Furious but I found it was unclear whether these were the actual cars used in those films and shows or if they were cars bought and mocked up to look like them. It didn’t take long to walk around and take photos and soon we were back outside wondering what to so next.
Over McDonalds’ sundaes, we contemplated a Duck Tour but it wasn’t long since we did one in Hot Springs, Arkansas – plus the Branson one was pretty expensive. Looking through tourist leaflets and scrolling through Branson websites on our phones we decided that the Runaway Mountain Coaster looked like fun so hopped into our rental and drove to its slightly off-strip site.
The coaster was similar to tobogganing rides I had been on before where you control speed with a brake in the vehicle but ran on a railed track rather than down a chute. I loved every second of zooming down the twisting, turning and sometimes quite steep track and it was without a doubt my favourite thing in Branson so far!
We still had sometime to kill before we had to go back to the motel to get ready for our night out at the Dixie Stampede show so we decided to drive down towards Table Rock Lake, hoping to find something to do that didn’t cost any money! On the way, we spotted signposts for the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery and made a spur of the moment decision to pull in and have a look. There was a small visitor centre to look around and then an opportunity to feed the trout being reared in the pools outside. If we’d had more time there were also hiking trails to follow from the car park but instead, we had to drive back to our motel to get ready for our evening out.
One of the things we knew we Branson was famous for was the many shows on offer and despite spending a lot of time researching these, there was really only one choice for us – Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, a popular dinner show. We’d bought tickets that included a souvenir boot to drink from and after picking these up in the foyer, went and found seats on the balcony for the pre-show entertainment, a fun bluegrass group.
Once the pre-show entertainment was over, we were lead into the main arena where we were seated around a central stage area. As the show began, we were served our meal – a soup starter followed by a whole chicken for our mains. We had heard that cutlery was not provided and everyone was expected to eat with their fingers so being terribly British, we had taken plastic cutlery from Starbucks along with us to make the eating experience a bit easier!
While not exactly what we were expecting, the show was still good fun and VERY American, offering a variety of entertainment including rodeo-style displays, singing, dancing, comedy and interactive games culminating in a very patriotic choreographed, flag-waving horse parade to the strains of Dolly Parton singing Colours of America!
With hindsight, Branson was an unnecessary stop on our trip, or at least it was unnecessary to have spent 2 nights there, one would have been sufficient allowing us to spend an hour on the Strip and still take in a show, or we could have even seen a matinee and moved on to stay elsewhere after. Like Wisconsin Dells in many ways, it is a place only worth visiting if you are willing to part with your money and while it felt like we had researched what Branson had to offer to some extent, we’d maybe been swayed by the silly roadside stop-type attractions of its huge inland Titanic replica and movie-star Mount Rushmore and not thought about the logistics of how we were actually going to spend our time there enough. Billing itself as the gateway to the Ozarks, maybe we should have paid more attention to the surrounding area and looked into spending time outdoors by the the lakes and mountains instead of in the tacky resort centre. Either way, our stay was definitely an interesting experience but I’m not sure we’ll be rushing back!