BRANSON, Mo. -- With more theater seats than you'll find on Broadway, this southern Missouri tourist town is all about the shows. Yes, the Japanese violin phenom, Shoji Tabuchi, continues to pack his theater, and fans still flock to the Andy Williams Moon River Theater even after the beloved singer has gone to his eternal rest.
You could spend every morning, afternoon and evening taking in shows in Branson, but there are other attractions that warrant your attention in this city of 10,000 that draws 8 million visitors a year. Five not to miss:
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BransonGetting there: Branson, Mo., is about 560 miles from suburban Chicago. Southwest Airlines has nonstop flights from Midway Airport to folksy Branson Airport (ground crew waves goodbye to passengers on departing flights). American Eagle has nonstop flights from O'Hare International Airport to nearby Springfield, Mo.
Where to stay: Keeter Center's Mabee Lodge has 15 rooms on the campus of College of the Ozarks. (417) 239-1900 or keetercenter.edu
Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel and Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing are both located in downtown Branson. (800) 445-8667 or Hilton.com
Information: Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau. (877) 272-6766 or explorebranson.com
Where to eat: Andy William's Moon River Grill has several menu items, such as meatloaf and chicken potpie, made from Andy's mother's recipes. You'll see his gold records above the bar and some of his collection of modern art, including original Andy Warhols, hanging in the dining area. (417) 337-9539
Keeter Center's Dobyns Dining Room on the campus of College of the Ozarks features dishes often made from locally grown ingredients, some grown by students on campus. (417) 239-1900 or keetercenter.edu
Level 2 Steakhouse serves aged cornfed Midwest beef, Missouri pork, seafood flown in from Hawaii, locally grown produce and killer desserts, such as a seven-layer chocolate cake. (417) 243-3433 or level2steakhouse.com
Dogwood Canyon Nature Park: Plan an outdoor outing away from the theater traffic at this 10,000-acre privately owned park southwest of Branson. Acquired in 1990 by Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, it has dozens of waterfalls, natural rock bluffs and clear streams teeming with brown and rainbow trout. Go fishing with your own gear or a rental, go out with a guide or sign up for a fly-casting clinic or Orivs fly-fishing school.
Don't want to fish? Walk on paved paths, rent a bike or book a Segway tour. To go deeper into this wilderness, go for a hike or pick out a friendly filly for a horseback ride. You can even join a cattle drive. If you want to leave the navigating to someone else, take a wildlife tour on a tram or a guided tour by Jeep.
(417) 779-5983 or dogwoodcanyon.org
Titanic Museum: Drive along Branson's main drag, Missouri Route 76, and you can't help but notice what looks like an ocean liner anchored by the highway. Towering 100 feet above the road, she's a half-scale replica of the Titanic, that ill-fated passenger ship that struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank on April 15, 1912. Inside, more than 400 historical artifacts that once belonged to Titanic passengers and crew are on display in settings fitting a fine museum, not cheesy Ripley's Believe it or Not sort of exhibits.
As you enter, you're given a boarding pass with the name of a person who was aboard the ship and a brief account of his or her story, but you won't find out if "your" passenger or crew member survived until you find his or her name on the wall in the Memorial Room near the exit. Some visitors breeze through the museum in 90 minutes, others make an emotional connection to the stories of the people on board and spend hours glued to exhibits capturing the romanticism of the early 1900s and the riveting tales of life and death.
A special exhibit in 2013 depicts the stories of children who were aboard.
(800) 381-7670 or titanicattraction.com
Hard Work U: You'll find an unexpected visitor attraction two miles south of Branson in the private liberal arts institution, College of the Ozarks. Lovingly known as "Hard Work U" because its 1,400 students work at campus jobs in lieu of tuition, it's open for self-guided tours that include a neo-Gothic chapel, a replica of an 1880s working mill where students grind grain for flour, greenhouses with orchids and other house plants grown by students, and the Fruitcake and Jelly Kitchen where student-made products are shipped around the world. A museum dubbed the "Smithsonian of the Ozarks" contains a collection of Kewpie dolls and a car from "The Beverly Hillbillies" TV show along with antiques, firearms and exhibits on Ozarks natural history, archaeology and geology.
Hotel rooms in the Keeter Center, an expansive log building resembling the great vacation lodges of another era, are managed by students in the hospitality school. The bright tin-ceiling dining room is open daily and renowned for its Sunday brunch prepared by the college's culinary school. Visitors line up in the bakery to buy ice cream made from the milk of the college's 60 cows attended by students at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily. The center also has a small museum devoted to veterans of America's wars.
More selective than MIT, the college draws students primarily from the Ozarks region, adhering to its mission to give bright, hardworking young people of little financial resources the means to embark on a rewarding career. The rules are simple: Go to school, go to work, go to chapel or go home.
(417) 239-1900 or cofo.edu/Page/About-C-of-O/Visiting-C-of-O.67.html
Branson Scenic Railway: Vintage passenger rail cars depart from downtown Branson's 1905 depot for a 40-mile excursion through the Ozark foothills. Because the train operates on a working rail line, the direction of travel depends on freight traffic and track conditions. The northern route goes to the James River Valley; the southern crosses the Arkansas border.
Seats are not assigned, so you are free to roam the train, checking out the dome and coach cars, most dating from the 1940s and '50s. A running narration details the history of the area and the building of the White River Railway that put Branson on the map. Gawk at the wildlife and scenery as the train crosses wooden trestle bridges and plunges through tunnels. There's a concession stand on the Silver Lake car, but for a memorable dining experience, book a dinner excursion on Saturday nights and enjoy a four-course candlelight dinner on board.
(800) 287-2462 or bransontrain.com
Silver Dollar City: If you think this attraction is just another theme park, think again. Yes, this spring it debuted Outlaw Run with the world's steepest drop on a wood coaster (16 stories) and the only double-barrel roll on a wood coaster.
But there's so much more to the Silver Dollar City story. It begins with a hole in the ground, Marvel Cave. In 1960, Chicagoans who leased the cave as a tourist business opened a few old-timey shops and shows to amuse visitors waiting in line. The attraction grew and the Silver Dollar name became famous when, as a publicity stunt, customers were given silver dollars in change as they paid their admission. The park has since stopped handing out silver dollars, but it has maintained its 1880s theme as it has grown to 30 rides and attractions.
What sets it apart, though, are 100 resident craftsmen demonstrating pioneer skills. Watch the blacksmith send sparks flying as he hammers red-hot metal, the glass blower create delicate works of art from glowing lumps of glass heated in a 2,400-degree furnace, and the glass etcher draw intricate designs on mugs, pitchers and plates. In Brown's Candy Factory you'll watch ladies hand-dip chocolates and roll out slabs of nut brittle all the while keeping up a humorous banter. Samples are free. Take a culinary class in a timber frame farmhouse where cookbook author Debbie Dance Uhrig holds court in the modern demonstration kitchen of the Midwest Living Culinary & Craft School. You might just learn to make a perfect pie crust.
(800) 831-4386 or silverdollarcity.com
• Information for this article was gathered during a research trip sponsored by the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau.