BRANSON, MO. • I'll admit I was curious. In the weeks preceding our trip to Branson, I had heard opinions on the "Live Music Capital of the World" from several dozen people. They ranged from criticisms of the kitsch to raves about the activities for kids. Two of the biggest cheerleaders were my parents, who visit Branson twice a year. They helped us plan and then joined us on a family trip to the Ozarks town.
Branson, it turns out, is both everything I expected and nothing I expected. I figured we'd see outlet malls, country music theaters and churches. What I didn't expect were the upscale stores, Vegas-style museums (Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, the Hollywood Wax Museum) and go-kart and mini golf places on nearly every corner. Our best surprise: amazing shows that all three generations loved. Yes, even my young boys sat through them.
We only had three days for our recent visit, but we packed a lot into them. Obviously, we barely scratched the surface of all there is to see and do in Branson.
Sure, Branson features plenty of famous singers and variety shows, but I wanted to try something different.
Hooray for Hollywood • Branson's newest show, in the Branson Variety Theater, takes you on a tour of popular movie musical numbers. It showcases everything you love about musicals: big, high-energy dance numbers such as those from "Grease," "Footloose" and "9 to 5," interspersed with songs that showcase the cast's vast vocal talent, such as "Everything I Do," from "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and "Beauty and the Beast." ($31.36 for adults, preferred seats; $13.34 for kids at bransonvarietytheater.com)
Jeerk • This unexpected hit, named Best New Show last year by BransonCritic.com, was a favorite of every member of my family. Similar to "Stomp," the show features rhythm artists making music out of barrels, bottles and hockey sticks. The five-man group uses traditional instruments in a few numbers, but the highlight is their highly skilled and stylized tap dancing (they wear sneakers outfitted with taps). The cast is Swedish, and they joke about American colloquialisms and the language barrier, which my sons found very funny. ($34.42 for adults $7.70 for kids at jeerk.com)
New Shanghai Circus: Acrobats of China • A spectacular display of human strength, flexibility and skill, this show dazzles with gorgeous costumes and amazing feats. Particularly impressive were the tightrope walker, the troupe balancing spinning plates and the couple spinning effortlessly on the ribbons. ($35.71 for adults; $11.10 for kids at acrobatsofchina.com)
Dinosaur Museum • This was our first stop in Branson. My boys love dinosaurs, and we've seen every dino exhibit that's come through St. Louis. This one was bigger and more comprehensive. It had more than 50 dinosaurs, though they did not move. The museum also featured a gift shop, an interactive learning area, a sand box for a dino dig and a bounce house, perfect for letting off steam after a long car ride. ($11.95 for adults; $8.95 for kids at bransondinosaurs.com)
Haunted House • While the kids were letting off steam, my husband and I tried the Haunted House, located in the same building. It starts off innocently enough with an homage to horror flicks. Then you enter the cemetery, then the insane asylum, then you come across ghosts and monsters. It ends with a monster chasing you through a hall of hands and out the haunted house. Very scary and worth the money. ($13.95 for adults; $10.95 for teens 13-17 at hauntedinbranson.com)
Hollywood Wax Museum • A fun tribute to movies past ("Gone with the Wind," "Wizard of Oz") and present ("Pirates of the Caribbean," "Twilight"), this museum features dozens of entertainment icons just waiting for you to take your picture with them. Pose with Leo on the bow of the Titanic, lie in bed with Hugh Hefner or sit on the park bench with Forrest Gump. ($17.95 at hollywoodwaxmuseum.com)
Silver Dollar City • If you have kids, this pioneer-themed amusement park is a must-see on any visit to Branson. Along with roller coasters, wild thrill rides, boat rides and kiddie rides, you'll find craftspeople, a small farm and a taffy-maker at work. The Half Dollar Holler, the park's new $1 million tree houses for little ones, was fun and perfectly situated near the train stop. My kids loved the Flooded Mine, a boat ride where you use laser guns to help the warden catch escaped prisoners. It's similar to Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney World. I loved Thunderation. It's like Six Flags' Mine Train on speed and offers sweeping views of the Ozarks. But if you want to ride thrill rides, try going during the week when most kids are in school. On a trip in March during spring break, we had a 40-minute wait for some rides. When we went in April, we walked right onto every ride in the park. ($59.11 for adults; $49.36 for kids at bransonsilverdollarcity.com)
DINING AS ENTERTAINMENT
Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede • Get tickets to this one as soon as you can because it sells out fast. The show is unlike anything you've seen. You sit along rows in a giant stadium with a small bar in front of you. You are served dinner: a rotisserie chicken, a pork loin, corn-on-the-cob, an herb-basted potato, delicious veggie soup, a biscuit and a yummy apple pastry. But there is no silverware; you must eat with your hands. The show in the arena before you ranges from musical numbers by Southern Belles to trick horse riding to a stampede of buffalo. At the end, one side of the stadium is pitted against the other in a battle of North vs. South, with members of the audience pitching in on some of the contests. Some young girls chased chickens; my husband was chosen to throw horseshoes — with a toilet seat. ($63.92 for adults; $31.87 for kids at dixiestampede.com or 1-800-520-5544)
Mel's Hard Luck Diner • At this '50s-style eatery, you'll look up to find your waiter holding a microphone and belting out some of your favorite songs. Two of the waiters on the day we were there are former "American Idol" finalists. Themed entrees, such as the Cheese Release Me grilled cheese or the Love Me Tender fried steak, are cooked in an open kitchen, but the highlight for us was the full-service soda fountain. Our ($9.99) brownie sundae was so big the six of us couldn't finish it. It was crowded on the March day we went, and we hear that long waits out the door are common in summer months. (More info: 1-417-332-0150)