Fall 2018 vacation was a road trip to Branson Missouri, a place we had never been to. We have spent time in Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge and wanted to see how Branson compared. We ended up driving 3400 miles and 64 hours in the 12 days we were gone.
We left on a Wednesday at around 11:00am with plans to make it to Cleveland for that night. With different route options we choose the quickest option which took us across New Hampshire, Vermont, into New York, across I 90 to Pennsylvania and Ohio. What a mistake. I 90 through New York is a boring long ride with the monotony broken only by Service Areas with overpriced food, drinks and gas. We much preferred our route home through Pennsylvania to I 81 and I 84. For some unknown reason N.Y. has elected to provide fuel and attractions info on the highway but not include food options. Dinner was at a Ruby Tuesday by the Buffalo Airport after which we continued on, arriving at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Oakwood Ohio at around 9:30 pm (reviews of places mentioned can be found under the reviews tab).
Day 2 started with Hampton’s free coffee and some sort of Egg and Bacon Bagel thing that I can’t quite figure out how to describe. We were on the road at around 9:30 am, you will see a pattern start to develop involving our up and out times, heading south on I 271 to I 71 towards Columbus. With the only excitement a Blimp sighting by Columbus. We picked up I 70 the interstate that would take us all the way to St. Louis Mo. It was clear sailing all day with 70 mph speed limits, good weather and very little police activity making for speedy travel. An added bonus was the cheap (compared to New Hampshire) gas in Indiana I think we paid around $2.55 a gallon. One of my road trip pleasures is spotting stadiums and arenas for sports teams so when I am watching I can see an image of where they are located and on this trip we crossed Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Colts, off our list. We arrived at the Hampton Inn Sunset Hills Mo. at around 5 pm and had dinner at a nearby Fuddrucker’s before turning in for the night.
Day 3 was upon us with only 3 1/2 hours to Branson. We headed south on I 44 passing through Fenton Mo. the home of United Van Lines, I drove a truck for a few different Van Lines in my younger days, and also saw Six Flags St. Louis before heading into the Mo. hills and a very enjoyable ride towards Branson. Lunch and a fuel stop was at Dottie’s Family Restaurant located in the 66 truck stop in Cuba MO., easy on easy off, after which we continued south. The self labeled Worlds Largest Gift Store was our next stop. Located in Phillipsburg, Mo. this is a big gift store, full of the things you would expect to see in a place like this. My wife bought a shirt and we purchased some chocolate from the candy outlet in a separate building before heading back down I 44. Tracker Boats was the only real interesting sight before we hit route 65 in Springfield south to Branson. Our excitement was growing at this point as we were only about 45 minutes from our destination after 2 1/2 days on the road. Arriving in Branson at about 3:30 pm we headed to our condo which was located at the Thousand Hills Golf Course just off Country Music Blvd.
We were in the Foothills section with a golf course view from the balcony. The condo was beautiful tastefully decorated, to our taste, and newly renovated. We loved it. Going forward I will take more photos to share but at the time didn’t know I would begin my travel blogging life at this point. The rest of the inaugural day in Branson was spent getting our bearings around town, picking up groceries and dinner at Starvin Marvins Seafood Buffet on the strip.
Day 4 began with 9 holes of golf at Thousand Hills for me, the wife doesn’t play. The clubhouse was literally a 1 minute drive from the condo. Overall I played 3 rounds at Thousand Hills, one 9 hole and two 18 holes, and will condense all into this review. The clubhouse guys are awesome!!!!, friendly and welcoming. The course itself is a little different being a par 64 meaning there were 1 par 5, 8 par 4s and 9 par 3s which made for a challenging round. Well kept and in great shape I would recommend anyone golfing in Branson to give it a try.
The par 3 4th hole. I was paired with a wonderful family from Mo. for this round.
After golf it was back to the condo for a quick shower and to collect the wife so we could begin our Branson adventures. Today’s planned activities included Samson at the Sight and Sound Theater and the Dolly Parton Stampede Dinner Show. We had a late breakfast at the Waffle House on Country Music Road which we now called the green route as the 3 main routes through and around Branson are named after colors. It was decent and we enjoyed our Breakfast. We liked Samson although we both thought it was a little long winded, like this post, the production was first rate with incredible changing sets, animals, great actors and even bringing the show into the audience. The actually rode horses through the aisles among the audience.
While we really enjoyed Samson I am kinda on the fence with the Stampede show.
