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Elk Grove Citizen

'Cruising' during COVID in Landlocked Branson

Nov 20, 2020 12:00AM ● By David Dickstein

Serene Table Rock Lake, graced with Chateau on the Lake and Showboat Branson Belle, is the place to snooze and cruise. Photo courtesy Branson CVB

'Cruising' during COVID in Landlocked Branson [5 Images] Click Any Image To Expand
BRANSON, MO (MPG) - You long to cruise again, or perhaps for the first time, but even when the no-sail order is fully lifted and cruising is back, you still can’t see yourself being in the middle of the ocean with potentially thousands of strangers.
Now imagine if there was a place not in the middle of the ocean, but in the middle of the United States where you can enjoy the fun and excitement of a cruise in a single town and without worrying if everyone from bow to stern is shipshape for an entire week or so?
Such a place exists within rugged woodlands, beyond limestone bluffs and where the country air is as clean as the wholesome country folk. Cruisers or anyone in need of a real vacation should consider this place Plan B – as in Branson, Mo., and it’s just an economical mask-wearing plane ride or two away on American, Delta, United or Allegiant airlines to Springfield-Branson National Airport (SGF). After flying from Northern California to Southern Missouri, plus a bucolic hour-long drive due south, your cruise-like holiday begins with no need of a passport, seasickness medicine, muster drill or adherence of the CDC’s extensive guidelines unique to being at sea in a contained space.
Shows Show Me State Style
Branson isn’t devoid of pandemic-driven health and safety regulations, but they’re far more relaxed than what cruise passengers are required to follow as that industry makes a slow return. When guests hungry for food and entertainment arrive for a taste of Branson-style cruising aboard the Showboat Branson Belle, what gets a “welcome aboard” on the grand paddle wheeler are simply a passed temperature check and responses of “no” to four health-related questions.
Although the dinner cruise on serene Table Rock Lake lasts only two hours, the meal and show give the feeling of being on a sea cruise, especially the supper with superb service followed by an upbeat stage show part. General and Captain’s Club seating comes with a three-course meal; the latter, besides offering priority embarkation and tiered seating, has an upgraded menu that includes pan-seared trout, pork chop and a ribeye steak. The show features comedy and a song-and-dance mix of ‘70s and ‘80s music – exactly what you’d find on a big-ship cruise. Passengers get lots of elbow room these days on the 700-seat vessel; during the pandemic capacity is limited to 300 people per sail.
In the heart of Branson’s entertainment district are two acts that have wowed on sea and land. Magician Garry Carson and comedian Steve Moris have performed on over 1,200 cruises between them, but for the time being the sea-legged pals can be seen at the Branson Central Theatre. Carson’s “Escape Reality” is a two-time “2020 Best of Branson” award-winning dinner show, and Moris does his comedy and music routine at lunchtime. Nearby Branson Star Theater is where to catch Moris at night.
Carson and his spins on classic illusions beguile audiences just as they do when performed at sea – only under less rocking conditions. When he and his long-time assistant aren’t disappearing and reappearing, and none more amazing than with the Houdini-popularized Metamorphosis illusion they’ve perfected, the flawlessly synchronized duo are putting themselves in apparent peril, often at the lady’s expense. Good thing Janine is happily married to the man who slices and dices her like Velveeta cheese. Speaking of cutups, the California-raised Moris is a blast whether he’s telling self-deprecating jokes, sharing hilarious name-dropping stories or singing his favorite Baby Boomer-era tunes on a great-sounding guitar.
While Carson and Moris’ brand of magic and comedy is in keeping with Branson’s image of a wholesome vacation resort, acts as homespun as Ozark berry cobbler proudly uphold the town’s nickname, “The Live Country Music Capital of the Universe,” coined by a TV news magazine nearly 30 years ago. The highly watched profile on “60 Minutes” did for Branson in 1991 what “The Ed Sullivan Show” did for the Beatles in 1964. A frenzy followed with Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, Tony Orlando, Lawrence Welk and the Osmond Brothers all hoping to strike it rich in Branson with their own theaters, just as the trailblazing Roy Clark did in 1983.
Before the CBS-spawned gold rush, Branson had 22 theaters in operation, less than half what there is today. The Baldknobbers Jamboree, a country variety show named after local vigilantes from the late-1800s, is considered the original, and after 60 years the Mabe family is still going strong at the Branson Famous Theatre. More gifted kin can be seen and heard at Presleys’ Country Jubilee. It was in 1967 when the multi-generational act took residency in a humble hall on what is now Highway 76, a stretch of road so dotted with entertainment venues, it’s called “The Strip.” The original building has since made way for an eye-catching 1,500-seat theater that’s running at about 50 percent capacity.
Family-friendly family shows are a Branson mainstay, but if you’re looking for one that doesn’t throw in the great-grandparents or their great-grandchildren just to fill the stage, check out the Haygoods. The longest-running first-generational show in Branson is the whole package. Six multi-talented siblings ranging in age from 29 to 43 grace Clay Cooper Theatre with two thoroughly entertaining hours of genre-crossing music, impressive special effects and genuine family fun. The Haygoods are playing to half-filled seats for their 28th season, so only 500 at a time get to see the siblings effortlessly transition from perfect six-part harmony on “Amazing Grace” and “Sound of Silence” to extreme tap-dancing and drumming to the “Star Wars” theme on fiddle to the sole sister, Catherine, plucking the harp with Southern grace to Beyonce’s “Halo.” Best of all, it’s zero percent lame. Even a travel writer’s snarky millennial son loved the show.
Eclectic entertainment within close proximity does give the town a cruise-like feel, although the last ship to accommodate the number of animals used in Dolly Parton’s Stampede Show was Noah’s Ark. Speaking of historic ships, the Titanic is remembered with reverence at a museum that’s a sister to another in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Besides seeing over 400 artifacts including the supposed only surviving first-class dinner menu, visitors can experience the slope of the sinking ship at various stages of panic and feel how cold water at 28 degrees is. They say the replica of the Grand Staircase cost $1 million, and it’s too stunning for that not to be believed. Being handed a card bearing the name and bio of a Titanic passenger or crew member at the entrance, then learning his or her fate near the end of the self-guided tour adds to the already emotional journey. The museum (open daily) is a literal can’t-miss on the Strip; the façade is a 100-foot-high half-scale replica of the ill-fated ship.
Rides, ribs and rest
For a region with probably more possum than people, having a world-class theme park as a top attraction is impressive. Silver Dollar City, a cross between Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, reopened in June when most of the nation’s amusement parks were still shuttered due to COVID-19.
Leave it to Branson to once again come to the rescue of those with R&R withdrawals. On 2,000 acres of Ozark forest is an 1880s theme park that doffs a derby hat to an era when blacksmiths, glass blowers and lathe craftsmen were revered, and bonnet- wearing bakers competed for the best pecan sticky buns and fruit turnovers in town.
These trades and traditions are part of the unique shopping at Silver Dollar City, or SDC as the locals call it. A couple of days are needed to take in all the live entertainment, various food offerings (Rivertown Smokehouse is a must) and, of course, the rides.
Opened in 2018, Time Traveler is the fastest, steepest and tallest spinning coaster on the planet. Sadly, the ride didn’t travel back to pre-COVID times when my waist was small enough for the unforgiving lap bar, but my in-shape son rode for both of us. He had to rub it in by going on it three times. Another engineering marvel is Mystic River Falls, a 12-minute raft ride that features the hemisphere’s tallest drop in the category – complements of an 8-story elevator that interrupts a wet and wild whitewater run for an unforgettable lift and descent. Opened in July, Mystic River Falls blows away the raft rides at Disney’s California Adventure, Magic Mountain and Knott’s.
Branson may claim raft ride superiority over Southern California, but the two vacation destinations do share several friendly ties. For one, Walter and Cordelia Knott were on good terms with the Herschend family that founded SDC. Makes sense in that Knott’s Berry Farm sprouted from a popular chicken dinner restaurant and the similarly themed SDC grew out of a popular cave.
Another bond is legendary TV producer Paul Henning, who dreamed up “The Beverly Hillbillies” while camping in the Ozarks. All but five of the series’ episodes were filmed in the LA area, the others being shot on location at SDC. The most iconic prop from the 1962-1971 series was donated to the region by Henning, and is parked just outside of town on the campus of College of the Ozarks. What the Mona Lisa is to The Louvre is what the Clampett’s modified 1921 Oldsmobile, the very one that Jethro drives in the opening credits, is to the Ralph Foster Museum. The affectionately named “Smithsonian of the Ozarks” is temporarily closed due to COVID-19, but Granny’s shotgun in the backseat is keeping the hallowed heap safe.
Borrowing from Granny’s word for food, the best vittles in town are found at two mom-and-pops. For breakfast, it’s Billy Gail’s, home of the 14-inch pancake and 1-pound apple cinnamon roll. For barbeque, it’s Big D’s. In just three years, owner Dana Peterson has made this former KFC the go-to for Texas-style brisket, Memphis-style baby back ribs and pulled pork.
Before we put Branson to bed, the top-rated place to go to bed in Branson is also its only AAA four-diamond resort. Chateau on the Lake, the Ozark’s equivalent of Quebec’s Chateau Frontenac, is perched on a hill above Table Rock Lake. There’s not a bad view from any of the 301 units, but a room on the west side will certainly make getting that cruise feeling much easier. Ten minutes away is Branson’s entertainment center, but with tennis courts, an outdoor pool, movie theater, fitness center and full- service spa, plus an adjacent lake where boats, kayaks and WaveRunners can be rented, there’s plenty to do without getting in the car.
Of course, outdoor recreation is dependent on the weather. Branson’s highs are generally in the 70s and 80s from April through October, and although winter temps usually top out in the 40s and 50s, nothing is warmer than the holiday cheer permeating in town come November and December. The extent to which Branson decks the halls for Christmas is as legendary as Santa Claus himself.
Allegiant Airlines:, 702-505-8888
Branson Central Theatre:, 417-231-4112
Branson Star Theater:, 417-320-3418
Chateau on the Lake:, 417-334-1161
Explore Branson:, 800-296-0463
The Haygoods:, 417-339-4663
Ralph Foster Museum:, 417-690-3407
Titanic Museum:, 800-381-7670
Silver Dollar City/Showboat Branson Belle:, 417-336-7100