(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: MARCH/APRIL 2006)
WHEN MY GRANDMA told her friends she was going to Branson, Missouri, they said things like, "See the fancy bathroom in the Shoji Tabuchi Theatre, " and "Bring comfortable shoes, Loraine. You’ll walk a lot. "
When I told my friends I was going to Branson, they said things like, "Why? "
Gen Xers tend to dismiss Branson, a place I’ve always associated with over-the-top shows seen by busloads of seniors; a cheesy chunk of neon plopped in the middle of Ozark country. It’s exactly this perception city marketers are hoping to shatter. Not because tourism numbers are down. More than 7 million people visit the city each year. It’s the future they’re trying to protect, since a mere 20 percent are first timers. "Once they come, people love Branson, " says Dan Lennon, vice president of marketing and public relations for the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. "The challenge is that the people who aren’t coming have a limited view of what’s here. "
So, how did I answer my puzzled friends? "Because Grandma wants to go. Until now, Grandma has been content to stay near her Minnesota hometown, a peaceful and pretty little corner of the world. Then friends dazzled her with tales of the Live Music Show Capital of the World, a wholesome, neon-lit place where energetic, sequin-clad performers entertain from 10 in the morning until 10 at night. That, she decided, seemed like a neat place to visit.
The lady doesn’t ask for much. When pressed for gift ideas, she says things like, "I can always use stamps. " What kind of granddaughter would not grant her this?
It was settled. We’d go to Branson, and we’d go to shows. (I drew the line at any featuring performers in overalls and false teeth.) The prospect of quality time together was well worth the trip. Finding an attraction we were both into, that would just be a bonus.
The Rat Pack: Direct from Las Vegas at the Branson Variety Theater was a hit. By the time the Frank Sinatra impersonator broke into "What Kind of Fool Am I, " Grandma was done lip-synching. She was actually singing. She was not the only one. The Frank, Deano and Sammy look- and sound-alikes drew oohs and aahs when they first ambled across the stage. Backup singers in sequined gowns, a 22-piece band and ’60s Vegas-style lighting completed the scene. Big laughs for jokes about Geritol and arthritis confirmed I was not the target audience, but that's OK. It was fun. I recognized most of the songs, too. Many have been commercial jingles.
During intermission, Grandma leaned toward the people on her left, saying, "My granddaughter brought me here. " The father asked Grandma if she was having fun. "I should say! " she confirmed. He said he was from Illinois and on his annual family trip here, then gave us his Branson Big Three: Mickey Gilley (there are usually a decent amount of big-name country stars here), a trip on the Showboat Branson Belle and Shoji. Definitely Shoji.
People were always giving input on shows we should see, which makes sense. A whopping 87 percent of visitors see at least one of the 100-plus offered. With all the repeat business, odds are good you’re sitting next to a veteran of the Branson show scene. There was one consistency in recommendations. All insisted we see Shoji Tabuchi. I figured he was either undeniably incredible or had amazing hypnotic powers. Either way, the show’s popularity seemed to hint at a high probability for common ground.
But where were the attractions for me? The shows so far were fine, but not really my thing. Among those the chamber of commerce was promoting for younger visitors were Cirque and Darren Romeo: The Voice of Magic, but the timing didn't work on the first, and Darren.s Fabio-like billboards freaked me out.
Outdoor at the Ozarks
The Ozarks, though. That sounded like fun. Grandma and I agreed the mountains were amazing, with their puffs of green trees and ribboned layers of stone. Lake Taneycomo and Table Rock Lake surround the city, and Bull Shoals Lake is nearby. There are 10 golf courses, including a few championship ones, tucked among the mountains and waters. These two elements allow for all your typical nature-loving activities: hiking, boating, fishing, camping, bird-watching. Just the types of things that don’t typically spring to mind when one hears the word Branson. Outdoorsy stuff is big with the families that come here (more than 25 percent of visitors). So are theme parks, Celebration City and Silver Dollar City mix history with cool rides. The latter just opened its PowderKeg launch coaster. It rockets from 0 to 53 mph in 2.8 seconds.
There was no way I was getting Grandma to hoof it around a theme park, let alone strap into anything called a "launch coaster. " Instead, I decided to get us a teeny bit closer to nature with a room at Chateau on the Lake, promising a peaceful lakeside experience within minutes of Branson’s main drag. Seemed like a good compromise to me. It was evening when we drove the hotel’s curvy approach. A stream flowed over smooth rocks, and the hotel’s 10 stories gleamed. A uniformed valet, doorman and bellman waited.
I looked at Grandma. She was mortified. "Ber-it! " she scolded, eyes wide. "We're from Minnesota! We don't stay in places like this! "
It hadn’t occurred to me that the Chateau would make Grandma uncomfortable. I felt bad, but hoped she’d ease into it. I really liked the place. She did agree to try the hotel’s restaurant for breakfast one morning. We dined indoors, in a cafe styled to feel like the outdoors, under an umbrella and next to a babbling brook. Fancy-pants here ordered the Norwegian salmon plate. Grandma got wheat toast.
One evening, while Grandma watched the news in luxury at our hotel, I set out to find an attraction for me. There it was, just a half-mile east of the Strip: the historic downtown, five blocks of cafes, flea markets and stores along Lake Taneycomo.
I popped into Dick’s 5&10, a huge, 50-year-old store packed with paper dolls, cheese graters, Christmas decorations and lots, lots more. In a toy aisle, I ran into a fellow gawker near my age. He said his family came to Branson from Kentucky for boating and antiques hunting and stumbled upon this store. "I didn’t know anything like this existed anymore, " he said. "Even the smell is familiar. I can’t wait to tell my mom. " I couldn’t wait to tell Grandma.
The next day, we wandered downtown amid locals, families and seniors in matching tour-group T-shirts. I dragged Grandma on a scenic two-hour train ride and a sweet horse-and-buggy tour of the town. The driver related bits of town history and told us about plans for the future. Branson Landing, a $420 million lakefront development project, will feature new retail shops and a convention center, with this district at its heart. (Phase 1 should be completed this spring.)
I loved this low-key area, but when I asked Grandma what she thought, she said it was "nice. " Hardly the sort of enthusiasm inspired by a fake Frank declaring, "Branson, baby. This is where it’s at. "
Then it hit me: Why would she travel all this way for a version of her own cute small town?
Shoji and More Favorites
Shoji, though. That is worth the trip. Technically, he’s a Japanese fiddler, but the music was all over the place: polka, Broadway, Cajun, big band, gospel and more. The ’70s cop show themes sold me. There were Chinese dragons weaving through the crowd, feathers floating from overhead, laser light shows, fireworks and many a shimmering jacket for Mr. Tabuchi. I admit, it was pretty spectacular. And I’m 99.9 percent sure hypnotism was not involved.
So, Grandma finally got to see the place her friends raved about. She confided, this, too: The toast that morning at the Chateau; it was the best she’s ever tasted.
Back at home, she sent me a thank-you note that said, "I keep telling my friends, if I had to think of one bad thing about our trip, I couldn’t. "
This makes me happier than I could possibly explain. To the Branson folks trying to lure first-timers to their city, I respectfully suggest this tactic: Go after them through their grandmas.
GRANDMA T. SAYS SHE LIKES
THE VARIETY OF SHOWS We could only see a portion of them. I’d like to return again and again to enjoy more. Maybe sometime during Christmas.
BRANSON HOSPITALITY Everywhere we went, people were so friendly. And at the hotels and restaurants all the folks were very gracious and accommodating.
THE OZARK MOUNTAIN SCENERY The trees were so lovely and all the stone so inter- esting. And I thought Minnesota was the most beautiful state.
SHOJI What a wonderful performer and showman. Just wonderful. I play his CD all the time at home.
DOWNTOWN I loved all the throwback stuff, the train, the horse and buggy, the five-and-dime. I hope the new riverfront development leaves all the classics intact.
CHATEAU ON THE LAKE Peaceful. Comfortable rooms. I hear they’ve added a spa with yoga studio, upping the relaxation quotient.
LAKES AND WOODS I liked the availability of hiking trails and water-oriented opportunities. I can definitely see why people rent area cabins for a week.
KITSCH FACTOR Any place featuring a wax museum and a comedy show starring pets within a mile of each other has a lot going for it in my book.
BRANSON/LAKES AREA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AND CONVENTION AND VISITORS BUREAU Tourism information includes restaurants, lodging, shows and lake activities (800/214-3661; www.explorebranson.com).
DOWNTOWN BRANSON MAIN STREET ASSOCIATION Information on the historic downtown businesses and the Branson Landing project (417/334-1548; www.branson.com).
BEST READ GUIDE A magazine featuring a listing of all Branson shows with showtimes and contact numbers as well as a helpful map. Available free at businesses around Branson or $5 per copy in the mail (417/336-7323; www.bestreadguide.com/branson).
BRANSON VARIETY THEATER Offers four shows at a time. (The Rat Pack: Direct from Las Vegas is no longer playing.) Ticket prices vary; discounts for children (888/462-7267; www.bransonvarietytheater.com).
SHOJI TABUCHI SHOW (417/334-7469; www.shojitabuchi.com).
DICK'S 5&10 Open 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays (417/334-2410).
BRANSON SCENIC RAILWAY Schedule varies (800/287-2462; www.bransontrain.com).
THE ORIGINAL BRANSON CARRIAGE COMPANY Leave from Commercial Street (north of Main Street) and Branson Landing. (417/331-0316).
ATRIUM CAFE & WINE BAR In Chateau on the Lake hotel.
A tree, waterfall and patio umbrella tables make the indoors feel like the outdoors (888/333-5253; www.chateauonthelake.com).
OUTBACK STEAK & OYSTER BAR Family restaurant with all-wood decor and big booths. Australian-influenced menu is heavy on steaks and seafood. The Aussie Bush Bucket offers spiced shrimp, crab legs, mussels, crawfish, corn on the cob and red potatoes (417/334-6306).
BRANSON CAFE Began in 1910; the oldest restaurant in Branson. This booth-filled diner offers eggs, pancakes and other basic breakfasts, plus burgers and sandwiches for lunch. (417/334-3021).
THE RAILS Split-rail wainscoting, white walls, plastic plates and a big buffet with lots of fried food and lots of seafood. (417/336-3401).
CHATEAU ON THE LAKE Upscale rooms and suites, on-site restaurants include casual and fine dining. Outdoor and indoor pool. (888/333-5253; www.chateauonthelake.com).
CASCADES INN Clean rooms, indoor pool, free Continental breakfast and great location next to the Shoji Tabuchi Show Theater. (800/588-8424; www.cascadesinn.com).
ANGEL INN Victorian-style exterior. Clean, recently updated rooms with high-speed Internet access. Indoor pool, free Continental breakfast, convenient location just off the Strip. (417/334-6500; www.letsgotobranson.com).