Some parts were very entertaining while others sort of dragged. In my opinion way to much time was spent on the supposed competition between the 2 sides of the audience with silly borderline boring audience competitions. The horseback riders were amazing and the comedy parts were very funny, they even had a passable magic act. The meal was OK, a warning you are not provided with silverware, you are expected to eat with your hands.
Day 5 started with 18 holes of golf for me at Thousand Hills and then some free time to explore as our only booked show was the Reza show at 8 pm. We set out just after noon and started with the brunch buffet at the Grand Country Inn costing $12.00 each it was a decent meal with a mixture of breakfast and lunch items, a large salad bar, soup and a baked potato bar. Full and ready to see more of Branson we headed for a drive out by the dam and Table Rock Lake coming back into town from the south. Xtreme Karting was calling my name so we stopped in and I managed to clock the best time of the week. Xtreme Racing while a little pricey, it cost me around $50 for 3 races, is one of my favorite things to do while traveling. I am a huge motor sports fan and have raced a few times at Xtreme Racing in Pigeon Forge.Just down the strip Hollywood Miniature Golf was next with my wife and I playing to a tie, she usually beats me. This was a really cool mini golf place with very realistic replicas of Hollywood landmarks and challenging holes.
Not really hungry we headed back to the condo to freshen up before the Reza show. Reza was incredible, we love seeing illusionists whenever the opportunity presents itself and have seen quite a few, his illusions were amazing and his stage presence was entertaining, funny and humble. Please see Reza if you are in Branson you will not be disappointed. After the show we were hungry so we looked online to find a restaurant that served late. We ended up at Jackie B Goode’s Uptown Diner, lucky for us. We had the place almost to ourselves at a little after 10pm but we were not rushed and made to feel welcome by the excellent staff. We both had double burgers which were great, juicy and tasty, with french fries that were crisp and hot. What a great way to end our day in Branson!
Day 6 began as a rainy cool day in Branson so I didn’t play golf, we just kind of hung out for a while at the condo before venturing out. Our schedule for the day was a 2pm illusion show with Rick Thomas at the Andy Williams Theater which was 5 minutes from the condo. We drove into the actual Branson downtown which is located across highway 65 from the strip. Branson Landing which is similar to the Island in Pigeon Forge is also there. We walked around a very busy compact downtown before heading to the Landing to explore for awhile. The Landing is a collection of stores and restaurants on Taneycomo Lake which seemed to me to be more of a river. Lunch was had at Pie 5 Pizza which is apparently a chain although we had never heard of it. The best way I can describe it is it is like a pizza Subway. You pick your crust and cheese and then proceed down the line picking your toppings and then wait a few minutes while it bakes. It was OK, not real crisp but decent flavor. It was then time to head to the show. We were thinking that after Reza Rick Thomas might be a bit of a letdown. In our minds we thought Reza would be a tough act to follow. Happily we were wrong! Rick was just as entertaining, with an equally as good stage presence and his illusions were very good. One thing we thought was strange was that a few of the illusions were very similar. We very much enjoyed the Rick Thomas show and recommend it as highly as Reza’s show.
The show ended around 4:30 pm and with nothing planned we made an impromptu trip to Top of the Rock in nearby Ridgedale MO. The drive took about 25 minutes and was well worth the trip. We loved Top of the Rock! If you are not staying on site it costs $10 to enter and all parking, besides valet, is located at the visitors center. We parked at the visitor center and paid for the combo trail/cave tour and the museum which is located at the main building. They had complimentary shuttles to the main building from the visitor center. The trail/cave tour is a self guided tour through the Missouri Woods in a golf cart that they provide. We checked in with the attendant were shown to our cart and off we went. One not so good thing about this unplanned jaunt was the lack of warm clothes we had with us, it was chilly and breezy and we wished perhaps we had planned better. regardless of the weather we had a great time! The trail was not very busy so it felt at times like we had the whole trail to ourselves. Every turn brought a view more beautiful than the last with multiple waterfalls, lake views and even a short cave to drive through! They even had a small bar as soon as you got into the cave where we able to buy a warming hot chocolate to warm us up.
After our cruise through the Missouri woods we headed to the main building and the Museum of Ozark History. This was an amazing collection of mostly Native American artifacts that also included period weapons and clothing. It is huge! It took us about an hour to walk through, but we could have easily spent 2 or 3 hours here. The collection is vast and well presented with displays clearly marked with pertinent information. I loved it! As is the case with most museums (and theme parks) you end in the store which in this case was a good thing as they carried a great assortment of Top of the Rock clothing, country display items, local foods and books. It was getting late so it was time to head out albeit $100 lighter after our store purchases. Before we left we stepped out back to witness a beautiful sky and a view of the golf practice facility.
Time to get back to the condo for some much needed sleep.
Day 7 began for me with another 18 holes at Thousand Hills, I forgot to mention earlier that I received a discount for staying in one of the condos. It was around $10 off per round! After golf we had a busy day with 2 shows scheduled Janice Martin’s Cirque Show at 2 pm and the Hamner’s Variety show at 8:00 pm. for lunch we ventured back to Downtown Branson and tried the Branson Cafe grabbing the last available table at 12:30 pm. It was a small place with breakfast all day and homemade desserts. After ordering our beverages I headed for the men’s room which was an adventure unto itself. I followed the signs to the back and found myself following a line on the floor right through the kitchen, I mean in the kitchen, not by, but in! i can say from this journey that the kitchen is clean and orderly. Upon my return my wife opted for an omelet with sausage and cheese while I ordered what was described as a local favorite a Pork Loin Sandwich. My wife enjoyed her omelet but the star of lunch was the sandwich. Pounded Pork Loin fried and served on a roll with lettuce and tomato it was tender and delicious! We strolled around town to kill time spending some time in a few different shops. Janice Martin’s show was back on the strip and we headed that way arriving 20 minutes early giving us time to grab some popcorn and a drink to enjoy during the show. In all honesty this was the show I was least looking forward to but Janice’s talent and unique talent won me over. I had never seen someone play violin while performing acrobatics on the silk cloth and it was really pretty good. Janice plays different characters in the show and is a good entertainer. I ended up enjoying this show in spite of my not really looking forward to it. Just goes to show that surprises can come in many forms. We headed back to the condo to relax and freshen before the night show. Dinner was a decent buffet at the Paradise Steak House which consisted of the usual items Salad Bar, Lasagna, Meatloaf, Fried Shrimp etc. It was good and quick before we headed to the show. I was a little worried about the nighttime show after I read some pretty bad reviews on a major review site. Boy were those reviews wrong! We thoroughly enjoyed this show, it was heavy on magic with some singing and comedy thrown in for good measure. This show was really very entertaining and funny.
Day 8 was an open day with the only activity booked a dinner cruise on Tanycomo Lake on the Landing Princess. After some debate we decided to head into Arkansas to Eureka Springs and visit the Turpentine Creek Tiger Sanctuary. Heading out around 10:30 am we decided to take a scenic route to Arkansas which would take around 90 minutes. It was a pleasant drive through the Missouri and Arkansas countryside with rolling hills and lots of farm land. Eureka Springs is a very cool little country town that almost looks like it was lifted out of the 19th century. It just oozes character with old brick buildings that are right on the narrow streets, I wish we set aside more time to explore this town but it was past noon and we had to be back to Branson for 5:00 pm. If we pass this way again we will take a day just for Eureka Springs. Turpentine Creek was just outside town and we needed to get there.
This place was great, very informational, we learned about issues with big cats that we didn’t even know existed. Being a sanctuary and not a zoo you are at the mercy of the animals as they don’t entice or feed them just to interact with people. We paid for the guided walking tour, only $20 each, which was scheduled for around 20 minutes after we arrived. They have a rather large area with animals to look at that is self guided to spend time in while you wait. It was soon time for our tour so we made our way to the meeting place and met Sunny who would be our guide. There were about 15 people in our tour and after some introductory words from Sunny we headed out. The tour follows the perimeter of the sanctuary first passing by some cabins that you can book for overnights which looked nice, overlooking some of the habitats. As we walked the individual cats were identified by name and the conditions they were rescued from, very enlightening as we had no idea that some of these roadside “zoos” treated their animals so badly. To be honest we have visited some of these places but will check the credentials of any zoos we visit going forward. The tour took a little over an hour and was very enjoyable.
After the tour we pursued the gift shop buying a few moments before heading back towards Branson. The discussion on the return trip mainly revolved around not wanting to leave Branson the next day. So we decided we would stay one extra night. Our condo was not available so we booked a room at the Hilton Promenade at the Landing. After a quick stop at the condo it was time to get to our dinner cruise. The Landing Princess leaves from the dock near the Bass Pro Shop side of the Landing. It is a 100 foot long modern boat with all of the dinner seating inside and small outside ares on the bow and stern. It is very nicely appointed. We boarded with about 30 other people mostly couples with some groups of 4. Once on board a server shows you to your table and takes your drink orders. The boat soon left the dock and we headed up Lake Taneycomo, which to us seems more like a river as the widest part seemed to be around 300 feet across. Our salads arrived promptly, a standard mixed green salad with some sort of vinaigrette and a roll. One thing that we chuckled about was that wrapped in your napkin with the silverware was one little package of butter spread. One package, we are used to receiving a little bowl with butters, but I guess they are a little stingy with the butter here. Not sure what would have happened if we had requested more. The dinners were not far behind they consisted of Pork Loin, Baked Chicken, Mashed Potato and Green Beans. it was alright not great but not bad. The boat continued up the lake for awhile before turning around, an actual 3 point turn because of the narrow lake, and heading back. Dessert and coffee were served and to be completely honest I can’t remember what dessert was, a Chocolate Torte I think. We spent a little time outside on the bow enjoying the evening and the captain stopped by the Landing Fountains so we could get a waterside view of the 7 pm Fountain Show which was nice for the 3 minutes it lasted, more about that later. After docking we headed back to the condo to sleep as we had to be up and out by 10 am Thursday Morning.
Thursday dawned with us having to be out of the condo by 10 am so the morning was spent packing and getting ready to check out. We were very happy that we decided to stay 1 more day and had booked a lunch show on the Branson Belle. Instead of driving towards home we would be heading a couple miles down the road tonight. By the time we were packed and ready to go it was time to head to the Belle. Just a short ride towards and over the dam found us at the Branson Belle dock. The parking was free and plentiful and it was a short walk to the boat. The boarding area includes 2 stores and some snack outlets so we browsed until it was time to board. After looking at the menus and amenities we had decided to book the Captains Club, for $25 more than general admission, which offered a upgraded menu with choices, premium seating and early boarding. Boarding began about an hour before cruise time and we were the first people on the boat, after a photo with the captain. You enter through a small gift shop which we took a quick look around deciding that if we were going to buy anything we would wait until the cruise was over and go to the shop on land. The bathroom was nautically themed with period electronics and an overall cool look.
Our seats were in the front row of the balcony and offered a great view of the general seats and the stage.
Almost immediately our server arrived with menus and took our drink orders, the Belle does not serve alcoholic beverages, an Ice Tea for me and water for my wife. She explained the how the timing would work with lunch and the show noting that the Captains Club meal would be served before most of the other meals which would give us time to explore the boat before the main show while the others were still eating which turned out to be quite nice. We ordered our meals and dessert with her and then relaxed while the boat slowly filled up. The Captains Club was not full which made the service even more personal. It turns out our server was from the same area as I was and actually had waitressed at a restaurant I used to frequent, small world.
The salads were just average, greens with some mandarin oranges and a vinaigrette something crunchy would have improved them. The meals were excellent I had the Pork Chops with a sweet and savory sauce and my wife had the N.Y. Strip with an herb butter. Both the Pork and the Steak were perfectly cooked and delicious. Sides were the same for both Baby Potatoes and Green Beans which were cooked and seasoned well making for a great lunch. This was actually the highest quality meal we had in Branson! Dessert was Caramel Cheesecake for me and Chocolate Layer Cake for my wife, yummy. During lunch there was what they called a pre show that was really pretty good a mix of illusion and comedy with some nice audience participation. After lunch, while the others were still eating, we made our way to the top deck to enjoy some great views of the Ozarks and the lake.
A trio of performers soon appeared and gave a short concert for the people who were enjoying the day on the top deck.
It was then time to head back to our seats for the main show which was excellent, a very entertaining mix of song, dance, music and comedy that we thoroughly enjoyed. Overall we loved the Branson Belle experience and highly recommend it.
We took the red route on our last trip down the Branson Strip remembering all the things we had done on this wonderful trip on our way to the Hilton Branson Promenade at the Landing. Arriving at the hotel we unloaded our luggage and I self parked in the garage next door. After checking out the room we headed out to the landing and strolled around checking out a few stores and the fountain show. The show is very short around three to five minutes timed to one song. In my opinion the Island show in Pigeon Forge is much better. As dinner time rolled around we tried to eat at a couple places but the waits were 45 minutes to an hour so we decided not to wait. We had dinner at Big Whisky which was attached to our hotel. It was just ok, nothing special. On par with any of the chain restaurants spread across our country. Tired from our busy week in Branson we turned in early and slept well in the nice Hilton bed.
We had a wonderful week+ in Branson enjoying a lot of what it had to offer, but not everything. I am not sure if we will head back to Branson someday or not but the area offers quite a bit to do for all ages and we would recommend a visit.